Sunday, July 5, 2009

Feature: Porsche 911 - Mistake gone wright

The year was 1963, and the Beatles just release their first album, Please Please Me, Alcatraz is closed, Martin Luther King Jr. gives his “I have a dream” speech, and President Kennedy was assassinated. This was also the year the Ferdinand Porsche, eldest son to Ferry Porsche, penned what would become the worlds most recognizable sportscar. The 901 concept was shown at the Frankfurt Motor Show that year, and would be in showrooms the very next, renamed the 911. From the get go, the 911 was a controversial car. Like the 356 before it, the 911 featured an engine that hung off the back of the car, literally. Crawl under even today’s new 998, and you’ll see that the back of the engine starts where the rear tires end.


This was the centre of much criticism of the 911. All that weight hanging off the back made the car unstable during cornering. And true enough, early 911’s required a special kind of driver to get the most out of them, while many a private owner found themselves traveling backwards and climbing barriers. With very little weight up front and so much hanging off the back, the car tended to understeer when not pushed hard enough, and violently oversteered if the driver got too aggressive. This meant that the driver had to drive with a special technique, while being conscious that he was on a constant knife-edge. 911 drivers were the creators of the saying, “In like a lamb, out like a lion,” in reference to the best way to get the car around a corner. So the 911 became known as a very difficult car to drive. For a car that would become one of the automotive industries greatest icons, it sure wasn’t off to a good start.


However, the first thing Porsche did was to go racing. This is something that they do very well, and in 1964, Porsche engineers Herbert Linge and Peter Falk entered a 2.0L 130 hp 911 into its first ever motorsport competition, the Monte Carlo Rally. Racing on ice in an unstable car, most didn’t give the German team a chance against the Scandinavian specialists, but the team finish fifth overall to everyone’s surprise. Soon this supposedly undrivable car was taking the racing world by storm. The 911 would go on to win the Monte Carlo Rally, as well as the Targa Florio, the 12 hours of Sebring, the 24 hours of Daytona in 1973. In 1976, the 935 silhouette Group 5 car was released, featuring massive bodywork modifications, followed up by the “Moby Dick” 935 of 1978. This car carried this name due to the sheer size 

of the whale tale rear wing, and the amazing 845 hp pumped out of the 3.2L turbocharged flat-six still hanging out the back. This car would go on to win the 24h Le Mans in 1979. Then to throw everyone for a loop, Porsche unbelievably mastering the toughest race of all, the Dakar rally, not once but twice in a new AWD 959 version of the 911, thus completing the 911’s mastery of all prestigious rally and endurance races. The car not only was a top tier road car, but now its legend as a racer had combined to give the 911 an unequalled pedigree that fed off itself to make it the darling of the sportscar world. Other cars were faster, other cars looked better, but none withstood the test of time like the 911, and none could touch the accomplishments it achieved. But the car was still a handful on the street.


Porsche, being the stubborn Germans that they are, decided they wanted to make the 911 a great handling, practical sportscar that anyone could drive, but they were going to keep the same original design. Never to admit a mistake, which on paper, one must question the sanity of the design, they plugged away, constantly updating the car,

 making it better and better each time. In 1988, the Carrera 4, fitted with AWD, was offered to the public for the fist time, fitted with a 3.6L flat-six putting out 250 hp. The AWD was the one of the first steps to control the “bite back” nature of the car, along with improvements in suspension and the introduction of wider wheels with greater trac

k width. But this didn’t stop Porsche from building absolute madness with the release of the GT2 in 1995. A turbo powered RWD rear-engine car producing between 450 and 600 hp. Built for the track, the car was successful, but instreet guise the car gained the name “Widow Maker.”


With the handling issues gaining head, in 1997 Porsche did the unthinkable and scraped the air-cooled engine design for a liquid cooled version. While the Porschephiles were disgusted at first, the increase to 300 hp out of the 3.6L won over all but the most stubborn. This was also the year the maddest incarnation of the 911 yet, was released, the GT1. This sleek beauty would bring home yet another 24h Le Mans victory, and as wild as the car looked on the track, a homologated street version was available for a short time to very lucky customers.

As we entered the 21st century, the 911 became more and more pleasing to the everyday driver as the 996 and 997 models were released. Gone are the cars tendencies to want to kill its driver, (even in 2WD guise now) while the ease of driving, and remarkable versatility in cargo and passenger space goes unchallenged in the supercar world. However the one thing that impresses the most is the cars unmistakable look that has gone nearly unchanged for well over 40 years, and thanks to keeping with this early sixties design, 360-degree vision from the drivers seat is not only the best of any supercar, it out performs just about any modern car on the market.


Today the Porsche 911 Carrera 998 is one of the best cars out there to get around a corner, fast.  What Porsche has done to this 46-year-old design is a truly masterful bit of not only engineering, but also pride. Today, the 998 has evolved into a car that no one else could ever copy, and none have as it is the last rear-engine car built. They have taken that iconic shape, and modernized without changing the overall look of the car. They have increased the quality of the interior, although it still looks the same. Porsche has stayed true to Ferdinand’s forward thinking design that has not lost any of its character, only growing in age. While others build retro copies to relive their glory years, Porsche has never stopped building the 911. The 911 gives the driver the true feeling and excitement of driving a 911, but made it safer, more versatile, yet faster. The 998 really only has shape and drivetrain layout in common with the original 911 from 1964, but to drive the 998, you are undeniably sure you’re driving a 911, and it forces you remember why these cars are so great.

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