The 50th anniversary of the venerable 911 is all the excuse needed to take a closer look at this iconic sports car
While many, many thousands of words have already been about it, forgive me if I add just a few more. Starting with some background.
Seasoned Porsche-o-philes will already be well-versed in this, so apologies for covering old ground, but with so much history the 901 seems as good a place to begin as any. Intended as the successor to the highly-regarded 356, it was unveiled at the 1963 Frankfurt Motor Show and a year later had morphed into the 911 we know today with the 6-cylinder boxer engine slung out back and a slightly measly-sounding 128bhp. What it did do though was announce the shape and engineering quality that has endured for half a decade, and in an age where new models are a weekly occurrence, it is a deeply impressive achievement. And apart from the lower powered4-cylinder 912 model launched in 1965, the scene was set for a meteoric rise through the performance car ranks. The 911S of 1966 with a meatier 158bhp and signature Fuchs alloys was a sign of things to come, and before long there was a whole raft of ‘G-Series’ models as they were termed by Porsche which ultimately culminated with the 300bhp 3.3 litre Turbo, a supercar that stayed in production with only minor changes until 1984.
Next up was the 964 generation (the cars were always sold as the 911, despite Porsche’s various internal designations), a somewhat under-rated model that brought a welcome (to some anyway) touch of modernity with the likes of ABS brakes, standard power steering, a spoiler that extended automatically at speed, and the option of a ‘Tiptronic’ automatic gearbox that allowed some semblance of manual control. This was followed by yet another re-design, perhaps one of the most controversial of all, in the form of the ‘993’ series which Porsche announced was to be the last of the air-cooled cars. Considered as heresy by many enthusiasts, arguments raged long and hard about the decision to kill-off what was seen as the most unique aspect of the whole 911 genre – in fact, it takes a brave man to start a discussion with an air-cooled supporter even today, as a lengthy and passionately-argued diatribe is likely to result. But with emissions regulations getting ever tighter, Porsche had to respond and the need to equip the 911 with four-valve cylinder heads meant water cooling was the only option. Which brings us neatly on to the ‘996’generation, considered now to be a great entry into 911 ownership at a reasonable cost. But it was this model that rocked Porsche’s reputation for engineering integrity in the eyes of many, the 996 name becoming associated with tales of unreliability and huge expense, and not altogether without foundation either. The initials RMS and IMS are guaranteed to strike terror into the hearts of many owners who have shelled out large amounts of their life savings on getting these things fixed. RMS stands for Rear Main Seal, a component located at the rear of the crankshaft which had a tendency to leak oil prematurely (though not as seriously as many make out), while IMS is the Intermediate Main Shaft, a part of the valve-gear arrangement whose bearing can break-up with eye-wateringly expensive consequences. And lastly, there is the nasty sounding ‘D-chunking’, a name given to the disintegration of the engine’s cylinder liners (it causes a D-shaped piece of metal to break off, hence the name).
But let’s not get too downbeat here as Porsche soon returned to sparkling form with the ‘997’ generation – bigger, faster, more comfortable, and equipped with niceties such as Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) and the complex but effective PDK automatic transmission (I’m not even going to begin to start spelling or pronouncing the German translation, but suffice to say it’s a mighty impressive gearbox that originally saw service in the 956 race cars). And now we have the current ‘991’ generation that has grown in size again but still retains those unique 911 styling cues, and which manages to squeeze even more techno-trickery beneath that familiar skin including a road-car-first 7-speed manual transmission.
But perhaps one of the most amazing things about this long-lived car (it amazes me anyway) is the sheer number of variants that Porsche has managed to produce over the years. It’s worth considering that you could at one time or another have bought a 911 as a coupe, convertible, targa-top (both lift-out and sliding), with a wide body or narrow body, with two or four-wheel drive, even some with scaffolding in the back instead of rear seats (or a roll cage to be strictly accurate). And that’s without even considering the vast number of engines, transmissions, and power outputs that have been slotted beneath the often be-spoilered bootlid over the last five decades. Few cars have offered buyers such a phenomenal choice, which is either confusing or something to be admired and applauded depending on your point of view.
And I’ve not even touched on the truly special models like the RS and 959, so these will have to wait for another time…
Lastly, we shouldn’t forget that the 911 has seen-off just about all-comers within the Porsche empire, racking up over 800,000 sales in the process. From the pretty 924 and 944 to the brawny 928, the latter intended at one time to replace the 911 altogether. Models like the Boxster and Cayman have been carefully managed to ensure they keep a respectful distance, while the 911 has even spawned mutations such as the Cayenne SUV and 4-dr Panamera – both of which owe styling cues to the evergreen original.
As the words above may have hinted, lack of choice (or indeed complication) isn’t exactly an issue here, all of which can make buying a 911 something of a minefield. You could write a book on the issues to be aware of – and indeed quite a few people have – so I’ve no intention of getting into detail here. Suffice to say that unless you’re heir to a substantial fortune, the one thing to avoid is the cheap examples lurking in the classifieds that have been thrashed, abused, or left in need of major restoration. For all their apparent simplicity, 911s contain plenty of traps just waiting to catch out the impulsive and a bill for major work will have you reaching for the smelling salts. Corrosion is a real issue in early examples while a reputation for tricky handling (deserved or not depending on who you talk too) sent many heading for the bodyshop – you’ll want to avoid either scenario. Hefty running costs also meant older cars falling into the clutches of those trying to run one on a shoestring, something almost guaranteed to bring misery for future owners. Better instead to devote plenty of thought and homework to exactly which model and variant you’re after, and then engage the services of one of the many reputable specialists out there to ensure you get a good ‘un. Just don’t say you haven’t been warned!
The 911 has attracted admirers and detractors in equal measure over the years but few sports cars have been so successful, and while the word icon is often over-used when it comes to cars this is one model that truly deserves the tag.
It’s hard to imagine a car reaching the 50 year mark, but perhaps even harder to imagine the next 50 years without it. I for one will be raising a few glasses of German bier this year to toast this awesome car, just to celebrate you understand….