Porsche’s 911 is one of those cars you either love or hate. Clarkson famously dislikes them, Hammond is at the other end of the scale.
I’ve driven a few 911s and am a bit of a convert. Where the 928, as I’ve controversially stated elsewhere on this blog, excites me in the same way as roadworks on the M5, the 911 remains a visceral thing, whichever era of car you choose. For Porsche to retain the essential DNA of a car that is now over 50 years old is quite an achievement.
It’s why Great Escape Cars has just added another 911 to its fleet.
That DNA is all about engineering overcoming physics. The original 911 put the engine out the back because that’s how its 356 predecessor was set up and that was based, for family and practical reasons, on the Beetle. For a sports car it didn’t make a huge amount of sense, creating a tail-heavy car that was erratic under pressure.
Porsche worked hard to create a car that could overcome these difficulties. In the process of not-quite-succeeding, the company actually created a car that was hugely entertaining to drive, distinctively different and still a bit of a handful when confronted with bends and hedges. Not to be discouraged, Porsche simply built on the basic idea, making the 911 progressively faster and turbocharged and creating 911-shaped holes in hedges around the world. Despite this, the car became a byword for skills and ability – the 911 gained a reputation for being a driver’s car, one that only the foolhardy could crash.
Whether or not that reputation was warranted, it cemented the car’s place against its peers from Jaguar and Ferrari. Where those cars flattered the driver, the 911 challenged them.
That perhaps explains why Porsche’s early attempts to replace the 911 and extend its product range failed. The 928, 924 and 944 were just too good – bad drivers could drive them well without suffering the bite-back for which the 911 was renowned. They flattered.
Porsche’s failure to kill off the 911 led the company to double down and develop it. So it gained more power, turbos and body kits. By luck or design this endeared it to the get-rich-quick crowd of the mid to late 80s, bringing a new lease of life to a car that was by then 20 years old.
For the 90s Porsche rethought the car, creating the updated 964 and then the 993. The last of the aircooled models, they represented evolution rather than revolution. By the late 90s it was clear that change was needed.
It would have been easy at this point for Porsche to drop the ball, launching a softer car that would appeal to a wider audience. And in a way, they sort of did. The 996 was bigger, more luxurious and more useable than the earlier cars. But it was also suffused with the original car’s DNA – great to drive, grabby and punchy if driven badly, but also more grown up and easier to live with. Moving the 996 up market made space for Porsche to launch the Boxster, a car that borrowed the 911’s characteristics without the power or price.
Wherever you sit on the 911 like/loathe debate, it’s hard to argue that the car doesn’t fulfil its brief: a stylish, engaging and fast sports car. Lots of sports cars have come and gone but the 911 has endured because it delivers. Where a Ferrari is a little showy for some, an Audi TT perhaps lacking engagement and a Mercedes CLS too brutal, the Porsche manages to furrow a fine line through all of that. And it does so in a manner that’s distinctive and interesting. That it’s also well built and easy to own has helped cement its reputation.
All of which probably won’t convince many naysayers, but if it helps shed some light on why this car has survived virtually unchanged for over 50 years, perhaps it’s job done. Personally, I’m never going to buy a 911, it’s not my style. But I do respect it.
The new Great Escape Cars 911 is available to drive on our road trips and taster experiences. It’s not available right now for self drive hire.
Graham Eason Great Escape Cars www.greatescapecars.co.uk 01527 893733