It’s hardly news that Germany and the automobile have a pretty tight relationship. From Bertha Benz’s pioneering first road trip to the relentless industrial output of today, it is a country that doesn’t even have its own word for “petrol-head”, so presumed is an underlying affinity for the car.
My mother, a proud Westphalian with seemingly little interest in the subject, has a strange attachment to her ten year old Volkswagen Touran that belies a purely functional engagement, with a level of pride in possession more commonly associated with the more glamorous offerings of Northern Italy. Whether it’s my mother’s utilitarian beast, a lovingly (even if somewhat dubiously) modified M3, or the ubiquitous bug-eyed E-Class taxi, they all garner the same levels of affection from their petroleum-infused German owners.
It comes as little surprise, then, that Germany produces cars for each and every taste, from the soporifically functional to the positively unhinged. Take Mercedes: the same business behind the brilliant, preposterous, “is it weird to say it looks like an E-Type on steroids” AMG GT R is also busily flogging the brutally utilitarian B-class, a cross between an expired paracetamol and a Victoria sponge. BMW and VW (their range somehow spanning the first road car to break 300mph, and the first to complete 100km on a single litre of fuel) have similarly broad offerings. And if you’re someone who wants to stand above all those unimaginative C63 AMG owners, with their conformist, sedentary ways, there’s a whole host of outfits who are more than happy to take whatever cookie-cutter car you’ve already bought yourself and make it anything but. From Carlsson, the tuner scene’s double vodka Red Bull, right through to Alpina’s espresso martini, individuality can be retrofitted. But this still leaves a gap.
Germany has never really nailed the Grand Tourer. Not, that is, in the misunderstood modern application of ‘GT’, slapped on the back of any sports car that isn’t a crash-dieted track-day special (the AMG GT, for instance, is far more a sports-car than a motorway tourer). I’m talking about a proper, long-legged, mountain pass of a car, one with character and individuality – a Bentley Continental, or a Ferrari GT4C Lusso. Certainly not an S63 Coupe, or the upcoming M-division BMW 8-series, both of which are exclusively the preserve of uninspired wealth, for those who bought a Bentayga because a Range Rover simply felt too cheap. I did briefly wonder whether Germany might simply be a bit too sensible for it – after all, super saloons cover the remit of the GT neatly and more practically – but then I remembered that the typical hot-hatch coming out of the Vaterland these days will comfortably exceed 400bhp. So I still couldn’t quite work out why they’re missing from the canon. Maybe it is the sad reality that the aforementioned Merc and Beemer simply do cater to the typical GT buyer.
Well they may have done, but now the gap has been filled.
Werl, a sleepy – in truth, downright boring – town in Westphalia doesn’t strike you as the place you’d first encounter the Aestec GTS. More fitting would be where Fitzroy Motor first came across the passion project of CEO and founder Alex Schaeferhoff, in the understatedly luxuriant surroundings of last year’s Grand Basel show. Far from such Swiss-German opulence, we initially struggled to find Aestec’s discreet HQ, tucked away at the back of an entirely unremarkable industrial park. Find it we did, however, to be met by Alex himself in a complex comprising a few modest garages and a simple office space.
In true founder fashion, he regaled us with the Schaffungslegende, the story of how the Aestec project came to be as recently as 2008. Alex, who’d set up a business specialising in classic Porsche restorations (and the odd race-readying) a few years previously – something that clearly continues, with a host of classic 911s in various states of undress spread around the garage – explained how he’d come across the Aestec’s inspiration, the iconic Porsche 904, at the Modena Centro Oro rally.
It’s not difficult to empathise: the 904 remains a uniquely beautiful car, not to mention hugely respected and coveted, with scarcely 100 built in the late 60s for homologation purposes to allow it to compete in professional GT racing. It was revolutionary in its design and build, the first Porsche (indeed, many claim the first production car) to have an entirely fibreglass body. It had a design that provided a low centre of gravity and excellent weight distribution, giving it a more stanced appearance than the Ferraris and Alfas it left behind during its brief but highly successful racing career.
