It wasn't long before we crossed what had been the East German border, the prow of our borrowed black Rolls-Royce cutting a clean line through arterial highways out of Berlin. Highways turned into two-lanes, two-lanes into little village streets, until we pulled into an unassuming edge-of-town industrial lot. On a far building, on a corner, stood a little Porsche crest. This is the home of one of the most secret cars in the world, a hidden product of two men in a fit of reciprocating and all-encompassing madness.
It is not by accident that Willi Thom has situated his Karosseriebau in what could be described as hiding. In English, the most basic translation of Karosseriebau would be body shop, though in Italian you'd change it to the romantic carrozzeria, or coachbuilder. The work is building cars by hand, not just adding to what's already there.
Willi aims to be unseen to avoid unwanted attention. Here, that means pretty much all attention is unwanted for Willi, as far as I can tell. In modern Germany, Willi explains, "you can't say what you have." Anything ostentatious, like the coupe that Rolls-Royce lent us outside, gets spat on or worse. The aspirational, flashy American dream isn't in the culture, especially in punk Berlin or quiet villages like where we were. Willi had the windows to his shop fogged out, for instance, so nobody can even see the vintage Porsches inside, each in various states of custom work.
It's all in the aims of avoiding "visits in the night," as Willi put it. He made some other vague allusions to break-ins or jealous locals otherwise pushing him out of the little town in which he lives. It was built up in the '90s mostly for former West Berliners to buy houses in the former East countryside when city real estate got too expensive after the Wall went down.
This is where Willi hides the most secretive Porsche shop in the world.
He has no website. He has no email. He has no listed phone number. It took my connect on this trip, filmmaker Chris Kippenberger, years to track him down and get his trust, getting ahold of him through this car’s owner alone.
If you didn’t already know what was inside, you wouldn’t think anything of Willi’s shop passing by. The car he built has this same quality.
If you don’t know what to look for, if you just walk up to the car, it’s hard to put your finger on what’s special about it. You sense that it’s somehow different, but you don’t know why. This is by design. Partially a concession to that forced German secrecy, partially by order of the man who ordered the project.
One half of the partnership: Willi, a car builder as old school as they come, trained in building Porsches as rough, as fast, as light as possible. The other: Achim Anscheidt, the head of design at Bugatti, obsessed with penning a personal car to match his billionaire customers’ standards, minimalist but executed with perfection. One had an eye for the practical, the other for the aesthetic.
This 911 came together between them: motorsports-grade kevlar panels modified to meet concours quality, months sunk into sand-bending custom pieces unsure if they’d ever work, ceaseless failures and demands in a back and forth that lasted two years.
I flew halfway around the world to see this car, to become the first person outside its builder and owner to drive it. Part of me was there to see the car itself, maybe the most elusive Porsche on Earth. I had caught it on video years ago when the build was initially finished. It was clear the car had a certain something, an ineffable quality. Even the idea that the head of design at one of the most over-the-top car companies in the world had an ultra stripped-down personal car was poetic.
Another part of me just wanted to see the two-man obsession that created it.
The Bugatti Designer’s Dream
Willi may have built this car, but he does not own it. That would be Achim, the other half of this equation.
Achim wasn’t around on the day I came to drive his Porsche. He was busy overseeing the launch of his other car—the Bugatti Chiron.
Achim’s day job as design director at Bugatti has him overseeing the design of the most powerful and technically complex cars in series production today. Strip the bodywork off of a Bugatti and it looks like an Apollo capsule.
His 911 makes sense as a contrast. Of course his personal project is going to be stripped down to bare metal inside and out.
Achim’s a nice guy, or at least he has been every time I’ve gotten to talk to him. I imagine he’s happy to talk about design details he was involved with, rather than the stern executive meetings in the halls of Volkswagen Group’s headquarters that I figure occupy most of his time.
Achim used to be a motorcycle stunt rider back in the day. I think he needs a periodic escape from the corporate world. Even in a suit, you can sort of see the bit of stunt rider still in him.
It makes me profoundly happy that one of the highest ups at Bugatti was something of a 12 o’clock boy.
But he is nothing if not focused, with a kind of directness that you find in a lot of high-power Germans. If they’re not seeing the emotional toll their demands are making on others around them, they’re choosing to ignore it.
Back in 2011, Achim started sending Willi pictures of custom-built Porsches from around Los Angeles. Each car was a personal project of the owner, kind of a mishmash of different details. Each car always had something totally right and something kind of wrong. Achim wanted perfection.
