Sometimes, the most important people are those who you can’t really see. For nearly two decades August Achleitner worked largely off-screen in charge of Porsche’s sports car lineup — the 911, Boxster and Cayman. I’m sure it was pretty hard work, but it did earn him quite possibly the coolest nick name in the world, and he very much seems to have enjoyed the ride.
Indeed, there is a certain bittersweet atmosphere sitting across from the very modest gentleman that is Mr. 911. One gets the feeling that he has plenty of appetite left for making ever newer and faster cars. At the same time, he’ll certainly have more time now to enjoy driving some of the cars that he knows so well. And because he’s handing over his post to Frank-Steffen Walliser, who was previously in charge of Porsche’s motorsport division, he won’t have to worry about the ship making a wrong turn any time soon.
August Achleitner and Frank-Steffen Walliser
Jan Coomans: After 18 years in charge of the 911, you have overseen a big evolution from the 997 all the way to the 991 and now the 992. The car has become quite a lot bigger and more comfortable. How difficult was it to stay true to the classic recipe but at the same time meet contemporary customer demands?
August Achleitner: Well if you look at the cars today and then compare them to how they were when I started in 2001, there is a big difference. But we got there by making many smaller steps. The first car that I worked on was the second generation of the 996 platform, from there to the 997 was not such a big change. Then we went to the second generation 997 and so on. Just a bit more advanced technology and changes in styling. For example we introduced the first variable geometry turbochargers with the 997 Turbo, then a bit later came the first PDK gearbox and so on. These were technological changes, to make the cars better, and sometimes we changed the dimensions as well when it was necessary in order to keep improving the cars.
— Historically speaking, I suppose making a new sports car used to be quite simple — you just made it faster and better. Now though, we are seeing some very strict environmental regulations in Europe which I assume have made life a lot harder for people like yourself?
— The most difficult part about this is at the very beginning of a new project, because we have to keep in mind what the regulations will be by the time the car goes into production. Which is still 4 to 5 years away at that point. We started working on 992 back in 2014 just before the 991.2 was launched, and at that point the regulations still were not quite clear.
In fact the most difficult mission laws in Europe for us to achieve were only finalised at the beginning of last year, 2018. In car development, it is not possible for us to react very fast to things like this, which is what makes it so difficult. The lead times for technology are much longer than it takes to make a new law. Fortunately, we had anticipated right from the beginning that the particulate filter would probably become necessary by the time we launched 992 so we managed to prepare and make it work in time.
— Am I right in thinking that, because only the EU spec 992 911s will have the particulate filter, there will be a sound difference between cars for the EU market and elsewhere?
— Yes there will be, actually. The cars without the filter will be a little bit louder. But thankfully because we anticipated that we would be using these filters long ago, we could do some development work on the exhaust system but also the intake so we could compensate a little for the filter and improve the sound. Especially in the interior of the car, where I think it is the most important. If you compare the new 992 to the previous generation 991.2 GTS for Europe, which are the only cars of that generation which we equipped with the filter, you will hear that the new car really sounds a lot better. But to make the car sound better inside, we also had to work on how unwanted noise makes it into the cabin. We worked very hard to remove road surface and wind noise so that it gave us more possibilities to bring nice sounds from the engine into the interior of the 992.
— The future of cars in general looks to be very much electric, so it seems logical that even the Porsche 911 will eventually go electric which would probably be the biggest change ever made to this legendary car. Is this transition something that you wish you could have still worked on, or are you relieved that it’s not your problem anymore?
— Both! (laughs) It’s not easy. Sometimes I thought that I got quite lucky because the job of looking after the 911 model line was not too difficult. It looks a lot harder going forward, especially because the future is still so unclear. We always have to make some assumptions about the future without being completely sure if they will turn out to be correct. So we try to be as flexible as possible, to leave ourself options if we have to react to changes. This is also why we spent so much on the development of the 992. It would have been quite easy if we just made kind of a facelift of the 991.2 and called it a day. But instead we changed really a lot and for example on the side of the new gearbox, we were able to leave a space where an electric motor can be fitted in the future if it becomes necessary. The electrical platform of the car was also changed completely, now running on a higher voltage the same as the Panamera. This will make it relatively straight forward to electrify the 992 going forward so the car is prepared for the future.
— As we’ve seen the 911’s drivetrain change considerably from the air-cooled models to the newer water-cooled ones to all Carreras becoming turbocharged to a possible hybrid model in a few years, clearly the engine setup alone does not decide what makes a 911. What would you say is the one part of the 911 that can never be changed?
— What should not be changed in future 911s is the combination of an everyday usable car with a true sports car that you can take to the racetrack whenever you want. And of course the 911 shape. Of course some customers will never take their car onto a track, but the image of the car still depends a lot on its on-track credentials. No matter the drivetrain, the 911 needs to fit these requirements. That is always our challenge. And it is often a big challenge with the 911 because there is so little space for new components, it is already packaged very tightly and a lot of creativity is required from the engineers to find the necessary space to add new things.
— As you’ve been working for Porsche for such a long time, you probably remember the days before the Boxster when the company wasn’t doing well financially. From an engineer’s point of view, was it more difficult to develop the cars on a restricted budget or is it harder now that the company is doing great and the cars need to be perfect in a thousand ways?
— The cost limits we still have, of course. Just bigger, but there are many more variations of the car now that need to be developed these days and there are many more electronic systems in the cars also. For a company like Porsche with the modest production volumes for the sports cars, it is the development cost which is the most important to contain. Because this cost needs to be recovered over not so many cars. For a regular high volume car company like Volkswagen for example, they care less about the development cost but more about the total cost of all the parts to build the car. For us it is really important to do a lot of development with limited resources.
— It would be rude if I didn’t ask you about your all time favourite 911…so which is it? If that’s not too much like asking a parent to pick a favourite child.
— I suppose the answer depends on the time of the year, and even the type of the road that I’m driving on. On average I suppose I would say I want the 911 coupe with a sun roof.
— Of which generation?
— Hmm… the newest one.
— It was both an honour and a pleasure Mr. Achleitner, thank you very much.