There was a time when the Porsche 911 signaled something very specific about its pilot: This was a serious driver, an iconoclast even.
Upon arrival in the U.S. in 1965, the lithe coupe, which cost $6,500, was available only with a manual transmission and had a cramped backseat and spartan interior. With its engine mounted in the rear and an absence of electronic nannies like traction control to rein in reckless drivers, handling at the limit could be precarious (and thrilling). But in Southern California, Porsche's top U.S. market, things no longer are so simple: The 911 -- the latest version of which went on sale in February -- has become an automotive chameleon of sorts.
The car, of course, has become a cultural touchstone, at times merely signifying wealth but occasionally serving in film and television as the calling card of the snobby lout. In Bridesmaids, for example, a 911 Cabriolet is the vehicle of choice for Jon Hamm's boorish Ted. (The car also is referenced in Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator; the film includes a joke involving an American couple becoming alarmed when they think suspicious characters are talking about 9/11. They actually are referencing the Porsche.)
And the 911 long has been a favorite of car collectors, including Ralph Lauren and Jerry Seinfeld, who have owned rare 911s. In 2009, Seinfeld sold a 1994 911 Speedster at auction for $101,200; he also owns a 1970 911 S that was driven by Steve McQueen in the film Le Mans. Lauren has been seen driving an orange GT3 RS -- essentially a street-legal race car that is based on the 911.
Onscreen depictions and celebrity collectors aside, nearly 50 years after its debut, the 911 and its numerous variants -- particularly in car-obsessed L.A. -- can say any number of things about the person behind the wheel. There are the cabriolets with automatic transmissions favored by the ladies who preside over the patio at Spago; kitted-out models replete with black wheels, trim and badging that are the calling cards of hotshot producers with freshly inked studio deals; and turbocharged iterations that might be equally at home on the boulevard or track but mostly live out their days without ever being fitted with four-point harnesses and a fire extinguisher.
"Now the car is bought as much for its status as for its driving ability," says Rob Dickinson, founder of Singer Vehicle Design, which customizes 911s from the 1990s to give them the look and feel of earlier models. "Maybe people don't understand its specialness, but I'm not sure that matters anymore."
Although the 911 is the most recognizable Porsche, it isn't even the automaker's most popular in Southern California, where 15 dealers have sold 2,663 911s versus 3,583 Panamera sedans and 4,109 Cayenne SUVs since January 2010. Like most cars, over the years the 911 has grown bigger, more refined and infinitely customizable in an effort by Porsche to appeal to a wider swath of people. And the new 911 is the fastest and most fuel-efficient yet.
The base 911 starts at $82,100, though many versions -- there are 18 -- are priced north of $100,000. The changes and growth are galling to some because the car once was the embodiment of a pure, no-frills sports car. "I like to experience what the car was made for rather than just cruise along putting on my makeup," says Joanne Johnson, administrative director of APA, who drives a 911 Turbo. She plans to race it in the Silver State Classic Challenge in Nevada in September.
But Porsche dealers aren't complaining about the broadening of the car's appeal. Jay Huffschmidt, marketing director of Beverly Hills Porsche, says that though it is easy to consider the car a "fashion accessory and status symbol," it should instead be recognized as "a reward for people who have worked so hard to be the best at what they do. ... Actors, producers, stockbrokers, lawyers -- they are very competitive, proud of the fact that they are really good at what they do -- especially here in Beverly Hills."
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA SALES NUMBERS
Data from January 2010 to April 2012 provided by Porsche
- 2012 911 S: 204 sold
- 2011 911 S Cabriolet: 130 sold
- 2011 911 Turbo S: 127 sold
- Black: 794 sold (31.5 percent of all 911s sold)
- Carrara White: 473 sold (18.76 percent)
- Meteor Gray Metallic: 267 sold (10.59 percent)
UP CLOSE IN LOS ANGELES: The Porsche 911
Rims: In L.A., 911s often sport wheels that are painted black, with red or yellow brake calipers peeking out from behind them. Matt Hardigree, editor of car blog Jalopnik, says the trend of having all-black paint, trim, badging and rims is called "murdering out" a car. He believes this suits "someone who wants attention but doesn't want people to think he wants attention." As for calipers, Hardigree says, "A producer going through a midlife crisis probably buys a base 911 Cabriolet in yellow with yellow brake calipers."
Interiors: Porsche's Exclusive 911 program allows buyers to personalize interiors, customizing seat belt color ($540) and air vent color ($1,710). Says Huffschmidt: "People in the entertainment industry love to be able to spec it out exactly as they want."
Automatics: About 75 percent of 911s sold in Southern California since 2010 have included automatic transmissions. "I could see the Beverly Hills housewife absolutely buying a 911 Cabriolet with an automatic," says Dickinson.
Colors: Although black is the most popular color for the 911 in Southern California, flashier colors also have followings. Mark Umutyan, GM of Rusnak Porsche Pasadena, says his dealership sells plenty of ruby red and burgundy Porsches because "we are dead smack in the middle of the Asian community" — a nod to the color red symbolizing good luck in Chinese and other Asian cultures.
Spoilers: Owners can trick out their rides with rear spoilers that some purists believe ruin the car's stately shape. "The wings are just so insane," says Johnson. "You are never going to use the engine power and all those wings and things."
The Classic 911 Gets An Update
Drivers who treasure the look and feel of a vintage Porsche 911 but also want the performance and creature comforts of a modern iteration can now have both. Beginning at $255,000, Singer Vehicle Design modifies customers' existing cars, adding higher-performance modern engines and old-school looks to create something unique. The Sun Valley, Calif.-based company is hoping to tap Porschephiles in Hollywood and has shown a prototype to agents at CAA and other notables. Singer, which was founded in 2009 by Dickinson, frontman of the disbanded rock group The Catherine Wheel, starts with customers' early 1990s 911s, and, as Dickinson puts it, "strips them bare and rebuilds them better than they were before." So far, the restoration and modification company has turned out eight cars. Singer chose to work on the 911 that was produced from 1990 to 1994 because, Dickinson says, that variant is the best of the air-cooled 911s. (The 911's quirky air-cooling system was long a hallmark of the model and beloved by enthusiasts; in 1998, Porsche gave the 911 an engine-cooling system that, like most cars, uses water.) Singer's base engine features a 300-horsepower motor, though buyers can select engines that put out up to 425 horsepower. The cars' interiors are bathed in leather, and nearly every surface can be covered in cowhide — for a price. Options include carbon-fiber seats, custom paint and iPhone connectivity.
Risky Business Porsche Up for Auction
One of four 928 S Porsches used in the filming of Risky Business is going up for auction. The car, of course, isn't the one that plunged into Lake Michigan in the film. Instead, the 1979 model is said to be the car in which the film's star, Tom Cruise, learned to drive a manual transmission. It was used in several driving scenes by his Joel Goodson character, including some of the chases. The car is being sold by an undisclosed owner and will be auctioned by Profiles in History on July 20 in L.A. It could fetch $60,000. "It is iconic," says Profiles in History owner Joe Maddalena. "It takes you back to the '80s."