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Driving 50 Years of Porsche 911

December 1, 2016

In the summer of 2013, we gathered an example of each generation of the Porsche 911 and drove them back-to-back for our feature film "50 Years of the 911".  The film can be found here.  This article was written during the shoot.  It's being reproduced here in the run-up for our film "ICON" which traces similar generational changes of BMW's M3.

 

 

 

Trying to encapsulate 50 years of the Porsche 911 is a rather daunting task.  What can be said about an Icon that hasn’t already been mentioned?  Could anyone write a new assessment of Marilyn Monroe’s beauty or the scale of the Roman collesium?  Yet, here I stand with a dozen 911s parked right in front of me and the enviable task of tracing this icon’s development.  No matter who has done this before, I intend to jump at the chance.

 

First things first, I am not 911 guru, and I’m not a Porsche zealot.  Over the years I’ve reviewed hundreds of enthusiast cars, and nearly every model in Porsche’s current line-up.  Yet somehow I’ve never gotten much seat time in the iconic 911.  Prior to this gathering I’d driven two of the cars gathered here:  a late 80s 3.2 Carrera, and a mid 2000s 997.  So I come to this with few pre-conceived notions and no 911 bias.

This group of 911s has been brought together for a documentary on the first 50 years being done by our show “Everyday Driver”.  My co-host, Paul, is a Porsche owner and zealot, and he’s found generous owners who can’t wait to share their cars and their 911 stories for our cameras.  The oldest car here is a 1967 911 with only 130hp.  The newest car is a guards red 991 4S cabriolet with 400hp and the PDK transmission.  It’s only three weeks old.

 

We spend this first day getting into every car here.  The owners share their stories: some are die-hard Porsche-philes and others are newbies realizing a life long dream to own a 911.  Unsurprisingly, they’ve all drunk the Porsche Kool-aid.  Some of them seem like members of the company’s PR department.  One turns out to be a Porsche mechanic, and of course he has nothing but glowing things to say about the reliability and engineering of the 911.  To his credit, his personal 1971 911T (the base touring model where every single nicety was a factory option) is one of the most pristine cars all day.

 

In the days to come we’ll drive our way through the generations, spending at least a half-day with each model from the oldest to the newest.  We have eight models to focus on, each representing a major change in the car’s development.  In an effort to level the playing field, all of them are naturally aspirated and most of them are two wheel drive.  Even after those limitations, it’s still a lot of 911s.  This isn’t like drinking from a firehose, but more like waking up at the bottom of the Porsche ocean and trying to grow gills. 

 

1967 911 – “Ollie”

 

While the 911 was first revealed in 1963, it didn’t make it to American shores until early 1965.  This car, made two years later, was considered heavily optioned and state of the art for the time.  Inside the strange olive exterior are first generation three point seatbelts with no tensioners and little adjustment.  The seatbacks don’t rise past my shoulder blades and feel like an old couch.  The “vent-windows” behind the A-pillar provide the only air-conditioning as there are no vents of any kind on the dash or console.

The car feels and smells old school, but it seems normal enough.  In front of me is a large thin-rimmed wood steering wheel, three pedals, and a stick shift.  Then I’m informed this is a dog-leg transmission, meaning first gear is down and left, leaving two-through-five in an “H” pattern of their own.  Reverse is like a scavenger hunt in the vague area where first is found on other cars.  The throws are so long that I’m punching my thigh in first gear and the passenger seat in fifth.

 

I find first, push the revs high, and we’re underway.  The paltry 2.0liter engine put out 130hp on its very best day and that feels some time ago.  But the car is eager enough and happy to explore high-revs and search for power.  The engine clatters and ticks in the way reserved for these flat air-cooled engines.  It’s a distinctive sound to the older 911s and many will wax nostalgic about the noise without ever acknowledging how much it sounds like a classic VW.

 

Some of the most loved traits of the 911 can be found in this 1967.  The pedals are floor hinged and off-set toward the center of the car.  The unassisted steering transmits everything from the light and talkative front end.  And even though there’s a lot of body roll, I can still sense the big mass of weight behind me. 

