On Sept. 30, 1955, James Dean lost his life behind the wheel of a Porsche 550 Spyder. Zipping down a stretch of California highway at dusk en route to a race in Salinas, Dean's car, nicknamed "Little Bastard," plowed into a Ford coupe at the junction of Routes 46 and 41. For many Americans, news accounts of the Hollywood icon's death marked the first time they'd heard of Porsche, which had, by most accounts, sold just a few thousand vehicles in the United States at the time.
Porsche's association with the actor's demise gave the brand immediate (if dark) name recognition and went a long way toward establishing the nameplate in the national consciousness as the kind of machine Hollywood's coolest bad boys drove when they wanted to break the rules. Porsche's emblem played into that dawning macho mythology. The silhouette of a stallion is set against a coat of arms with the word "Stuttgart"—where the company was founded in 1931, and historically a regional capital famed for its stud farms—stamped boldly above the horse's mane. The logo suggested speed and (horse)power underpinned by the latest advances in German engineering. It was a far cry from Chevrolet's preppy bow tie.
In James Dean's day, Porsches were playthings for auto enthusiasts and the wealthy. By the early 1960s, however, with the introduction of its flagship 911 model, Porsche had established itself as a car for guys who'd attained a certain level of prominence and felt the need to flaunt their success and machismo on the open road. (Men have long made up more than 80 percent of the brand's customer base.)
"Porsche has been very good at understanding and maintaining its own mystique," said Paul Eisenstein, editor and publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com. "You have to play up the legend, but back that up by producing on the street and on the track. They've done just that." Case in point: the annual 24-hour endurance race at Le Mans, France. Since 1970, when Richard Attwood won the grueling competition in a 917K, Porsche cars have triumphed 17 times (including this year), more than any other nameplate. Such success has become part of the Porsche legend and reverberates through popular culture. In the 1971 movie Le Mans, Steve McQueen drove a Porsche, naturally. The brand's advertising often stressed speed, power and perfection. Porsche positioned itself as the ride for winners.
By the early '90s, some esoteric model intros stalled the brand's momentum. So, Porsche doubled down on the 911 and, in 1996, introduced the Boxster, offering the prestige of a 911 for half the price. However, "perhaps the biggest event in the history of Porsche," said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific, was the company's more recent foray into sport utility vehicles. Initially, purists scoffed. Would James Dean or Steve McQueen have driven one? As usual, Porsche was on the right track. "Sales of the Cayenne SUV were robust from the beginning and propelled Porsche to record levels of profit," Peterson said. Last week, the company revved up its cool cachet even more, announcing the Mission E, an all-electric four-seater designed to take on Tesla. "Porsche is an image, an ethos, an experience," Peterson said. "People lust to own a Porsche at least once in their lives."
This story first appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.