964 hits 30 The first ‘modern’ 911. Thirty years on we analyse the leap forward that Porsche made with the 964, with the base Carrera, the mighty Turbo and return of the RS road racer. Arguably one of the big milestones in 911 development, it’s 30 years since the 964 first debuted – we celebrate with three chips off a familiar block. Words: Dan Trent. Photography: Antony Fraser.
30 YEARS OF 964 The first of the modern Porsche 911s? We celebrate 30-years of the 964 with Carrera 2, Turbo and road race RS.
50 years is a long time in automotive development but if you parked a line of 911s from 1963 901 through to current 991 most people could trace the path of evolution. But even if you think you know your Porsches the more dramatic moments in that history are sometimes less obvious than the visual ones, the fact casual observers could mistake the 964 for little more than a lightly modernised G-series a case in point.
Yet, along with the switch from air to water cooling, the 964 is one of the decisive moments in 911 history and the 30th anniversary of its first appearance well worth celebrating. Technically and in mindset the 964 is the first modern 911, Porsche realising there were many more profitable ways to skin the same cat and laying the groundwork for the bewilderingly broad line up we see today with its Carrera 2s, Carrera 4s, Targas, narrowbodies, widebodies, Turbos, RS versions and various limited edition specials.
“The commonly quoted statistic is that the 964 was 85 per cent new ”
To keep things manageable we’ve picked examples of the core Carrera, Turbo and RS models on which to pin this celebration. To use a navigational analogy there’s a scenic route through the 964 story with all sorts of interesting diversions, cul-de-sacs and paths less travelled. For now we’ll be sticking to the trunk roads.
The fact you’re reading this magazine probably means you have a better appreciation than most of what the 964 stands for. But it’s worth reflecting that for the 21 years leading up to the 964’s launch the 911 had remained fundamentally the same. While it gained in wheelbase, power, wings and other adornments for those two decades the fundamental development philosophy was one of if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Eventually Porsche realised there was a desperate need to modernise the car without scaring off the fans for whom the fundamental look and layout were sacred. These seemingly opposing influences can be found throughout the 911’s history and, in the 964, the conservative visual changes hid much more radical ones under the skin.
The commonly quoted statistic is that the 964 was 85 per cent new compared with the G-series it replaced. A forensic parts audit would prove that decisively either way but would be a deeply tedious exercise so instead let’s look at the more obvious developments. These include the introduction of a four-wheel drive option, the first proper automatic gearbox on a 911, power steering, ABS and something resembling a fully-functioning heating and ventilation system. It might have looked oldschool.
“Manual mode offers a degree more control, upshifting promptly“
But the 964 was a dramatic example of the 911 getting with the times. Originally inspired by the desire to include a four-wheel drive option the 964 was, literally, new from the floorpan up. This was to accommodate the propshaft and other hardware while the suspension was substantially modernised with coil springs all round and aluminium lower trailing arms at the rear. Powertrain-wise the G50 gearbox was carried over but the 3.6-litre engine was all-new and featured twin-plug ignition and more sophisticated electronic control. Those still undecided about whether a 911 looked better with or without a wing had their prayers answered by a deployable one that maintained the clean, traditional silhouette at rest but emerged above 50mph for a steadying influence at higher speeds. A manual override meant those equating aero with manhood could park up with the wing extended if a visible demonstration of virility was required. OK, as a Porsche fan you probably knew all this already. But it’s worth digesting and provides an excuse to gather these three cars together and appreciate the 964 where it really counts – from the driver’s seat.
Let’s start with the Carrera, this of course being the foundation on which any 911 range is built. Keen to promote its new technology, the 964 actually launched in 1989 as the four-wheel drive Carrera 4, the rear-driven Carrera 2 only following in the 1990 model year. Ideally we’d have a 4 here to start the story but clean, original Carreras are few and far between and this beautiful Tiptronic coupe has interest of its own.
With just over 32,000 miles on the clock it feels remarkably fresh too, its paintwork gleaming and interior impressively unmarked. Of course, anyone buying a 964 these days needs to do so with eyes open to the fact bodywork can make the difference between a dream come true and an expensive nightmare. But fundamentally the car hails from an era when Porsches were properly over-engineered, obvious in the little tactile details like the slop-free action of the door catches, the thickness of the leather and the unpretentious but solidly screwed together interior fittings.
