The C88 Concept Was A Fascinating Step Outside Porsche's Comfort Zone

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Image: Porsche

In what is probably the least-surprising piece of news I’ve heard so far in 2021, Porsche confirmed earlier this week it isn’t making that all-electric Vision Renndienst van concept it revealed to the public late last year. The Vision Renndienst was actually designed back in 2018, though it didn’t come to light until this past October, when Porsche pulled the covers off some of its hitherto unknown creations as part of a marketing blitz for its Porsche Unseen coffee table book. It looks like a nice book — I should have asked for it for Christmas.

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Anyway, Porsche sales and marketing boss Detlev von Platen told Autoblog that while the Vision Renndienst presented a nice exercise for Stuttgart’s design team, it doesn’t really jell with the brand’s ethos:

We are, we were, and we still will be a sports car manufacturer. Therefore, we do not intend to go into the segment of small city cars, for example, or in segments where we could have more volume. We still are an exclusive sports car [brand], and we will go further in our development in segments where we believe that sports cars can be defined. So, going towards the minivan concept, and so on, is not our plan at all.

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2018 Porsche Vision Renndienst Concept
Image: Porsche

Should Porsche make a sporty battery-electric van that looks like an old motorsport team support vehicle? While that would be pretty awesome, I can understand the apprehension.

Thing is, Porsche loves to explore the limits of its comfort zone every couple of years. The Porsche Unseen initiative was an illuminating peek behind the curtain to understand what the German sports car maker believes it can offer the rest of the automotive landscape. But if we dig back further — I’m talking 27 years ago — we can observe a good example of what happens when Porsche pools all its efforts to go somewhere new.

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Image: Porsche
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A New Pitch For The People’s Car

This robin’s egg-blue stunner was dubbed the C88. It is indeed a Porsche — even though you won’t find a Porsche badge anywhere on it — and it was a proposal for a sedan specifically designed for the Chinese market. Back in the ’90s, China didn’t have the homegrown auto industry it has today, and so it was heavily dependent on investment from foreign automakers. In an alternative universe, Porsche might’ve been one of them.

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The impetus for the C88 proposal was a program started by the Chinese government seeking to partner established foreign automakers with state-backed manufacturers to produce high quality-yet-inexpensive family cars for the masses. The government was looking to develop its own automotive sector in two stages, as a C88 design document provided by Porsche explains:

In the first stage, from 1996, two to three large Chinese car manufacturers, who are also capable of competing on the international markets, and seven to eight smaller suppliers are to be established. The intention is then that the Chinese automotive industry should become autonomous in a second stage between 2005 and 2010. By this time, there should even be three to four major suppliers.

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Porsche considered itself uniquely positioned to contribute to phase one of this plan. In 1994, it attended the Family Car Conference in Beijing, along with competitors including Chrysler, Fiat, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi and Opel, to pitch the C88 as the solution to China’s search for a four-door family car.

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Because Porsche “manufactures only sports cars,” the company argued the Chinese government and local automakers could rest assured that Stuttgart wasn’t angling to steal their turf by “...building up a competitive product with the development of the Family Car.” I’m not sure how proving you could build a low-cost city car is supposed to allay fears from a potential collaborator and competitor that you’re not interested in building low-cost city cars, but I won’t pretend to fully understand Porsche’s rationale here.

If anything is clear from Porsche’s language about the C88, it’s that the company wasn’t simply developing this car in a consultancy role so it could hand the blueprints over and walk away. The car was to be built in China of course, but Porsche planned to “provide Chinese specialists with sufficient language and technical training in one year to enable them, at the end of that year, to develop the car together with the engineers in Weissach” — the home of Porsche’s R&D operations. Based on this timeline, the C88 would’ve entered production “by the turn of the century.”

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Image: Porsche

A Porsche Unlike Any Other

Of course, absolutely none of this came to pass. Porsche did present the C88 at the Family Car Conference — it’s said that Porsche’s then-CEO Wendelin Wiedeking gave a speech entirely in Mandarin at the unveiling — and here we have the pictures of the car, as well as its planned specifications. The C88 was to be powered by a 1.1-liter, 67-horsepower four-cylinder, in tandem with either a five-speed manual transmission or four-speed automatic.

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The whole thing weighed 2,160 pounds, and Porsche was outspoken about its high targets for safety and durability, surely applying lessons learned from its prior research in the field. In terms of design, the company aimed for something that would remain fresh for many years to come — a logical goal, considering Porsche knew the car wouldn’t make it to production for another five years at the latest.

