The Porsche 911 is the master of evolution.
The progression of Porsche’s flagship model is arguably the greatest sports car story of all time. This remarkable rear-engine machine has been consistently redesigned, redeveloped, enhanced and advanced for nearly 60 years.
Millions of words have been written about the 911. Millions of examples, across a number of variants, have been produced. It is the world's most definitive sports car.
It began life as a 35 bhp-converted Volkswagen Beetle. But over six decades and eight generations, the Porsche 911 went on to define racing success and road reliability. It was adapted and used in nearly every racing category imaginable. It has racked up nearly 30,000 victories across the globe, from Monte Carlo rallies to Le Mans 24 Hours to Paris-Dakar.
Nothing stood the test of time quite like the Porsche 911. Today, it sits among the pantheon of greats. Its mesmerizing, historic shape remains instantly recognizable, the Yankees logo of the auto world. And like all historic sports brands, it attracts millions of worshipers. Some are purists, some are modernists - and some have never even driven one.
But the Porsche 911 almost wasn’t the 911 at all.
Porsche 911: A unique history
1963 was a notable year in history. U.S. president John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The Beatles recorded their debut album in a day at London’s Abbey Road Studios. The first James Bond movie, Dr No, was released. Alcatraz prison was closed.
And the Porsche 911 finally made its debut at the 1963 Frankfurt Motor Show in Germany.
By the late 1950s, Ferdinand Porsche and son Ferry were well accustomed to building cult and luxury cars. The Volkswagen Beetle enjoyed tremendous commercial success, while the Porsche 356 and 550 models dominated racetracks around the world. The 356, in particular, would go on to become one of the most coveted sports cars in the world and its unique design would influence its successor in the 911.
Porsche’s success and factory growth in Stuttgart clamoured calls for more. Both public and media demanded faster, better, stronger. Porsche answered with a striking silhouetted sports car, adorning a rear-mounted air-cooled six-cylinder engine that produced 130 bhp and a top speed of 210 km/h. Its five-speed gearbox and engineering brilliance thrilled test drivers and automotive enthusiasts alike.
The powerful, new 901 hatchback encapsulated everything triumphant about Porsche race cars in a family-friendly model suitable for daily use. However, at that time, Peugeot held artistic rights on any three-digit model number using a ‘zero’ in the middle, so Porsche hastily changed the 901 to 911. The rest, as they say, is history.
Porsche 911: An evolutionary process
Over the next six decades, many different series and variations of the Porsche 911 would be released. Some were innovative, while others broke new boundaries as Porsche continued to stretch the limits of automotive technology.
One thing, however, remained consistent: the unmistakable lines of the 911 were always present. Porsche took immense pride in the design DNA that catapulted the 911 into motorsport folklore.
Cabriolet-inspired Targa roof (911 T) versions, such as this beautiful example featured on the Racing Edge Paddock, and sports versions (911 S) were launched in the late 1960s. The 911 S was, at the time, Germany’s fastest ever road-worthy sports car and an object of desire. Targa models are still presented in Porsche’s line-ups today, such is their influence and popularity.
That success also extended to the track. The Porsche 911 T and 911 S would give Porsche three successive Monte Carlo Rally wins between 1968 and 1970.
In 1972, Porsche released the first of its ‘Carrera’ models with unique “ducktail” rear spoiler – the first production car to showcase such a characteristic. The Carrera RS and RSR versions were comparatively lighter and faster. With beastly engines that ranged up to 300 bhp, the Carrera was a GT race car for the road.
The 10-year anniversary of the Porsche 911 saw another substantial technological leap with the introduction of turbo-boosted engines. The 911Turbo, or Turbo 930, burst onto the scene with brute thrust and significant design changes. It was the first production 911 to feature a turbocharged engine.
In 1978, Porsche released what they hoped would be the 911’s successor: the 928. But the 350-bhp front-engine 928 was too big, too heavy and too expensive. Not content with just beating rivals outside the factory, the 911 took on its own.
Porsche 911: Racing success
The 1980s proved to be another defining era for both Porsche and the 911.
Porsche initially intended to scrap the 911 in 1981. But new CEO Peter Schutz had other ideas. Schutz could see Porsche sales were slumping and, with the decision to stop producing the 911, employee morale was low. His next move is part of Porsche folklore: Schutz walked into the lead designer’s office, where he noticed a chart on the wall. On the chart were three lines showing timelines for three models, with the 911’s line ending in 1981. Schutz took a marker pen from the desk and extended the 911 line off the graph, onto the wall and out of the door.
The 1984 Paris-Dakar Rally saw the Porsche 911 achieve the near impossible. Sporting a now infamous Rothmans livery, the 911 beat the entire SUV field - a racing first for a sports car.
McLaren’s Niki Lauda and Alain Prost won three Formula 1 world titles between 1984 and 1986, in cars supplied with Porsche engines.
The 450-bhp Porsche 959 was launched, with its revolutionary electric four-wheel drive and twin-turbo engine. At the time, the 959 was the fastest sports car ever produced. At the 1986 edition of the Paris-Dakar, Porsche scooped first, second and sixth with three adapted 959 models.
The 959 would go on to influence several 4WD versions of the 911 that are still available today.
In 1988, Porsche revealed another intrinsic 911 series: the 964. Featuring the same, iconic 911 design, the 964 was effectively a new car underneath. With optional four-wheel drive and a 250-bhp engine, the 964 was expensive to produce but became a sought-after classic. A racing version was also produced for the Porsche Carrera Cup, the most successful manufacturers’ competition to this day.
The 1990s: Time to move on
The late 1990s brought arguably the biggest shift in Porsche 911 history. The era of the 911’s previously air-cooled engine ended. Instead, Porsche embraced newer technologies to satisfy both emission regulations and economic demands.
The legend still remains that only models with air-cooled engines can be considered ‘true 911s.’
In 1994, Porsche released the last of its air-cooled models before its transition to water cooling. The 993 Series roared to a top speed of 280 km/h and saw Porsche return to its roots, basing the model on the original 911. Quite simply, Porsche ended an era with an almighty bang.
Four years’ later, the 996 Carrera Series entered the fray with its controversial ‘fried egg’ headlights and water-cooled engine. But for all its absurdity, the 996 remains one of the best-selling 911 models to date. It blitzed production sports car records at the Nürburgring and the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb and later became the GT3 Cup Car – Porsche’s most popular race car. The 996 inspired the notorious GT1, which claimed an impressive double victory at Le Mans in 1998.
Throughout the 2000s, Porsche has continued to revolutionise the 911. The 997 saw a welcome return for the classical, rounded headlights while the 997/2 embraced the direct-inject engine and 7-speed gearbox. The 911 GT2 RS, with 620 bhp, remains the fastest production 911 of all time.
The Porsche 911 is still revered in the present day. The 992 Series, launched in 2019, brings the 911 into its eighth generation: no other production sports car has been anywhere near as timeless.
Cars with rear-mounted engines are often fun to drive: it requires a degree of skill to negotiate the complexity and understeer. That is what makes the Porsche 911 so appealing. It can take a lifetime to understand and master. And just when you think you have nailed it, another more powerful version is released.
The Porsche 911 will go down in history as one of the greatest sports cars ever made. It is immortal in its stature and is truly a race car for the road. And even if you do want to race it, you only have to change a few parts.