In September 1963, at the IAA Frankfurt Motor Show, Porsche unveiled the Typ 901 sports car that would replace the outgoing 356 model. Many sports car enthusiasts and racers thought that Porsche was making a mistake in even trying to replace the 356, such was the staunch and passionate following that the popular sports car had built up around the world. But as much as enthusiasts loved it, the 356 had reached the end of its development curve, as it had become too heavy for racing, while the road car needed modernising and a bit more interior space. The 356 was now coming up against more sophisticated competition all round, and after fifteen years a replacement was definitely needed.
And so it was not without some trepidation that Ferry Porsche gave the instruction to his son Ferdinand Alexander Porsche and in-house designer Erwin Komenda, to each come up with a design for the new model. Komenda’s model, the Typ 754 T9, favoured a four-seat layout, but it was F. A. Porsche’s sporty interpretation of the design brief, the Typ 644 T8, that won the day.
The new Porsche 901, powered by a completely new six-cylinder boxer engine (Typ 901/01), certainly attracted a lot of attention in Frankfurt with its sleek and modern styling, and was ready for performance-hungry drivers in the swinging Sixties. However, the initial euphoria in Frankfurt was swiftly dampened when the car was later shown in Paris and Peugeot announced that they had registered the rights to all three-digit numerical model numbers in France featuring a ‘0’ in the middle, and so the ‘901’ swiftly became the ‘911’ after just 82 models had been produced.
The 2.0-litre capacity of the new 6-cylinder engine was, in the view of Ferry Porsche, quite large enough to deliver the level of performance that he envisaged for the new model. When the engine later grew from 2.2- to 2.4- and then to 2.7-litres, he felt that the capacity increases had gone well beyond what was necessary. However, the market thought otherwise, and soon we were seeing 3.0- and 3.3-litre units, and with turbocharging. Such was the flexibility of the 911 chassis that it could handle the power and deliver the performance on both road and track.
The name Carrera, which is today so intertwined with the 911 model range, came to be used initially by the Stuttgart manufacturer almost casually back in the early 1950s following their success in the Mexican Carrera Panamericana road race. The first production model to bear this name was the 356 A 1500 GS Carrera Coupé in 1956, a name that was reserved for Porsche’s most powerful road model at the time. With the launch of the 901/911 however, the Carrera name was absent and it would be another ten years before the famous Carrera RS 2.7 would make an appearance, the first-ever production model to feature a fixed rear spoiler.
Throughout the 911’s life it has been systematically improved and upgraded, offering the driver greater comfort and performance with each successive model. While the iconic Carrera RS 2.7 offered blistering race-bred performance (a 152mph top speed), only around 1,500 units were built for the road. In 1978 the world woke up to the 911 Turbo, a 3.3-litre 300bhp high performance grand tourer that boasted a top speed of 161mph. Between the years of 1978-1988, no fewer than 14,500 of this model were produced – the age of the turbo had arrived!
In the years that followed, Porsche road cars benefited from the success of their racing brethren with the likes of the 934 and 935 models. ‘Moby Dick’, a radical 935/78, was the factory’s most powerful 911 delivering a monstrous 750bhp from its 3.2-litre boxer engine. A version of the 935, the Kremer Brothers Racing K3, won the 1979 Le Mans 24-Hour race making it an all-Porsche 935 podium that year. Such technology was then transferred to their roadgoing cars proving that racing improves the breed.
Porsche’s philosophy has always been to develop the 911 continuously while retaining the same silhouette. In 1989, besides receiving an all-new 3.6-litre engine, the 911 was given a complete make-over, ushering in the 4-wheel drive era, a move that necessitated considerable reworking of the chassis, but the 911 style was faithfully retained in the exercise. In 1992 the mighty 911 Turbo S burst onto the scene, a 3.3-litre 381bhp, 180mph sports car – only 86 were made, making this a very exclusive model. The mid-90s saw the introduction of the first of the roadgoing GT2 models, and later in the decade the innovative Targa broke cover while 1996 saw the one-millionth Porsche roll off the Stuttgart assembly line.
The introduction of the Typ 996 in 1998 was accompanied by something of a seismic shift in Porsche’s thinking, as the Stuttgart manufacturer abandoned the air-cooled engine on which the sports car had been founded. Regulation and emission requirements forced Porsche to switch to water-cooled engines for the 911, and so with no small amount of effort, the Typ 996 was introduced in 1998 with water-cooling while the same recognisable 911 silhouette was once again faithfully retained.
Porsche ended the millennium with its 996 still winning races and as 1999 rolled into 2000, the company recorded its highest year of 911 sales, achieving 28,040 units globally. Apart from the growth in sales, the car too had grown significantly in size and was now much wider, longer and heavier than ever. In autumn 2004 (model year 2005) the Typ 997 was introduced with a model range that over the next few years included a 2-wheel and 4-wheel drive option, manual or PDK transmission, Coupé, Cabriolet, Targa and Speedster versions, as well as the powerful GT3 and awesome GT2 models. Porsche introduced the direct injection engine in its 2009 models and in 2011 the GT3 RS received a 4.0-litre engine in order to comply with homologation requirements in GT racing, exactly double the capacity of the original model back in 1963.
Introduced in 2012 the new Typ 991 saw an increase in the wheelbase of 100mm and 70mm in overall length. Importantly the rear wheels were moved back in the body which will now improve the car’s balance and roadholding, especially in racing, so great things are expected of the new 991 RSR due for release in just a few months time.
The 911 has followed a remarkably faithful line in retaining its silhouette for 50 years, and is as recognisable today as it was unique in 1963. Porsche’s engineers have achieved what many would have regarded as impossible, by introducing all-wheel drive, increasing overall dimensions, larger engines and numerous features, all while paying careful attention to retaining the car’s overall shape. The 911 is unique, quite literally, and will go down in automotive history as one of the most significant and recognisable cars…ever.
Happy Golden Anniversary 911!