Written by Aaron McKenzie, Photography by Hagop Kalaidjian
Nov 9, 2022
Back in the late 1980s, Howard Schultz made a bet: Americans were tired of drinking the same old coffee. Everyone, he reasoned, has their own unique preferences and, as incomes rose, people would be willing to pay a premium to tailor their lives – and their caffeinated beverages – to their own individual tastes. Thus was the Starbucks empire born.
Across the world, as prosperity spreads, a similar trend consistently takes hold: consumers are eager to pay a little extra – and sometimes a lot more – to assert their individuality through the clothes they wear, the vacations they take, and the cars they drive. That’s where Will Lee comes in.
Lee is the founder and manager of the PTSRS (“Paint to Sample RennSport”) Instagram page, which aims to document the growing numbers of bespoke – or, at least, rare – factory colors adorning Porsche cars nowadays. Much like a coffee order at Starbucks, Porsche owners are kitting out their cars in color combinations that would have been unimaginable a generation ago, and Lee – a self-professed data nerd – is here to document as many of these cars as he can. In the process, Lee’s page has become an invaluable resource for Porsche fans and color fanatics worldwide.
In the following interview, Marqued’s Aaron McKenzie sat down with Lee to talk about the history of Porsche’s Paint to Sample program, the impetus for Lee’s Instagram journey, and the way in which it all influenced the purchase of his own first Porsche.
Aaron McKenzie: Let’s start by assuming that readers have never heard of Porsche’s Paint to Sample (PTS) program. What is it, and how did it come about?
Will Lee: For a long time, Porsches have been associated with just a few colors, such as Guards Red, Racing Yellow, silver, white, black, etcetera. And as a result, it was sort of like a self-fulfilling prophecy where you aspire to own a white Porsche or a red Porsche because that’s what you know about. And car companies and consumers – especially of high-end cars – tend to err on the side of conservatism when it comes to colors because of things like resale value. The joke was that no one would buy a unique color because it's a unique color – not necessarily ugly, just…unique. Nowadays, people pay a premium for unique colors.
But if you look at brochures for Porsches in the 1960s and 1970s, they offered a lot more cool colors, almost to the point that they didn't need to offer Paint to Sample because their standard palette was already pretty decently packed. So people are perfectly capable of picking cars in diverse colors, but the trends go waves.
Even back in the 1970s, though, as I understand it, Porsche had this program called Sonderwunsch, which translates as “special wishes.” It was a very small department that focused on creating more personalized Porsches, through which – if you jumped over all the right hurdles – you could get a car painted in a different color or with custom leather, for example. But very few people took advantage of this, likely because Porsche didn’t exactly promote it due to the logistical nightmare involved. After all, if any car was going to be a Paint to Sample color, it had to be taken off the assembly line just before the paint phase, shipped to a third-party facility, painted, and then brought back into the assembly line.
Even as recently as 2016, when I started the PTSRS account, the whole Paint to Sample program at Porsche was almost nonexistent compared to what it is today. It was very much an “if you know, you know” type of deal. Even a lot of dealers didn't know how the program worked and, if they did, they might have disincentivized you from picking the Paint to Sample option, because back then the process was a lot more cumbersome. It wasn't like you could go on a configurator and say, "I want that color for my next Porsche.” Let’s say you had an allocation for a certain car. If you wanted a Paint to Sample color, you probably couldn't even order it for the car allotted to you because your allocation had to fall into a certain time of the year wherein Porsche would produce Paint to Sample cars. This obviously wasn’t good for dealers because it meant they’d have to delay your order by a long time and dealers only get paid when the owner takes delivery of the car.
Nowadays, Porsche actively encourages you to use their configurator to choose from the list of some 200 colors. Back then, however, it was actually a confidential list that dealers were not allowed to distribute to their customers. It was in one corner of their portal where dealers even had a hard time finding that list of colors.
