Zuffenhausen recently celebrated production of the millionth 911. How the heck did that happen?
Let’s allow this one sink in for a moment. A million 911s. It’s a staggering achievement for a car that should never have lived as long, much less become the default ‘usable performance car’, given an inherently unbalanced mechanical layout considered retrograde even by mid-Sixties standards. Thought: could it have been a reaction to the original 911’s propensity to unexpectedly explore the unmetaled regions of the great outdoors that prompted Porsche to create the Cayenne? Because if the 911’s position at the pinnacle of the Weissach ziggurat suggests anything, it’s the unpredictable laws of unintended consequences.
When Ferry Porsche instigated the 901 programme at the tail-end of the 1950’s, he could hardly have envisaged a car cleaving broadly to its guiding principles being in production some sixty years later. Yet here we are, and while today’s 911 is somewhat akin to the archetypical woodman’s axe, it’s apparent that apart from the familiarity of the outer silhouette and some mechanical fundamentals, the current iteration really is as removed from the 1963 original now as any Macan or Panamera.
It’s likely that without Porsche’s commitment to motor sport, the 911’s aura would have been that much dimmer, its demise in 1980 assured and would now exist purely as a reminder of Porsche’s VW origins, rather than the talisman it has become. It was the demands of the racing programme which saw the flat six serially enlarged, saw the production 930 turbo model introduced, saw the ‘flatnose’ (beloved of city traders from London Wall to Wall Street), culminating in the tech-fest 959. Has there been a car as serially campaigned as the 911 in ever-more aggressive and digressive derivations? Has any been as successful, if only through sheer force of numbers?
Because the 356-series was based upon the VW layout, the idea of a car with a lightweight horizontally opposed six mounted aft of the rear axle was viewed as a logical progression, and within the performance envelope of the original 901/911, the car’s transverse torsion bar and semi-trailing arm rear suspension design was relatively untaxed by the flat-sixes initial power output. I say relatively, because shortly into the 911’s life, its wheelbase was lengthened to mitigate a decidedly hair-trigger handling balance.
Mitigate? Not quite, because the positioning of the car’s masses and the effect it had on the vehicle’s dynamics forced Zuffenhausen engineers to find ever more creative solutions to harness its inherently malign influence. That rear-biased layout meanwhile became the cornerstone of the 911’s mystique, the epicentre of the car’s mythology, a matter underlined by Autocar’s Andrew Frankel in a recent piece. “After a while, even that reputation for being tricky on the limit started to help. It marked out 911 owners as adventurers, skilled hands who laughed in the face of danger.”
Yes, it were the journalists wot done it. Their breathless injunctions of mastering the 911’s fearsome on-the-limit handling led to a what has become a rather tiresome culture of machismo which suffuses the model, culminating in generations of would be helmsmen dashing themselves against the unforgiving cliff-face of the Neunelfer’s dynamic envelope.
Some however were prepared to challenge the orthodoxy. In 1980, UK Journalist, Ian Fraser wrote in Car, “…the  SC places its driver in the position of having to concentrate unusually hard to ensure that little is left to chance.” He went on to question the car’s appeal, saying, “…if I were parting with my money I really would have to convince myself that I could live with the contradictions that it poses, that I would be content to accept the escalation of its outdatedness… For my part I don’t think I could…”
Nine years on, amid the height of its yuppie heyday, fellow scribe Russell Bulgin wrote, “Everybody knows that backing off in the middle of a fast corner invites trouble in a 911. But have you tried not doing it? …My natural defence mechanism goes into a state of high alert in a 911. So much so that I can’t enjoy it fully… Instead I’ll take a 944 turbo. Which is of course the Porsche nobody tries to oversell – and leave the 911 to the real men. Men with something to prove, if only to themselves.”
To chart the model’s evolution in detail would get me into trouble with the wordcount police and most likely bore you senseless, but I’ll attempt a brief overview. Following the longer wheelbase body in 1969, the next most obvious change came with the fitment of US-style 5-mph bumpers, but apart from wider rear wheelarches to accommodate a larger contact patch and ever-expanding tail spoilers, the basic design remained broadly unchanged until 1989.
The 964 version of that year saw a comprehensive reworking of the model, with optional four wheel drive, coil springs replacing the original torsion bars, a retractable tail spoiler and more integrated bumpers. Engine capacity had risen to 3.6 litres with a commensurate boost in performance. 1994’s 993 version saw smoother nose and tail styling and the swansong of both air-cooled six and the original body architecture.
Since then, the car has grown in most obvious dimensions. 1998’s 996 model horrified cognoscenti with its rejection of styling tradition and the adoption of water cooling – to this day viewed as the badass of the family. 2005’s 997 saw the 911 go retro, returning to the bug-eyed appearance of the original.
Today’s bloated version, for some unknown reason dubbed 991, features only the third platform in the model’s lifespan. In a further betrayal of the Neunelfer-faithful, it comes only in turbocharged form and with electric power steering. Lift-off oversteer has been tamed, so that todays car – to some eyes as naked a pastiche as any nu-Beetle, if perhaps rather better executed – handles at least as predictably. But none of this matters because the 911 has become unassailable.
The challenge for Porsche however lies further ahead. When the 911 eventually goes electric like everything else, will they feel impelled to site the battery pack aft to provide that all-important rear-bias – can it truly be a 911 without it? But while this automotive survivor remains the last Porsche standing, the real question is not what form it will take in 2063, (the Neunelfer’s 100th anniversary), but whether Porsche will be in the business of car manufacture at all?
Editor’s note: The text has been amended to correct an error regarding the suspension layout of the 964 version. 23/06/17 17.10 PM GMT.