50 years of Porsche 911 – Story of an icon

Porsche 911 (964) Carrera

“Porsche 911” – listen to that. The expression sits like granite in the human culture, at least among the millions of people around the globe that have the least interest in cars. This year it becomes 50 and I believe it’s some sort of a duty to acknowledge the jubilee.  

The 911 has become what it seems an eternal element in Porsche’s line-up and stands for something utterly unique in the sports car offerings of the world’s manufacturers.  But the rear-engined sports car hasn’t been uncontroversial. It’s been deemed insidious, dangerous and antique to the level that Porsche has tried to kill it off on several occasions already back in the 1970s. But the attempts to replace the old model proved impossible as enthusiasts got together in an outcry that forced a continued production and development of the car.

The fact is that the 911 already from the start 50 years ago has offered qualities and abilities that have given it a perpetual place among the world’s best sports cars, despite that its base technology got 35 years old before it was replaced by an all-new 911 that saw the light of day in 1998.

The model has always functioned as an every-day vehicle all year at the same time as it has managed respectable lap-times at a racetrack for those who have been able to manage its distinctive road manners. Its superior build quality combined with excellent brakes and astonishing efficiency with a proper driver behind the wheel, have also led to great racing successes. These characteristics pigeonholed the 911 in 1963 and keep doing it today 50 years on.

The original 911 was unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in the fall of 1963 and the car was intended as a successor to the four-cylinder, VW Beetle-based mother Porsche – the 356. Due to the higher demands on safety and ride quality at that time, the 911 became larger, heavier and considerably more comfortable than the 356. The new car kept the basic concept of the VW Type 1 with an air-cooled boxer engine in the back, but it now sported six cylinders and over-head camshafts. All technical relation to Hitler’s old people’s car was thereby lost.

356porsche_911_19641

Above from the left: A 356 Coupé from the late 50s next to the very first 911, premiered in 1963.

The 911 was offered with several outputs from the start and quickly span off into several variants like the semi open-toped Targa and the four-cylinder entry-level 912. At first the flat six incorporated two liters but grew steadily through the years due to the increasing demands on more power as the years went by. At its peak, the engine offered as much as 4.0 liters.

The original 911 couldn’t have lived so long without several updates and improvements that took place over the years. The first serious update came in 1969 as the wheelbase increased for more humble road manners. This updated version is called the ”B-Series” in Porsche circles.

A more extensive facelift came in 1974, with revised bodywork, larger bumpers and a few general technical improvements. Also at this point the base engine grew to 2.7 liters. This generation is usually called the “930” and would stay in production until 1989. In 1975 the famous Turbo was introduced, a supercar that was immediately glorified with an almost supernatural aura created around it. The Turbo was a real “widowmaker”, infamous for its fickleness and its toxic road manners on the limit. Very few people in the world were said to have the ability to fully master a 911 Turbo on a race track.

porsche_911_1978_sc3

Above: A 911 SC from 1978, the base model of the time with a 3 litre Engine.

In 1983 a full Convertible was introduced, certainly a life-saver on the American market. Watch the 80’s drama Against all odds where Jeff Bridges has a hard time in his red 911 Convertible against James Woods in a black Ferrari 308 GTS, the two tangled up in a raging playboy race along the country roads in the hills around Los Angelses. In 1984 the name of the base model was changed to 911 Carrera 3.2 which included a last minor refresh of the “930” before a new (well..) 911 took over.

The 911 codenamed 964 showed up in 1989, at first in a four wheel drive version called the Carrera 4. The “normal”, rear-wheel drive Carrera 2 came the following year. The limited development budget was noticed by the fact that the 964 was no more than a substantial facelift of the 930, and not an entirely new car.  The body received more aerodynamic lines and an electrically adjustable spoiler took place on the rear hood. Additionally, the classic flat six got a twin spark set-up (just like old Alfa Romeos) and increased volume that now reached 3.6 liters. Coil springs replaced the old-fashioned torsion beams underneath. Just like before, the 964 was offered in several versions like the Coupé, Targa, Convertible and Turbo, as well as the race-bred RS and the retro, open-top Speedster.

porsche_911_964_carrera_2_1porsche_911_964_carrera_2_cabriolet1

Above: A 964 Coupé next to a Convertible.

But the platform, sections of the body and the ancient dashboard were basically the same as before. The 911 now started to look a bit old and had difficulties to compete with modern sports cars like for instance the fabulous Honda NSX. Economic difficulties, caused by an ineffective production and an ageing line-up, made the future of the 911 unsecure once again.

These severe problems forced the conservative brand to take extraordinary measures like modernizing the production line and investing in an all-new, cheaper sports car (the Boxter), as well as in one last overhaul of the old 911 – the most extensive ever. The 993 was thus born in 1993 and meant a huge step forward regarding design as well as safety and technical refinement.

A sweeping bodywork oozing of Porsche genes, refined engine electronics and a new , multi-link rear axle, made a considerable more appealing package than the dated 964. However, much of the original body, the air-cooled engine, the standing pedals and the antique (but most charming!) dashboard remained.