So Alex decided he wanted to have a go at building his own.
What is immediately apparent before you even set foot in the car, however, is that the Aestec GTS is not a racer. From the first moment you see it, it exudes a muscular yet relaxed attitude, a far cry from the highly strung, Spartan intensity that embodied the 904. Beginning on the outside, with its wide stance and chunky tires wrapped around the lovely Fuchs alloys, and moving on to the leather-quilted storage compartments, immaculately carpeted flooring and even the luxury of Apple CarPlay, this car is designed predominantly for comfort rather than corners. The suffix of “S” to the GT is a bit of a red herring, less a description of a sportier GT, more a homage to the 904’s official name, the Porsche Carrera GTS, chosen at the time due to naming rights conventions around the numerical title. But make no mistake: like the proper GT I hoped it would be, it’s no armchair.
Unlike many other attempts to independently create a new car from scratch – Alex speaks with great respect, tinged with sadness, about the untimely demise of Wiessmann – the Aestec GTS wisely sources the vast majority of its components from third parties. Only the best, mind; Brembo, Fuchs, and most importantly, Porsche themselves. Whilst Alex is keen to state that there is no formal relationship between Aestec and Porsche, the connection feels like it runs a little deeper than a mere vendor/customer relationship, which is no surprise given the ongoing restoration arm of the business. This connection starts quite literally from the ground up, with the chassis taken directly from the 986 Boxster, the car which also gives the GTS the majority of its interior fittings.
Aestec engines, too, are Porsche-sourced. Three “standard” flat-six offerings of 3.4, 3.6, and 3.8 litres are the options initially presented to the enquiring party, spanning a comfortable, if not devastating, 300, 325, and 350 BHP (as found in our test vehicle). Should the enquiry go further, however, and a little more…kleines etwas be required, there exists the rather special option of having Alex’s team improbably shoe-horn the deeply impressive 981 Cayman GT4’s powerplant into the Aestec GTS. Performance figures aren’t yet available for this guise of the GTS, but seeing as the GT4’s 310lb ft of torque are only 15 shy of the maniacal 911 GT3’s, it’s fair to assume that it’ll provide just a little more “S” than “GT” in this spec.
The greatest departure from Zuffenhausen’s engineering, and indeed the cherry on top, is the car’s clothing. The bodyshell is made of CFK; more commonly known as carbon fibre, a natural progression from the original 904’s then-revolutionary glass fibre (GFK). The shell is produced by Aestec themselves, making its way from designs in CAD software to be woven and moulded on-site, and eventually bonded to the chassis. As you look at the car, it’s actually tricky to know whether it’s the Aestec GTS that’s attractive, or whether its unmistakable inspiration, the 904, has to take credit.
However upon closer inspection you begin to see what Alex is so keen to stress – “…this isn’t a replica of the 904. Absolutely not. This is a homage to that car. It’s an important difference”. And he’s right. It is. Critically, it’s a distinction that allows him to deviate from the 904’s inspiration where he needs to. Whether it’s the functionally luxurous interior, or the broadening of the haunches to allow even a smidgen more luggage space, the Aestec feels firmly like it’s been given license to be its own car for the 21st century, and not an attempt to bring the 1960s into the future.
None of the above, however, matters if the car is useless to drive. Which it isn’t – as you might expect from a group of engineers who prepare race cars on the side. The Aestec GTS is certainly no Lotus in the corners, nor is it a straight-line supercar. But you immediately feel at ease with it, and as soon as you open the windows and give the proverbial loud pedal a prod, you’re in love with it. It is reassuringly brisk, accompanied by a mechanical growl that is distinctly Porsche, but also very much its own – paradoxically, for a car so focussed on comfort, a sound rather more unfettered than its Bavarian cousins using the same powerplant. I will admit that I initially found the handling a bit soft, but as time wore on I realised that the car’s animated character had fooled me into expecting something far lighter. My recalibrated assessment of the Aestec GTS is of a highly competent, reassuring set-up. Never did it give me the impression that it would bite off my hand, but the occasional ESP flicker would remind me that it certainly has an appetite for fun.
