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Nineteen Fifty Meets: Assaad Raphael

Published: 23 April, 2022

Photography: Christian Catafago

A couple of days ago, I interviewed Mr. Assaad Raphael. It took me around half an hour to step into his office as I stood drooling over the yellow Porsche parked right at his office door. He greeted me as the Lebanese typically do; with a fenjen ahwe (cup of coffee) boiled and reboiled to perfection. He stood up, smiled from his desk and I saw a man with style and humility. As I shook his hand, his eyes spewed of passion for the cars we all love; I truly hope he felt the same as he saw mine. We spent an hour or so chatting. At some point I turned over my interview questions as the conversation just flowed so beautifully.

Although no introduction is needed, one is most definitely interesting to share. Mr. Raphael is an accomplished Lebanese businessman. Apart from being the General Manager and Chairman at Porsche Centre Lebanon, Assaad embodies the entrepreneurial spirit in all its ways. He is always on the lookout for interesting projects to be part of and stands on the forefront of creative endeavors. Moreover, he inspires the young generation with his impressive (of mostly Porsche) car collection.

I called up my buddy Alex to eloquently paraphrase our talk making sure to keep the integrity of what Assaad had to say.

Here it goes, enjoy.

Tell us a bit about your passion for cars. How did it start and where did it come from? Is there a childhood story to dig out here?

My friend says to me one day “You know what, I had a fantastic dream last night! I dreamt that my father’s Porsche had given birth to Porsche cubs. Many of them. And you and me, were given one to take care of.”

We were around eight or nine years old back then and my friend’s father was into sportscars. He had a brown 1975 Porsche 911 and a BMW 3.0 CSI. Waiting for the school bus, we used to stand eyewatering over the cars parked head forth, butt back. His father used to take us on Sunday rides.

The roar of the engine, the stick shifting gears, the feet dancing on the pedals, the smell of the brakes, the oil spilling, the speed, and being crammed in the back seat... all of it... all of it just imprinted on me. He would say, when you drive these cars, we don’t listen to music. We listen to the engine sing.

You know our generation is more geared towards mechanical objects; it is very specific to our generation. The next generations, Z and Y, they lean towards software and games. Contrary to us, we spent time in more basic ways: riding bicycles, watching races, drooling in front of beautiful cars... And that’s how it began. And when I started collecting them, which was around fifteen years ago, I wanted to get those very two cars of my childhood that got me in the game. I now have a 1975 911, obviously not brown, but I do have one! And I acquired five years ago a BMW 3.0 CSI.

I also said to myself that I wanted to get one Porsche of each generation, not necessarily the most expensive ones, but more the iconic ones, like the 356 and the F model. But it gets addictive, every time I say to myself “You know what, I’m going to replace that one with a better one”… but then I am never able to sell them. I get very sentimentally attached to each and every one. They all have a story. It’s been quite difficult to get rid of them. They started to accumulate. At some point I think I will have to let go of some because it’s getting too much. It’s a full time Job. Most of them are getting renovated in our workshop, which we do professionally, as per Porsche standards. Even though some are bought quite restored, there still is some cosmetic work to do as we have to put them back in their original shape.

Photography: Sami Joe Mansour

What is a day like in the life of Assaad Raphael as a man, father, car collector and CEO of Porsche in Lebanon? What is it like to be dealing on a daily basis with the business of Porsche?

Well, let’s forget about what’s happening in Lebanon for a moment, I usually come to the office with a big smile on my face. I like what I do. I’m 100% involved in what I do. I like to roam in the workshop, look at what’s happening at all times, take care of customers and their cars, solve employee problems… etc. I find that I naturally fit in a family of people. We do not operate in a vertically managed way. I like to be close to everyone in the company. I have invested a lot in Porsche in the past 20 years, and that investment makes sense to me because we firstly are associated to the brand. Secondly, we believe in the brand, and we live it every day. This is how I justify my twenty year investment in Porsche. That’s how I would sum it up.

As you know Porsche is on racetracks everywhere around the world, it’s very exciting to deal with the business of Porsche, to follow the evolution of the models and the performance of our sportscars. They are very innovative; they develop a lot of technologies and it’s interesting to see them introduce these technologies on the racetracks. We’re always eager to see what’s going on and what the future cars will bring to our roster.

