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Tuesday 3rd August 2004


THE 911 STORY

As a new Porsche 911 hits the road, Andrew Noakes looks back at the type’s long and varied career.

Few cars could keep up with a Porsche 356 in the 1950s – even if there was plenty of evidence of Volkswagen componentry under the aero-shaped skin. But by the early 1960s a new model was needed: Porsche wanted something that was even quicker, and at the same time easier to live with.

 1964 (356s in the background)

The new design retained the 356’s basic layout. It still had an air-cooled, horizontally-opposed engine mounted behind the rear axle line, though now there were six cylinders rather than four and a single overhead camshaft on each bank of cylinders. The suspension was different, too: at the front the 356’s trailing arms gave way to more compact torsion-sprung struts, and at the rear the contrary swing axles were replaced by semi-trailing arms.

The new body, its distinctive shape designed by Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, was longer and more spacious inside. It was called the 901, until Peugeot objected to the use of a three-figure number with a zero in the middle: Porsche renamed their new model the 911, and it appeared in 1964.

Early production cars proved to be much less predictable to handle than the hand-built prototypes because production tolerances upset the suspension geometry. The 911 was unstable in a straight line, and in corners it generated strong initial understeer and violent lift-off oversteer. And it handled differently in left- and right-hand corners. The quick fix was to insert an 11kg (24lb) cast-iron weight into each end of the front bumper, to make the weight distribution less rear-biased and to increase the polar moment of inertia, making the 911 harder to spin.

Another problem was carburation, the special triple-barrel Solex carbs producing a marked flat spot in the middle of the rev range. A switch to triple-choke Weber carbs – originally designed for Lancia V6 engines – quickly solved that one.

Targa Introduced

 1967 Targa

 1973 Carrera RS

 1975 911 Turbo

 1984 Carrera

 1986 959

959 won the Paris Dakar Rally in 1986 

An open-top car was added in 1965, with a substantial fixed roll-over hoop, a removable roof section and a drop-down rear window (though this was quickly changed to a fixed, wrap-around rear screen). Porsche called it a ‘Targa’ top (named after the Targa Florio road race) and it was said to have been inspired but the ‘Surrey top’ available on Triumph TR4s.

The first 911 had 130bhp, but quicker versions soon followed. A 911S with bigger valves and higher compression appeared in 1967, and then in 1971 the stroke of the flat-six engine was increased to produce a capacity of 2341cc. In 1973 came the Carrera RS, with a big-bore 2687cc engine and 210bhp. As well as the extra power the RS had a lightweight body, thinner glass and no rear seats, and the combination of greater power and lighter weight made the Carrera RS one of the fastest 911s of the 1970s – but still there was more to come.

Porsche had been developing turbochargers since 1969, and had used them with success in the fearsome 1000bhp racing cars for the Can-Am series.

In 1974 they raced an experimental turbocharged 911 Carrera, and this led to a 911 Turbo road car with around 260bhp. In 1978 the engine was bored out to give 3299cc and an intercooler added to lower the intake charge temperatures and improve volumetric efficiency. The 3.3-litre Turbo with around 300bhp was one of the fastest road cars on the planet.

Replacement for the 911

Throughout the 1970s Porsche would try to replace the 911, notably with the front-engined, water-cooled 928 – but the 911 was what Porsche drivers wanted. Regular revisions kept the range fresh, including the addition of a 231bhp 3.2-litre normally-aspirated engine and a full cabriolet. The 911 also sired a rare twin-turbocharged four-wheel drive derivative, the 959, which proved to be one of the fastest supercars ever with a top speed approaching 200mph.

Time was against the 911 however, and it entered the 1990s in a very new guise which was known internally as the 964. Though the shape was familiar and it still had an air-cooled flat-six engine in the tail, there had been sweeping changes including a heavily revised engine, bigger in bore and stroke for a displacement of 3600cc and fitted with twin ignition, and variable geometry induction. The new engine developed 250bhp at 6100rpm, a worthwhile improvement over its 3.2-litre predecessor, and also met noise and emissions regulations worldwide.

Like the old 911 the new car, called the Carrera 4, had struts at the front and trailing arms at the rear, but now coil springs replaced the old torsion bars allowing the introduction of compliant bushes to improve ride and refinement. Also new was a four-wheel drive transmission, developed from the system that Porsche had used on 911s built for the Paris-Dakar rally, though a two-wheel drive Carrera 2 followed, and many people thought it drove better than the four-wheel drive car.

Inevitably, faster versions of the new 911 followed. First there was a hurriedly-developed 320bhp turbo model powered by the old 3.3 engine in 1991, and then in 1993 360bhp turbocharged version of the new 3.6-litre engine – plus a normally-aspirated ‘3.8-litre’ Carrera RS with 300bhp for good measure.

 1995 993

 996 Series

For 1994 the 964 was heavily revised once again. This ‘993’ generation had yet more power (now at least 270bhp), a six-speed gearbox, and new multi-link rear suspension which had been developed for a stillborn saloon car project. For 1996 the engine gained a ‘Varioram’ variable-length intake system, and Porsche announced a new 911 Turbo with twin turbochargers and a colossal output of 408bhp.

The ‘996 series’ 911 that took over in 1998 hared much of its  engineering with the Boxster roadster. And it marked the end of 911 tradition: the air-cooled flat-six engine had been replaced by a water-cooled unit to aid emissions performance and to help the 911 to pass stringent new noise regulations, which were particularly tough on rear-engined performance cars.

But despite the rising competition and the increasing legislation, the 911 is still with us. And a new 911 range, just announced, takes the iconic Porsche shape into the future: it’ll be around for a long time to come.

Copyright © Andrew Noakes 2004