The reason why Porsche is now heavily marketing this whole Paint to Sample program is that they can finally process the amount of demand they've been getting. Before then, it was almost intentionally not marketed because it was such a logistical production nightmare for them, but they were able to revamp their production process to be able to do more Paint to Sample more cars per day. With that ability to increase the supply came an increase in demand. In fact, there's so much interest in this now that even if they increased their prices, there would still be demand.
Aaron McKenzie: And for those who aren't familiar with the PTSRS Channel, how do you describe the idea behind this Instagram feed and what was the impetus for starting it?
Will Lee: I started this page back in February 2016 to document as many Paint to Sample 991 GT3 RS cars as possible. At the time, I was just getting my feet wet in the Porsche world and I started going on Rennlist. I found a thread that was talking about Paint to Sample colors for the 911 GT3 RS. I never knew this kind of option existed but here I was seeing people taking delivery of all these GT3 RSs in colors that I’d never seen before.
Back then, the GT3 RS was only available in four colors: White, GT Silver Metallic, Lava Orange, and Ultra Violet. Any other color, you couldn't find on the configurator or anything like that. But here were these people on Rennlist taking delivery of their British Racing Green or Brewster Green cars, and I thought, "This is super cool and no one knows about it."
Being a data nerd, I wanted to get information on as many of these Paint to Sample GT3 RSs as possible, so I started the PTSRS Instagram account because I found a lot of these cars on Instagram, usually because some sales guy at, say, McKenna Porsche would post a picture of a Miami Blue GT3 RS that was being delivered. They weren't really trying to promote it but rather just saying, "Oh, hey, here's a cool car."
My goal was to create a page where I could have a living diary of all these cars that I found. That's how the page PTSRS – “Paint to Sample RS” – was formed. Since then, PTSRS has evolved into a community that encourages folks to be a little more creative in speccing their Porsches, and the main theme is around the color.
Aaron McKenzie: At what point did you realize that the PTSRS Instagram page had taken on a life of its own?
Will Lee: Back when I started this page in February 2016, I was a college senior and this was initially a way for me to avoid working on my senior thesis. I never expected that the feed would actually gain many followers. I remember I was in my dorm room with my roommates soon after I started the PTSRS page. We were all chilling and I remember looking at my phone and realizing I’d hit 1,000 followers. I was like, “Guys, 1,000 people are following this!”
Within six months or so, I hit about 50,000 followers. I remember thinking, “Gosh, people are messaging me from all across the world. They're showing me pictures of their cars. This is crazy.” Now we have over 150,000 followers from all over the world, but if you scroll back in the feed you can probably find that post I wrote saying, “Thank you for 1,000 followers!”
Aaron McKenzie: In those last six and a half years, how has this page changed your relationship to the Porsche world?
Will Lee: This page has really allowed me to connect with both enthusiasts and owners of Porsches – and those two terms are generally not mutually exclusive in the car world. Prior to starting this page, I felt that in order to connect or have a conversation with the owners of any high-end car – like Porsche or Lamborghini or Ferrari – you had to own one. And that's how it was for a while online with the forums. Take Rennlist, where most of the people put the car they own in their profile signature: "I’ve got a 2002 911 Turbo." It's all based around being an owner first. Rennlist obviously will claim that they aren’t prohibiting non-owners, but it certainly is the culture.
Then Instagram came along and sort of democratized the car experience, in that for several years I was running a Porsche page but I didn't own a Porsche at the time. But through this page, I felt like I was part of the Porsche community even without owning one at the time. I could connect with young folks like me, folks who aspire to own a Porsche, but also connect with people who own multiple Porsches who are willing to share stories about their cars, and they're willing to explain to us why they picked the car, why they picked it in this color, all the processes that they had gone through. Some of them even would tell me about their life stories, how they ended up owning these cars. I realized that, in the Porsche community, owners want young enthusiasts to get one.