This car’s pre-airbag four-spoke steering wheel is delightfully slim-rimmed, hinting at a delicacy in the driving experience to come. Although the five-dial dash layout is in keeping with Porsche tradition the driving position is more conventional, with less of the skewed, legs to the centre of the car contortion demanded by older 911s.
“The instantaneous throttle response is simply magical”
Although appreciably more comfortable and modern there’s little to freak out those coming from a G-series, the clear intention being to calm any nerves that the 964’s mechanical changes were going to dilute the character. So the power-assisted steering still has weight to it. And the view out of the upright windscreen is pure 911, likewise the compact on-road footprint and confidence this inspires in the driver.
The Tiptronic on this car is an important example of how Porsche wanted the 964 to speak to a wider audience. While 911s had sold well in America and other markets where automatic gearboxes are traditionally popular, the failure of Sportomatic to capture the imagination left the 911 without an automatic option for a decade.
These days we’re used to instantaneous shifts from fast-reacting PDK gearboxes equally capable of shifting themselves or manually by paddle or stick. Tiptronic was an example of Porsche attempting to put a sporting twist on the conventional automatic gearbox but shows how far transmission technology has come on.
In its day the option to operate as a conventional automatic or offer the driver manual overrides in a separate plus and minus shift plane was about as involving as self-shifters got. There’s no escaping it blunts the reactions of the 250ps/246bhp 3.6 though, torque converters and high-revving, naturally-aspirated motors never an especially happy pairing.
“Things will get ugly if you try and drive it like a modern car”
Which isn’t to damn the experience completely. Because a 964 Carrera of any type is a lovely thing to drive. There’s flow and compliance to the suspension that enhances the good things about the 911’s fundamental layout, while smoothing some of the rougher edges. One advantage of the Tiptronic is the ease with which you can use your left foot to trail the brakes into the corners, settling the front end and giving a more decisive turn-in while overlapping your throttle input to make the most of that trademark corner exit traction. The manual mode offers a degree more control, upshifting promptly with a tap of the stick but a little slower on the way down through the gears, the larger gaps between the four ratios making it harder to find stabilising engine braking on corner approach. But it’s a satisfying machine in its own right, the Carrera’s unadorned simplicity and relative daintiness compared with modern cars translating to the driving experience as well as the looks.
The Turbo is a very different experience, not least for its mechanical link to the previous generation of cars and adoption of an evolved version of the 930’s 3.3-litre turbocharged six. Fitted with a larger turbocharger and intercooler the 964 Turbo took the 930’s 300ps/296bhp and 317lb ft and uprated it to 320ps/316bhp and 332lb ft. Although it weighed 130kg more than the final iteration of the 930, the 964 Turbo took a symbolic tenth off the 0–62mph time to record five seconds dead while the newer car’s much improved aerodynamics helped eke the top speed out to 167mph.
They may be based on the same foundations but the look and feel of the Turbo are chalk and cheese. On its dainty 16-inch wheels the narrow bodied Carrera looks positively meek beside the fat-arched and whaletailed Turbo, the 964 picking up from where the 930 left off and putting a sleeker, more modern looking twist on the unabashed muscularity of the ’80s classic. It’s the same inside too, the chunky rim on the three-spoke wheel offering a hint you’ll need something to hold onto once that turbo spools up. This 43,000-mile example is fresh out of restoration and up for a substantial £200,000, demonstrating decisively that this previously underappreciated model is now chasing its super rare S version and the later Turbo 3.6 into truly collectable status.
This one has a thrillingly assertive tickover and growls its way around town with a classic boxer six burble. At these speeds it’s already a more muscular feeling car than the Carrera, the sense of pent-up force tickling the hairs on the back of your neck even when just pootling about.
Once the roads open out the Turbo’s engine subsides to a quiet whoosh, impressive flexibility off boost meaning it’s effortless to drive at what might be described as a brisk cruise. As with all oldschool Turbos though there’s a whole different character once it spools up, the high-pitched whistle from behind you accompanied by an assertive rush of acceleration that always feels like the car is getting just a little carried away with itself. It’s very different from the snappy responses of a modern turbocharged 911, that sense of the boost remaining even when you come off the throttle meaning you often arrive at corners carrying just a little more speed than you anticipated.
