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Driving 50 Years of Porsche 911

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

Even among 911 owners, the 993 elicits special whispers of awe and nostalgia. For many enthusiasts this model is the last and greatest “true 911”. The reasons for all this worship spring not from what this car introduced, but the things that would never return once the last 993 rolled off the assembly line.

The 993 has the last air-cooled flat 6 engine, making this the swan song of the clattering 911 noise. It’s also the last generation to feature a body shell still derived from the original car thirty years before.

Inside the 993 is very familiar. The gauges and dash have the same focus as the 964 and the seating position and room are, of course, identical. The air-conditioning and heating that started to make a difference back in the 3.2 have become actual tools for staying comfortable. A six-speed variant of the G50 transmission has survived the transitions since the 3.2, adding itself and the floor hinged pedals to the list of things that will never be more refined than they are in this model.

From my first roll-out in the 993 I notice the heaviness of the 964 has all but disappeared. So many of the inputs feel the same as the earlier model, and yet the steering feels lighter and closer to the 3.2 than the 964 ever achieved. Driving the 993 makes me understand why the 911 steering is so revered. Having great feedback is to be expected in a non-assisted steering rack, but to maintain nearly all of that information here in the 993 is surprising. I find myself marveling at the steering so intently that the first part of my drive isn’t even very fast. This car talks to me about the pavement, the camber, and all the things 964 muted.

Then I put my foot to the floor and find the 993 is fast even by today’s standards. The engine is the same 3.6liter size as the 964, but Porsche has found nearly 300hp lurking in its air-cooled recesses. The chassis has become all Aluminum, the rear suspension is now a multi-link, and the whole car moves like a slimmed down version of the 964.

I find myself falling for the 993 and marveling at how Porsche’s constant fiddling has improved this car so much over the years. I feel a strong link to the 3.2 and realize they each represent an impressive refining of the models that came before them.

Then I remember all the others who love the 993. All the “lasts” in this car have made them a sought after item for both collectors and Porsche-philes alike. Finding a good 993 under $50,000 is nearly impossible. There are a lot of great cars out there for that kind of money, including some incredible 911s.

So I leave the 993 feeling like I got a night with a prom queen but I’m unlikely to see her again. It was a pleasure, and I now understand why this car is so loved.

1999 996 Cabriolet & 2000 C2

We drove two different 996 models for our documentary. The primary car was a cabriolet, and the top-down experience only further accentuated the changes that came in this generation. The other 996 was a hardtop with a GT2 body kit and numerous refinements for track duty. They were two very different examples of a non-turbo Carrera 2, but I came away with a singular impression.

The 996 marked the first completely new body-shell since the 911s introduction in 1963. The car seems completely re-thought with only the basic shape and engine placement remaining as links to the past. The flat 6 engine continues but becomes a more traditional liquid cooled setup, altering the iconic 911 noise for a slightly different boxer sound.

The exterior grows in all dimensions, but doesn’t retain the 911 hips or round headlights. Instead, the body side of the 996 is almost shapeless and the headlights have integrated turn signals often referred to as “fried egg lighting”. From behind the wheel the view has changed for the first time, with the rounded fender tops fading into wave like shapes that sweep toward the center logo.

The interior is unrecognizable and almost instantly dated. The timeless qualities of the prior generations have been left in an effort to make the 911 experience more comfortable. The result is plastic-heavy console with many swooping lines and a mix of shapes and textures. Even the triangle-centered steering wheel seems like someone was trying too hard to establish something new.

I’m not alone in my feelings, as even some 996 owners will acknowledge the problems I’ve mentioned. However, like the 964, the 996 is tasked with carrying the burden of many changes into the 911 canon. Even today, the 996 is hardly the ruining of an icon and maintains plenty of fans.

The strengths of the 996 are all in the driving experience. This first liquid cooled engine breaks 300hp and gains a wonderful scream at full throttle. It’s a very different sound than the air-cooled engines, but even in this base form there’s a lot of power on tap. The top hinged pedals are now lighter and centered with the driver’s feet. My size 11 shoes have plenty of room for the first time since the original 911 and heel-toe shifts require less gymnastics.

Ultimately, the 996 is the first 911 that’s actually simple to drive. It has definitely lost a number of the 911 quirks and become more of a GT or everyday car. For some, that’s a huge strike against this car, but it does make it safer and more accessible for more people. While I count myself among those car journalists who gravitate toward cars with raw interfaces and quirky demeanors, there’s something to be said for a car this fast and easy to drive. With the 996, the 911 becomes a car you could own with little compromise. And because this isn’t a much-loved generation, used prices are actually affordable. I’m just saying.

2005 997 Carrera

Standing in front of the 997 generation, it looks like the car that should have followed the 993. The styling is incredibly similar to the mid-90s generation, with a return to round headlights, round-top fenders, and the iconic 911 hips. Viewing the generations in order, the 996 seems like the biggest departure in the progressive changes, and the 997 a return to form. Even from behind the wheel, the rounded fenders have returned to frame your vision.

The interior of the 997 gets a complete redesign once again. The plastics have faded into the background and the touch points are now higher quality and influenced by the clean straight lines of the classic 911s. Some of the soft-touch buttons are prone to polish and fade with heavy use, but this is a simple and nice place to be. Of course, Porsche only really makes one interior design at a time and this same basic interior can be found in the Cayennes, Boxsters, and Caymans of this era.

