Don’t be beguiled by the space-age aesthetic; intergalactic Porsche 918 Hybrid is built entirely by hand.
They don’t make cars like they used to. Modern cars – even expensive modern cars – are best built in green field sites with quick access to road and railheads and where complicated looking scrubbers cling to stainless steel smokestacks. Easy-to-supply, low-carbon temples of manufacturing they are, dark Satanic mills they are not.
Smart robots that can build a variety of different cars on the same line long ago took over from oil-streaked men with hammers and wrenches and welding irons, and not just on the mass production lines. Margins are tight in car-making, money is not easy to come by. There are plenty of luxury car-makers that long ago needed to turn a blind eye to the notion that luxury and craft are synonymous.
Ultra-luxury car makers of course have it easier. The Volkswagen group makes a lot more money on every top-of-the-line Bentley or Porsche it sells than on every basic Golf. It makes justifying the strategic brand position of sticking with legacy factories easier, so Bentley stays put in Crewe and Porsche largely in the Zuffenhausen suburb of Stuttgart and the lineage stays intact, as indeed it should always be in the luxury business. But that doesn’t make life easy.
This much is obvious looking out of the window of the third floor of Building A in Zuffenhausen’s Werk Zwei complex. In front of you to the west is the brick and sawtooth-roofed Reutter Building, which supplied the hand-beaten bodies for the first Porsche 356s in the 1950s. Beyond that and in the shadow of the striking Delguan Meissl Associates-designed Porsche Museum is the ‘1931 Building’ where Ferdinand Porsche first set up his engineering shop at 24 KronenStrasse.
Each is a historic monument, listed by the German equivalent of English Heritage. Neither is going anywhere, so the endless jam of trucks that supply parts for the 911s, Boxsters and Caymans being built in the more modern facility next door have to squeeze their way to the entry of a makeshift logistics centre. In a business where the delivery of parts is measured in minutes – to squeeze down inventory – it’s a luxury few can afford.
Swivel around 180 degrees however, and something very different is happening. Ignore the content of the room and you’d think you were standing in an extremely generous SoHo loft. All the desirable features are there; corner-to-corner Crittall windows (or their German equivalent), yup; double-height ceiling with mezzanine, oh yes; newly-installed, oversized pressed-aluminium heating and ventilation conduits, ja!; abundance of light-reflective white paint and fashionably industrial flooring, jawohl! If you like your living space buzzed not only by industry, but by industrial history, then you would want to live here. It’s hipster heaven.
Only this isn’t some penthouse for senior Porsche management or visiting bigwigs from the VW Group. This is a factory and, location notwithstanding, it’s as far from the old school as it’s possible to get. The process and indeed the product manufactured here are from another age – a space age – yet the principle resource is one Ferdinand Porsche himself would have recognised – the technicians, fabricators and craftspeople that have made Stuttgart (also home to Mercedes-Benz, don’t forget) the car business’s equivalent of Milan.
Welcome to the Manufaktur – the Porsche 918 Hybrid craft centre – the world’s first pop-up supercar factory. A former paint shop, it built its first car last September and will build the last – the 918th – next Easter, after which it will revert to storing parts for as-yet unbuilt 911s (unless of course it’s subdivided into industrial living space for the board). Parts arrive at one end of the floor via one lift and completed 918s leave via another at the opposite end of the 4,000sq m space. And if the Porsche 918 Hybrid was a tiny bit bigger (or the lift down a tiny bit smaller) it wouldn’t make it out. This is use of space at its most exacting and pragmatic.
The Porsche 918 Hybrid (pronounced “nine-eighteen”) itself is more than just a supercar. It’s part of a small wave of technologically prescient supersports cars – the LaFerrari and the McLaren P1 being the others – that use hybrid-powertrains (electric and internal combustion engines combined) to conjure barely imaginable levels of performance combined with carbon exhaust-efficiency that would have looked good on a family hatchback a generation ago. The Porsche/Ferrari/McLaren swell is part of a set that will herald the end of the combustion-engine as the heart of a motorcar. Along with this year’s F1 and Le Mans cars, the 918 is subjugating the ICE to the role of mere “component”, as much generator as motive force.
And those that have driven all three say that the Porsche 918 Hybrid is the finest, the only real hybrid among them, the best handling and quite possibly the fastest, which is pretty remarkable as it was the first of its kind, dropped on an unsuspecting public on March 4, 2010. In the much the same way as was Bowie’s “Where are we now?” last year; the day before it appeared nobody had any idea, the day it appeared there was no other conversation. Its name alone, 918 – the next in line from the 917, Porsche’s 1970s Le Mans racer and unofficial “world’s most awesome car, ever” – suggested potency from the get-go.
