The sports car

Exactly 50 years ago, the German manufacturer Porsche presented its first model 911. Steve McQueen owned one; Jo Siffert, also. An ode to the most legendary sports car of all time.

Before World War II, Porsche was already one of the leading names in the automobile industry. Austrian-born Ferdinand Porsche (1875-1951) founded the company on April 25, 1931 as a design studio. Porsche had worked for Auto Union and Cisitalia before developing the Beetle

But it was only after the war that Porsche became a manufacturer. His first model, in 1947, was the 356 sports car. More than 76,000 model 356s, in various forms, left the factory before production ended in 1965. But, by the late 1950s, it was already obvious to Ferdinand Porsche that his brand was in dire need of new blood: the 365’s four-cylinder, 2-liter Boxer engine had gone as far as it could.

An original form

Peacefully and modestly – traditional Swabian virtues - Erwin Komenda (who had already designed the body of the Beetle and the 356) and Ferdinand Alexander Porsche (only 25 years-old, nephew of Ferdinand and son of Ferry, who answered to the nickname “Butzi”) began work on the body of their new model.

It has often been claimed that Butzi contributed little to the future model’s look. We now know that, while Komenda did indeed bring his skill to the design, the 911’s timeless shape came from the pencil of Ferdinand Alexander Porsche.

The goal was relatively simple: a car with a propulsion engine and rear wheelbase of a maximum 2.2 meters (it would later expand to 2.7 meters) - and enough room in the trunk for a set of golf clubs. (Porsche executives were obviously both visionary and very concerned with fashion - unless the golf-club criteria is only a nice legend.) Finally, the new design had to maintain a certain family resemblance with the 356.

What Butzi created on the drawing board would become an exemplary case study for the automobile industry. Even today, 50 years later, the original form is clearly recognizable. “Design is not a fad,” insisted F. A. Porsche. “A good product should be discreet.” Other than the 911, only the Land Rover Defender can boast such longevity.

The new Porsche was covered with a fine exterior. Although only 1.61 meters wide (seven inches shorter than the current Mini), it offered a surprisingly spacious interior: one could even drive it wearing a helmet...

This last detail, in the beginning, was probably not yet essential, since the first model, with its new 2-liter, 6-cylinder Boxer engine, produced 130 hp, accelerating from 0 to 100 km/h in nine seconds with a maximum speed of 210 km/h. As such, the legendary German sports car crushed the Opel Kadett and the Beetle; but, in the beginning, the 911 was still far from the top division: Ferrari, Jaguar and Corvette at the time were far more powerful and much faster.

The 911 also experienced some launch problems. It should have been called the 901, as it was publicly presented in September 1963 at the IAA Motor Show in Frankfurt. However, Peugeot had long held rights to this type of sequence of numbers with a zero in the middle, so the 901, even before its launch in November 1964 for the year 1965, had to be renamed.

Men and myths

On this occasion, another Swabian virtue came into play: parsimony. As the press kits had already been printed, the “0” was dropped and the “1” doubled, so as not to start all over. Only thirteen prototypes were built, of which two were equipped with the 356 model’s 4-cylinder engine: not much to show for a trial period as long as that imposed on the 901/911.

But at the time, Porsche had already accumulated a lot of experience in producing single examples of racecars, so it knew exactly at the beginning of the early 1960s, what was wanted and needed.

Public reception was immediately impressive and remained so. A Lamborghini is too showy; the Ferrari is a diva; an Aston Martin, too clumsy. Already by the 1960s, the 911 style was an icon. Young and trendy types also drove Ferraris, but Steve McQueen seemed even more handsome at the wheel of his silver 911.

Jo Siffert, the F1 driver from Fribourg, also drove the 911, and even today, calls it the sportiest Porsche. Unlike other sports cars, the 911 is socially acceptable and in good taste.

After its launch, the 911 sold at top speed. Hardly a year went by without improvements. The Boxer engine, with its characteristic sound, grew to 2.4 liters, the Targa model was introduced, and an entry-level 912 was built with the “old” 4-cylinder engine.

In no time, the new Porsche became a success: in the first two years, 25,000 examples were sold; within seven years, the Stuttgart-based company had put more 911s on the road than it had 356 over 17 years.

The first original series continued to be made until 1973, followed by the G series that, to the eye, appeared more powerful - but this was due to the increased security requirements of the U.S. market. Then, the 911G was equipped with catalytic converters; a convertible came out in 1982; the engine grew to 2.7L, then, 3.2L; and, finally, the turbocharged premium model was launched on the market - with 260hp.

The upper division

A great wave of modifications followed in 1989 with the 964 generation, 85% of which was rebuilt from scratch. The 964 offered four-wheel drive (as an option), ABS and airbags, but also had quite a few technical and quality problems. Only four years later, the 964 was eclipsed by the Type 993, whose top model now reached 408 hp.

Then, for its 34th anniversary, the 996-type 911 received a 6-cylinder water-cooled engine, thereby annoying many addicts of the brand for whom the air-cooled engines were part of the Porsche legend.

Nowadays, nobody cares, and the 911 remains the Porsche’s best-seller, even if the manufacturer now makes a lot of money with the Cayenne, a model as far from the 911 as the latter was from the Beetle that formed the basis of the first Porsche models.

Today, the most powerful 911 models are included in the top division of sports cars, nose to nose with Ferrari, Lamborghini and Co. But we must not forget the long road to get there or that its designers sometimes doubted that there was even a future for a car like the 911.

In 1977, they had wanted to replace it with the 928 (front engine, 8 cylinders, modern design), but the attempt met little success. In the 1980s and partly in 1990, the 911 was far from being the measure of all things. Its technical problems and mechanical fragility were sometimes so serious that the manufacturer was on the brink of collapse.

But no doubt it is because Stuttgart remembered the original qualities of the successful model that, 50 years after its launch, the Porsche 911 is even better, more beautiful and more powerful. The 911 is a masterpiece. So far, no other brand has been able to top.

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