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The Car That Saved Porsche

Given Porsche's success today, it's easy to forget the company was on the verge of bankruptcy back in the early 1990s. In fact, Porsche's annual sales had fallen from over 50,000 units in 1986 to 14,000 in 1993, and only 3,000 of those sales were in the U.S. Among the chief causes for this decline were a faltering U.S. economy and Porsche's bloated production process. The latter of which was steadily driving prices higher at the worst possible time.

To turn things around, Porsche needed a new, affordable model to replace the aging 924/944/968 platform. For inspiration, it looked to the success Mazda was having with the MX-5. Introduced in 1989, Mazda's sports car had proven there was a strong market for two-seat roadsters. So, Porsche decided to do something along those lines, but with their own unique twist. This new car would be a mid-engine roadster recalling the 550 Spyder of the 1950s.

At the time, Porsche's manufacturing process was a complete mess. According to a 1996 New York Times story, engineers would have to sift through parts bins and climb ladders to search shelves while building a single car. The impact of the Toyota team was swift and evident. After instituting leaner production methods, Porsche said it had reduced the assembly time for one car from 120 hours to 72, and the number of errors per car had fallen an astounding 50 percent.

Prototype test-mules, using 968 bodies, were built to test the mid-engine power train of the 986 by the end of 1993, with proper prototypes surfacing in 1994. Pilot production began in the second half of 1995, ahead of series production in mid-1996. The Boxster was the first new model from Porsche in 18 years, and the 986 was only the sixth in the entire history of the company, following the 356, 911, 914, 924, and 928.

The Boxster was released ahead of the 996. The 986 Boxster had the same bonnet, front wings, headlights, interior and engine architecture as the 996, in order to ensure production was better managed financially. However, these may be the reason for the 996s poor reputation, since they were so similar aesthetically

All Boxsters use the M96, a water-cooled flat six-cylinder engine. It was Porsche's first water-cooled non-front engine. In the Boxster, it is placed in a mid-engine layout, while in the 911, the classic rear-engine layout was used. The mid-engine layout provides a low centre of gravity, a near-perfect weight distribution, which ensured excellent handling.

The Boxster was a runaway success. Between 1996 and 2003, the Boxster was Porsche's best-selling model until the Cayenne came along. And by 2007, aided by a growing line-up, Porsche had become the most profitable automobile manufacturer in the industry on a per-unit basis!