 

This doesn’t feel like a sports car.  All the racing prowess to come feels impossible to achieve from this old platform.  I feel like I’m sitting on the car, with plenty of foot and shoulder room but no sense that I’m plugged into the cockpit.  On the tight mountain roads of our test day, there’s a dance required.  Information comes from every direction and the driver rides a wave of controlled chaos.  The tiny tires are only four and a half inches wide and the rear wheels are the farthest forward they will ever be for the 911. (In 1969, Porsche moved the rear axle back two inches in their first attempt to address the car's oversteering nature)  All your limbs are involved to squeeze out power and keep this car on track.  Paul describes the experience as being a marionette, and we both agree that few cars have ever involved us more than this one.  It feels fun and special, but it’s not easy or fast.

 

When I climb out of the 1967 for the last time I realize I’m going to miss this car.  Even though I’ve rarely driven slower while testing a vehicle, the fully analog experience and un-refined nature of this model are endearing rather than annoying.  I wouldn’t want to own this generation, but it is a rolling time-machine in many ways.  If you long for the good-old-days, they don’t get much better than this.

 

1978 SC

 

Even though Porsche moved the rear axle in 1969, many of the first major revisions to the 911 came in 1974.  The US had new bumper regulations for all car-makers and while cars like the Jaguar E-Type were completely ruined by large bumper add-ons, the 911 complied with subtle accordian bumpers and an increase in ride height.  The car we have for our day of testing is nearly ten years newer than the first car, but we had brief drive in a 1973 model tuned for Autocross.  At the time I didn’t think the 1973 was relevant to our discussion, but once I climb into the 1978 SC, I realize it serves as a good bridge from the first car to this SC.

 

The body shell of the SC is the same as “Ollie”, but the decade between these first two cars make them seem like different models.  The engine has grown to 3.0Liters and power has increased to 180hp.  These are not huge strides, but the SC is much easier to launch and move with modern traffic.  The gearbox has changed as well, becoming to a traditional H pattern with first in the upper left and reverse in the lower right.  The throws are still enormous, feeling more like a truck transmission than a sports car.  I long for the short shifter in the 1973 autocrosser, but I know that this long version was standard.

 

Compared to the early generation, the SC does feel like the beginning of something big in the racing world.  The chrome and wood of the older model has given way to black and leather, with orange gauge needles suggesting focus.  The seats also go a long way in connecting me with this car.  In place of the low-backed couches are a classic version of a modern racing seat with decent bolsters and a high integrated headrest.

 

The SC is still not a fast car, but the float in corners has all but disappeared.  This one has been lowered back to the European ride height (A common adjustment among classic 911 owners) making the car feel as Porsche intended.  The tires are wider and the smaller leather wrapped steering wheel helps give the direct steering a more controlled feel.  The rearward shift in the axle has softened the pendulum sensation of the rear and the chaos of the early model has been replaced with a grounded confidence.

When we finished with the SC I find myself wanting more, as the chassis now seems capable of greatness.  I wish for more power and better tires.  I know they are coming.  

 

1987 3.2 Carrera

 

This 3.2 Carrera represents an interesting era in the 911, for both historic and personal reasons.   At first glance, a late 80s car without power steering, ABS brakes, or a liquid cooled engine seems like a car from the dark ages.  But when you consider this was going to be the last variation of the 911 before being replaced by the 928, then the lack of updated technology begins to make sense.  Once Porsche decided to keep the quirky but well loved 911, these 3.2 Carreras benefitted from new investment, even as Porsche began working on an all new 911.

 

Personally, the whale-tailed 3.2 marked the first time I noticed the 911.  I faintly remember seeing a red car like this in my early car-geek memories, and this bug-eyed creature may as well have been a Formula 1 car to my young mind.  Peering in the window, the rectangle-center steering wheel was burned into my brain as the way a Porsche looks on the inside.  In fact, this memory was stored away unknown to me until climbing into this car so many years later and realizing it just felt… right.  Some part of my brain believes 911s should look like this car, and a lot of my car awareness began right here.

 

Other than the rectangular wheel, the interior isn’t much different than the SC.  These cars feel much closer than the ten years between them.  The big changes on the 3.2 Carrera are all under the skin and don’t reveal themselves until you start to drive and interact with the car.

 

The engine is the biggest change, having now grown to a size similar to modern 911s, and finally breaking the 200hp barrier.  In the US, the standard Carrera had only 217hp, but in Europe it had as much as 240.  The turbo was also available, but many potential buyers shied away due to stories of the Turbo’s sudden boost and widow-making snap oversteer.

