There are tough jobs and then there’s reinventing the Porsche 911 in order to save the company. So it was for Pinky Lai, who went from Hong Kong hippie to taking on the most terrifying task in automotive design.
Born in 1951, Lai grew up in the shadow of his disciplinarian father, whose strict rules resulted in increasingly rebellious behaviour. Soon Lai was failing in school and devoting himself to burgeoning alternative culture.
After high school, Lai took manual jobs before honing his technical drawing skills at the Hong Kong Telephone Company. He caught the design bug at Jens Munk, which sold European furniture, and moved to Rome to study industrial design at the age of 21. On graduation, he applied for a job with Ford but instead the company offered him funding to attend the Royal College of Art.
After graduating in 1980, he joined Ford before moving to BMW in 1984. There his talents caught the eye of senior colleague Harm Lagaay. He so valued Lai that when Lagaay was subsequently approached by Zuffenhausen, he refused to go unless Lai came too.
They arrived in Stuttgart in 1989, a rocky period for Porsche. The air-cooled 911 was battling on in the face of a dwindling capacity to evolve. Meanwhile, the transaxle 928 and 944, soon to be replaced by the 968, were losing what scarce market mojo they had enjoyed. Lai and American expat Grant Larson collaborated on several projects to revive Porsche’s fortunes, spawning the 986 Boxster and what would become the most controversial and significant 911 since 1963, the 996.
The vultures were circling and a hostile takeover from the likes of Mercedes or Toyota seemed all but certain. It was down to a nervous Lai, under Lagaay’s tutelage, to utterly reinvent Porsche’s core product via a radical, future-facing design cohabiting with plans for entirely new underpinnings and a revamped production process to haul Porsche into the present.
His creation was far more sculptural, rounded and highly modern, underlining that this was not the subtle evolution seen from 964 to 993. A longer wheelbase made it more comfortable and spacious inside but a still-compact footprint ensured it remained an agile 2+2 in the grand tradition.
Lai’s solution was both triumph and travesty. To cut costs, the 996 shared its front end with the 986 Boxster, including its ‘fried egg’ headlamps. Customers baulked at being asked to pay around £65,000 in 1997 for a premium sports car whose nose was borrowed from a lesser car. Lai’s elegant design also bore the burden by association of water cooling. The 911’s core identity, intact for 35 years, was gone and a period of adjustment was needed. Many have yet to make the transition.
But the numbers tell a different story. Enhanced space, ergonomics and performance would eventually make the 996 the best-selling 911 in history. Produced from 1997 to 2005, it sold more than 175,000 units, reinvigorating the model line and Porsche as a brand.
Lai retired from Porsche in 2014. Still working in automotive design, he is seldom remembered for the vast contribution he made to the ongoing story of the marque.