Making sports cars is a tough business. To build a successful one, a car company has to eke out every bit of performance it can from a car’s engine, drivetrain and chassis. It has to look like a million bucks, feel like a million bucks, and most of all, make even the worst driver in the world, feel like a driving prodigy. On top of that, the vehicle has to have some semblance of reliability. It may not be used everyday, but should start up just like the average Corolla with a single twist of the key, and make its owner’s spine tingle with every rev. Customers for this vehicle are probably some of the most demanding clients in the world, and brand loyalty is fleeting, especially in this day and age.
With all these factors to contend with, it’s nothing short of a miracle how the Porsche 911 continues to be one of the most widely recognized, desired, and longest running sports car lines in the world. This year, the 911 celebrates its 50th anniversary. For a car that’s changed so little outside and so much on the inside, that’s quite an achievement.
A storied history
The eponymous 911 can trace its origins back to sketches of Ferdinand "Butzi" Porsche in 1959. “Butzi” Porsche, as he was called by his family and colleagues, was the grandson of Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the eponymous sports car brand of the same name. At the time, Porsche was known for just one model, the 356, with several variations like a coupe, cabriolet and speedster to broaden the line-up.
Butzi was the eldest son of Dorothea and Ferry Porsche, and grandson of Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the company. He spent much time, even during childhood, in the construction areas and development workshops of car company. F.A. began to work in Porsche AG In 1958, starting in the design office of the former Dr. Ing hc F. Porsche KG. He sculpted the first plasticine model of a successor to the 356 series. By 1962, he became head of the Porsche Design Studio and a year later made a the Porsche 911 (type 901).
Type 901 (1963–1989)
The 901 made its public debut at the 1963 Frankfurt Motor Show (Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung). It had a non-operational mockup of the engine, and only received a working one in February 1964.
Peugeot protested on the grounds that, in France it had exclusive rights to car names formed by three numbers with a zero in the middle (e.g. 208, 308, 408, 508). Rather than altering the name exclusively for French bound vehicles, Porsche changed the name to 911. Internally, however, the cars' part numbers continued to be labelled 901.
By early 1965, 911’s were already being sold alongside runout models of the 356. The car was sold as a faster, more powerful alternative, boasting of a hefty 128 hp from a flat-6 2.0 liter engine. The 356 bid farewell in mid-1965, and was succeeded in the 4-cylinder segment by the 912 which was a 911 with a 1600 engine. Like the 356, Porsche began to offer several variants of the 911, like the 911 S, the 911 T (targa) and the very limited 911 R (only 20 made). By 1969, Porsche began to tinker with the chassis by extending the wheelbase to remedy the cars' nervous handling at the limit. This resulted in the 911 B series which covered the new 911’s, 912’s. By this time, the 911 family was complete with the 912 serving as the entry level, the 911 E and 911 T as the mid model and the 911 S with the most powerful engine. From that year on, Porsche had began to steadily improve the 911 by offering larger engines and slight improvements almost every year.
1973 saw the arrival of the first 911 Carrera RS. Standing for Rennsport in German, race sport in English, the RS’s were built to meet racing homologation rules that required a certain minimum number of production cars to be made to enter the FIA Group 4 class. The RS developed 210 hp, had stiffened suspension, a "ducktail" rear spoiler, larger brakes, wider rear wheels and rear fenders.
Not surprisingly, the larger engines soon found its way into regular 911s. Recognizing the US as one of its major markets, new bumpers were added to conform with US low-speed protection safety requirements.
The first 911 turbo was offered in 1974, owing to the success of the Carrera RSR Turbo’s second at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1974. It received its own unique designation because of its wide wheel-arches to accommodate the wide tires, and a large rear spoiler often known as a "whale tail".
The last of the 901 911s arrived in 1978 in the corm of the 911SC, with a 3.0 liter engine and 5-speed transmission.
It was at this time, in 1979, that Porsche AG was pondering to replace the ageing 911 form with an entirely new one. The replacement would be the new 928, featuring front-mounted engines and a boxy form that was popular at the time.
Peter W. Schutz (CEO Porsche AG 1981–1987) recounted that a chart on the wall of the engineering and development office depicted the ongoing development schedules for the three primary Porsche product lines: 944, 928 and 911.
“Two of them stretched far into the future, but the 911 program stopped at the end of 1981. I remember rising from my chair, walking over to the chart, taking a black marker pen, and extending the 911 program bar clean off the chart. I am sure I heard a silent cheer from Professor Bott, and I knew I had done the right thing. The Porsche 911, the company icon, had been saved, and I believe the company was saved with it.”
It proved to be a fateful decision as sales of the 911 remained strong in spite of the new offerings.
The first cabriolet would follow in 1982, proving very popular despite its premium price relative to the open-top targa. Cabriolet versions of the 911 have been offered ever since.