Aaron McKenzie: Do you have any sense of how many PTS colors are available and what the limitations are on that? Can I really get any color I want?
Will Lee: Porsche offers two tiers of Paint to Sample, the first of which is their regular Paint to Sample program, which I believe offers around 170 colors. These are pre-approved colors, in the sense that Porsche has already tested the feasibility and knows what’s going to work well on all the different materials of the car.
The other program is called “Paint to Sample Plus,” and this is how you can get a truly unique color. For this process, you essentially send Porsche a sample of your desired paint color on a placard or a panel. They take that sample and apply the color on a new car to test for its feasibility. Once it's been approved, then you pay for not only the privilege of having your own color, but you pay for the testing costs as well. I don't have the exact number, but it's almost approximately double the cost of regular Paint to Sample, and it also adds to the timeline because you have to go back and forth with Porsche.
Aaron McKenzie: To what extent did the PTSRS project influence you as you moved toward your own first Porsche?
Will Lee: For a long time my dream car was white. And then I realized, “Oh gosh, white is boring to me. Black is boring to me. Gray is boring to me.”
The first Porsche I drove was a 991, after which I thought, “Okay, I want a naturally-aspirated Porsche.” Obviously, Caymans are a lot less expensive than a 911, which makes it a great gateway into the Porsche world. I also loved the style of the 981 generation of the Cayman. It just looked so perfect. PTSRS influenced me by inspiring a desire for a special color, but Paint to Sample on Caymans is super hard to find, and so the next best alternative is to find a standard color that's on the rarer side and not just your standard white or silver or Guards Red.
My Cayman is Anthracite Brown Metallic, so it looks gray for the most part. But when the sun hits, it's a nice shade of brown. The problem is, no one ever bought them new in that color. When I was looking for my car, I could go on CarGurus and, at any given time, there would be about 400 Caymans available nationwide – and that’s including 987 and 981 cars. Out of those, there might be four or five in either Mahogany Metallic or Anthracite Brown Metallic, Porsche’s two brown colors. I finally found my car at a Jaguar Land Rover dealer in Las Vegas, and only because I was on a nationwide search every single day for months.
Aaron McKenzie: Do you worry that this focus on color is perhaps detracting from a car’s original purpose – i.e. to be driven?
Will Lee: There’s certainly a healthy balance to be had. Porsches are all about driving. I don't necessarily take my car out to the track but I love the performance, the sound, and the handling. But it was my passion for these colors that led me, first, to getting my Cayman and now to learning more about the mechanical side of this thing, too. Usually, it’s the other way around: you buy a Porsche for the performance and then everything else usually comes second. But for me it was the opposite.
People are definitely going out of their way to try to be as unique as possible with the Paint to Sample program, which is great, but sometimes, I guess it could lead people to think a little too much about individuality versus just driving the damn car.
Aaron McKenzie: What's been the most unexpected part of this project?
Will Lee: Overwhelmingly, it's the people that I've met. Before I had this page, I had no reason to go to LA, but now I go to LA to meet with friends, as well as to Europe and other parts of the US. I’ve met friends that I regularly talk with and we don't even always talk about Porsches. We talk about our personal lives, or just go for a drive.
And it’s been really cool to have people tell me, "Hey, before I discovered your page, I only bought my cars in silver, but you've convinced me to purchase my GT3 in olive green." And this is less about me than it is about helping others deepen their relationship with their car, because now it’s their own and it’s a little different, which might make them appreciate it a little more.
Join the PTSRS Instagram community to add some color to your feed (@PTSRS).
Aaron McKenzie is a Los Angeles based writer, photographer, and producer with an eye for all things automotive. You can see more from him by checking out his Instagram (@aaronwmckenzie).
Hagop Kalaidjian is a photographer, filmmaker, and creative director, and you can find more of his work on Instagram (@hagop).
Porsche Heritage Gallery photos by Ashton Staniszewski. You can see more of his work here.
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