October 22, 1964 proved to be a fateful day. The 53rd, 54th, and 55th Porsche 911s were built that day, only they weren’t called 911s. See, a year earlier at the 50th Paris Motor Show the Porsche 901 had debuted. Reaction was mixed. So big! So fat! It’s true—much of the assembled press bemoaned how much larger and heavier the 901 was compared to the 356 it would replace. Sound familiar? I’m sure some car scribes dug it, though. One critic that landed firmly on the “non” side was Peugeot, and not because of the physical car. Peugeot sold X0X cars—the 403, for example—and let Porsche know that in several key markets (like France) Peugeot controlled that naming convention. The 901 moniker would violate that. Rather than get the lawyers involved, Ferry Porsche (eventually) made the decision to simply change the name, and voilà! The Neunelfer, das 911, the sports car all others want to be when they grow up, was born. Production began in September of 1964, and just over eighty 901s were built before the name was changed.
Everything that made a Porsche 911 a 911, and what continues to do so to this day, was there. Amazingly, I should add, it was all just there. The sloping profile, the large headlights, the biggish rear seat (big for a 2+2, at any rate), the rear-mounted boxer six-cylinder engine with a transaxle in front of it, the five gauges—all that essential stuff was baked right into the 901 and can still be found there today. Much more the progenitor than any sort of missing link, the 901 is analogue to the Gmünd 356s, the first 50 or so Porsches ever built at the workshop in Gmünd, Austria, before the company moved to Zuffenhausen. Both the 901s and the Gmünd cars are a bit older, a bit more interesting, but “same same,” as my two-year-old is fond of saying. Back to the 901 specifically, I find it amazing that 55 years later, all that DNA is still there. Pity, though, about the 992’s digital gauges …
Much, much, much—that’s three instances of “much”—more amazing is that just over 20 years later, Porsche released the 959. Let’s go with flabbergasting. Work on Gruppe B, as the 959 was first known, began in 1983, less than two decades after the 901, or the Ür 911, if you will. Going from 901 to 959 in that time frame is, technologically speaking, akin to going from a WWI-era biplane fighter to the F-16. Whereas the 901/911 was air-cooled, rear-wheel drive, naturally aspirated, and good for 130 hp, the 959 sports water-cooled heads (with air-cooled pistons), is all-wheel drive, has two sequentially arranged turbochargers, and spat out 450 hp way back when Porsches were manufactured in Westdeutschland. Think about it: Porsche released the 992 in 2019, and the Carrera 4S is water-cooled, AWD, twin-turbo, and produces—wait for it—450 hp. It took the 911 over 30 years to catch up to the 959, and the base car still hasn’t! And has the 992 caught up? Its top speed is 191 mph. The 959 could go 197 mph. Oh, and the 959 Sport could hit 211 mph. Remember, the state-of-the-art, mega-billion-dollar F-35 Lightning II can hit 1,200 mph. The F-16 Fighting Falcon, first flown in 1974, can go 1,500 mph.
Comparing these two cars, the 901 to the 959, is perhaps pointless. It’s like describing the difference between an elephant and an ant. Possible to do, but why bother? Or perhaps I’m just not a deft enough auto scribe to pull it off. Could be. Could also be that the two are so wildly, strikingly, fundamentally different, there’s just not a point. Still, I can tell you how each Porsche drives as I was treated (emphasis on treat) to two days with ’em both, on the road and Sonoma Raceway. Here goes.
The 901 feels old. Perhaps “classic” is a kinder way to put it, but let’s be adults. The red 901 drives like an old car with good steering. But the dog-leg shifter is vague, the power isn’t powerful, and although the steering feel is both admirable and better than anything else from 1964, the rack is slow, the suspension is clumsy, and the tires don’t offer much in the way of grip. As a museum piece, the 901 is nearly without peer. As a driver’s car? Did I mention I spent two days in a 959?
The 959 entered production in 1987. I was 12 years old and had been mesmerized by the joy of car magazines for a few years at that point. One thing I was sure of, the Shelby Cobra 427 was the quickest car ever because it could hit 60 mph in 4 seconds flat. All the buff books said so, and that number made sense because the Ol’ Shel stuffed a monster motor into a little tiny car. It’s not rocket science, it’s muscle car science. Big engine, little car, that’s the magic formula. Then this odd-looking 911 showed up, and using every high-tech trick known to Porsche, ran to 60 mph in 3.6 seconds. My little world was rocked, my little mind was blown. What about all the Detroit-centric mantras I’d been fed? Are these Germans telling me there is a replacement for displacement? Basically, yes. Books, literal books, have been written about the jaw-droppingly advanced paradigm-overturningness of the 959 (I recommend Porsche 959: Birth of a Legend by Jürgen Lewandowski). The Porsche wasn’t the cutting edge; it was the very concept of knife sharpening.
