Porsche 911 at 50

Back in 1963 would anyone have laid a bet on a go-faster Beetle whose design layout defied the laws of physics becoming the longest lasting and arguably most revered sports car of its era?

That, remarkably, is the tale of the Porsche 911. Launched into the middle of the Swinging Sixties – with that wavering rear end, that is somehow rather appropriate – as the successor to the 356, the 911 had a lot to live up to. Designed by Ferdinand ‘Butzi’ Porsche in 1959, the goal was to move the 356 game on by offering a more sophisticated, comfortable and powerful car that would, crucially, be more expensive and therefore more profitable. Launched initially as the 901 – until Peugeot protested – the 911 was unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1963 and production began in September 1964. With the familiar Porsche rear-mounted, flat ‘Boxer’ engine configuration, the 911 replaced the 356’s swing axle with an independent set up. Aerodynamic styling and a low weight meant decent acceleration and a high top speed from the small 2 litre 130 bhp six pot engine.

The original ‘A’ series cars, built up to 1969, were produced on a short chassis similar in size to the 356, which continued in production until 1965 in order to give Porsche a cheaper alternative to the 911. The 356 was replaced in 1965 with the introduction of the four cylinder 912, but this low power car only lasted a few years.

The 911’s reputation as a widow maker probably dates back to these early cars. With a short wheelbase, low front end weight and a decent turn of speed it didn’t take much to create 911-shaped holes in hedges as the back end took on a mind of its own in the event of sudden changes of direction or speed, such as when cornering. Yet in a strange way, this dogged waywardness and singular commitment to an alternative sports car vision sealed the success of the 911. The car quickly became one that you had to master – the contemporary view was that those 911 hedge re-designers were drivers who couldn’t handle a 911; to successfully tame the car was a signal of its success. Porsche’s success with racing versions of its road cars helped reinforce this argument.

Inevitably, though, Porsche had to do something or else the 911 risked becoming a niche car for petrolheads. So it lengthened the wheelbase in 1969, created the B-Series cars and added more power. At Great Escape Cars we have one of these early cars, a 2.2 911T – there were initially three performance levels, T, E and S – and it is an absolute joy. There is something pure and honest about these early cars that later cars somehow lack, despite their considerably improved performance and handling.

I have had the good fortune to drive both short chassis and long chassis early cars. The earlier car is remarkable for its solidity and pliant ride but I will offend purists by saying that to drive it feels like a low-slung Beetle. It also, in my view, doesn’t look that great either – it’s too short, which makes the car look hunched and, frankly, rather beetle-like. The handling also isn’t much cop – you can throw it around far more than you might expect but the lack of power and persistent sense of a heavy pendulum hanging out the back of a short body hinders ultimate enjoyment.

The long chassis 911 is a revelation by comparison. The extra length in the wheelbase transforms the appearance, making the car longer (obviously), lower and much more sporting. In a decent colour you can relish the attention to detail that lies behind each panel. The extra engine capacity and horsepower also make it much more fun to drive – the early cars are no firebrands but they are plenty quick enough, delivering a healthy shove when you plan your foot. The extra length transforms the handling – the B Series car feels considerably more sure footed and clings and points as you would expect of a sports car.

The search for extra power that was laid down with the first B-series cars set the template for the next 20 years as Porsche progressively launched ever more powerful versions of the basic 911 concept, a progression that not only furthered the 911 legend but also improved Porsche’s profitability. This culminated in the 1980s with the whale-tail turbo-charged models, a development that arguably saved the 911.

In 1973 Porsche launched the G-Series cars with improved crash protection and other safety improvements designed to meet new US legislation. Despite the launch of its first turbo model in 1974, the introduction of higher capacity engines and a full convertible model, by the late 1970s Porsche was growing increasingly concerned about how to keep the aging 911 going. It seemed that the 911 had reached the limits of its development and was starting to look long in the tooth compared to modern rivals. The consensus was that the company needed something new and, crucially, more profitable. Cue the 928.

The 928 was intended to replace the 911. It was bigger, more comfortable and more practical. But it wasn’t a 911. The 928’s rather poor reception forced Porsche to refocus on the 911 in the early 80s. It responded by creating the wide body 911 Turbo. So then, a 330 bhp rear engine, rear drive car with an enormous rear spoiler and invariably bright red paintwork. The 911 Turbo hit the 80s zeitgeist full on and became the four wheeled plaything of choice for aspiring City types, a role it has never quite shaken off in the 30 years since.

To capitalise on the unexpected popularity of the 911 Porsche sprinkled a little Turbo stardust on its lesser models. In came big colour coded bumpers and an array of options that included white wheels and that tea-tray spoiler. Some of the changes were technical rather than cosmetic, including a new gearbox that for aficionados transformed the slightly clunky shift of the early cars.

The 1980s 911 was inevitably all about power. Gone were the sub-3 litre lightweight sports cars of the 60s and early 70s, in came more cubic capacity and more power. I have driven coupe and Targa versions of these cars, a 3 litre and a 3.2, both naturally aspirated. The 3 litre coupe was an real joy, despite feeling much older than its 1989 build date. I regretted the Eighties-isation of the interior, all tweedy type cloth, tan plastics and crude electric window switches. But lurking behind the signs of progress was the same car as the early 911T I had driven. Alive, tactical, pointy but much, much faster. I enjoyed it, very much so, but I’m not sure I needed or actually enjoyed all the extra power. This car felt like its limits lay a long way off down on a road I wasn’t quite ready to travel.

The Targa was different again. The 3.2 litre engine is barely discernible from the 3 litre, offering about the same power and similar delivery. In all other respects, it drove like the coupe. The problem for me was that Targa roof. It niggled me for two reasons. Firstly, it squeaked and rattled a lot and there was a lot of scuttle shake. But more importantly, it ruins the 911 shape. From what I could see all of that was to no particular advantage because the removable roof achieves little more than the sunroof did that was fitted to the coupe.

Porsche persevered with the original 1963 car until 1989 when it launched the 964. The new car was probably a response to the success of the 1980s 911 and the failure of the 928, being both softer and more upmarket than the car it replaced in order to bridge the gap left by the 928. The 964 didn’t get a great reception from the press, who felt it had lost some of its purity, but it did herald major innovations including four wheel drive and a Tiptronic gearbox (early 911 had the option of a ‘sport-o-matic’ box, much derided and not just because of its silly name). Many of these developments were taken from the 959 supercar.