Arno Bohn and the car that saved Porsche

My last four-hour flight to Lanzarote was a breeze, thanks to a great chat with Joe, a spritely seventy year-old parked alongside. After early retirement from an engineering career, Joe dived into volunteer work before joining a local friend’s burger van business. They threw themselves into growing the business and now run the bars at some of the world’s biggest music festivals and sports events.

What struck me most was not the stories my seat neighbour told, or his success, but the enthusiasm and energy that shined when he spoke about life. He was still pushing hard. The meeting put me in mind of another energetic 70 year-old that I’d read about: former Porsche CEO, Arno Bohn, interviewed by Keiron Fennelly for a story in Panorama magazine.

Born in Rheinfelden in March 1947, Arno Bohn was Porsche boss from 1990 to 1992. While CEO, he famously wrote a letter to Ferdinand Piëch suggesting that Piëch (grandson of Ferdinand Porsche) should retire from the Porsche supervisory board. This was in response to a letter from Piëch calling on Ferry (son of Ferdinand Porsche) to resign, as the company was verging on bankruptcy. The interview contained several insights into Porsche culture of the time, including factors behind the mission creep which sent costs spiralling on projects like the 959, the cancelled 984 (924 replacement) and 989: the aborted four-door 911.

Bohn’s predecessor, Peter Schutz, extended the 911 line and presided over 944 development, while his successor, Wendelin Wiedeking, oversaw the combined Boxster/996 platform (developed by Horst Marchart, according to Bohn) and the launch of Cayenne. Bohn was the bridge between the two trajectories: not an easy or comfortable role.

‘The car that saved Porsche’

Porsche retrospectives have a tendency to rate CEOs and the cars they help launch on the grand scale of company saviours, but that’s not how I see it.

Running your own business is all about ups and downs. When things are up, you reinvest, ploughing resources back in to product development, training new people and adding new capabilities. The cost of this work takes a balance sheet down – often close to breaking point – but the rewards of clever investment pay off in the long run. Keeping said “long run” to the absolute minimum is part of the role of a good CEO.

There are countless assertions as to how the 924 and Boxster saved Porsche, but it was largely the work that went into these cars that caused the balance sheet falls which were later reversed when the cars came to market. These projects start long before the CEOs credited with the product successes. One could say that there are no ‘cars that saved Porsche’. Instead, Stuttgart ploughed profits into these cars to widen its reach and build a better corporate future.

Arno Bohn’s Porsche legacy

Recruited from the IT industry, Bohn was used to quick product development times and tried to push the same through at Porsche, but his hands were apparently tied by longstanding inertia and in-house politics: no surprise to anyone who has studied the company’s story.

While Bohn was not an experienced car-making man, he’s said to have been a very good listener and that letter to Piëch – a powerful figure who helped bring him to Porsche – shows he was true to himself and brave when it mattered. The politics may have stitched him up a bit but, as commander-in-chief through a critical period, and the last CEO to leave Porsche as a fully independent operation, he’s earned a place in history. 

Bohn is the link between Schutz and Wiedeking and his experience through the final years of Porsche independence is a fascinating window into what was going on. Bohn notes that Ferry was keen to build a four-door Porsche and, while some 989 prototype angles make it look like the unholy union of a Ford Mondeo with a 911 Carrera, there is perhaps is a slight regret that the project never took off.

Last year, I sold a Porsche Panamera V6 PDK for a friend of mine: a 2010 model in perfect condition with less than 50k miles. It took a few weeks to find a new home and eventually went for just over £20k: a bargain for the quality and engineering contained. Turns out that Arno Bohn also now drives a Panamera.

Had Bohn managed to introduce the 989 and helped to find it a place in the luxury market, giving the Panamera a slightly earlier start point and more engaging origin story, his legacy and that of Panamera might be rather more strident. In any case, he merits remembering as more than Weideking in waiting.

A version of this story first appeared as my column in GT Porsche magazine, February 2019. I now write a column in BMW Car magazine.


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