CAR interviews Porsche design chief Michael Mauer (2014)

Published: 11 June 2014 Updated: 26 January 2015

CAR magazine caught up with Porsche’s head of design Michael Mauer to talk about Porsche styling. Read on for our full interview – where we discuss keeping the 911 fresh, assimilating SUVs into a sport car line-up and design inspiration in general.

Michael Mauer: this much I know

‘I studied transport design in Pforzheim, Germany, and joined Mercedes in 1986. I designed the Smart, and lived in Tokyo from 1998 to 1999 while I was working on the project. I went to Saab in 2000, then moved to Porsche in 2004. My first job was the 997 GT2. I designed the Panamera, and I did the Cayenne facelift. Now I have designed the [991-generation] 911. When you do the 911, you work at the core of the company, you do design cues that are then valid for all the portfolio. I have never had a more exciting time in my career than here at Porsche.

‘Bruno Sacco was the design boss when I was at Mercedes, and he said to me that you don’t design cars for designers, you design them for customers. Sometimes it’s surprising how conservative customers are. Whenever you do a new car, it’s like throwing a stone: you need to throw it quite far, but you don’t want to throw it too far, you want to be able to find it again. But nobody tells you how far is too far. I follow Bob Lutz: the worst you can do is produce a car that everyone likes. We just need to ensure the people who love the car are the bigger group.’

‘The 911 is maybe the iconic car’

‘The 911 is one of the icons, maybe the icon. Hardly any other maker has developed a car over 50 years and developed it so cautiously. There’s the tension of history: we needed to respect what has happened over the last 50 years while bringing new ideas for the future. You can feel the burden on the designers’ shoulders. I felt this. We tried to look back to when special things happened during the 911’s life: 993 to 996 and 997 [the last three generations], these were big leaps. This was part of our inspiration.

‘I work in Weissach, [Germany]. Younger designers might want to work in London or Tokyo, but I like the outdoors: I love the mountains, I am crazy about heli-skiing, and in the summer I go windsurfing and cycling. At Weissach you are in nature, with a great view, and a great road to drive to work on. Then you go out at lunch and watch the engineers drive the latest race cars; you breathe all this in.

‘There are three essential steps [to design]: proportions, styling, then details. We had a careful look at the [911’s] proportions. We thought about the size of the wheels – they needed to be larger with the longer wheelbase and slightly lower roofline. This should be a compact car, so although there is 100mm extra in the wheelbase, it’s only 56mm longer overall. What we said was good for the proportions, the racing department said was good for racing; at Porsche it’s not just one department that says do something, we all work together.’

Fried-egg 911 headlamps vs round ones

‘The roundish headlamp is part of the 911 DNA, not Porsche DNA. I can see that the [‘fried egg’] 996 headlamp was very high-tech back then to integrate everything, but no-one liked them. We sat down and decided we wanted round headlights but that the rear wasn’t part of the brand identity. For me, it’s the rear of the car where we have made most progress.

‘I remember first drawing 911s when I joined Porsche, and realising that it’s just a few millimetres that can have an impact in it looking good or not. Normally you have between six and eight scale models, but [for the 991-generation 911] we had ten. We also did three full-size clays where normally it would be two full-size models.

‘When I started at Porsche, I had [designer] Klaus Bischoff showing me all these storage areas and old cars. I thought we should be more proud of the brand. So we started putting the large Porsche lettering on the boot with Panamera, then Cayenne, then we had a conversation about the 911. The lettering stopped on the 964-generation 911, but the amount of time that Porsche was written is longer than when it was removed. For me it was important to get it back.’

How Porsche fits into the VW empire

‘In the VW group, I have never known such top-level thinkers who know the importance of design. A lot of companies underestimate the importance of proportions and try to fix it later with styling. [VW boss] Mr Winterkorn has a very good eye and he made some recommendations for the 991 – I think they help to make the car even better.

‘Volkswagen has Porsche, Lamborghini, Bugatti, Bentley… We have very close interaction between the designers, because we think it is a strength to have such a big family – we exchange designers – and I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that it is an advantage. But we also know that the strength of each brand is its individuality.

‘Legal regulations make life very tough for designers. I try to look at it positively – it forces you to be creative, to look in other directions. But whenever you get something right – safety, aero, styling – you can bet someone from Brussels or Washington or Tokyo has invented some new rule. I can accept it if it is an engineering requirement – you need stability at 300kph – but pedestrian-protection is based on hitting a pedestrian at such a height, and [that person] flying through the air in a certain way. I hope that if I am hit by a car I am hit in this exact way.’

>> This article first appeared in CAR magazine November 2011

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator