- Sep 6, 2013
Driving 50 years of Porsche 911 history
It seems everyone is celebrating anniversaries this year: it's Aston's hundredth, Lamborghini's fiftieth, Ford Mustang's fiftieth, Chevy Corvette's sixtieth – and Tesla just turned ten or something. It's been a little out of hand, frankly, all these forced marketing festivities, but if we had to pick one milestone to really celebrate hard and party all night, the Porsche 911 would be at the top of our list.
Get ready for a major 911 blowout bash at next week's Frankfurt Motor Show. It was on September 12 back in 1963 at this very show where Porsche unveiled its "901" painted in a rather boring shade of beige. Though drably finished, the car caused a worldwide frenzy in the budding German sports car sphere.
There have been non-stop "50th Anniversary 911" parties since January 1st in every corner of the globe. We recently attended what is likely the best of them all, a sort of hands-on driving party of every 911 generation at the very test track that makes these cars what they are – the seemingly humble circuit out behind Porsche's skunkworks at Weissach in Germany. It might be small, but it's the perfect venue for quickly wringing out both Porsches and the loose nut behind the wheel.
An admission: All 911 generations were on hand, but we decided to respectfully skip both the 997 and 991. We took the day as more of an opportunity to rediscover the roots of 911 passion, especially with our limited time and several other journalists clamoring for drives. So, we drove original 911s, 930s, a 964, a couple of 993 variants, and one of the earliest water-cooled 996 models.
We drove original 911s, 930s, a 964, a couple of 993 variants, and one of the earliest water-cooled 996 models.
Porsche first handed us the keys to a red 402-horsepower (all figures SAE) 993 Turbo 3.6 coupe from 1995. This was the first 911 Turbo to come with two turbochargers and permanent all-wheel drive, and we piloted this gem on the first leg of our journey to Weissach.
This first production version of all-wheel drive for the 911 was, well, only okay. It offered lots of push through hot corners, but thanks in no small part to the multi-link rear suspension that debuted on this generation, we had one of our favorite joy rides of all time. The 993 may also be the most beautiful 911 ever, and the mating of the M64/60 flat-six to the six-speed Getrag G50 manual transmission turned this Turbo into a modern marvel. We loved this first leg of our drive – the sun was out and the Turbo 3.6 was just loving the clear air. How could it get any better than a romp in one of Porsche's last air-cooled flat-sixes?
At our midpoint stop in a medieval Swabian town center that looked like it was right out of a Hollywood film, we quickly grabbed the keys to another car, a Clay Red 1967 911 2.0 Targa. It's such an important car, and a surprising number of people still believe the cabriolet/convertible preceded the Targa and don't really know why the Targa top was created.
In the past, we've driven this track as if on fire, but those were new models and these were cars from Porsche's own museum collection.
Ragtop 911s, as Porsche stalkers know, didn't appear until 1982. The earlier Targa, on the other hand, was created specifically in response to new North American crash regulations for rollover passenger safety – not because of any specific spontaneous Porsche aesthetic invention. Playing with this sweet little '67 and its original 128-hp flat-six was brilliant. We enjoyed the four-speed 901 gearbox, though we kind of missed that insidious dog-leg first gear of the five-speed factory conversion. Owners of classic 911s know that the original four-speed (or the five also) can frequently be a bit of a dog to deal with, but we loved it in this car. There was no loose play at all in the steering rack, either, a common foible that many owners dismiss as charming. It isn't.
After driving the second stint all the way to Porsche Tech Heaven at the gates of Weissach, we were then instructed to bring the cars onto the test track itself. We were shortly told to drive like moonshine runners for several laps using these same classic cars we had brought over from Zuffenhausen. In the past, we've driven this track as if on fire, but those were new models and these were cars from Porsche's own museum collection. Remarkable.
The guy we partnered with actually owns a classic 911 with a four-speed 901 gearbox, so we let him drive first so that we could observe him work the shift lever from the passenger seat. We were confident, but wanted to see someone who knows this machinery well make it work while pushing it around the track at upwards of 6,500 rpm. Our partner was very sweet to the precious machinery, rarely pushing the Mezger-Piëch Type 821 overhead-cam 2.0-liter beyond 5,500 revs.
The 2.0-liter engine, which had just gone through its full break-in phase after a recent museum rebuild, was eager to go.
When we switched seats and had our go at it, the day turned even more magical. The sun still washing over the track, the car's Solex overflow carburetors still loving the clean and warm air, and its 2.0-liter engine, which had just gone through its full break-in phase after a recent museum rebuild, was eager to go.
We were soon sliding the '67 Targa 2.0 across the track's entire width to keep as much momentum as possible. We were initially concerned that our esteemed colleague in the passenger seat would disapprove of our tactics (especially since we were on softer winter tires due to recent odd weather) but we were delighted to hear him instead laughing, obviously enjoying our antics.
We drove this 911 classic in Targa trim with all original equipment, as hard as it could be driven, and it simply shined. Even with the old torsion-beam rear axle neutralizing some of its dynamic ability, it was spectacular fun. In fact, the soft winter tires actually made up for some of the design's inherent inadequacies by affording some added "squish" through the turns. Best of all, we were able to keep the 2.0 on the tails of the Turbos and 993s and 964s that clogged Weissach's hallowed tarmac.
Nothing damages the value of any 911 more than that absolutely horrible five-speed Tiptronic.
Under the gun with time evaporating, we quickly snagged another set of keys. All we could find unclaimed was a 1998 996 Carrera S Cabrio, our chance to feel the difference water-cooling makes. On the other hand, this cabrio was equipped with the first version of Porsche's five-speed Tiptronic gearbox, including those notorious "thumbers" on its heavily stylized steering wheel. It was easy to note the 996's dramatic upgrades in chassis comportment, safety equipment and material usage, as well as greatly reduced noise, vibration and harshness. In the end, the Carrera S cabrio struck us as a sensational sports car that required an amazingly low amount of effort to guide around the track versus the 1967 Targa with which we had just conquered the world. Or rather, it would have, if it weren't for that transmission. Nothing damages the value of any 911 more than that absolutely horrible five-speed Tiptronic. When we think of how good today's dual-clutch PDK transmission has become, that five-speed Tip is simply embarrassing. Oh, well, the road to progress has to start somewhere.
After executing four exceedingly easy fast laps with the 996, we had time for one more stint on the dry and relatively warm track. All day long, the assembled throng had been fighting over the chance to drive a "bonus" car that was brought along for us to flog, a white 1987 3.2 Carrera Club Sport prototype fitted with a Getrag G50 five-speed. With many body panels rendered in aluminum and some magnesium bits (enough for a 155-pound weight loss versus a contemporary 3.2 Carrera), we were out there running this 228-hp 911 bumper-to-bumper with 996s, 997s and 991s. Along with the G50 gearing, an independent multilink sport suspension and that divine CS spoiler out back, this Porsche capped an amazing day. It was impossible to assess whether we were more geeked in the 1967 Targa 2.0 911 or in this 1987 930 Club Sport prototype, a car many consider the epitome of the 911 form.
The dust settled, but our adrenaline pumped on. During our entire visit through Zuffenhausen and Weissach to mark 50 years of Porsche-style motoring nirvana, it was striking to see the huge amount of love that the entire staff – indeed, all of Swabia – has for these cars. At Weissach, entire buildings of engineers emptied and came to watch us have at it in these vintage 911s on their test track.
And the party lingers on.