 

American buyers did like the wide-fender look of the Turbo, and Porsche responded with the M491 option, more commonly known as the “Turbo look” 911.  This little option box gave you the wider stance and turbo suspension without the Turbo powertrain.  We met one owner with a rare Turbo look cabriolet which he drives year round, hunting, fishing, skiing and racking up more than a quarter million miles.  While I doubt I’d use the car the same way, I applaud him and marvel at the cars reliability.

 

The other big change in the Carrera was the introduction of the G50 transmission, a stout five speed with an upper left reverse, shorter throws and a solid action.  This was the pinnacle of Porsche’s early transmissions, and carries over from this generation through the 993.  After learning the manuals in 67 and SC, this one is a revelation and quickly falls back into the subconscious part of my brain normally in charge of finding the right gear.

 

This is still not a lightening quick car, but easy to drive and definitely fast enough to feel like a sports car, even today.  I think of the FRS & BRZ a few times while driving the Carrera as they have a similar feeling.  You won’t win any drag races, but on a back road you can achieve ludicrous speeds and hang on to the corners.  The only warning lurking in the back of my mind is the solid but slow-stopping brakes.  I found triple digits in this car, but always with plenty of space to slow early.

 

Driving the 3.2, I decide this is the oldest 911 I would buy.  It maintains the organic connection of the earlier models, but it seems fast and modern enough to survive in the real world of traffic and road trips.  The air-conditioning is still woefully inadequate, but at least it tries.  And while old, it doesn’t feel brittle or in need of any coddling.  I truly believe I could take this car for a night out or a day at the track.  

When I give the keys back I know I’ll wind up on-line later looking at prices on a 3.2.  

 

1989 964 C4 – The new 911

 

There’s a somewhat famous story about Peter Schutz, Porsche’s CEO during the 1980s, arriving at the company and finding everyone in a state of depression about the impending death of the 911.  The 924 had replaced the 912, the Porsche 4 cylinder, so in product planning terms the 928 was primed to replace the 911.  But the 911 was so beloved by employees and customers that ending it still seemed wrong to many.

 

The story goes that Schutz walked into the product planning office, grabbed a marker, and drew a line extending the 911s timeline off the end of the planning board.  A symbolic gesture, but one that resulted in a thoroughly new 911 when the 964 model came out in 1989.

 

In the late 80s, Porsche had stunned the world with the technology laden 959.  This first of Porsche’s hyper-cars had AWD, adjustable suspension, and a 200mph top speed nearly two decades before those things became common on other hyper-cars.

 

With the 964, Porsche was determined to debut technologies from the 959 in a car relevant to more of their customers.  As a result, the first 964s were only available as AWD Carrera 4 models.  The styling takes cues from the buttoned-down flowing lines of the 959, gains integrated smooth bumpers, and loses its hips.  The whale tail vanishes in favor of the first automatic spoiler, a cool party-trick for anyone watching, but completely out of sight for the driver.

 

Other more common technologies now found their way into the 911.  For the first time the car had power steering, and ABS.  Coil springs and airbags also found their way into the 911, and eventually the first Tip-Tronic automatic transmission.  Overall, Porsche claimed the car was 85% new while maintaining the basic body shell of the originals.

 

From behind the wheel the 964 feels as advertised, a similar car with a host of new technology on board.  The raw sensations have all been muted.  The extremely similar cabin feels a bit tighter somehow, even though I know it isn’t.  Porsche has done a great job of maintaining most of the steering feel, but the car feels bogged down compared to the 3.2.

 

The AWD system is mechanical and takes a bit of the wiggle out of the notoriously active rear end.  Most of the time I don’t feel it, but on a few corner exits an extra tug is transmitted through the wheel.  The tail happy nature has been replaced by the faintest hint of understeer.  Then, when make a U-turn, I realize the 964 has the turning radius of a long bed pickup.

 

Ultimately, I sense the burden on this car to integrate many new things into one model year.  The 964 feels heavier and slower than the 3.2, even though power is up to 250hp.  The steering still has lots of feedback, but the power assist has silenced some of the information and the front end isn’t as light.  It’s a fun car, and quite impressive for the late 80s, but in the progression of the 911 the 964 feels like a stepping stone, a transition toward the future.  Of course, that’s exactly what it is.

 

1996 993 C4