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Happy Birthday: Porsche Boxster

Published 21 November 2016

Times were difficult for Porsche at the start of the 1990s. It’s hard to imagine it now, with the sports car maker riding on the crest of a wave, but a combination of an ageing product range and a rapid descent of the global economy into recession left it balancing on the edge of bankruptcy.

It was a far cry from the 1980s, when the 911, 928, 944 and 924 had become symbols of the yuppie phenomenon. It wasn’t the iconic 911 that was the problem – indeed, its moderate success kept the company afloat – but the lack of ‘cheap’ Porsches weren’t doing much for the company coffers. The 924 had been discontinued in 1988, while sales of the 944 ended in 1991 to make way for the 968 - a front-engined straight-four that looked too much like a 924 to win over the purists.

Meanwhile, as recession gripped Britain, smaller, cheaper sports cars were going great guns. The Toyota MR2 and Mazda MX-5 had proven to sports car fans that you didn’t need to spend Porsche money to enjoy driving thrills, leaving the German company hung out to dry, very much a one-trick pony and a symbol of 1980s excess.

But while there was good profit in 911s, they didn’t sell in the volumes required to rattle Porsche’s cash tin anywhere enough. Sales had dropped by more than two-thirds since the heady days of the mid-1980s, jobs were being lost, and the company was teetering on the brink of financial disaster. A cheaper, more accessible Porsche that built on the 911’s attributes was needed, as opposed to a front-engined GT.

Porsche Boxster 1

The answer came in the form of an all-or-nothing concept car that took a nod towards Porsche’s heritage. The Boxster Concept (its name an amalgam of Boxer - its engine configuration - and Roadster) was first shown at the 1993 Detroit Motor Show and was the company’s first full roadster design since the iconic 550 Spyder. The links to James Dean’s favourite (and final) Porsche and the 356 from which it was derived were heavily marketed at the time. The tide of public opinion would dictate whether the car went into production or not, and quite possibly whether Porsche itself would survive.

Luckily, the tide was more of a tidal wave. Here was a compact, mid-engined roadster that offered all the appeal of its Japanese rivals, but with the quality and cachet of the Porsche brand behind it. The only question on people’s lips was ‘when?’, not ‘why?’.

Read our Porsche Boxster review

In the event, it took almost four years for the Boxster to materialise as a production car (by which time it had built up quite a waiting list). It was November 1996 when it finally went on sale, the delay caused by Porsche wanting to make sure the quality was good enough, while at the same time finding a more efficient way to build it – something it did, with a certain irony, by appointing engineers from Toyota to implement the Japanese firm’s 'just-in-time' production methodology. The system reduced waste and avoided over-supply of components, streamlining the production process.

When it finally appeared, though, all but the hardest of Porsche purists declared the Boxster a huge success. The liquid-cooled 2.5-litre flat-six may have moved away from air-cooled tradition, but it maintained Porsche’s characteristic boxer growl and punchy performance. The cabin was typically Germanic: beautifully finished and well-engineered. But above all, the Boxster was a tremendous car to drive, with limpet-like grip, terrific steering and a surprisingly compliant ride. It was a car you could easily live with every day, yet at the same time turn into a full-blooded sports car at the mere blip of the throttle.

Porsche Boxster 3 

Refinements came in 2003, with a subtle facelift and changes to the powerplant, which now came in a choice of 2.7- or 3.2-litre displacements. But until 2007, it remained largely unchanged. It’s telling, then, that in the first generation Boxster’s final year of production, Porsche had transformed itself from pretty much penniless to the most profitable per-unit carmaker in the world. The Boxster hadn’t just done its job, it had kicked it out of the park.

It’s ironic, then, that today the Boxster is Porsche’s slowest selling model. The latest iteration still has a following, but the 4x4 Cayenne and Macan, four-door Panamera and iconic 911 all outsell it, yet again reflecting changing trends in the automotive industry. But if ever there was a right car at the right time, the Porsche Boxster was it – and we should remember that as the model celebrates its 20th birthday this month.

Porsche Boxster 4

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