Theme: Porsche – Cheaper by the Million

Zuffenhausen recently celebrated production of the millionth 911. How the heck did that happen?

Image: autobahnhound

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.

The millionth 911 in ‘Irish Green’ – apparently. Image:

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.

My, how you’ve grown. Image: motorauthority

Some however were prepared to challenge the orthodoxy. In 1980, UK Journalist, Ian Fraser wrote in Car, “…the [911] 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.

‘I see you baby…’ Image: dedeporsche

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

7 thoughts on “Theme: Porsche – Cheaper by the Million”

  1. “Lift-off oversteer has been tamed, so that todays car (…) handles at least as predictably”

    That’d be today’s car for the last 30 years-or-so, right?

  2. I think these images actually flatter the 991. A late model 993 in between, with fatter hips and wider wheels, would put it in context even more, and show the 991 not as pastiche but as faithful continuation of the same idea.

    The water-cooling, turbo charging and electric steering have all upset purists. But a 911 that doesn’t sell is no use to anyone, and Porsche need lessons from no one in how to sell a well-engineered sports car.

  3. Presumably, from the point that the semi-trailing arms were replaced by a multi-link arrangement, the 911’s worst propensities began to be minimised, although I doubt even Zuffenhausen engineers managed to circumvent the immutable laws of polar moments. Of course, in this they were torn by the need to do something to save the unskilled from themselves while maintaining the very characteristics that gave the car its appeal in the first place.

    My point being today’s 911 is fully compliant with the current zeitgeist regarding the avoidance of risk and personal injury. It’s a 911 where you have to be doing something really, really silly to get yourself into trouble. It’s safer, but a good deal less wieldy (in the UK at least) than the older, leerier generation cars – the ones that built the mystique in the first place. To that end, even more than its appearance, the current car could be accused of pastiche, because if one was to get really anal about it – what is the point of a sanitised rear-engine Porsche?

    Porsche frequently made better, more complete cars than the 911 – they still do so. Is it the fault of their creators that they were imbued with less character or that the older car’s character was (once) so piquant? The 911 had some admirable qualities, but fundamentally, if it wasn’t for the fact that they couldn’t kill it off, Porsche would be making very different vehicles today.

    1. Imagine if they’d tried a small sporty rwd front engined saloon in 1963? Then maybe a three and five door hatchback in 1973. Where would they be now?
      “Not everyone remembers it, but Porsche used to make small roadsters (the 911 sold until 1972) which is why their Caballo convertible, based on the popular 924 hatchback, isn’t such a strange move,” writes Toddy McRoddy in Autocropley this week.

  4. Mike Lawrence relates the following story, courtesy of Alain Fenn, in his biography of Ron Tauranac. “I left Brabham in 1972 after Bernie took over and, about that time, I visited Ron. On his desk stood a Porsche air-cooled cylinder casting, with integral (aluminium) liner. Ron explained: ‘I was at Hockenheim – there was an Interseries race on, so I walked down the pits to have a look at the cars. Whilst looking at the works Porsche, one of their engineers recognized me and came and asked if I liked their car. I said it was typical Porsche – badly designed in the first place then developed over a long period till it worked very well. A few weeks later he sent me the cylinder. Proves my point – they can’t even spell!’ The liner was indeed engraved: ‘To Tarnac, to make him like Porsche.'”

    Anyway. The 911’s racing legacy is integral to its success, but in a slightly more disconnected way than most probably imagine. I think that for a certain type of Porsche customer, there is validation – veiled or otherwise – in the fact that the 911 is generally regarded as the most successful racing car of all time. Never mind that their new Carrera will never get within 50km of a racing surface, nor that the last time a competition 911 bore meaningful resemblance to anything intended for the road was back in the days of Vic Elford winning the Monte. But the point is that the racing legacy is built on the fact that for years – decades, really – Porsche was the only manufacturer to treat motorsport as a viable, sustainable business, rather than a marketing exercise (any mainstream manufacturer you care to name) or a way to gouge some rich folks of a bit more largesse (Enzo, etc). In that, they were well ahead of the game. In practice, it manifested as a meaningful relationship with racing customers, excellent after-sales support, and an implied willingness to stand by its product – if the product was a dog, Porsche could be relied on to help figure out why. This is the core reason why GT-production racing grids have been dominated by 911s for decades. Other cars may be faster over a single lap, but it doesn’t count for much (especially in endurance racing) if it doesn’t go the distance.

    In recent years, Ferrari and latterly Audi have started to realise there is meaningful money to be made in catering to racing customers, and have started to make inroads. (At the end of the day, in racing circles, a fast car means a lot of other elements can be kindly overlooked.) But it has taken a long time for Ferrari in particular to get past its reputation for burning customers. They tried to make a dent with the 360 and didn’t get too far. The 430 GT2 was very quick when it debuted, and the first serious effort by the factory to go after the customer market, although it took a while for even the factory to fully understand the capabilities of the car’s electronic brain. But it has only really been in the last few years, the twilight years of the 430 and especially the 458/488, that Maranello has really started to shift perceptions. In parallel to this, the 911 has suffered somewhat because the handicap of the engine in the back have really started to show against properly-sorted, reliable mid-engined cars in the 458/488 and R8 (as well as the SLS), which is why the new racing 911 has gone mid-engined.

  5. The 964 series cars didn’t have a multi- link rear suspension. They got rid of the torsion bars but still had semi trailing arm setup in the rear. Multi-link came with the 993 and was the big as advancement of that model. Other than that the 993 was mostly a facelift of the 964. A successful one because if the 993 had bombed the company would have lost its independence in the mid 90s already.

    1. Thanks for the clarification Vaujot. I’ll amend the text accordingly. The 993 was probably the last of the handy-sized 911’s, I would suggest. I saw one recently and was struck by its compact dimensions, especially by comparison to the bloated creature they produce now.

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