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Turning 50 at the world's largest Porsche dealership

As the 911 celebrates its 50th anniversary, we visit Johannesburg to find out what buying one is like at the other end of the world.

By Clifford Atiyeh Feb 11, 2013 3:00PM
This September, the Porsche 911 will turn 50 years old.

Its genius -- rooted in a simple, rear-engine chassis that Ferdinand Porsche designed for the Third Reich, the Volkswagen, all the way through decades of snail-paced refinement and size-defying performance -- is why "German engineering" isn't just a catchphrase, but still means something.

The 911, during its 1963 debut in Frankfurt, Germany, as the 901 -- it was later renamed after legal threats from Peugeot -- rewrote the script on sports cars. By all accounts, the unbalanced weight distribution and air-cooled engines should have killed the 911 from the start, yet its character flaws and unmistakable appearance made it legendary. You were a hero if you could drive a 911 fast without its rear end turning around.

Indeed, these flaws had Porsche dreaming up a replacement in the late 1970s, the front-engine, 8-cylinder 928. But while this luxury GT had a starring role in the 1983 Tom Cruise classic "Risky Business," the 911 was fade-free. By now, two-thirds of Porsche's 30,000 racing victories have been scored by a 911, and more than 820,000 road models have been built.

Of course, this is the two-minute history of a car that has its own library section, filled by far more experienced authors than myself. But as far as modern times go, I'm quite tight with the 911. So, to kick off its 50th anniversary, I visited the world's largest Porsche dealership, in Johannesburg, South Africa, to see what buying one was like at the other end of the world.

Porsche Johannesburg from the air (c) PCJ
Built in 2008, Porsche Centre Johannesburg covers nearly 40,000 square feet, yet its size has nothing to do with sales. At 1,500 new cars last year, South Africa is the company's 15th-largest market, well below China, the U.S. and Middle Eastern countries. It's because in land-rich South Africa, with its cheap and underdeveloped real estate, building an enormous dealership is a matter of fact, not a surprise. That, and there are only two other Porsche dealerships scattered across a country nearly twice the size of Texas.

Porsche Johannesburg cappuccino (c) Clifford AtiyehIt's not the gray-tiled, stainless-steel glass building that impresses, nor the lovely Carrera GT next to the welcome desk, one of only three in all of South Africa and the last left-hand-drive Porsche to be imported here. It's the "911" script in brown sugar, dusted precisely on top of my foamy cappuccino in the Carrera Cafe. I take a picture, excusing myself in front of PR manager Christo Kruger, who admits that yes, people do this all the time.

Walking past the GT3s and Cayennes filling the showroom, past the cavernous service bay and past a swamp that the dealer preserved for wild African bullfrogs, it becomes obvious that no Porsche facility outside the factory is this complete. Kruger casually shows off two full-size paint spray booths and another enclave for repairing aluminum body panels, an expensive, time-consuming process most U.S. dealers happily send off-site. Elsewhere is a 75-seat auditorium for employee training, an employee gym and cafe, full-service catering and a basement garage crammed with cars that made me want to play Nicolas Cage and dust out of here in 60 seconds.

Porsche Johannesburg showroom (c) Clifford Atiyeh
Two things are missing. No foreign brands, not even trade-ins, are allowed a tire print on the showroom or on-site, save for customer parking. Kruger is serious. So if you've tired of your Audi R8, it'll be whisked away and sold elsewhere without advertisement, just like that. The other thing: Prices are "never, ever" over list. But by American standards, prices here are absurd. A base 911 Carrera lists at the equivalent of $117,000. You can see where this is going.

Included in that price are taxes galore: a 14-percent value added tax, an emissions tax, an import duty tax and a luxury tax. Plus, there's the premium paid for right-hand-drive models, not to mention the shipping charges. However, South African 911 buyers get two benefits we pay as options. Porsche will cover all maintenance costs, barring tires and windshields, for at least three years, and PDK transmissions come standard on every car.

As in the Middle East, cash is king in South Africa. Leases with Porsche or any make, for that matter, are useless because used cars are so grossly inflated in value that they hardly depreciate. If you do finance, Kruger says the current prime rate is 8.5 percent, and most people will pay 10 or 11 percent APR. That's down from a recent high of 26 percent. Plus, the South African rand is a highly volatile currency, which means dealers have zero incentive to discount foreign-made cars when they can stand to lose lots of money. Doesn't look so bad in the U.S., now does it?

Porsche Carrera GT (c) Clifford Atiyeh
But even though ordering a custom 911 takes four to six months down here, I'm always amazed why people around the world spend years waiting for a Ferrari, only to be treated like a nobody standing outside a nightclub. In a Porsche dealership, generally you're treated like a proper customer, and it's clear they'd bend backwards for you in Johannesburg.

After another 911 cappuccino and a debate over whether the new 911's electric steering has lost some feel -- "a crock," Kruger says, but I disagree -- I walk out, palming the keys to my rented Chevy Sonic. If this writing thing works out, I'll be back to place my order. In another 50 years, when the 14th-generation 911 debuts, prices ought to have come down.
Feb 11, 2013 3:59PM

I agree with the author's electric steering comment.  I own a classic 911 and can say that the electric steering does indeed take away from the driving experience. Am I biased? Probably...because I'm also a fan of the air cooled engine of older Porsche cars versus the water cooled ones.....except when it comes time for an oil change....  Happy 50th birthday 911!



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