History of the rear-engine wonder
It's been 40 years since the first Porsche 911 rolled out of the factory. For a single model to remain in production so long is a rare achievement, even more so considering that the 911 has maintained its character throughout. Someone who'd lost their memory after seeing the first model would instantly recognize the latest 911, should they suddenly regain their faculties. In terms of the 911, this is not a bad quality.
Tracking New Ground
In 1964, the 911 was a big step up for the small Porsche company. It had sold 73,303 examples of the highly regarded Type 356 four-cylinder sports cars, but by the early 1960s this "bathtub" Porsche was getting a little long in the tooth and had reached the end of its development cycle.
The then-new 911 retained some traits from the 356, such as its rear-mounted, air-cooled engine and high quality of assembly. But almost no parts were carried over to the new model. The 911 had an all-new, 2-liter, 130-hp six-cylinder engine with a single overhead cam per bank. (A less expensive 912 model followed, which used an updated version of the old 356 engine.) A five-speed transaxle took the power to the ground, and the fully independent suspension was a completely fresh design.
The steel body, styled by Ferdinand Alexander "Butzi" Porsche (son of company president Ferry Porsche), maintained visual links to the 356 and its Porsche ancestry. The 911 proved to be indecently quick for its engine size, but expensive. For American drivers, it was a revelation. It cost as much as a more powerful Corvette, but buyers soon began to appreciate its superior roadholding and attention to detail.
The 911 was a major success right from the start. It proved to be a competent race and rally machine, as well as a comfortable sports car with two tiny rear seats, and the precision of a fine watch. What was not to like? But Porsche never stood still and new models were quickly added. The convertible Targa model was introduced in 1965 and the hotter 160-hp 911S two years later.
911 Grows Up
Although the 911 engine continued to grow over the years, the model that became an instant classic was the 1972 911 Carrera RS 2.7. Porsche had to build at least 400 of these ultra-high performance models in order for them to be legal for endurance racing. They featured flared fenders to cover wider wheels and tires, along with nose and tail spoilers and a 210-hp version of the 2.7-liter 911 engine, now featuring fuel injection.
The Carrera was put on a strict diet by removing sound deadening and replacing some metal body panels with fiberglass copies. All were painted in non-metallic colors and featured a "Carrera" script on the sides. This model was so well balanced that it's still considered one of the best handling Porsches ever built. Clean examples now fetch around $100,000. Only 1,580 were built, of which 55 were race-only Carrera RSR versions. The Carrera RSR took over international GT racing, starting a dominance that Porsche has continued to this day.
Further Carrera models followed, but they reverted to luxury interiors and never approached the lightweight of the RS 2.7. Porsche compensated by adding more powerful engines, resulting in the first turbocharged street sports car, the 3.0-liter 1975 Porsche 930. This road rocket had 260 hp and wide wheel flares to cover serious tires and rims. For the first time, a 911 version was capable of outrunning Corvettes and Ferraris in a straight line, without having to wait for a corner to come up!
Porsche followed-up the success of the 930 with two full-race versions, the 934 and 935. The 934 was a customer-version racing car for the GT class, while the 935 was a wilder version that resembled a 911 on steroids. It produced more than 750 hp and won both the World Manufacturer's Championship and the Le Mans 24-hour race. With the aid of turbocharging, Porsche now built the most powerful GT racing cars in the world.
Changing of the Guard
The success of Porsche's racing program led to the development of the most exciting 911 version ever, the 959. This 1987 model vaguely resembled a 911 from the outside, but underneath it packed four-wheel-drive, a 450-hp twin-turbo engine and a six-speed transmission. It was more expensive than a Ferrari and faster as well, and racing versions won the grueling Paris-Dakar Rally. Only 283 were built, and they were not legal for sale in the United States (although a few individuals with Bill Gates-grade bank accounts managed to sneak them in). This project led to the introduction of the Carrera 4, an all-wheel-drive version of the 911 that came out in 1989.
Alas, the era of the air-cooled 911 was running out. Water cooling allowed more power and cleaner emissions, and Porsche had been using water-cooled heads on their racing cars for some time. So in 1997 Porsche rolled out an all-new 911, based on a water-cooled flat six producing 296 hp. This was soon boosted by a turbo version to 420 hp and the new 911 once again wore the mantle of one of the fastest sports cars in the world.
In recent years Porsche has branched out, with models such as the entry-level Boxster and the Cayenne SUV. Surprisingly enough, this high-performance SUV is now the company's top seller, but for European sports car enthusiasts, the 911 is still synonymous with Porsche performance.
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