It’s very exciting to go to the conferences and learn about what’s coming next, meet people from around the world, mingle with them. You know Porsche is a very big community.

Porsche produces over 300,000 cars a year… it’s not a huge number compared to other car makers. But the fan base is enormous, and Porsche Clubs are the examples of the Porsche fan base. If I am not mistaken, I think that the Porsche Club of America (PCA-California Central Coast Region) has over 100,000 members.

Is it partly because of Magnus Walker? Did he influence and grow the community there?

Yes maybe, a bit, but the Porsche club of America has been active since the 50s, you know, during the 50s, people like James Dean, and other superstars were all driving Porsches on the racetracks, and Porsche was very keen to be present in that racing market. They developed cars specifically for the US races.

Photography: Christian Catafago

What challenges did you have to overcome in your field and any tips on how to overcome them? Can you think of a time in your career that was a make-or-break moment? Any decision that you had to take that would shift the future of your career? How do you deal with such a decision?

You know what, no! In my career with Porsche, there was no make-or-break moment. It was perpetual evolution because we were all-in with all our hearts, truly! We never thought of separating, never thought of not investing. It was always looking forward to what’s coming next. This is the spirit around here. And this comes because I look at it not as a purely business model, but I look at it as a passion… and again I come back to why I hold a collection of cars, and why I can’t sell any of these cars.

Photography: Porsche Centre Lebanon

Can you tell us more about your latest project, the Bahamamama?

The Bahamamama is a fantastic project; it’s an ongoing one as we have a lot of plans for it. One of them is to take shape pretty soon. We are participating in the Mille Miglia UAE. It’s the first time that the famous Mille Miglia race in Italy will take place outside of Italy, and they chose to go to the UAE. It’s a race that starts in Dubai and ends in Abu Dhabi, while crossing Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah. I’m excited that we have enrolled in the race. It was supposed to happen back in February, a month ago, but again, due to the pandemic the race was postponed until next November. I have plans to participate with my son! It’s four days of racing… obviously it’s not a rally or a full-fledge race. It’s more like a gentleman’s race. It’s on the road, and classic certified cars will participate at the Mille Miglia. It is very exciting to be part of this experience.

And what are the requirements and specifications for the cars?

The car has to be of a certain era and if I’m not mistaken it has to belong to a model car that took part in at least one edition of the Mille Miglia in Italy from 1927 to 1957. Also, you can’t use cars that are above the production year 1957.

Photography: Sami Joe Mansour

Any plans or projects you are working on for the near future?

Yes of course… We have more projects coming up. One of them involves two Lebanese designers, David and Nicolas. I guess it’s about to be revealed this year. The project has been in the making for the past three years, the car has been worked on here, at our center, it was then sent to Italy, and both David and Nicolas were very much involved. I’m fond of these guys, and we thought that we should come up with an automotive piece of design. I hope it will see the light of day during 2022. We also have two quite valuable cars under restoration. We are working hard to bring them back to their original shape and maintain their value.

Photography: Christian Catafago

Is restoring cars a hobby or part of Porsche Centre Lebanon? Do you offer this service to any individual with a classic Porsche? What are the requirements?

It’s part of Porsche.

Porsche Germany, the manufacturer, is very keen on aligning all the interested dealers in classic restoration to a classic partnership program, which sets the standard of Porsche and restoration all over the world. We are happy to be part of this network, and they support us with technical aspects, the parts, etc. Actually they are also re-manufacturing parts of the 50s and 60s. At some point, 80% of all Porsche cars ever produced will still be running on the streets. They are very much keen on making this goal happen, and we relate to it the same way. We try to promote that through classic rides and through Porsche Clubs. We try to promote the ownership and use of classic cars. Because I think that cars should not be stored and looked at, they should be driven and enjoyed on the tarmac… where they should be.

Photography: Jihad Makhlouf

Tell us about your car collection, do you have a favorite? How do you pick your cars?

