Could Porsche have a Toyota moment?

Kieron Fennelly argues that Porsche isn’t immune from high-profile litigation

There seems to be no end to Toyota’s woes. Until this year, the brand was an outstanding success story, a byword for reliable if unexciting automobiles. Then suddenly the company was the object of waves of negative publicity as stories of sticking throttles emerged. Caught off guard, Toyota talked initially about carpets jamming accelerator pedals or linkage faults and launched a recall on an unprecedented scale. Industry observers opined that the symptoms appeared less mechanical than electronic in origin, potentially an even more serious matter. Toyota’s image is taking a battering because the bad news simply will not go away. During April, it emerged that the Chinese authorities were investigating the use of 1700 ‘non-certified components’ at Toyota’s Chinese plant and if the allegations are confirmed, Toyota will be fined and potentially see its commercial activity restricted in a vital market. On the other side of the Pacific, US investigators have brought to light 70,000 documents in a paper trial which includes a 2006 letter from the leader of the factory unions to Toyota’s president which speaks of systematic ‘safety sacrifices’ as the company expanded production. Just days before the recall, Toyota’s US vice president of public affairs, Irv Miller, wrote to the Toyota top brass in Japan telling them that the company would have to admit there was a problem: “We are not protecting our customers by keeping this quiet.” It is perhaps no coincidence that Miller has since retired after breaking the code of secrecy which characterises much of Japanese industry. But there is then the danger of overreacting, which is how most observers think Toyota has behaved in recently announcing the withdrawal of the Lexus GS 460 SUV for ‘retesting.’

Now while we are unlikely to find out whether any members of the Toyota hierarchy have felt the need to fall on their swords or ritually disembowel themselves, Miller’s retirement will not be the only one to result from the crisis. And while certain people in the beleaguered US car industry will not be sorry to see this deadly competitor in trouble, they would be wrong to be complacent. There is no reason why this kind of malaise should be confined to Toyota. Cars are becoming inexorably more complicated as is outsourcing of ever-cheaper componentry to keep costs down and the need to institute ever-wider quality control. If bad news gets into the media, then you’re in trouble. General Motors might have got away with the Chevrolet Corvair, made (for some footling cost saving) without a rear antiroll bar to keep its swing axle in check if Ralph Nader hadn’t fixed his lawyer’s eye on it. A quarter of a century later, having earlier piggybacked its way into the US on Porsche, Audi got into all sorts of difficulty and its stateside reputation suffered over embarrassing and expensive sticking throttle court cases. When the TT revealed an alarming tendency to high-speed instability ten years later, Audi was quick to withdraw it from the US until modifications had been carried out, thus preventing the prolonged bad publicity. Mercedes also reacted with alacrity when Swedish journalists managed to overturn the then-new A Class. Both companies had understood the importance of damage limitation.

Never a mass manufacturer, Porsche has managed to avoid this particular quicksand for 60 years. Perversely, it has even benefited from its ‘widow maker’ popular reputation which probably began with James Dean’s accident (not his fault, but he was driving a Porsche) and compounded by the early 911 Turbo. It was almost as if ‘accidents were expected.’ So if Porsches presented safety issues – and the handling of the early 911 or the first 930 certainly did – there was a certain element, unimaginable today, of caveat emptor. However, it would be a mistake to think that Porsche was any more open than the Japanese. After facing vociferous complaints from American customers, Peter Schutz discovered that the timing chain tensioner was a problem Porsche’s engineers knew about, but had not corrected as failure was usually outside the warranty period. More recently, the company has never really ‘come clean’ about the structural problems of the early 996 engines, preferring to deal with failures on an individual basis. Sometimes, but not invariably, Porsche has offered a deal on replacement outside the warranty, perhaps a tacit admission of guilt. As it is not a safety matter, the subject has never gone far beyond the user forums.

So while to Porsche enthusiasts the Toyota affair may look rather remote, it would be a mistake to see it so. Today’s Porsche is no longer run by people who love the cars. Inevitably, as production goes up, so must component sharing and these parts will not all come from the traditional Audi-VW ambit. Today’s base 997 is probably 30-40 percent cheaper in real terms than the 3.2 Carrera and if this makes 911 ownership more democratic, it also exposes owners to more of the risks of mass manufacture.

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