30 years of #Porsche-959
/ . It first appeared 30 years ago this year, but the Porsche 959 remains an utterly captivating machine… With the 959 Porsche flexed its technological muscles. It first appeared 30 years ago this year, and it remains an utterly captivating machine… Story: Andrew Frankel. Photography: Porsche and various.
When a car comes to market with a gilt-edged claim to being the fastest machine ever to set foot on the public road, it is understandable that this should become the car’s defining characteristic especially as, in the case of the Porsche 959, it was so much faster than anything else there was really no comparison worth making. Of course there were others, Italians mainly, that claimed to be capable of 190mph or more, but I am aware of no independent test that by the mid-1980s had timed any Ferrari or Lamborghini at even 180mph. By contrast no one doubted that when Porsche said the 959 would do 197mph, it really would do 197mph.
The problem with such a preposterous number – and 30 years ago it seemed as absurd as a Bugatti Veyron doing 260mph today – is that it’s so vast it tends to obscure the view of everything else, when in fact its top speed is actually the least useful of all its extraordinary talents. Imagine instead a Veyron that was compact, easy to park and thread through city streets, had reasonable luggage space and even rear seats. It was Porsche’s ability to meld such ground-breaking performance and, as we shall see, brain-boggling technology into such a usable whole that makes the 959 such a landmark in Porsche road car history.
The 959 was still around, just, when I first started testing cars but I was far too young to be allowed to do anything other than sit in a cockpit so similar to that of a 911 in architecture, yet so different in detail. The dials looked the same but the rev-counter carried a 7200rpm redline which no SC or Turbo of the time could touch, and a boost gauge reading up to 2.5bar. The speedo was calibrated up to 350km/h (a trifling 218mph) while there was an entire other gauge detailing the torque split between and across the axles. The steering wheel carried a 959 motif while the gear lever suggested five normal gears and a sixth named ‘G’ for ‘gelande’ or offroad mode, when it was in fact just a standard six-speed gearbox with first renamed and the others promoted by a ratio to get around first gear noise regulations.
Happily I’ve driven a few since and each time I do I remain struck by the modernity of a design that first appeared at the #1985-Frankfurt-Motor-Show
some 30 years ago. Even today, the way you can just drop down into the seat of what was an automotive spaceship in its day, twist the key, dip the clutch, shift the lever and ease smoothly away is, in its own quiet way, genuinely shocking.
If the car can be faulted, it is that it is perhaps too civilised. The ride is reasonable by the never great standards of 1980s 911s and the engine with its water-cooled quad-cam, 24-valve heads is sufficiently quiet for it to be barely believable that it was developed directly from a multiple #Le-Mans
-winning race motor. This is no roller coaster ride, to be tackled with white knuckles and a grimace or not at all, it’s all just very easy, easy enough indeed for the man from Car magazine to say when first reviewing it that for all its technological accomplishments, Porsche had “seemed to have forgotten the bloke behind the wheel”. It is easier than you might imagine to let your mind drift.
And if you do, it might be back to where this car came from, which really was out of nowhere. Indeed had the FIA not come up with a new set of rules for cars in the early 1980s, dividing competition machinery into three categories (Group A for road based machines with more than 5000 units produced, Group B for cars with a minimum production requirement of 200 cars and Group C for pure prototypes), it would very likely never have happened at all. But Porsche was interested in taking part in the #Paris-Dakar
rally (competing in the full World Rally Championship was never seriously contemplated) and it was soon realised that the ever-versatile 911 would make a good jump-off point for developing a Group B car. More importantly, the technologies deployed might well enjoy a lifetime in mainstream production Porsche models long after the necessarily abbreviated Group B project had past.
Even so, by the time they were finished, very little of the 911’s design save the shape of the roof, glass and doors remained. The body was completely different, not only in shape but construction, eschewing traditional steel for an exotic blend of Kevlar, Nomex and aluminium. Not one exterior panel was interchangeable with that of a 911, while the shape of the car was designed to not only be dramatically more slippery than that of a 911 but develop zero lift, a unique claim at the time.
The engine was a flat-six, but a 2.8-litre motor, similar to that used by the 962 Group C car, but with a single water-cooled head per bank instead of individual heads per cylinder. It had two turbos but instead of working in parallel they operated in series, so one smaller turbo would provide low-lag boost at modest revs, while a bigger turbo would cut in at higher speeds to provide high rev power. The plan had been to direct the power through a #PDK
transmission but when the project ran over time and budget the idea was swiftly dropped in favour of a manual gearbox, though featuring six ratios – an innovation almost exclusively the preserve of race machines of the era.
The suspension bore no relation to the 911’s simple system of struts and trailing arms and was instead a full double wishbone configuration at each corner with computer controlled, driver adjustable damping, while braking came courtesy of massive internally ventilated discs with #ABS
– another rare innovation. The tyres were developed specially for the car by Bridgestone because at the time none existed that would pass Porsche’s durability tests for a car of this potential, while Porsche provided pressure sensors and Speedline those fabulous hollowspoked magnesium wheels.