When driving the 997, I can sense a development of everything pioneered in the egg-light car that came before. The ease of use is still here, with simple shifting and perfectly placed pedals. But the steering that lost some feel in the 996 now feels closer to the tight hydraulic assist found in the 993. Overall, the best traits of those two previous generations are combined in nearly every part of the driving experience, while the foibles have been burned away.

The 911s reputation as a usable sports car shines through in the 997. The owner of this car tells us she uses it to take her kids to school, pick up mulch for her garden, and do hot laps at the track. I assume she hasn’t run a track day with kids in the back and mulch in the front, but I never asked. There’s an everyday ease to this car, where commuting and road trips seem not only doable, but inviting. Yet there’s a constant sense this car is an athlete wanting to run 10/10ths for the rest of the day.

As I look out past the dash to see the familiar front fenders in my vision, I can’t help but connect this car to the 993. Both generations are refinements of significant changes introduced before, and they result in better cars. I’m not drawn to the 964 but I like the 993. Similarly, I’m not intrigued by the 996, but the 997 will stay on my mind and possibly ruin my budget.

2013 991 4S Cabriolet

This guard's red C4S is just over three weeks old when we get it on camera. There’s about four-thousand miles on this car which tells me two things: 1) the owner has put over a thousand miles a week on it since he bought it, and 2) he’s extremely generous with his $100,000+ automobile. The other big realization is how much the 911 has grown. Parked beside the earlier generations, the 991 is noticeably longer and wider than all of them and with its twenty-inch wheels and wide stance it seems twice the size of the original 1967 we drove.

Due to extensive use of aluminum and engineers who double as sorcerers, this 911 is both larger and lighter than the 997. The SRT Viper that debuted around the same time as this new 911 was lauded for being shorter than this car. Porsche didn’t use that stat in their own advertising, of course, but it’s still true. This size increase can be felt in nearly ever element of the car, both good and bad.

The interior introduced on the Panamera has now found its way into every car in Porsche’s lineup and the 911 seems grander and more luxurious with this high center console and great mix of buttons and leathers. The seating position is roomy with the comfort of a grand touring car instead of a track weapon. The front passenger shoulder room is improved and the rear seats seem almost ready to accept full size adults. The view from the driver’s seat once again loses the iconic rounded fenders, but the tapering hood looks almost identical to the view from the 996.

This larger size has allowed the rear engine to slide even farther forward and cheat the tail-happy 911 closer to mid-engine balance. The result is a 911 without many of the 911 driving dynamics. In fact, with the PDK transmission and AWD of our test car, the 991 is ridiculously easy to drive your way straight to jail. The platform feels glued to the earth at all four corners. The inputs from steering, brakes, and transmission are all so quick to respond that it seems impossible to find the edge of this car anywhere but a track. As a result our average speeds climb in the 991 and our fast passes by the cameras become faster still. Yet this car doesn’t even breathe hard. At one point I was flying past the camera at triple digits while the cooled seats defended me from the triple digit temperatures. In that moment the capabilities of the 991 seemed quite absurd.

The ease of the 991 brought me to some unexpected conclusions. While many have bemoaned the loss of hydraulic steering in this new generation, I sense the whole car as less raw and compact than 997. In spite of the improvements in weight and engine placement, there’s no denying this feels like a larger car. In fact, it feels less like the other 911s and more like a two-door variation of the Panamera. That may seem controversial, but it’s more of a backward compliment. The Panamera has the best dynamics of any sedan I’ve driven, fast, neutral, and a pleasure to drive. But it doesn’t have the tail happy nature or raw track ready feel of most 911s. And now the 991 moves the icon forward and more similar to the Panamera’s traditional dynamics while leaving behind some of the oddities that made it so unique.

Fifty years ago, I can’t think anyone expected the 911 to survive so long and be so beloved. But Porsche has embraced cutting edge technology to keep their standard-bearer ahead of the competition and lust-worthy for generations. In a world where Nissan makes a world beating supercar, Range Rover makes a two door styling exercise, and GM licenses suspension tech to Ferrari it seems the 911 has evolved away from its origin, but in step with the times.

Drinking the Porsche Kool-aid

After a week of living with 911s from every generation I come away with a newfound and deeply held respect for this icon. The classic models transported me to their amazing analog era. The new ones made me appreciate how the 911 can be the only car you own. And the engineering required to improve this car and overcome the physics of the engine placement gives me an intense respect for the company behind it all.

Looking at all 8 cars lined up together, I think about my favorites. I love the 3.2 Carrera and accessible presentation of all that was analog in the first generation. This is a classic car I would actually own and drive regularly, and they are almost affordable. The 993 springs to mind as it so represents the distillation and refining of what made the car such a beloved oddity. Unfortunately, the prices on all good examples make me laugh and move along. I could imagine owning a 997, and know my wife would fight me for the keys, there’s something great about a car that does that. Plus, I could possibly afford a good used example, which really matters more than anything.

If money were no object, though… I don’t think I’d go for the 911. I gravitate toward small mid-engine cars with two seats and a need to find a winding road or track. So while I walk away with an intense connection to the 911 in all its variations, I find myself wanting a Cayman S. Maybe the GT4… I did say money no object, right?

And while I’m dreaming, I’d get a 997 for my wife. Because I know some days I’d still fight her for the keys.

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