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Genius or Anomaly? The Porsche 911 at 60.

10 August 2023

Porsche 911 Carrera 4S Coupé und Porsche 911 2.0 Coupé (Baujahr 1964)

It wins races, it wins rallies, and you can take it shopping without worrying about reliability, visibility or luggage capacity. There is nothing quite like the Porsche 911 and this year – the marque turned 60 years old! 

Anyone who cares about the sensation of driving, those unique feelings that come from the interaction between human and machine, can drive a 911 for the first time and not emerge with a huge grin whatever their feelings about the 911 before getting behind that iconic bonnet. They may admit, perhaps even ruefully, that they get it now because to drive a 911, pretty much any 911, is to love the 911. That moment redefines what a car should be and can make those gorgeous V12 Italian supercars, lusted after in childhood, seem too flamboyant, too complex and too compromised. A 911 is enough car and usually enough car is, well, enough.

That’s why Stuttgart’s rear-engined wonder has been winning plaudits, awards and magazine group tests since it was announced at the Frankfurt Show on September 12th, 1963, as the 901. It quickly became ‘911’, however, after Peugeot claimed rights to numbers with a zero in the middle and, because Porsche had no time to tool for badges of a different number, they renamed it 911. Iconic names are seldom created so pragmatically, without a focus group in sight. That’s appropriate, though, because the 911 is above all a pragmatic car, a package created by choosing the optimum layout to package 2 adults and 2 children, then gradually engineering out the issues caused by having the engine behind the rear axle. That engineering has worked though, a 911 variant has won the Monte Carlo Rally, the Le Mans 24 hours and the Dakar Rally; to win one of those outright is an achievement, and to win all three, and be a reliable everyday car, is a phenomenon.

Rear-engined cars make sense as low-powered small cars where the weight behind the axle is, thus, relatively small and packaging is a priority. The advantages in small cars are clear; a larger passenger area, lighter steering (before PAS became the norm), ease of maintenance and you leave the noise behind you. The success of the VW Beetle, Fiat 500 and even the potential success of the Hillman Imp proved that, but no other manufacturer has made a rear engine layout the class of the field on a large or performance car. Various Tatras and Alpines, the Tucker Torpedo, the Corvair, or even DeLorean’s very high-profile adventure in car making, have their place in history but none of them have lasted anywhere near sixty years. None have become the icon the 911 has.

The right 911 (and there are many from elegant GTs to all-out racers) with the right driver can also humble any supercar on the road or track, yet you can see out of it (and that’s not true of far too many supercars) and enter and exit with ease. It is a unique machine, never successfully copied, from a manufacturer with a singular perspective on both the design and construction of cars. Although most 911s have been among the fastest cars of their era, Porsche has always prioritized building a car that will function first and foremost as a car, a device enabling people to move themselves around quickly and efficiently, rather than a compromised status symbol. It has been, and remains, a fantastically successful recipe whether that success is measured in profit, sales, race victories, the longevity of the concept or even the reliability of individual high mileage cars; a 911 gets better the more you use it, how brilliant is that? 

copyright: Historisches Archiv Porsche/Mcklein

Ferdinand Porsche was an Austrian design engineer who, in 1901 when just 26, designed a hybrid electric car driven by a petrol generator that now seems very far-sighted. He was appointed Technical Director of Mercedes (Daimler) in 1923 and created the fabulous SSK among others. In 1931 he founded an eponymous design agency and designed Auto Union’s fearsome sixteen-cylinder GP car as well as Hitler’s KDF or Strength Through Joy Car, the Volkswagen Beetle. Since Porsche morphed from a design consultancy to a manufacturer in 1948, when the first 356 was announced, they have ploughed an individual furrow which has seen them grow to become one of the most profitable car manufacturers in the world (operating profit in 2021 was 5.3 billion Euros) and nurture a brand image second to none. You drive a Porsche because you want to drive a Porsche, not because you can’t afford a Ferrari. Porsche even got close to buying their spiritual parent, the VW Group, in 2009 before the order was restored and the VW Group purchased Porsche in 2012, formalising the link that had existed between these two separate financial entities since their inceptions.

The first post-war Porsche prototype, 356/1, was mid-engined. Engineered by Ferry Porsche (who had worked with his father Ferdinand on the Beetle) it used Beetle components turned 180 degrees for better weight distribution and a body designed by Austrian Erwin Komenda, which set the template for Porsche styling. The production 356, however, reverted to using modified Beetle mechanics in their original rear-engine layout for reasons of packaging (because Porsche felt a vestigial rear seat was needed even in a sports car) and cost.

Porsche 911 Carrera 4S Coupé und Porsche 911 2.0 Coupé (Baujahr 1964)

When Ferdinand ‘Butzi’ Porsche (Ferry’s son) came to work on what became the 911, that same decision was made purely on packaging grounds because the new car didn’t use significant numbers of Beetle-sourced components and featured a new 6-cylinder 2-litre ‘boxer’ engine. Ferry had decreed the new car would be better than the 356 in all areas, performance, refinement, luggage accommodation and driving pleasure but instead of starting with a new concept (as they would do with the 928 some years later) Butzi and the team elected to refine the recipe they knew well a rear-engine air-cooled sports car. The 901 was the result, produced and developed after Komenda attempted to change some aspects of the shape laid down by Butzi but was overruled.

Porsche developed it relentlessly, however, and the basic structure survived until the last air-cooled 993 variant was produced in 1998. The replacement 996 was only the second all-new 911 and retained the unusual rear-engined layout and flat-six engine but added water-cooling to meet the emissions regulations then being introduced.

Porsche 996 Carrera Millennium

There has been one entirely new platform since, the 991 which emerged in 2011 and a myriad of carefully developed variations ranging from track-focused supercars to the new off-road oriented Daker model, which is based on the 992. Over 1.2 million 911s have now been made and it’s not stopping anytime soon. The greatest sports car in the world remains what it has always been, a usable car with supercar abilities that offers drivers a unique and super-connected driving experience. 

 

The 911 generations:

No credible adult can say 911, you have to say 993 or 991.2 GT3 because, while Porsche has offered a car called 911 for sixty years, they have continuously developed it so each generation, sub-generation or homologation special has its own Porsche Type number, usually beginning with 9. If you want to know the detailed differences between a 964, 934 and 992 there are specialist books to cater for your particular proclivities, if you’re strong enough to lift them, but here are the main numbers so you can at least nod sagely when the bar room chat turns to 911s. 

1963: Type 901, the legend is born. 

1973: The G series, numberless sweet spot.

1975: Type 930, the whale tail blows hard. 

1986: 959, a 911-based Group B weapon made road legal. 

1988: Type 964, the 911 goes 4WD.

1993: Type 993, air cooling’s last hurrah. 

1997: Type 996, liquid-cooled efficiency. 

2004: Type 997, the round lights return. 

2011: Type 991, my PAS’s electric. 

2019: Type 992, wide body for all. 

Picture credit: Porsche AG. 

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