Porsche 911 (993) Carrera993-interior_1

Above: The incredibly successful and pretty 993 next to its enormously Classic interior.

In 1998 this never-ending story suddenly came to an end when, finally, an all-new 911 saw the light of day, a new sports car whose technical base was shared with the mid-engined and smaller Boxter that had been unveiled a year or so earlier. Of course, the enthusiasts were worried and the classic roofline was certainly gone, just like the last of the Beetle feeling that despite all had been there somewhere to the bitter end.

The new car – the 996 – was no doubt faithful to the original concept with a flat six in the rear. But it was larger than before, received a completely new engine with air-cooling and four valves per cylinder, as well as a completely new interior with modern ergonomics. In true 911 fashion, the standard Coupé was followed by a Convertible, Turbo and Targa, and a stripped-out and driver-focused version now called the GT3. Four-wheel drive was also offered throughout the program (not in the GT3, standard in the Turbo).

The public’s worry that the 911 was now dead was a copiously wrong assumption. 996 had all the qualities that have glorified the 911 since 1963. High quality with every-day and year-around usability in combination with race track competence and sensitive driver’s controls (chassis-steering-gearbox) that truly involved the driver in the action. Everything was there. At the same time, the 911 had now become hugely more civilized, comfortable and driveable.

996

Above: The all-new 996 from 1998

Compared with the 993, the harsh road manners on the limit had been honed and it was now a considerably safer car to drive at the limit. The 996 didn’t perhaps look all that exciting but no one could deny that it was still a hugely competent and usable sports car, just like a 911 has to be. Above all it became a sales success that filled Porsche’s coffers to the brink, which showed that they had put their bets on the right horse, with the 996 as well as with the Boxter.

The successor, the 997, was presented in 2004 and was a somewhat flashier figure with more classic attributes and obvious Porsche curves in its design. The 997 was not an entirely new car but an extensive facelift of the 996. The interior on the other hand was all-new with a strict layout that better echoed the image of the conservative German quality sports car.

997 continued the success that had commenced with the 996 and remained a benchmark to others to reach up to during its whole lifespan. But as the competition hardened from the likes of the wonderfully balanced Audi R8, the bar was raised and the 997 could later feel a tad “analogue” and traditional. For instance this was illuminated in a duel between the race-bred 911 GT3 RS and a Ferrari 458 Italia in a British magazine a few years ago.

Porsche 911 (997) Carrera S

Above the very succesful 997, a significantly updated 996 with a new more classic shape, new interior and refined technology.

The technical revolution at Ferrari and Porsche’s nearly maniacal strife for perfection of its products, at last led to the birth of the seventh 911 generation – the 991. Actually it was only the third all-new 911 since 1963!

991 was premiered at the Frankfurt motor show in September 2011, and not surprisingly the new car got a bit larger and more powerful, but also lighter and more fuel-efficient than the car it replaced.  The 997 had offered great proportions with good amounts of original archetypal Porsche in its lines. Those sensually curvaceous but also powerful shapes were replaced by a more out-stretched and coolly elegant posture than before. It is foremost the longer wheelbase that has changed the stance of the classic 911 shape.

But at a quick glance it still looks like nothing but a classic 911 which probably makes everyone except true Porsche fans to wonder what all the fuzz is about. But the fact that the 991 looks exactly like a Porsche 911 is surely exactly how the buyers want it.

So the new 991 has grown, but ambitious dieting with lots of aluminium has lowered the weight with as much as 50 kilos. The engine in the base version (Carrera) is basically the same unit as in the current Cayman S and therefore sports 3.4 litres and gives a healthy 350 ps, while the Carrera S uses the unit from the 997 which means 3.8 litres and 400 ps. Both are direct injected. The seven (!) speed manual is new and the already established seven-speed double clutch box (PDK) is optional. Thankfully, the slow-witted Tiptronic automatic is long gone!

The engines are not entirely new then, but modified to save fuel and diminish pollution. To achieve this Porsche has added a start/stop system and improved the aerodynamics of the body. Despite these measurements the 991 is faster than its predecessor, and I guess no one had expected anything else from a company like Porsche. Certainly the lap time around German Nürburg Ring has been improved and the new active “anti-sway bars” ought to be part of the explanation.

The interior is brand new and strongly inspired by the Panamera luxury sedan with its characteristic, sloping dash. The quality impression has been heightened at least two steps and there is still a strong Porsche taste to it all.

Expectedly, the 991 has spun off into more variants like the 4WD Carrera 4, a Convertible, a stripped-out GT3, a new Turbo and a Targa, and now we´re waiting for the top-end, mental GT2.

So the 911 is as strong as ever and still it can manage to function as an all-rounder like no other sports car. The eternal Porsche thus keeps its distinctiveness in the world of sports cars. How sweet that something is constant in our crazy world!

Filip Ericsson

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