The 911 enjoyed a revival of sorts from 1984-1989. In this era, the Carrera nameplate was returned and offered in coupe, targa and cabriolet lines. Special options were also offered like the M491 option, called the Supersport in the UK, or the "Turbo-look" every where else, because of its resemblance to the 930 Turbo. Other options included the Carrera Club Sport (M637), Silver Anniversary Carrera SE, and Speedster (option M503) – a revival of the 356 Speedster option with a low swept windshield and flimsy canvas topped. Buyers had to sign a release form that held Porsche free of liability because of the canvas top’s inability to protect the driver from rain, being intended as a topless car.
Type 964 (1989–1993)
By 1989, the 911 underwent some serious changes with the 964. It carried over many innovations from the ’86 959 like its four-wheel drive, electronic rear spoiler and radically redesigned chassis with coil springs. Modern conveniences like ABS and Power Steering were introduced. A two-wheel drive version, the Carrera 2 and turbo would be introduced a year later. Dual airbags also became standard while the Tiptronic automatic transmission was offered as an option.
Type 993 (1994–1997)
1994 saw the arrival of the all-new 993. It featured smoother integrated bumpers that were more aerodynamic. The 993 also debuted the new multilink rear suspension that improved the car's ride and handling corrected the car’s tendency to oversteer if the throttle or brakes were applied mid-corner. These modifications also reduced previous 911's lift-off oversteer problems to a much more moderate degree. The Carrera 2 was renamed to simply Carrera with Carrera 4’s still offered. Turbo (fitted with permanent all-wheel-drive), Targa and RS models were also offered for this type.
Type 996 (1998–2004)
In 1998, the 996 ushered in the water-cooled era for Porsche. The 996 was defined by an all-new bodyshell with nothing based on previous models like the 993 and 964 series. The 911 featured the famous “cracked egg” headlights that received a lot of criticism from Porsche fans. Nevertheless, the 996 boasted of a 0.30 coefficient of drag while still following the original Butzi Porsche design very closely. Its 3.4 liter engine moved power up to the 300 hp mark.
Like the past series, the 996 spawned several variants like the Carrera 4 and 4S, Carbriolet, and Turbo. This was the first series to also see the arrival of the GT3, GT2 and GT1 special models. The cars featured lightweight materials and less creature comforts for better handling and performance.
Type 997 (2005–2011)
The cracked-egg headlight was finally put to rest in the 997. The new headlights reverted to the original bug-eye design and drag coefficient was brought further down to 0.28. The interiors strengthened the link to the earlier 911 interiors by returning to the classic five full gauges design. The variants ranged from Carrera 2 and 4, and the exclusively four-wheel drive Targas. The famous dual-clutch gearbox called PDK, made its debut in 2009. The Turbo arrived later, with all-wheel drive and integrated variable turbine geometry technology that boosted the car’s power to 480 hp. Naturally, variants like the GT3, GT3 RS and GT2 were also offered. These already limited lines also had even more exclusive models like the GT3 RS 4.0 with 500 hp 4.0 liter engine and the GT2 RS with 620 hp and weighing less than a standard GT2. Porsche also introduced the GTS, to slot between the Carrera S and GT3, lighter and more aggressive than the S but not quite as bare as the GT3.
Type 991 (2012 – present)
The current Type 991 brought with it an all-new platform. It is made of predominantly aluminum construction and while it is larger than its predecessor, is still 50 kilograms lighter. The instrument cluster stays true to the five gauge cluster style but integrates LCDs into two of them to show the driver more information. The Carrera carries a 350 hp 3.4-liter engine while the Carrera S is powered by a 3.8-liter 400 hp engine. A choice of PDK automatic or 7-speed manual with auto rev matching is available. The 997 is also the first 911 with technologies aimed at reducing fuel consumption.
Among them is the new electro-mechanical power steering that draws less energy from the engine, a standard engine start/stop system as well as a coasting system.
Performance also gets some technological upgrades in the form of brake assisted torque vectoring, active suspension management, launch control and electronic muffler control in Sport + mode.
As of now, the only variants are a Carrera, Carrera S, Carrera 4 and 4S. Though knowing Porsche, it’s only a matter of time until we see the next Targa, Turbo, GT3’s and GT2’s and perhaps even a few new special models thrown in. GTS-RS maybe?
It’s been joked that Porsche is probably the most difficult car company to design for, what with the brand’s fiercely critical customers and its staunch adherence to Butzi’s original design. Nevertheless, the 911’s faithfulness to tradition while cleverly adapting innovation is one many sports car makers no doubt admire. The 911 may have already been eclipsed by newer brands when it comes to performance, but few others can hold a candle to its heritage, class and subtle charm. It’s certainly gotten the 911 through 50 years, and it’s hard to imagine a future without a 911.