His photos to Willi would have captions of “fuel filler like this,” “headlights like this,” “front indicators and air vents mounted like this.”
Achim had the ideas, but he needed Willi to get them done—and done exactly the way he wanted. Exactly.
The Builder In Service Of Faszination
Achim’s demands never came with instructions. Each design detail that Achim wanted, Willi had to figure out how—or if—it was possible to do. But he was nothing if not prepared for the job.
Willi is not young. He was an apprentice at Rometsch, an old Porsche karosserie, as a kid. He had his first 911 at 23, and a photo of one of his widebody lightweights he built for himself as an autocross racer hangs behind his desk at the shop. Willi was on the up and up but made some allusion to losing it all with a bad business partner he didn’t talk much about.
This project—Achim’s demands—I think he kind of understood it was lunacy but it could pay off.
It’s no wonder this car took two years to build. It’s the product of completely different attitudes, completely different mindsets. Two men, two extremes, a ton of money and different ideas of perfection. It’s German obsession, faszination, on an insane scale. They had their own little world between them, carried out in secrecy and text messages. Achim texting from his corporate halls in between meetings, Willi trying to translate them into metal at the outskirts of his little village.
Today Achim and Willi are close, and they happily continue working together. I’m surprised that they never tore each other’s throats out halfway through the build.
An Exercise In Perfection—Or Obsession
Much of the insanity of the car is because it was built in a kind of in-between zone between street car standards and motorsports standards. It makes sense: the car is a product of Willi’s hand, and Achim’s eye.
Standard street parts have all the refinement that Achim wanted, but they are too heavy, too vague. Motorsports parts have all the response and lightness that Willi knew the car needed, but they are too rough, too crude.
You can watch a little feature on how the car transformed over its life here:
One day in the two-year build, for instance, Willi proudly showed Achim the car’s new front bumper made of racing-spec kevlar. In the bumper, Willi saw lightweight perfection. Achim only saw that the bottom edge of the bumper itself was not perfectly straight.
Now, in racing, nobody cares if the bottom edge of the replacement lightweight bumper is perfectly exactly unwaveringly straight. It makes the car go faster and it fits. That’s all that’s important. The racers don’t even see that the edge of the bumper is uneven.
That was all Achim saw, and texted Willi about how the car must have unbroken lines, totally straight around the full car.
Achim is a designer. This is what stands out to him. This bumper was, as Willi saw for its intended purpose, already perfect. But Achim demanded more than perfection, and Willi set to work with fiberglass resin and two wires until absolute straightness was achieved.
The same had to happen with the doors and the fenders and every other body panel on the car—all of them kevlar—short of the rear fenders and the roof. They could have done the roof, too, but I think by that point Achim and Willi had gotten too tired of the process.
Willi told the same kind of story with the shifter, which took the better part of a year to complete. When you see it in the car, it looks like it was meant to be there, like it was a factory accessory. It falls immediately to hand, mounted high up and close to the steering wheel.
Any other racing car or modified street car seeks short throws and as tight and as quick an action from the shifter as possible. Achim and Willi’s Bugatti Porsche has an open gate and the throws are long. It is not a momentary blip from one gear to the next. It’s a small mechanical process, one that you think through and savor. Try to be too quick and you risk a mis-shift. Do everything properly and it is impossibly satisfying.
Again, Achim wanted the shifter up close to the wheel, like you find on a rally car. There are kits that can get the shifter up higher and back, but Achim didn’t just want the shifter kind of up and kind of back. He walked into Willi’s shop one day, sat in a mock up seat and held his arm out, grasping an invisible shift lever, mocking up in his hand where he wanted it to be, exactly. Willi wasn’t exactly sure how this was going to happen, but Achim was more positive. Or maybe a bit more demanding.
“You’ll make it work,” he decreed, as Willi told me with a smile. This was Achim’s repeated mantra, and Willi’s perpetual orders.
Willi’s first test for how the shift linkage would fit together did not work. The handbrake was in the way and had to get shortened. Even when it was shortened the linkage needed to come out of the transmission tunnel. For that it needed to bend from up where Achim wanted it down to the transmission itself. But then Willi still needed to have the linkage bend again towards the driver’s seat to get it not only up but over to precisely where Achim wanted it.
