Over fifty years of continuous production. Countless podiums making motorsports history. A brave design that’s stood the test of time. People from different backgrounds and different parts of the world have been building cars for well over a century. In 1963, what may be the most elegant connection between man and machine was formed. The classic Porsche 911 is quite simply one of the most influential and important performance cars in history.
When the aging four-cylinder 356 was deemed developed as far as it can go, it was replaced by the six-cylinder 911. Now that Porsche had a bigger budget and over a decade of experience in road cars under its belt, the brand was able to build something even better, more powerful, and better looking. When the 911 was introduced, nothing looked like it, sounded like it, or drove like it save the 356 it was replacing. The rear-mounted, air-cooled, flat engine was an idea that Ferdinand Porsche applied to the Volkswagen Beetle and carried over to the brand bearing his own name that was mostly run by his son Ferry.
But how did a car that was so underpowered compared to its competition become a world-class sports car? In terms of raw horsepower, the quirky flat-six in the 911 wasn’t even close to big American V8’s. A Chevy Corvette could be had with more power for less money. To combat this, Porsche marketed the 911 for exactly what it was. A German sports car which was mostly hand-built with dramatic attention to detail that was set to a higher standard than any US competitor. The public recognized that and it was a hit with demand outweighing supply.
What set it apart from other sports cars is how easy it was to drive fast (once you get past the rear-engine learning curve) thanks to the unique configuration, compact design, and sublime balance. It was one of the first production cars that you could easily drive to the track, race, and drive home. The 911 revolutionized racing as a hobby rather than a profession. Since Porsche started off as a scrappy little company that was a spin-off of Volkswagen, they didn’t have enough money to produce both racing cars and production cars. Their solution was to make the ultimate production racecar.
To continue the immediate success of the 911, Porsche heavily got into rally racing. They knew racing was good for the brand image of a sports car and rally was especially popular in Europe where they sold about half of their cars. Porsche became the first manufacturer to win the Monte Carlo Rally three years in a row thanks to the 911. It was the perfect platform for a rally car. This lead Porsche to start modifying 911’s into rally cars for consumers. Factory modifications included more headlights, off-road friendly tires, and skid plates.
The early 1970’s saw a major shift in management at Porsche. Ferry Porsche met with his family and decided that there were people in the company better suited to run it than themselves, so they voluntarily stepped aside. For the first time, nobody in the Porsche family was involved in the day-to-day operations of the company. The new CEO Ernst Fuhrmann decided the 911 was going to be the best sports car in the world. He went about executing that by investing more in racing with the Carrera RS. The Carrera RS was a track variation of the 911 that was gutted for weight and fitted with a more powerful engine.
As for the production 911, forced induction was introduced via the 930 Turbo Carrera. Porsche was one of the first car manufacturers to use turbochargers and the first one to do it with spectacular results. The 911 finally had the raw power to compete with higher displacement engines without losing its balance and driving dynamics. This also came with strong aesthetic changes like flared fenders, fat rear tires, and the now famous “whale tail” spoiler. Other variations to follow included the outstanding naturally aspirated 911SC, the all-wheel drive Carrera 4, and more.
When the classic 911 ended in 1989, it was continued in the form of the 964. The 964 borrowed technology from the 959 supercar. This was an important update as Porsche could no longer rely on brand image alone to sell cars. The aesthetic was true to the classic 911 while having lots of modern technology and engineering underneath like all-wheel drive, airbags, anti-lock brakes, and power steering.
The 911 saw another major update in 1994 with the 993. This is the darling of many Porsche enthusiasts as it was the final air-cooled 911. It’s widely praised for combining modern tech and classic heritage making it the sweet spot of the 911 for many purists. In 1998 it was replaced by the controversial 996 introducing a liquid-cooled engine and questionable styling with “fried egg” headlights making it look an awful lot like the cheaper Boxster. This was the first major redesign of the 911 body in 34 years. In 2005 it was replaced by the more widely accepted 997 which looked more like a 993.
Since 2012, we’ve had the fantastic 991 carrying on the 911 legacy. It’s predominantly aluminum making it larger and lighter than the 997 while bearing a classically styled modern look and continuing world-class performance. Some say it’s too big, some are still mad that it’s liquid-cooled, but get behind the wheel and you’ll be hard pressed to think of any complaints.
The design philosophy inside and out of the 911 has always been about gradual evolution rather than year-to-year model changes. Porsche is obsessed with creating the finest sports car in the world rather than marketable gimmicks or features. They’ve taken steps in further developing the platform when a new design or new technology was ready and perfected to their standards. A fixation on quality over quantity is in the fabric of every 911 that can be felt by the driver with every shift and every turn in every drive. Purists can say what they want about changes like liquid-cooling and all-wheel drive, but the inimitable charm and incredible performance of the Porsche 911 will live forever in one spectacular form or another.