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Classic Velocity Blog

Shaping an Icon

Classic Velocity

There are a few shapes in the last 100+ years of automobile design that can be reproduced in the form of a silhouette and yet remain instantly recognizable across the globe. The small list would perhaps include prewar Bugatti's, the Mercedes Gullwing, the Mini, the Citroen DS, the VW Bus, and the E Type Jaguar. I am sure that many of you would argue for others as well. I would argue that the most persistent iconic shapes though all belong to one name, Porsche. The Volkswagen Beetle, the Porsche 356, and the Porsche 911.

The Beetle is arguably the most persistent as it is older and remains in production today. Many would even argue that it is the basis for the 911. While there may be some validity in that statement, the 911 designed by Butzi Porsche is clearly its own shape. A child could draw the shape on a piece of paper with a single simple line. In fact, I have a baseball cap which essentially is just that. No emblem, no word, but perfectly clear as to the identity. What is it about this shape that allows it to persist in a sports car? Sports cars in particular have tended to evolve as aerodynamics and windtunnels, and computational fluid dynamics have evolved as well. A 1960s Ferrari looks nothing like a Ferrari Enzo, even when painted in the same shade of red.

Truth be told, the first time I saw a Porsche 911 I did not think that it was a naturally beautiful car in the same way as the E Type. I thought it was purposeful and unique if not a little strange, with its headlight nacelles and sloping rear containing the engine. I loved it and was drawn to it immediately. Fast forward a couple of decades to when I first owned one, and at that time the older ones were not really very popular or collectible. Even Porsche itself made multiple attempts at a successor to the 911 with a different shape and a different place for the engine. Fans, owners, and others grabbed our torches and pitchforks, and marched on the Porsche palace demanding continued life for the shape. Porsche wisely agreed. It has resulted in a 60 year run. Roughly half the lifespan of the internal combustion automobile itself.

I am sure that at many points along the way, Porsche designers and aerodynamicists have argued to modify the shape. I am sure that the coefficient of drag, or fuel economy, or packaging, might have changed more than it has if it did not have to be contained in a specific shape with a specific layout. However, they have done a remarkable job of ensuring that the iconic shape and layout continually result in some of the best sportscars on the planet. They are in fact benchmarks, just as they have been in every decade since the birth of the shape. That is not to say that there has not been some evolution. There clearly has, but the shape has been so well preserved that people have a hard time telling what year (or even era) a 911 belongs to. Chrome bumpers and LED lighting put cars at opposite ends of the timeline, but nobody is confused about the brand or the model.

I would argue that it is now time to add the shape of the Porsche 911 to the basic geometry curriculum in elementary school. The shape has can straighten curves and clip apexes and create vortexes. After 60 years, it deserves a place right up there with the triangle and the circle. It is certainly more recognizable than a trapezoid to the average person. I would submit that you already know how to draw the shape of the benchmark Sportscar of the next decade.