The first Porsche car I ever saw was a 356. It was during a school trip to France, which included a visit to the Palace of Versailles. The most memorable thing about the day was that silver shape moving slowly past the visitors in the gardens. I ran to see what it was and it drove right past me, its vestigial bumpers seeming only millimetres above the ground, its wheels with their huge chrome hub caps almost completely hidden from view, its air-cooled exhaust note clattering.
That was in 1953, and coming from England I had never seen anything like it. A ground-hugging exoskeletal creature of aluminium beaten into daring and seductive curves. It was many years before I properly understood how genetic innovation had enabled it to emerge from the wreckage of post-war Germany.
The elucidation came to me in part from a passage in Antoine de Saint Exupery's Wind Sand and Stars, in which he marvels at the clean lines of the closed-cockpit, lowwing, metal monoplanes that have evolved out of the strut and wire-braced biplanes of the early years of flight. 'It is a shock to realise that all visible evidence of invention has been refined out of these machines so that they look like products of nature, ' he writes. 'They are objects so natural that they might be pebbles polished by the waves.'
The Porsche 911 was the offspring of the Porsche 356, but in the taxonomy of machines, as in the taxonomy of natural species, there is no simple starting point. The entwined engineer/designer/ driver DNA that was in the bloodstream of the 356 went through three changes in 17 years of production before it metamorphosed into the 911.
Going further back, the prototype 356, with all but its body taken from the pre-war Volkswagen Beetle, contained even older genes. The rearmounted air cooled 'boxer' engine and the torsion bar suspension reached back to the 1934 Auto Union Grand Prix car and the NSU Project 12 (an earlier design by Ferdinand Porsche for a people's car). From here the trail back is harder to follow but it still exists.
In the world of plant and animal species, such genetic modification is achieved by inserting a construct that has three parts: a desired gene, a marker gene and a promoter or catalyst. The marker gene enables the construct to select the correct cells for the modification, while the promoter inserts the desired gene. The incremental process of automobile design is a close analogue to this process. Because of this similarity it is possible to compare the genetic modification that produces a pest-resistant strain of wheat with the design modification that significantly enhances any aspect of a car's performance, safety or comfort.
When dealing with a car with the pedigree of the Porsche 911 there are numerous instances of such design modifications. They extend back from the present to the car's introduction date, and back before then to the design regime and the reigning technical ideas of the time.
This can be seen in the way that the current 911 has young, mature and senile elements genetically blended into an indivisible whole. There are assumptions dating back to the first, 1964 version, but also design features resulting from new environmental legislation, changes in the customer base, or the severe road congestion that did not exist in 1964. Were one to study the entire history of the 911, one would see this clearly. The first half of the car's life was spent getting bigger and more powerful. The second half has been spent subtly divesting itself of the appearance of these Darwinian attributes, while retaining their substance in a concealed form.