Actually, I do have a favorite: the 2011 GT3 RS 4.0. This is what I consider the modern classic. I think that this car is fantastic. It has 500 hp and runs on a 4.0 liters engine. It’s the biggest Mezger engine, and it still offers this very much raw feeling in terms of driving. This car delivers a thrill like no other. As for the classic cars, I really do enjoy driving the 1973 2.4 S. Which is the second class after the RS. The RS has 210 hp, while this one has 190 and it drives fantastically well. You really feel like you are driving a true sportscar of that era.

Photography: Roger Moukarzel

How do you pass on your knowledge and love for cars to your children? And do you even do that?

Well, I have managed to do that. I was telling you that the younger generation are not very much into cars, but yet it also seems like there is an interest in cars somewhere to be found. When I started tackling this with my kids, they were very interested at the time. And I keep entertaining this because both of them have their little collection of theirs. Amongst my collection, I have allocated to everyone his own car. My son has a 1994 Porsche 964, which is his date of birth. And my daughter has a 1996 993, which is also her year of birth. They are excited about them, and my son actually drives it. His car lives in Dubai as does he. He takes it out on the weekends, and I was so happy hearing him say last time that he would ride an hour outside of Dubai. It’s his therapy he says, “It gives me really great satisfaction.”

Photography: Sami Joe Mansour

Do you see Tesla as a fierce competitor? Do you agree with Tesla’s valuation today?

There’s a difference between Tesla the car company and Tesla the tech company. Elon Musk has definitely disrupted the industry and still does, but Tesla for me is a Tech company, it’s not a car manufacturing company. I’ve always thought about Tesla as very technical in terms of battery, in terms of innovation, in terms of vision, because Elon Musk has a clear vision, which started what,  ten years ago, and was ahead of anyone else. He wants to do self-driving cars, puts satellites around the Earth to provide worldwide internet. He wants to do the hyperloop, which is something that you see in movies. But I think that as far as car manufacturing, when it comes to Mercedes-Benz, and the Audi and Ford of this world, they’ve been manufacturing cars for a 100 years at least. And these people know the ergonomics, the suspensions, the breaking, the security, the safety, and I think, in the future, these companies will catch up in terms of technology; actually they are already getting there. Porsche has announced that in 2030 80% of their cars will be electric, and believe me if they say so, it’s happening. Tesla was there when no one was there, that’s why Tesla has brand equity in terms of electric cars today. But I think everyone else is catching up, and quickly. If you drive the Taycan, you would realize how much technology is put in it. It’s not only batteries, it’s about what goes around the driver and the driving experience.

 Could we ever see in the future a fully electric 911?

I don’t know. If a 911 is ever hybrid, I guess Porsche will use the technology of the electric motor to give it more power. It would be a complementary power unit.

Photography: Christian Catafago

Are you into motorsports? If yes, what are your favorite teams/drivers and why?

Not really into motorsports, I watch Formula 1. I watch rallies. I follow, but I was never myself, a motorsports driver. I did although race on track, with Porsche and other cars, and I really enjoyed going to the North Pole and doing the camp4 and camp4S which is the ice driving school of Porsche, which is something that is out of this world. My first participation in rally, would be the upcoming Mille Miglia in the UAE.

There are rumors that Porsche will be in Formula 1 alongside Red Bull, maybe providing then engines to them, do you have anything to say about that?

I can’t comment on this. What you read in the news is what I read in the news. But I hope so, Porsche has had a fantastic track record of racing.

Photography: Christian Catafago

Tell us more about the Porsche community in Lebanon. How important is a car community? How can Nineteen Fifty be of service and what role do you think we should play?

Yes, there is a big Porsche community in Lebanon. We really enjoy a lot of success with the Porsche Club, which is of about 250 active members. When there is a ride there really is great participation. It’s very organized. And we do have a smaller group of classic Porsche rides as well. I think that as for Nineteen Fifty, there should be some kind of synergy, between you and the Porsche Club. We should probably consider a collaboration which we can always facilitate. The Porsche Club is an independent entity, it does not belong to Porsche, we do not manage it, but we are like godfathers of the Porsche Club. We are there to support them, help them and give them ideas. One nice idea for you would be a collaboration.

Anything you would like to add, discuss?

As I told you, I am a fierce believer in classic cars, I am happy to see anyone doing anything around them. I would always support. And if there is anything or any project I can help with, you let me know.

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