Where to even start? The most powerful 930, aka the 911 Turbo, had a 3.3-liter turbocharged flat-six that made 325 hp and 319 lb-ft of torque when fitted with the optional, Europe-only Werksleistungssteigerung kit. The most powerful 930 we ever got in the U.S. made 296 hp and 304 lb-ft of torque. The 959 made 450 hp and 370 lb-ft. Remember, back in the day, the 930 routinely beat up on Ferraris and Lambos. It was a supercar of the first order. The 959 humbled it, as well as every other car.
The list of what makes the 959 so special is real long, but highlights include: water-cooled heads; sequential turbocharging; a variable front-to-rear all-wheel-drive system; computer-controlled damping; aluminum, Kevlar, and Nomex body construction; driver-adjustable suspension height (though Citroën did offer that one back in 1955); tire pressure monitoring; hollow magnesium wheels; a 0.31 drag coefficient; the effective elimination of lift (important for the fastest production car the world had ever seen)—the list goes on and on. Just know that Porsche sold the 959 for $225,000 and lost about $275,000 on each one. They cost about a million bucks today.
And now, finally, after 15 years of doing this professionally, and 30-plus years of longing and dreaming, I get to drive a 959! Right here is the point where I implore you stop reading the nonsense coming from my fingertips and instead watch the nonsense pouring from my lips. I think I actually teared up in the video. Shameful? Totally, but it’s not often that Ahab gets his white whale. On camera, too. The silver/gray car I drove is actually a 1986 pre-production beaut—one of 18 examples of the 959 kept by the Porsche Museum. Did I mention the grayscale cloth seats? Technically, this is a 959 Komfort, as it has the adjustable ride height and more, well, comfort.
Below 4,500 rpm the 959 drives like a normal car. There was actually an early Lexus quality to the experience. The interior parts felt like they belonged to the 1980s but were of high quality. At normal speeds, doing normal things, the only indication you’d have you’re driving a million-dollar museum car was a soft yet audible whoosh from an unseen blow-off valve. I found it calming. Plus below first gear on the shift lever is a gear called “G” that stands for Gelände, German for terrain. You might be familiar with the term from Geländewagen, the actual name of Mercedes’ G-Wagen. On the 959, G is a super-low first gear meant for off-roading. Remember, the 959 was initially designed as a Group B rally car. Back to driving.
Keep the throttle down, and a magical handshake occurs between the two turbos, more like the passing of a baton from a marathoner to a sprinter. For you see, just shy of 5,000 rpm the big turbo takes over from the little guy—and it’s glorious. First thing you need to know is that the sequential turbocharging doesn’t hit like a grenade. Instead imagine that you’re moving along at a good clip on a roller-coaster that then suddenly slopes straight down. The acceleration is fierce, even by today’s ridiculous standards (the Urus hits 60 mph in 3.0 seconds). Flooring the 959 is worth the price of admission.
The only thing tricky about doing so is that once the second turbo fires, the engine speed climbs dramatically and it’s on you to manually shift that gear. I imagine it’s just the example I drove, but power-shifting into third didn’t always go so smooth. Notchy H-pattern. Redline is 7,000 rpm, so you have just 2,500 rpm or so to enjoy the big boost. But as it turns out, that’s plenty of time if you’re paying attention. Handling is remarkable for a 30-plus-year-old car, though it’s obvious that the 959 is the forefather of the Turbo, not the GT3. Competent without being edge-of-your-seat thrilling. It’s a bit dull, honestly, until turbo No. 2 comes alive. Then it’s just power and grip and smiles. Full disclosure: There was something wrong with one of the right front double dampers (there are two at each corner) that showed up in fairly extreme situations, like rounding Sonoma Raceway’s Turn 2, a 90-degree uphill right-hander basically under full power. Some sort of creaking, crabbing shudder that I’m sure is an easy, mega-expensive fix. Despite that, what a chassis, what a machine, what a thing!
Earlier I said comparing the 901 to the 959 was nearly impossible. As is my wont, I’m changing my mind. They are similar in their influence on the Porsche brand and the legacy each model left. The 901 begat the 911, the million-plus-units-sold sports car that still charms the world. Remember, the engine’s in the wrong place, it’s just a Volkswagen, and as of 1981 it was going out of production. When Porsche made the (correct and brilliant) decision to give the 911 a stay of execution, it also decided that letting its cars die on the vine wasn’t the way forward. Massive and radical technological innovation would not only win races and thrill customers but would ensure jobs for the workers at Zuffenhausen for decades to come. Despite being a loss leader, the 959 program’s commitment to engineering the near impossible is why the current car is so damn bloody good. We should think of the 901, then, as the grandfather of the modern 911, its ancestor. Meaning the 959 is the current car’s daddy. Yeah, that’s it.
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