You have probably heard that Ferdinand "Butzi" Porsche, the designer of the legendary Porsche 911
, died yesterday. He was 76. He left behind a deeply influential design firm -- Porsche Design, which he founded in 1972, after his departure from Porsche
the sports-car company -- and a nearly unmatched legacy.
Few men have created consumer goods, much less automobiles, as long-lived as the 911. Fewer still have had as great an impact on their chosen field. Butzi was neither the founder of Porsche the car company nor its last great patriarch (the former would be Ferdinand, his grandfather and the designer of the VW Beetle
; the latter is Ferry Porsche, his father), but he was an important man nonetheless. And in an odd bit of coincidence, he died on the same day as another important man.
Jim Marshall founded Marshall Amplifiers, the British company responsible for what many believe to be the
sound of rock 'n' roll. His amps backed up everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Guns N' Roses, and he also died yesterday
. He was 89. His death got almost as much media attention as Porsche's.
Call me crazy, but there's a connection between the two men. And it's fitting that they died on the same day.
Above: F.A. "Butzi" Porsche at work on a clay model of a 911 in the late 1960s.
Like a lot of writers, I'm something of a musician. I've played a handful of instruments since high school -- most of them badly, but some of them very badly. Two Fender Stratocasters hang over my desk in my home office; one is a beat-up 1955 sunburst replica that mimics the first Strat I ever saw, and the other is the first guitar I ever owned, a 1996 reissue of a '62 model. The latter changed my life in ways I won't bore you with, but it's also the only guitar I've ever played through a Marshall amp.
What a moment that was.
Above: The author's guitars, in the corner of his office.
I owned a Marshall amp -- a 4-foot-tall, 50-watt half-stack built in the 1970s -- for three weeks in high school. It was, and remains, the most powerful machine I've ever bought. I sold almost everything I owned to buy it, proceeded to make myself deaf and scare the family dog into incontinence, and then sold it a few weeks later. Turns out you can't really be a happy teenager with only a bed and a guitar amp, however loud. But I wanted one badly, so I sacrificed, however briefly.
By contrast, I have never owned a Porsche. It hasn't been for lack of trying. The 911s I want are always just out of financial reach. I suspect this is the case for most people; Porsches are not cheap cars to own, and the 911 is far from the cheapest Porsche, even used. Like that amp, any of the 911s I really want would require selling almost everything I own in order to raise enough money for a purchase. And then I'd have a 911 and a bed and -- well, not much else. But I'm driven by the memory of the first 911 I ever drove, a car that happened to be the first Porsche I ever drove.
At the risk of repeating myself, what a moment that was.
What is it about successful industrial design? There are so many failures, so many attempts to fly, and yet the groundbreakers -- the Stratocasters, the Marshall amps, the 911s -- always seem to come out of left field. Leo Fender built the first Strats in the early 1950s not because he wanted to create something beautiful, but because he genuinely wanted to serve musicians in a way they weren't being served. The result was gorgeous, but people thought it was an overwrought, unnecessary machine until it was picked up by the likes of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Similarly, the first Marshall amps weren't anything special -- they were mildly modified versions of early Fender designs, simple contraptions that thought outside the box. Some went so far as to call Marshall's creations unnecessary, mere copies of Fender's pieces. The steeping took time.
Above, right: Jim Marshall with one of his modern amplifiers.
Same for the 911, which replaced the humble 356 -- the car that Porsche purists, believe it or not, once called the only "real" Porsche. Car magazines loved the 911 at its launch, but there was a very vocal enthusiast contingent that believed it was a bad move. And like Leo Fender and Jim Marshall, Butzi Porsche wasn't trying to create lasting greatness. He was just doing what he thought was right.
Butzi Porsche and Jim Marshall died on the same day. They were of the same age and the same generation, and they meant the same thing to a lot of people. I am one of those people. Rest in peace, guys. You'll both be missed.
Sam Smith is a journalist, a Southerner, and a reformed Alfa Romeo mechanic who spends most of his time mooning over ancient racing cars and small-batch bourbon. A multiple International Automotive Media award-winner, he has written for Automobile Magazine, Car and Driver and Esquire, among other publications. He once drove 4,000 miles in a weekend for a hamburger and has been threatened by the German police only twice.