Friday, November 6, 2009

Deutschland, Part 5

And now we come to the event that I'd been dreaming about for months, perhaps years: the Porsche factory and museum in Zuffenhausen, a suburb of Stuttgart. While I was disappointed with not getting my act together for this trip two years ago--the Frankfurt Auto Show is only every other year, so I had to wait until this year--the timing of my trip was fairly auspicious, since the Porsche Museum has only been open since January. Not only that, but I happened to go on 9/11, which was just a function of my trip timing, and were it not for the horrific event that Americans associate with it, this would be a joyous coincidence.

Upon entering the building, I got a good look at the shop where exhibit cars are restored and maintained.

But my first order of business upon arrival was to make sure I could get a tour of the factory. At first, the woman at the desk apologized, but there would be no English tour today. Sunken-hearted, I was about to slink off in despair, when the woman behind her said she had just talked to someone else on the phone (literally while I was talking to the first woman) and had found out there would be an English tour, and it started in a half hour. Now that's luck.

I was fortunate enough to tour the plant where the 911, Boxster and Cayman are born. They also make all of their engines here, and it was quite a treat to see them being essentially hand-assembled. This was our first stop on the tour, and as I was watching a worker lovingly lay a camshaft in a cylinder head, the tour guide explained that this was the only plant in Germany where workers are allowed to have a beer with lunch.

There were two engine lines, one for the traditional flat-six engines that Porsche has used almost since the beginning of time, and running parallel to that, the line for the V8 engines that are used in the front of the Cayenne and the Panamera. Luckily we were standing over the flat-six line. I wouldn't want it any other way.

It’s a very relaxed environment, and this is by design. Porsche has timed the speed of the line minutely so that it is going neither too fast (which would lead to undue stress) nor too slow (sloth makes quality suffer, too). It used to be a one worker/one engine process, but with the addition of a few robots (only for some bolts) this has changed a bit.

We got to see the factory’s leather shop, which apparently also sets this plant apart from its peers in Germany, who usually outsource this work. The cows are all sourced from the Alps (what was that California was saying about “happy cows”?), and up to 10 hides are used per interior. The coolest part about it is how the hides are cut. Not with blades or lasers, which could damage them, but with high pressure water jets. So cool!

In the main assembly building, it was a joy to see the complex ballet of movement whereby the cars are transported between two levels, and automatically rotated to face forward after they leave the elevator to head the other way. The guide claimed this led to increased quality, perhaps purely from the mental effect on the workers. There were far fewer robots on the Porsche line than at the Audi plants, and especially the subsequent Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg. Porsche workers also seemed to possess the pinnacle of pride, as one would expect. They seemed to be generally older, which is natural, since they are surely paid more for a higher level of skill.

While none of the factory tours I attended allowed photography, I do have a picture I took later of the building in which the first Porsche--the 356--was assembled.

After the tour I went back to enjoy the museum at a leisurely pace. It is a beautiful work of architecture, and the exhibits are encountered in a downward spiral around the building. The first picture is from Wikipedia, cause how cool is the building at night, right? The rest are mine, since I only got to experience it during the day.

I've got plenty of other pictures from the museum, but here's a representative one. It's my favorite Porsche of all time, the 356 Speedster, and it was the exact right color combo. Incidentally, I'm trying to convince my dad to pull the trigger on his purchase of the BMW Z8 he really wants in this color combo. Just do it, dad!

I'll leave you with one of the highlights of the museum, which was the staff firing up a 911 race car and revving the engine for the crowd which quickly gathered. Actually it's a fairly small museum, so pretty much everyone in attendance was huddled around the car. According to a security guard, they do it once a day, just to thrill the museum goers.

After leaving the museum, I crossed the street to the dealership that was on-site. It was marvelous, and doubled as an event center. Here's a sculpture that was inside:

Which brings to mind an interesting contrast versus Audi. While I was on the Ingolstadt plant tour, a couple expressed interest in buying an Audi, especially since the tour had gotten their blood pumping. The tour guide said that they would have to go to a dealer, but there was none on-site. Audi, unlike every other company, seems to be missing a great opportunity here. The dealership attached to the Mercedes museum was massive, and rightfully so. What better place to buy a new Mercedes than at the Mercedes museum?

Having spent an entire day frolicking among the maximum Porschetude, I was spent. But I was definitely looking forward to the next day, which was the Mercedes museum, also in Stuttgart. Until then, auf wiedersehen!

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