The Porsche 911
There is nothing quite like a Porsche 911. Every one made is a car with an extraordinary character. You either love it or hate it. There is no emotional compromise with a Porsche 911. It understeers, it overseers, it costs a fortune, it starts and stops like nothing else on earth, it can corner well and spin even better. Its front seats are superb, its luggage space is restricted, and its back seats are a challenge even for a contortionist. There are dozens of optional extras and, no matter what anyone says, the engine is in the wrong place.
What makes a Porsche 911 so attractive and why has it acquired such a fanatical following?
First it has incredibly sensitive handling. With the combined weight of the engine and transmission concentrated at the back, the rear end swings round very fast when cornering, particularly with the earlier cars, which had narrow tyres and little grip. This characteristic can be used by a very good driver, but it is a deadly seductress for the one who isn’t. A touch too much acceleration and the ordinary driver is out of control, especially in the wet. The only safe way for him to drive a 911 is slow into a corner and fast out. Fast in and fast out needs the touch of a master.
For years, rally drivers have used this tail-happy handling to great effect, swinging their 911s round endless hairpins, and driving with a combination of superb throttle and extremely sensitive steering. The steering on a 911 is light and precise, and this is partly due to so much weight being concentrated at the back. This rearward weight concentration has another great advantage; it improves the traction. The tyres of a 911 grip so well in a straight line that once the car is under way the acceleration is enormous.
Getting the car under way can be a problem, however, particularly with modern ‘sticky’ tyres. Again, the driver has to be sensitive. Drop the clutch at exactly the right number of revs and the 911 takes of like a rocket. Too little or too many revs and it’s a waste of time. The engine either stutters as though it is going to stall or the tyres spin madly with the car hardly moving. With the older 911s on their narrow wheels, spinning was a matter of course when taking off fast. Now you can stall the car, too, such is the grip of its wide wheels with moddern rubberwear. It’s things like this that make a 911 so sensuous. Get it right and every moment is supremely satisfying; get it wrong and it’s frustrating. If you are the sort of person who is willing to keep trying until you get it right every time then you are the sort loves a Porsche 911. But if you want a car that will do it all for you with hardly any contribution from yourself, then it wouldn’t suit you at all. Some people spend a lifetime trying to get it right, and some just give up and buy a different car.
The second reason for Porsche 911’s continued popularity is is that the performance is phenomenal. Even the most mundane 911 goes like a bat out of hell, thanks to the race-bred precision of it’s Teutonic engineering, and the performance which has become more manageable over the years. The first Porsche 911s introduced in 1964 had high-revving engines with relatively little pulling power, or torque, low down in their range. The engine’s capacity was gradually increased to make it more flexible and the performance went up with it until the 911 hit a high spot with the Carrera model introduced in 1973. After that, as the performance of many rivals deteriorated in the face of power-sapping emission regulations, the Porsche 911 held it’s ground with even bigger engines and ultimately turbocharging. The fabulous Turbo, the first models of which were introduced in 1975, is typical of Porsche. The German firm only intended to produce a few to qualify the car for sports car racing, but customeres like it so much that it has stayed in production ever since. Like the Carrera of 1973, the Turbo really is a racing car for the road.
The third reason is that the quality of a Porsche is incredible. The factory is a perfectionist’s paradise with the firm’s pride in its product showing in every nook and cranny of a 911. Like the performance, it’s a quality that started off good, but with no regulations to sap it has got better and better. The early cars – in common with a lot of their rivals – suffered badly from corrosion after six or seven years. Gradually, under-sealing was improved to combat this, then the very metal from which the cars are made was changed until ultimately, in 1975, the entire body was galvanised to make the 911 seemingly impregnable to the normal ravages of salt-laden roads. The same standards have always been applied to the mechanical side of the car, with the result that late in 1971 the service intervals were increased to 12,000 miles – a figure that many years later was still higher than that of most other cars. Such is the quality of a Porsche.
The long service intervals are just part of the economy with which these cars can be run. As a result of great foresight, the compression ratio of the engines used in the 911 series was reduced in 1971 to enable them to run on normal grade fuel, which has always been considerably cheaper than the high-grade fuel required by most sports cars. And, thanks to the quality of the car’s engineering, Porsche 911’s are very reliable, needing few replacements over extended mileages. It must also be said that it is a good job that 911’s are so cheap to run because they cost a great deal of money either new or second-hand, and spares are priced accordingly.
The development of the 911, from the prototype called the 901 in 1963, into the 1980’s and beyond has been a constant search for perfection: a triumph of engineering over out-dated design.
How did the 911’s engine get in the wrong place?
It all goes back to the rear-engined Volkswagen Beetle designed by Professor Ferdinand Porsche in the 1930’s. It was relatively low powered and as contemporary standards of roadholding were not very good, its advantages were outweighed by its disadvantages: the traction could be very useful on poor roads and on the steep hills of Professor Porche’s native Austria. By using a traditional flat, horizontally opposed, cylinder formation, the car’s centre of gravity was kept low and air cooling saved a lot of complications.
When the first car to bear his name was designed in 1947, bits and pieces of old Volkswagens were all that were available to the Porsche family, who had by then decided to make their living by building their own cars rather than by just designing them for other people. The first Porsche had a Volkswagen engine reversed to sit in the middle of the car. This was because it was designed for competition and a mid-engined configuration gave the best weight distribution.
The second Porsche, which was to be called the Type 356 after its design office number, had the engine in the back like a Volkswagen Beetle because it was designed for touring. Its roadholding was inferior because all its weight was at the back, but Porsche considered that the extra room liberated for its occupants by moving the engine to the rear was more important. The engine stayed at the rear of touring Porsches until the introduction of new models from 1969.
Porsches that have been designed purely for competitiion, notably the 904, 906, 907, 908, 909, 910 and 917, have used the mid-engined configuration. Porsche firsttried changing the basic lay-out of their touring cars by putting the engine in the midle with the 914 in 1969, and by putting it in the front with the 924 in 1975 and the 928 in 1977, but still the customers clamoured for the 911s, so the traditional touring Porsche – which like all Porsches up to the 928 has also been used with great success in competition – stayed in production with the factory saying that they will carry on with the 911 while there was a demand for at least 2500 a year.
With sales steady at between 10,000 and 13,000 a year in the late 1970’s the 911 has gone from strength to strength. Therefore Porsche’s develoment engineers have looked as the car’s layout as a challenge to be overcome rather than an impossible problem. There can be no better proof of their ability than the way in which they have taken the ill-handling pre-war design and turned it into one of the worlds’s greatest sports cars.
The early 911’s were rather nervous cars that had to have lead weights bolted in their front bumpers to help balance the weight a the back. Their tyres were too narrow to stop the tail swinging out at the slightest provocation, but their 4.5 inch treads were the widest that the tyre manufacturers would recommend for a the 15 inch diameter, which was necessary to give the car a good ride. The first 911’s had a bodyshell of immense strength that was made from steel rather than alloy to save cost, Sadly it suffered terribly from rust after a few years, but this was eventually cured with the galvanised 911s.
Each year the development engineers whittled away at the weight at the back of the 911 and transferred what they could to the front. But their most significant change was when they lengthened the wheelbase late in 1968 to improve weight distribution. With the longer wheelbase and improved tyre technology allowing the use of wider treads, the 911’s handling has been steadily improved ever since. Development reached its peak in with Carrera in 1973. Since then it has been a qustion of conserving the 911’s best points within an increasingly more luxurious package.
Porsches became more luxurious in the 1970s because their prices were forced up and so pushed them into a different market; the original stark sports car had to be made more comfortable.