A big shop might render this first in 3D on a computer and use a machine to mill it out to spec. Willi, in his little shop, had to do this the old school way, with heat and quartz sand, bending by hand. The second test fitting didn’t work. Nor did the third. Or fourth. Or fifth. Only on the sixth mock up did Willi feel like it was going to work, but he couldn’t know for sure until the car was completely put together and running a full year later.
That time was taken up with even more detail-oriented projects. Since the shifter sits a good four inches higher than before, six inches back, it needed a housing to go around it. But when Achim saw the full housing, he immediately noted that it needed little windows so you could see the mechanical workings inside.
Willi tried to protest that the aluminum housing was less than a millimeter thick, and couldn’t be cut out for windows. Achim intoned “you’ll make it work,” as much a command as a reassurance.
Willi had to punch holes in aluminum, then file out the rest of the windows by hand.
Everything from the gas tank filler neck to the hood latch down to the indicator light housings needed custom work to fit into Achim’s vision. Willi shaved the dashboard so it has no holes in it. He cut covers for the intake trumpets out of his shop’s mesh trash baskets. A plexiglass cover so rain wouldn’t fall into the engine. A plastic rear hood holder so it didn’t rattle while driving. A completely custom front end so that the later-model hood latch fit the older-model hood clasp. Modifications made after the car went to paint, then back, then to paint again, for almost laughably minute alterations.
Only when you take in all of these week by week-by-week custom jobs, all these impossible to see details, do you begin to feel the depth of the car. Every time you look at it there is something that you didn’t notice before.
This is the car’s secrecy, hidden from first glance.
Willi gives me a tour of the car and then a ride in it to show me the good roads nearby. We round back to the shop and he hands me the tiny key, leaves me to drive it myself.
Again, at the basic level, it looks like a normal old 911. There’s no flashy paint, no big wing. Certainly there’s little to imply why the most-in-the-know Porsche owners are ready to put down 270,000 Euros—nearly $300,000—for one of the five planned to be built.
But when you have all six individual throttle bodies cracked open, full throttle, the car makes itself very clear about what makes it unlike any other.
I mean, the noise. Dear god, the noise.
Listen to it. Listen to it again and again and again.
There’s a fidelity to it. A depth to the sound. You lay into it, deep into the pedal travel, deep into the rev range—something to do with the settings of the car’s fuel-injection, Willi says—and there’s a new kind of tone that you didn’t hear before, like there are more notes in it than there was last time.
Everything about the car has this depth. The steering uses a 911 Turbo rack with absolutely no slack. Turn the small wheel and the car responds instantly. Yet the car never feel nervous or darty. On sweeping forest turns it’s planted. The car itself is unbelievably light—at around 1800 pounds, it weighs fully half what a well-equipped new 911 weighs—but it never feels skittish or bouncy.
The suspension they got custom valved from Bilstein, but at what feels like a stock rate. Willi says that he ordered it softer by percent to match the car’s reduction in weight. It means you never want to bully the car or throw it around like you might with, say an autocross or rallycross or a really hard-edged race car build. You never overdrive it. You are exact. Settled. You let the engine howl again.
The 3.2-liter engine makes around 290 horsepower, and with this little weight, it produces the same genuine dear god gates of hell opening thrust you get in a five or six hundred horsepower turbo motor. A forked tongue wraps around your leg every time you go full throttle from four thousand RPM.
While I drive the car, Kippenberger—who got the Rolls-Royce to get us there—shoots some video for the long-scale documentation project he’s doing for it. He hopes perhaps to record the full build of the next car.
After the drive, itself a surprise in how compliant and livable the car is, I return to Karosserie Thom, take my final photos and say goodbye to Willi. On the drive back to Berlin, looking out through the windows of the Rolls, all other cars look globular, dulled, overstuffed. They’re so loud, blown up, incomplete.
But I understand why. What it takes to make a car like Achim and Willi’s, methodically and rigorously engineered, is almost crushing to comprehend.
Each detail of the Bugatti Porsche’s build got its own photo documentation, sent from Willi back to Achim for approval. Each one catalogs another problem, another argument, another think-through, another custom job. Willi showed me a slideshow of these detail pictures.
He had four hundred slides.
This is the cost of staying unwaveringly true to a vision. Years of work. Innumerable frustrations. Judging from the looks on Willi’s face, finally opening up after all this time tucked away in his little shop on the edge of town, unbelievable pride.
Thanks to Kippenberger, Willi and Achim. Jalopnik paid for my flight, Suite30 paid for my room in Berlin.