With consumer access to the internet in its infancy, and before carmakers began staging their own spy photos, it was still possible in 1993 to truly “unveil” a concept car. It’s worth looking in the rearview mirror at a top-secret concept that 25 years ago took the media and public by surprise and then played an outsized role in steering its maker’s destiny: the Porsche Boxster.
The instant that Porsche executives pulled the cover off the Boxster, the silver concept became the star of the 1993 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. A two-seat, mid-engine roadster, the Boxster oozed heritage by evoking 1950s and ’60s Porsche race cars, including the 550 Spyder and 718 RSK. But it was an original—not “retro”—design.
The Boxster Concept signaled something even more critical than a new design direction. This was about survival. The Boxster offered the promise of a new, more affordable Porsche sports car at a time when the company’s future was a question mark.
But was it a real concept car, a prototype, or something else?
Taking on water
In the late 1980s, Porsche was in trouble. Sinking, in fact. The marque’s affair with front-engine cars—the 928 grand tourer and 924/944/968 four-cylinder models—was coming to a necessary end. Negative economic trends, an unfavorable exchange rate, lower-priced competition and Porsche’s own production inefficiencies had put the carmaker in a difficult spot. Selling out to another brand seemed possible.
Porsche plotted a course for revival, focusing on the 911 as the core and stepping away from the front-engine sports cars. With that move, a new and more distinctive entry model was desperately needed. The 968, as good as it was, did not offer a substantially different experience than less expensive Japanese sports cars.
In Car and Driver’s road test of a 1978 911 SC, David E. Davis, Jr. said of Porsches: “They have looked and felt different than other cars, but more important, they have been distinctly and memorably different in the way they went down the road.”
A new model that captured that spirit had to be 100-percent Porsche, not a brew of Volkswagen or Audi parts. It also had to be instantly recognizable as a Porsche; the company could not risk a polarizing detour like the earlier 914.
There was more. Porsche would be adopting streamlined production techniques, and the new entry sports car, tagged “986,” would be sharing much with the next-generation 911, the “996.” Moreover, the new flat-six engines for both would be water-cooled. There was a lot of change coming at once.
Concept alters reality
By early 1992, Porsche was looking at several design themes for the 986. The company, not known for concept cars, decided it needed one to generate buzz. Design for the concept began early that year and construction commenced in late summer, with the car scheduled to appear at the Detroit show the following January. The Boxster name, a suggestion from staff designer Steve Murkett, was a charmingly catchy and almost child-like mashup of “boxer” engine and “roadster” body, core elements on which the marque was founded.
A funny thing happened as the Boxster began taking shape. It became clear that the design, by American Grant Larson, working under design chief Harm Lagaay, was the best idea for the 986. And so, the concept car had indeed inspired a production design, even before it was shown to the public.
Secrecy surrounding the Boxster was so effective that when the cover came off the car on stage in Detroit’s Cobo Hall, journalists were genuinely astonished. With its homage to Porsche racing heritage, there was no mistaking the Boxster for anything but a Porsche. Autoweek named it “Best in Show.”
As another surprise, Porsche announced that a production version was forthcoming and would be priced at $40,000. The downside would be an agonizingly long four- year wait. With the public so embracing the Boxster, the name stayed in the production plan, and all new Porsches since then have been named.
Not lost in translation
When the production Boxster arrived, it was not exactly the same as the concept, but it was very close. The car gained nine inches in length and two inches in height and width to accommodate occupants and safety structure. It also added a pair of built-in rollbars. Defining details carried over from the concept included the teardrop headlights, humped rear fenders, and center-exit tailpipe.
The interior was a modern take on classic Porsche themes, with three gauge pods instead of the 911’s five. Purely concept-car details, including the exposed gearshift mechanism, pull-up handbrake lever in the driver’s seat bolster, backlit etched-in-glass instrument faces and exposed ventilation fans were absent. The LCD screen in the center stack, for navigation, was a harbinger of things to come.
Arriving at a hair under $40,000 as promised, the Boxster became Porsche’s best-seller until the Cayenne SUV. Porsche added a Cayman coupe in 2005, and for this latest generation the two gained a heritage-laced “718” prefix. (The new 718 is also the first Boxster/Cayman to go turbocharged and four-cylinder.) The current Boxster shows a considerable evolution from the 1997 model but remains faithful to the original in the same way a 911 relates to its 1963 progenitor. And many Porsche die-hards will say that while the 911 represents the marque’s heritage, the mid-engine Boxster and Cayman offer superior balance and driving dynamics.
If you’re looking for a definition of timeless design, feast your eyes on it.