Convenient, then, that our other excuse to visit my Motherland (as if the chance to drive a “one of three” prototype wasn’t enough) was to take part in a rally. Think less Colin McRae, and more Concours d’Elegance in motion. These events, popular with German classic car clubs, provide an excuse to parade a range of beautiful cars around the countryside for the day. To keep things interesting, drivers and their co-pilots are given a number of fun challenges along the way, carefully designed to provide a level playing field for a fleet of competing cars spanning 80 years. Not at all about speed or power, these events challenge their participants to drive a specific and cryptically described route, picking up penalties for missed checkpoints and interspersed with challenges like covering 100m in exactly 10 seconds, with points deducted for each millisecond off. The Aestec was to be our weapon of choice.
At this juncture I’d usually describe the rally itself, my impressions of this sort of event, and of course how the car performed. And yet, as I was drafting this, I realised that this would be to miss the point of both the rally and the car itself. During an otherwise hugely entertaining day, what I was most struck by was how much attention the Aestec GTS received. This was a fleet of cars that (amongst others) contained a first generation Mercedes 300SL “Gullwing”, a BMW 507, and even a rally-spec (think Colin this time) Alfa Romeo GTV 2000. But to the Aestec they flocked, asking what it was, knowingly nodding when its inspiration was revealed, snapping away with their phones. At checkpoints we’d get held up by charmingly inquisitive marshals, barely giving the priceless 1930s Bentley Blower behind us a second glance, full of questions about the Aestec that we’d readily answer whilst pointedly glancing at our stopwatch. It really couldn’t have been a more fitting way to experience a day like that. It is an event that you attend to be seen at, and the Aestec GTS is a car you own to be seen in.
And as we spent an entire day trundling – and occasionally haring – through picturesque Westphalian farmyards, I began to think more about that initial question; why Germany didn’t have its own, real GT. And I couldn’t help but think, improbable as it might seem to speak so highly of a prototype artfully cobbled together in a place you’ll never go, that the Aestec GTS might have a shout.
It’s less fastidious and intense than the modern sportscars that shamelessly hide their absurd power behind a veil of adjustable dampers, and so, so much more special than those immensely competent but unoriginal super-saloons. So what if it “only” goes up to 380 BHP, and looks like a first generation Boxster on the inside? What matters is how it feels to be in, and to look at – and the components that Aestec have contributed to the car themselves, whilst few in number, hit those sweet spots perfectly. On the inside, from the sumptuous leather and carpets, to the beautifully milled, provocatively angled, brushed aluminium gearstick; and on the outside, that glorious carbon fibre weave. And you don’t even need to love the looks to be taken with the thing (though I’d be surprised to find anyone who wouldn’t be). The classical simplicity of those curves and their historical legitimacy all combine to make the car as much a story as it is a machine.
To say that the Aestec GTS is “not a car, but a way of life” would reduce any conclusion about Werl’s most luxurious export to a tired marketing cliché, but that is more the fault of the cliché than the sentiment itself. Every fibre of Aestec GmbH, from Alex and his unpretentious workshop right through to the car itself, is deeply rooted in his desire to create a bit of automotive history, however small, rather than any grand commercial motivation. Of course Alex is hardly giving his creation away, and he’s looking to expand the operation. But that expansion isn’t to suddenly ramp up volumes and “go big” for the mass market. Not at all, as this would, once again, miss the point of the GTS – as Alex puts it himself, this car is for a collector who has run out of original cars to buy, who wants something just a bit more special. And maybe even for someone who just wants a proper, German GT.