Of Myths and Men
August Achleitner is at peace with himself and with what moves him. When he drives the thirty-five kilometers between Zuffenhausen and the
The new 911 is his third one. “Head of the 718 and 911 model lines” is his job description, but it doesn’t do justice to the alluring nature of the task. “Keeper of the Grail,” they call him reverently: he’s the guardian of an icon and part of a large team, yet also something of a cult figure—in the harmony of the whole—who always knows where he’s coming from and where he’s going. In the end, the decisive factor “is that the 911 generates a driving feeling that no other car can offer.” But how does it feel to be the person who’s responsible for a legend, who has a job that’s the envy of every kid, who’s unceasingly sculpting a statue for the ages? How does one manage, through it all, to avoid crashing on the rocks of one’s own creation, just as some composers and writers have done?
When Achleitner steers the 911 out onto the road, he does so without distractions. Music would only be a nuisance as he listens intently to other sounds: “To understand a car, you have to hear it,” he says. The clarity of purpose he brings to the road shapes his work in Weissach as well. “I’m too much the engineer.” He pauses for thought. “But I’m not so rational that I lack the capacity for enthusiasm.”
And with that he begins, like so many
To understand the magic of that day, you’d have to imagine yourself in that specific time. Achleitner has been well acquainted with high-quality cars since childhood. His father, a department head at BMW and responsible for vehicle concepts, frequently came home with new models from his own company or other carmakers. These up-close experiences made quite an impression on the son, especially when it came to
But back then, when Achleitner was learning the ropes at
Yet the best was still to come. When Achleitner is asked today when the most exciting
Achleitner also increasingly worked outside of business hours: “We settled on the wheelbase of the 996 over coffee on a Sunday afternoon,” he says. “Eight centimeters more.” With the 997, the new 911 boss became familiar with the entire development cycle for the first time. “You’re working underground, in secrecy, confidentially, for more or less four years. And then you go to the public and you get feedback for almost half a decade’s worth of work in one fell swoop.” He feels “enormous tension” because “some decisions are made from the gut.” He’s all the more pleased, then, by delighted customers and good press.
Yet Achleitner remains both the driver and the driven. Engineers, after all, are always one evolutionary step ahead. And sometimes a gear ahead: the new 911 is the first to feature the
The rationalist is sensitive and abuzz with intuition. He “feels” his sports car, whether it’s on the north loop of the Nürburgring or his favorite route down to Tyrol. If being behind the wheel of the 911 means business, on a motorcycle passion reigns. And he’s convinced that riding a motorcycle makes you a better driver. “On a motorcycle you have to keep a much closer eye on your surroundings. You’re more attuned to possible hazards and have a better overall picture of the traffic situation, which makes you more aware of what the vehicle under you is doing and how it’s reacting.”
As a kid, Achleitner idolized five-time Grand Prix motorcycle champion Toni Mang—and, of course, Walter Röhrl, who was in “a dimension of his own.” He has long since become friends with his childhood idol. “I think he’s great, because he’s authentic and honest. Sometimes to the point of discomfort, but he says things the way he sees them. I think I’m not too different myself.”
There are many traits that Achleitner and Röhrl have in common. “It goes well beyond the subject of cars. Walter is a passionate sportsman, mountain biker, skier, early riser, and someone who doesn’t hang around till two in the morning. I’m the same way. The next day’s too important to me.” Sometimes Achleitner sits reverently next to Röhrl in the passenger seat, deeply impressed by the calm attitude of the two-time rally world champion. The 911 boss remains serene behind the wheel as well.
Perhaps the two get along so famously in part because Röhrl and Achleitner not only think alike but also have similar steering styles—one of them in the car, the other in the company. Achleitner draws strength from within—a picture of unflappable poise. While others are rushing around frenetically, Achleitner finds tranquility within himself. That’s the case even now, as the new 911 is first revealed to the public. It’s August Achleitner’s grand finale as head of the 718 and 911 model lines.
By Gerald Enzinger
Photos Christian Grund