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“Numerous conversations” were shared with Chinese auto industry specialists and journalists, and to that end the C88 held “individual aesthetics which bear the stamp of Chinese culture.” The name and logo are indicative of this — 88 is a lucky number in Chinese culture, and the triangular, fidget spinner-looking insignia was supposed to evoke the ideal family unit of two parents and one child, per the country’s one-child policy at the time. The concept was even presented with a child’s seat in the back specially matched to the interior’s tweed aesthetic.

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Personally, I’m charmed by the C88's design. This thing looks like a proto-Ford Focus but even more quintessentially ’90s, with nary an edge or crease in sight and smooth, rounded forms abound. I love the amber turn indicators integrated between the fringes of the headlights and the black plastic front bumper, and I’m getting serious Daewoo and Suzuki vibes from the design of the rear. How about those shut lines for the trunk, repeating the shape of the taillights? I’m not saying the C88 is an aesthetic triumph or anything, but it cleans up nicely with my rose-tinted glasses on.

Inside, things get even weirder. The swoopy, highly asymmetrical dashboard would’ve been extremely modern for the time, and the cool shade of gray chosen for the plastics plays well against the beige upholstery on the seats. I have absolutely no idea what happened to the fuel and temperature gauges to the left of the speedometer, but I’m here for it — as I am for the analog clock encircled with icons you’d normally see in the instrument cluster.

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Image: Porsche

Remember when I said a series of vehicles were on the table? The C88 is the only one Porsche ever prototyped, but the company envisioned two other models. The second seems as though it would have been highly modular; Porsche wanted to offer it in standard and premium variants, in a variety of potential body styles ranging from a two- or four-door fastback, to a wagon and even a pickup. The third, range-topping “luxury” model would’ve been another four-door, in sedan and notchback forms, and would have stood a chance at being exported to Europe.

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The differential in price between the cheapest model proposed — the C88 — and the most expensive luxury four-door was significant, though not as profound as you might expect. Porsche was targeting 45,000 CNY for the C88 — about $14,000 adjusted for inflation. The modular second model would have cost the equivalent of about $18,700, while the priciest vehicle was targeting $25,000 in today’s money.

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The End Of The Road

It’s clear Porsche did indeed have big ambitions for the C88, considering it thought through every facet of the project like it was ready for the green light at any moment. It’s also worth pointing out that Porsche was certainly not thriving financially during this time, suffering a brush with bankruptcy in 1992 detailed in this story from the New York Times. By 1994, the turnaround had begun thanks to Wiedeking’s production streamlining efforts. Nevertheless, the company’s first profit in four years didn’t come until early 1996.

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It’s understandable, then, that Porsche would be interested in coming up with new ways of making money around the mid-’90s. And perhaps the C88 could have been one for the company, if the Chinese government didn’t cancel the family car project just several months after the world’s automakers submitted their proposals.

Why was it canned? We’ll probably never have a straight answer, though Porsche certainly had its theories. Here’s one from Porsche’s old archive manager, Dieter Landenberger, relayed in an interview with Top Gear in 2012:

“It only has one child seat because of the country’s policy on children”, Landenberger tells me, “and when we presented it, Dr Wiedeking [former CEO] learned his speech in Mandarin. But at the end it didn’t help. The Chinese government said thank you very much and took the ideas for free, and if you look at Chinese cars now, you can see many details of our C88 in them.”

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I’m not exactly sure which elements Landenberger feels were copied later by Chinese automakers. In fact, I’ve reached out to Porsche to gain insight on this comment, to no avail. Porsche reportedly tried to sell the plans to Indian manufacturers when the Chinese market was no longer an option, according to CarNewsChina, but they too passed.

Thus ended the C88 saga. Today, Porsche retains the only full-size model of the vehicle in its museum. It serves as a reminder of what one of the world’s most influential sports car makers can do when it turns its attention outside its area of expertise. And although the C88 never came to be, nor did that neat electric van, it’s refreshing to know that attitude of using design and engineering to solve problems up and down the market still lives on within Porsche.

DISCUSSION

By
crazysaturn

And now I’m dreaming of a world where, instead of the Cayenne, Porsche developed an upmarket hot minivan...admittedly the Cayenne ends up getting used for the same tasks, but it’s less practical and lacks the fast-and-low-brick aesthetic.