By H.E. Falk
Thinking back, I must have been about eleven or twelve when I first heard the iconic song by Don McLean entitled “American Pie”. Even today, I sometimes dust off the turntable and play the decades old album, just to hear those haunting lyrics “Bye, bye, Miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levee…” Of course the most intriguing line was always – “the day, the mu-sic…died.” The blending of the story, the melody, the prose, entranced many a teenager of the era, searching for answers in an increasingly confused world. It was not until many years later however that I finally understood the meaning of those lyrics – an ode to the sudden death of four legendary Rock-n-Roll artists in a 1959 plane crash and how that tragedy potentially brought their unique art form to a virtual standstill. I can envision another song, similar in context, that could easily have been written a decade later, in the early 1980’s, about the impending demise of Porsche Audi and how a series of lawsuits almost brought their unique art form, that of designer and builder of some of the best in the automotive world, to an equally dire standstill.
The story of those lawsuits dates back to the 1970’s during which decade automakers the world over were struggling to fight through the onslaught of emissions, safety, and fuel economy standards being imposed in the wake of the socio-political turmoil of that time. But if mankind has proven anything, it’s that when we’re faced with insurmountable obstacles, our gift of innovation rises to the fore and overcomes those challenges through new and wonderful technologies that propel us forward into a new future. One of the technologies that was dusted off, re-introduced and perfected during that era was the turbocharger.
Not a new concept at all, the turbocharger was an invention that had been around since the early days of the internal combustion engine, but a useful application outside of marine and aircraft engines had yet to be developed. A somewhat visionary attempt to apply it to automotive use was made by General Motors in the mid-1960’s, but the related complexities of fuel octane, engine boost and combustion management, technologies so vital in utilizing a turbocharger’s efficiencies, had not kept the same pace of innovation and GM quickly lost interest. Some years later however, Porsche perfected this comprehensive science of turbocharging and used it extensively in their racing programs with great success (first in the 917 and then again in the 936). It was reasonable to assume that a production car application would soon be attempted and Porsche did not disappoint. At the 1974 Paris Auto Show they introduced with great fanfare the legendary 930, the first (non-diesel) production automobile to make practical use of a turbocharger. It became available on showroom floors in Europe in 1975 and then exported to the US in 1976.
What Porsche and other European manufacturers failed to realize however, is that even though they successfully survived the technological challenges of the decade, public perception and utilization of the automobile, in the US specifically, changed perceptibly as the nation entered the 1980’s. This new generation of drivers seemed no longer interested in stately perfection and the essence of performance. Suddenly it was all about comfort, convenience, and most of all, appearance. They were more interested in automatic transmissions, air-conditioning, and cup holders than they were about displacement and gear ratios. Even GM executives conceded that the largest share of Corvette buyers at that time were women, and consequently began integrating more and more creature comforts into their performance models, in an effort to accommodate that trend.
These new American drivers, inexperienced for the most part in the subtleties of weight distribution, oversteer, and heel-and-toe techniques, came squarely into confrontation with the raw power and driving requirements of the turbocharged 930, the fastest production car on the market at that time with 0-60 mph times below five seconds. In spite of its $30,000 price tag (a hefty sum at the time), affluent celebrities and yuppies were soon enjoying ‘being seen’ driving these prestigious autos from their suburban domiciles to the local shopping malls and night clubs. Sadly, most of these drivers had no clue what they were doing, or the potential capabilities of the powerful Porsche 930. Tragedy, it seemed, was inevitable.
On an otherwise normal afternoon in 1980, Cynthia Files, a promising young executive with a San Diego tecnology firm, invited her boss who had just flown into town for a meeting, out for a few drinks before dropping him off at his hotel. Earlier that morning, perhaps anticipating the opportunity to make an impression, she decided to drive her husband’s brand new 930 Turbo to work, a car which she had only driven a few times. Ironically Porsche had marketed the 930 in the US beginning in 1976 but had discontinued exports after only four years, unable (or unwilling) to adapt it to the increasingly stringent emissions standards. The car owned by Cynthia Files’ husband therefore was, what was then called a ‘gray market car’, a vehicle imported into the US by an independent dealer, not affiliated with Porsche, and modified to pass US equipment regulations. This was a common practice in those days as ‘original factory’ versions of many exotic cars, without the ugly bumpers and safety glass, became highly sought after by increasingly frustrated US enthusiasts. The fact that it was a gray market car played a significant role in the aftermath of what was about to happen.
After having a few drinks, Mrs. Files and her passenger drove through the streets of trendy La Jolla towards his hotel when at a traffic light, either due to encouragement from her boss or just plain enthusiasm brought on by the alcohol, Cynthia decided to show off the performance of the new Porsche. In those early days of turbocharging, throttle ‘lag’ was still a significant factor to overcome so what started out as a spirited acceleration, quickly turned into a screaming 60 mph projectile on a busy city street. Forced to turn at an approaching intersection at which experts in court later testified could not be taken at more than 40 mph under even the most ideal conditions, the 63.8% rear-weight bias of the 930 (which earned it its unofficial nickname of ‘widowmaker’), along with some uncontrolled and frantic braking input by Mrs. Files resulted in a predictable sideways skid, catastrophic impact with a light pole, and tragic death of Cynthia’s boss who was in the passenger seat.
