The news that Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, the designer of the iconic and seemingly everlasting Porsche 911, had died just a couple of weeks ago left the automobile world bereft of one its most influential figures. Porsche, the latest in a dynasty that has had a hand in car design since the early part of the 20th century, was a bona fide legend, just as the most famous car he left behind can lay claim to such a title.
F.A. Porsche was born in 1935 and continued the legacy of his father and grandfather, but it is for the 911 that he will forever be remembered. Has there – in the history of the motor car – been a vehicle that has gone so firmly against the grain?
The Early Years
When it was first seen – at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1963 – the 911 caused a sensation. Anyone looking at the current model would be forgiven for failing to recognize the original. It’s not that it has changed beyond recognition, just that the original was completely free of clutter: no wings, no flared arches, no fancy decoration – just that sleek, stylish roofline and surprisingly long bonnet, a classic shape that could not have been bettered.
That the engine was in the back may have confused some, but it was not the first time Porsche had been involved in an innovative rear engined car: think back to the 1930’s and the mighty Auto Union grand prix cars for the inspiration.
The 911 was an instant success, a sports car for a new generation of drivers looking to put the post-war years behind them and move on, and it soon gained development and improved performance. The first cars featured a 128bhp six cylinder engine and were immediately loved across the world. A primary market was the USA where the previous model – the 356 – had been a great success. An interesting aside was the introduction of the 912, essentially a 911 with the 356 four cylinder engine in place, to appeal to those who wanted a cheaper version.
In fact there is an interesting point of trivia regarding the naming of the car. The original model was displayed as a Porsche 901, and that was the intended name until Peugeot complained. It was pointed out that, in France, Peugeot owned a patent on car names consisting of three numbers with a ‘0’ in the middle (special dispensation was given to Ferrari) hence Porsche added the first 1.
Porsche 911 – Increased performance
The first notable upgrade to the 911’s performance came with the introduction of the 911S in this took power output up to 158bhp, and gave the car even better performance. Several new models followed, including the ‘budget’ 911E, but it was the next generation of models, introduced in the 1973 model year, that gave the 911 the first glimpse of iconic status.
The 1973 Carrera 2.7 RS is considered one of the most collectable and desirable of all the 911’s. Power was upped to 210bhp thanks to the bigger engine and the car was given a serious make-over including the addition of the famous ‘duck tail’ rear spoiler. These cars were homologation specials, built so that the 911 could be entered in more valuable classes in motor racing, and performance was quite stunning.
A 3.0 litre version introduced fuel injection to the now venerable engine and raised the power output a little more, but these were so expensive – essentially they were genuine racing cars – that they were built only in a limited capacity, hence their present day appeal.
The success of the 2.7litre engine meant it became very much the mainstay of the model when the next upgrades came, but something even more spectacular was about to happen to the 911.
Porsche 911 – Here Comes the Turbo!
The first major overhaul of the classic 911 shape came with the introduction of a car that has gone down in history as a genuine game-changer in automotive terms: the Porsche 911 Turbo, introduced in the 1974 model year, stunned the established supercar makers in Italy and the UK and raised the bar by a considerable amount. This was a true supercar with quite sensational performance, and it immediately hit the mark.
Purists, however, were left unimpressed as they saw the Turbo’s macho bodywork extensions – in particular the massive ‘tea tray’ spoiler – as a savage destruction of the original model’s beautiful sleek lines. There is some merit in this argument, but it has to be said that the market was changing, and the Turbo was a shrewd move by Porsche.
An increase in capacity in 1978 – the engine now at 3.3 litres – gave a colossal (for then) 300bhp. Acceleration and top speed were sensational and the 911 Turbo was taking the fight to Ferrari, Aston Martin and other worldwide supercar makers with little effort. There was a notable catch in the cars armoury, though: in the wet, and in the hands of inexperienced drivers even in the dry, the 911 Turbo gained a reputation for tricky handling, that rear weight bias making things unpredictable with so much power.
This did not deter the buyers, and it is no surprise that the 911 Turbo remains one of the most numerous supercars on the roads even today.
The Modern Day Porsche 911
It would be easy to write a book on the history of the 911 – and many eminent writers have done just that – but suffice to say that the car went through several incarnations following the groundbreaking 911 Turbo.
These days a 911 (strictly a 997 in Porsche numbering terms) is a completely different beast to that first seen almost 50 years ago. It is a luxury, sophisticated high performance vehicle that comes in many different forms, and appeals to a completely different buyer altogether. It is interesting to remember that the Porsche 928 – first seen in 1978 – was intended as a replacement for the then aging 911. The 928 lasted until 1995, and nobody was willing to let the 911 go.
So, the 911 – a true icon of the motoring road, and a car that has outlasted even its manufacturer’s expectations. By frequently updating the cars specification and introducing more modern versions Porsche managed to keep the car fresh, innovative and popular, and still does. With its 50th anniversary rapidly arriving, look for prices of classic models to rise even further.
If, like many of us, you cannot afford to indulge in a 911, bear in mind that when he left the car company, the late FA Porsche set up Porsche Design, a company involved in designing and manufacturing accessories intended for Porsche owners. You might just be able to afford a Porsche Design pen, or a pair of sunglasses, and be happy that you own something associated with the great man himself.