Porsche was never going to not build this car, although it was happy to propagate the myth that the car was just a study. Production wasn’t announced until later that summer and that gave Porsche time to work out how it was ever going to build such an extraordinarily advanced motorcar. The brand has of course got history here, but the 918’s immediate predecessor at the very pinnacle of the company’s offer was a comparatively simple car – a big V10 engine with a sublime manual gearbox. The Porsche 918 Hybrid has a 4.6-litre V8 derived from its RS Spyder sports racing car, an electric motor across the front axle and another between the V8 and the transmission at the rear that (like the front axle unit) also acts as a generator, a seven-speed PDK double-clutch automatic transmission, a substantial lithium-ion battery pack and, finally, brakes that convert the de-accelerative G of the car into electrical energy. Then there’s the hardware and software in there to make it all work together and make it drivable.
And how it does that! With 887bhp on tap, four-wheel drive and a kerb weight of 1,634kg (the Carrera GT had “just” 612bhp) the Porsche 918 Hybrid not only smashed the lap record at the Nürburgring test track (the benchmark the industry uses to nail relative performance in a car) but has so far frightened Ferrari and McLaren into not divulging times for their own cars. And all this in a car with a zero-emissions mode, which means you’ll get free parking in Westminster and pay no Congestion Charge. It is, of course, an object of the most astonishing beauty, encompassing a simplicity of form and surface and graphic that’s typical of the marque and just a squeal of the proportion and stance of the 917. But how does this feat of engineering come into glorious being?
I love car factories. At their best they read like a book – a powerful overarching narrative fed by sub-plot and detail and of course character, and the Manufaktur is a real page turner. The denouement plays out along the length of the factory to the left as you walk in, finished 918s queuing up in front of you for a systems check and to wait their turn squeezing into that lift. At the top of that queue, the fronts of 918s are married to the rears with just six mighty bolts but, before that plot hinge, a whole host of smaller stories are played out.
Just 100 men and women build four 918s a day. This is not a specialist team – they’ve mostly volunteered from other parts of the business or – in the case of specialists such as those hand-stitching the leather trim – have been hand-picked from the 911 team. Ages range from 22 to 57, former apprentices with just a few years under their belts alongside old hands who’ve been heading down to Zuffenhausen for over 40 years. Each works in an environment completely different to the 911 line next door. Porsche likes to say it has based the facility on a watchmaker’s showroom, but with its clear floors, library-hush (the 918s drive out on electric power) and marked absence of clutter it feels more like the clinical spaces in which F1 cars are assembled.
The hidden structure of the Porsche 918 Hybrid is manufactured by specialists in Austria from carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP). It arrives in two boxes, one containing the front and one the rear subframe. It’s still extraordinary to see it manually lifted into place on its jig, but that’s how little it weighs. By the time the front (the “tub”) arrives at the top of the line it’s been laced with electrical wiring (including the fat orange cables that shunt the car’s electrical power around) and the basic controls. The subframe takes rather more work as it includes the rear axle, transmission and hybrid unit and, of course, the V8.
The 918s engines are completely assembled inside the Manufaktur. A long elliptical bench at the far end of the room is circled by a belt and the engines move from station to station, an engine builder moving around the bench with it so each engine is individually hand-built by a single associate. They look like they’re grazing a salad bar. Completed engines are then hoisted over to the very back of the room where they’re built up into the rear sub-assembly – the car’s power pack. Nude and bristling with unconnected pipes and cables, its brakes and hubs uncovered by wheels, it looks like Anakin Skywalker’s Pod Racer from The Phantom Menace. After he wrecks it.
Yet the profile of the 918 is apparent from the moment the rear is connected to the front and with each station — the cars move on hand-driven trolley hoists — it assumes more of its identity. So much happens on the short line it’s hard to take in; the battery is pushed up into the bottom of the tub with millimetres to spare; the front-axle assembly — effectively the car’s four-wheel-drive – is added; the interior trim is all stitched on-site; the lights, the windscreen and sideglass, the bodywork and finally the wheels and tyres and then somehow…it evolves. It’s a 918, a spaceship for the 21st century.
So much of what Porsche does – its engineering, its dynamics, its quality, its efficiency, its margins (the highest in the business) – is benchmarked by their rivals. The Manufaktur is no different. It’s a whole new way to build cars, so very different from the way they used to. That the major components are built in CFRP in moulds, not under giant presses, is of course key. Long after the Manufaktur has closed, long after even the Porsche 918 Hybrid has been eclipsed, it’s the manufacturing process that will live on. The way we make cars will evolve all over again.