“The Carrera looks positively meek next to the fat-arched Turbo“
Strong brakes mean this is rarely a problem, but where in the Carrera you tend to keep a fairly steady speed through the corners the Turbo is a more a process driven experience of bursts of acceleration between them. You don’t pitch the Turbo into the turns on its nose, you take your time to settle it, carry your speed through and then hope you’ve timed your acceleration correctly to get that rush of boost on exit and up the next straight. 320ps/316bhp isn’t a huge amount of power by modern standards but a drive in a Turbo is always rewarding and exciting, albeit one that makes very different demands of you compared with the Carrera. A grand tourer with just a hint of menace, it’s different enough to feel like a separate car in its own right, not simply a variant within a model range.
And so to the RS. Where its ’70s predecessors wore stickers and ducktails and modern equivalents bristle with NACA ducts, wing vents and race car scale aero appendages, the 964 presents a very different proposition. Parked next to the Carrera its lower stance, the camber of the rear wheels and the way the tyres seemingly scrape the arches are all giveaways, likewise the cage visible through the rear screen. But other than that the RS looks pretty much like a standard narrow-bodied Carrera, perhaps one of the reasons it was so misunderstood and undervalued early in its life. Seems laughable given what they go for now but there was a time people just thought it was a harsh, noisy and uncomfortable Carrera without a significant enough on-paper performance advantage to make the compromises worth living with.
As a left-hand drive car this one doesn’t have the power steering fitted to UK market versions, window winders and a blanking plate where the stereo would normally be proving its credentials as a ‘proper’ RS and not the optimistically described ‘touring’ version that offered such indulgences as electric windows and air con. This side of the fully stripped N/GT this is the purist RS and an absolute high water mark for factory-built drivers’ 911s.
Against the opulence of the Turbo the interior of the RS is a lesson in neatly finished minimalism, the fixed racing buckets still leather trimmed and the interior ostensibly complete. But stripped back to the absolute basics, the smaller RS wheel, flat door cards with looped fabric releases and mirror full of roll cage leaving you in no doubt of this car’s priorities.
“It’s very different from the snappy, modern turbocharged 911”
Engaging first gear and releasing the clutch for the first time is enough to confirm that impression, there being absolutely zero slack in any of the RS’s controls. At parking speeds the steering wheel requires a proper heave and there’s effort required to get it on the move. But the instantaneous throttle response is simply magical, the lightweight flywheel meaning there’s very little inertia in the engine and nothing to impede its reactions to the pedal.
Don’t go looking for the RS’s talents on the spec sheet. To appreciate why this car has, finally, earned its place among the great 911s you need to drive it and understand how sound, sensation and interaction matter far, far more than numbers on a page. There are no flat spots in the engine and it picks up from low revs with little hesitation. But the further round the rev counter the needle goes the better it gets and it’s clear it’s happier in the upper reaches of the range where its impatient low-rev clatter opens out into a glorious howl.
The ride is stiff and the wheel hungrily sniffs out camber and surface changes, writhing in your hands and never entirely settled. You could hoover up the miles all day long in the Carrera and do the same with more speed in the Turbo. The RS demands a lot more physical and mental effort to drive at any pace but what you put in you get out. It’s so immersive not once do you wish for a stereo or anything else that might distract or dilute the experience of driving it as hard as you dare. And the more you apply yourself the better it gets, pedal placement and hairtrigger throttle response that noisily scold ham fisted attempts at rev matching smoothing out and inspiring a well-rehearsed choreography of inputs from hands and feet.
Like any 911 driving it properly is best when you’re proactive, reading the road, setting the car up for what’s coming and making your steering and throttle inputs decisive and timed to perfection. Things will get ugly if you try and drive it like a modern car, arriving at corners with no plan and expecting the car to flatter you despite your lack of foresight. Anyone can go quickly in a modern RS Porsche. But to go truly fast takes real talent and application and here the 964 RS demonstrates a common bond with all Porsches to wear this esteemed badge. And quite what diversity there is within a range of cars many would consider represents the perfect intersection between the classic 911 experience and the modern 911 experience.
There are 911s to suit all tastes. The one Porsche launched 30 years ago is in with a shout of being a definitive one though.
CONTACT Specialist Cars of Malton spe cialis tcars ltd.co .uk