But the real stand out technology and the system that probably did ultimately justify Porsche’s investment in a programme said to have lost the company over £200,000 per car was its four-wheel drive system. Porsche was not the first to develop all-wheel drive for a car not intended to go off-road, for Audi had blazed that trail with its ground-breaking Quattro back in 1980. But what Porsche had in mind was nothing like as agricultural as the simple 50:50 front to rear split used on the original Quattro, but something that even today some 30 years later sounds pretty state-of-the-art. At its core lay a multi-disc clutch called #PSK
which automatically varied the torque front to rear according to demand from the tyres. It had an operational range that allowed it to send as little as 20 percent of the torque to the front wheels or lock the driveline solid. As a further refinement, the driver could select one of four modes (traction, dry, wet and ice) and see on the dashboard how much power was being fed to the front wheels through the PSK and how torque was being apportioned to each rear wheel via a conventional limited-slip differential. Even now it seems complex: 30 years ago it was the stuff of science fiction.
The car that would become the first 959 appeared in concept form at Frankfurt in #1983
entitled simply ‘Gruppe B’ but it was another two years before it was turned into a production reality. In this time a 911 converted to four-wheel drive and named the #Porsche-953
took a surprise win in the #1984-Paris-Dakar
, providing Porsche with much cause for optimism for the purpose-built 959 which duly lined-up for the start of the #1985
event, and promptly fell flat on its face. Plagued by uncharacteristic mechanical failures, all three retired. In #1986
, however, all three finished, with Rene Metge winning, Jacky Ickx second and Roland Kussmaul sixth – an extraordinary achievement when you consider over 85 percent of the nearly 500 cars entered failed to reach the finish at all. The 959 was also adapted for racing, renamed the Porsche 961, and in 1986 became the first four-wheel drive car to race at Le Mans, finishing seventh, and first car home behind the dedicated Group C machines. The story of its fiery apparent death in the #1987
race and subsequent resurrection has been told on these pages before and falls outside the subject matter and space available here.
In the meantime customers waited patiently. Cars ordered in 1985 for delivery in the summer of 1986 were postponed to the autumn, then the winter, and finally the spring of 1987 as the complexities of not only creating a car that broke so much new ground but building it to Porsche standards of fit and reliability became apparent. But those in the queue were rewarded even though Porsche pushed production far past the originally intended 250 units to 329, with a further eight built from spares five years later.
In the UK the list price was £155,266 but soon orders were trading for half as much again. These days it’s harder to judge their values because so few come up for sale over here and those that do are always POA. However, in the US, where the car was never sold in period because Porsche refused to sacrifice cars it could easily sell elsewhere in US-specific crash tests, cars trade at between $1m-$1.5m, so between around £650,000 to near £1m, the latter likely to be commanded by one of the 37 lighter, stiffer Sport models.
But enough of such details. Was the 959 really such a remote device as some who first drove it suggested? The truth is I can see where they are coming from, but they made their judgements in an era where almost every car was far more communicative than those of today, so their perspective was different. By 21st century standards, the 959 doesn’t feel remote at all. More surprising still is that even today the 959 feels properly, supercar quick. If you lock the driveline, dial up all the revs, sidestep the clutch and pray, the 959 will hit 60mph from rest in 3.6secs and the next car down the tracks to go substantially faster than that was the McLaren F1 in 1994.
Even so, if you drive it normally you might feel a little disappointed by its performance at low and medium revs. Even with just the little turbo in action there is some lag and pleasant but hardly gut-wrenching acceleration. But what happens around 4800rpm is not so much like another turbo cutting in as another engine altogether. The redline says 7200rpm but the engine is easily safe to 8000rpm where the limiter cuts in, and in the lower gears it’s a fairly wild ride all the way there. You’re helped by a gearbox with tightly stacked ratios and a shift quality to shame utterly the 915 transmission that was still used in the 911 when the 959 went on sale. I’ve only done around 145mph in a 959 but can report that at such speeds it was still hauling hard enough to make its near 200mph top speed not merely possible, but a formality.
I’ve not liked the brakes on any I’ve driven, not because they’re hinged at the floor like an old 911’s but because I could never get any feel through the pedal, perhaps because its competition-grade discs need more heat that I’d been able to generate. And as for the handling which has over time been criticised for everything from terminal understeer to unmanageable oversteer, I found it basically benign, a little too inclined to push at the front (but less so than a normal 911 of the era) and beautifully tied down at the back. Maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough, and on public roads in someone else’s near million pound motor car, I should hope not too. There are to be honest many Porsches that are more fun to drive than the 959, including any wearing an RS badge. But that’s not what Porsche set out to make. It wanted instead to make a statement, by building a Porsche that for its speed and technological sophistication was beyond anything created to date, and to do so without compromising the every day ease of use for which the brand was renown. In short it wanted to build the most capable supercar the world had ever seen, and that it did with space to spare.
Even now it seems complex: 30 years ago it was the stuff of science fiction.
Here: A period shot of 959 owner #Walter-Röhrl
Overleaf: Röhrl enjoying the car today Above left: A Special Equipment 959 built for HE Sheikh Abdul Aziz Khalifa Althani in #1989
Ground-breaking performance and brain-boggling technology make the 959 a landmark in Porsche road car history.
Above: The 959 was a technological marvel Right: One of 37 lightweight ‘Sport’ versions.