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A Moment with Ferry Porsche

At the time, I felt the pressure of the shoot more than the privilege of the experience. 
In retrospect, how lucky we all were.

By Fred Senn

In early 1989, sports car sales in the U.S. were in decline. PCNA President Brian Bowler was relatively new to the job and sensed that we needed to reestablish Porsche’s heritage and authenticity. In a bold move, he went right to the source. He went to Stuttgart and visited with the 80-year old professor himself, and asked if he would allow us to interview him on film for a series of long form TV commercials for the American market. We were all thrilled when he agreed. The setting would be the professor’s home. The problem was scheduling; he was a very busy octogenarian who still went to the office at least a few hours every day. Finally, we found one quiet week in June, between a visit from his grandchildren and a visit from Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev.

It was to be a relatively small crew. Brian Bowler, three of us from the agency and a British director, Michael Werk, a couple of grips. First, we would film the professor, then we would return in July to film the much more complex action scenes using cars from the Porsche Museum under the watchful eye of Jürgen Barth. That’s another story, but I’m proud to say that two PCA members, art director Mark Johnson and I, actually got to drive those classic cars at speed during the filming.

The professor still lived in the same home where he raised his family; a very comfortable, but by no means ostentatious house, in an upscale neighborhood on a hill overlooking Stuttgart. His home was a clue to his personality and his character. He was an Austrian gentleman; a charming and humble man who avoided hierarchy and treated everyone with equal directness. When a film crew invades your home, it can be, at the very least, aggravating. His only counsel was that we needed to be totally cleaned up and out of his way in two days before the Gorbachev visit

He had lost his wife, Dorothea, in 1985. And it was clear from the family photos everywhere that she was dearly missed. He was fond of his big Airedale, Treu, and proud of his lush garden. I couldn’t help but be struck by the balance in this man’s life. I got goose bumps looking at the old racing trophies and old photos in his den. Imagine the auto sports history that had taken place in that house.The legendary race drivers, the victory parties. Enzo Ferrari had passed away the year before. This quiet gentleman was the last man standing from the greatest era in sports car history. A leader in the pits at every great race in Europe since the war, and a man who could claim more victories at those races than any other automotive executive in the world.

Here, for me, was a telling incident. Shooting a TV spot is boring, tedious work, especially for the people on camera, while the rest of us adjust lights, lenses, sound and timing. We finished filming one scene in his den, then asked if we could record him again, this time without the camera running. (Later we’d cut action shots over the dialogue.) “Why are you leaving the lights on?” he asked. We assured him that the lights were running off our generators, and not his home’s electricity. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Wasted energy is wasted energy.”

I was most grateful for our host’s patience with the whole process. There was plenty of time for interesting conversation. The news, at the time, was all about preparations for the French celebration of 200th anniversary of their democracy. The professor commented, “You Americans have been at it for a longer time, and have done a better job than the French.”

The professor spoke English well, but with a heavy accent. Some of the English phrases in our scripts were difficult, so we all sat together at the kitchen table and rewrote them until the professor was comfortable with the meaning and the phrasing. You wanted to listen hard when he spoke. He had a quiet voice, and a very thoughtful and almost introspective way of measuring his words, regardless of the language he was using.

At the time, I felt the pressure of the shoot more than the privilege of the experience. We knew we had only this one chance to film the professor. We had to get it right. In retrospect, how lucky we all were. We spent two days with Professor Ferry Porsche in his home. He was surprisingly accessible and easy to be with. Here, for example, are some of the thoughts we recorded on film.

“In the beginning, I looked around and could not find quite the car I dreamed of, so I decided to build it myself. Independence has always been the attitude at Porsche. To do, not what is expected, but what we feel is right.

“Time is one of the few things man cannot influence. We all have a desire to create something that will show we were here. That we did something of value. Of course, timeless design is wasted if it cannot survive. That is why we race and test our cars so hard.

"Committees lead to creations that have no soul. That is why no Porsche will ever be created by a committee, but by a handful of people inside these walls who know what a Porsche is. The first Porsche, built in 1948, is still with us. Still clearly the inspiration for everything we have done."

To thank him for his hospitality we presented him a framed picture of all four Porsche models at the time: 356, 911, 928 and 944. It was to be the centerpiece of our ad campaign; Mark Johnson had spent days in a German studio aligning and lighting the cars to show their design similarities. The professor graciously accepted our gift and hung it immediately, commenting that it was like a family photo for him.

Today, twenty years later, I think about that experience every time I turn the key on my old 911. I wish that every PCA club member could have met this quiet, brilliant, automotive legend. It would make you just a little bit prouder of that car you love.

Fred Senn is a founding partner of Fallon Worldwide, an advertising agency headquartered in Minneapolis. In 1987 his firm was awarded the Porsche account, and Fred has been driving Porsches ever since. He was a PCA club racer for nine years, and is a national DE instructor for Nord Stern, PCA’s 2008 Region of the Year. Fred is comfortable with both the language and culture of Porsche; he served in the military in Germany, and has been married for forty years to a woman named Heidi with the same accent as the professor.