As horrific as this accident was, what occurred afterwards however would shock the automotive world as lawyers for the passenger’s family filed a wrongful death suit not just against Mrs. Files, but also against Porsche. Since the car was imported however outside the Porsche dealership network, Porsche North America successfully deflected all the accusations and the entire suit was leveled against Porsche AG in Germany. Over the next three years the Porsche legal team, unaccustomed apparently to the aggressive pursuit of punitive damages becoming so prevalent in US litigation at the time, floundered against the accusations, incredulous that they could be held accountable for what was obviously a driver’s error. But that is exactly what happened – three years later in a San Diego courtroom in a 10 to 2 decision, the jury found no fault at all with Mrs. Files’ driving, in spite of having admitted to drinking beforehand, and placed 100% of the blame on Porsche for building a car that to them was convincingly proven to be “uncontrollable by the general public”. Key to the decision was an internal Porsche document in which a test engineer had described the handling of the 930 as ‘poisonous’. What the jury did not understand however is that the German word for poisonous (giftig) could also be used much like the English word ‘wicked’, implying of course that the item being described was super awesome. In one of the worst examples of legal advice ever given, Porsche was persuaded to alter the document for fear that the jury would not understand the test engineer’s original meaning and when the prosecution team magically produced the original, unaltered version (through an insider source at Porsche headquarters), well…you can pretty much guess the outcome – two and a half million dollars were awarded to the plaintiff! The automotive world was stunned. Not since Ralph Nader’s war on the Corvair had there been such a crushing verdict on an automobile and in spite of enthusiast’s general support of Porsche, the ensuing storm of negative publicity quickly revealed itself in the plummeting sales figures. By the end of that decade, Porsche sales in America had dropped by more than 50%.
But that was not the only setback for the Porsche family in the era of leg warmers and parachute pants. Around the same time as the Porsche lawsuit was being decided, its sister company over in Neckarsulm, began to receive reports of an annoying phenomenon called ‘unintended acceleration’. Beginning in 1982 reports started trickling in from Audi 5000 owners (automatic transmission models only) of the vehicles suddenly accelerating when the brakes were supposedly applied. A series of lawsuits were filed in the litigation-happy environment of the time and the issue turned into a decades-long debate about whether the cars were at fault or the drivers. All sorts of opinions were offered as to the cause – from idle stabilizer valves to brake pedal placement. As an aside, brake pedal spacing was also an issue raised in the Porsche trial, which is why today it is so hard to find a vehicle with pedal spacing that is conducive to a proper heel-and-toe technique. And as had happened with the Porsche lawsuit recounted previously, the Audi case became an enormous public relations disaster for the company. This was augmented in part by a feature story on CBS’s 60 Minutes in 1986 during which they managed to demonstrate and ‘prove’ to their entire television audience that the vehicle could lurch forward even when no one was sitting in it. Only much later was it revealed how far the producers of the show had purposely ‘rigged’ an Audi 5000 with baling wire and remote control switch to create the desired effect. It should make us wonder today whether ‘fake news’ and betrayal of journalistic integrity has a much older history than we imagine.
CBS never owned up to the deception and never ran a retraction. Why bother, it would not have stemmed the growing tide of discontent among Audi owners anyway. The truth simply became irrelevant as the savage maelstrom of public opinion had already let loose its judgement. Even satisfied Audi owners began to turn against the company, claiming that all the negative publicity had ruined the resale value of their once-respected automobiles. Sales of the Audi 5000, flagship of the line and rising star among luxury vehicles suddenly dropped precipitously as did the entire line of Audi vehicles, to the point where they considered simply leaving the US market altogether.
As astonishing and inconceivable as these instances with the Porsche 930 and Audi 5000 were, the real story however is how, in the aftermath of these events, both companies managed to survive the bludgeoning and emerge once again as premier brands in the US market. It is truly a testimony to the commitment that each company made to restoring faith in their product and rebuilding trust in the community. Each marque licked its wounds and slowly, doggedly re-entered the US market with new products to once again build a loyal following. Unfortunately in both cases it took nearly a decade or more to restore sales volume to the levels they had enjoyed previously, but as with all setbacks, there were also lessons learned during their time of tribulation. Meanwhile their competitors, always hungry to feast on the misfortune of rivals, made re-entry into those markets even more challenging, but they simply prolonged the inevitable. Today, Porsche is again unrivaled in its class and Audi overcame the odds and became one of the best-selling vehicles in the luxury sport sedan market.
An enthusiast, with only a superficial knowledge of what happened in the courts of public opinion three decades ago, might today go back to the immortal lyrics of Don McLean and wonder, “…do you recall what was the deal, the day…the mu-sic…died”.