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Porsche has a long history of building performance cars for both the road and the track. Its cars have evolved over time through small adjustments that have transferred from the company’s racing cars to its road cars. Critics have accused Porsche of making the same car over and over again, but the brand’s supporters see a mix of gradual, focused research and development with an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it attitude.”
The history of Porsche as an automaker begins with engineer Ferdinand Porsche. Ferdinand started off working for a coachbuilding company named Jakob Loehner & Company, which made coaches and chassis for the cars used by many European heads of state. Eventually, Porsche developed his own car model, the Loehner and Porsche Mixte hybrid, built in 1901. It was run by two electric motors, which got their power from batteries charged by a gasoline generator. It was the world’s first gas-electric hybrid car. The Mixte could achieve a blistering 35 miles per hour, and Ferdinand himself drove it to a victory in the Exelbert Rally that year. This success lead to Porsche being called upon to become the official chauffer of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.
Porsche eventually left this post, which he may have felt somewhat relieved about in 1914. Ferdinand’s notoriety as an enginer nonetheless made him in-demand among other auto manufacturers. He worked with Austro-Daimler (which later became Mercedes Benz), and then Auto Union (which later became Audi). Ferdinand worked on some of Mercedes famous early racing cars, including the SSK. He believed that racing success could be had with smaller, lighter cars, but Daimler wasn’t interested. He later was able to prove this idea with a grand prix racer called the Auto Union Type A. With a streamlined body and the engine placed behind the driver for an even weight distribution, it proved to be very successful. It could reach up to 170 miles per hour.
By 1934, the Nazis had come to power in Germany, and they called upon Ferdinand Porsche to build a cheap, practical car. The plan was to build the “people’s car,” the Volkswagen. The Volkswagen Type 1 (which would later become known as the Beetle), contained many features that would become hallmarks of Porsche cars, particularly an air-cooled, rear-mounted, flat engine. It was also the first car designed with the help of a wind tunnel establishing the teardrop shape that would become iconic for Porsche. Some have noted that it has visual and mechanical similarities with
The Nazis were eager to show off German engineering to the world, and so they planned to enter a road race from Berlin to Rome. Ferdinand went back to the wind tunnel to develop an even more streamlined version of the Volkswagen for the race. The resulting car would become known as the Porsche 64. War broke out, and the race ultimately never occurred. Only three examples had been built. One was destroyed in the war, one continued to be driven by the Porsche family, and one was put into storage. The one in storage was discovered by American soldiers at the end of the war. They chopped the roof off, and drove it around Germany until the engine eventually broke down.
As the war continued, Ferdinand turned to developing weapons for the German army. Porsche developed the chassis for the Panzerjager Tiger tank, which German soldiers nicknamed Ferdinand after its creator. Ferdinand Porsche oversaw forced labor to build cars and tanks. Since 1990 Porsche has publicly offered to pay reparations to those subjected to forced labor. As of 2009, the company had paid 2.5 million euros in reparations.
Due to their roles in designing weapons, and their use of forced labor, Ferdinand Porsche, his adult son Ferry, and his son-in-law Anton Piech were all arrested as war criminals. Ferry was released about six months later, but Ferdinand Porsche and Anton Piech were held until 1947.
The Post War Years
In the years that Ferdinand was in prison, Ferry took over the company and designed the car that set the stage for all future Porsches, the 356. After years of building dedicated racing cars, the 356 would be the first Porsche street car. Many of the 356’s parts were shared with the Beetle, including suspension parts and the case for the air-cooled engine. It also shared the Beetle’s rear engine, rear-wheel drive layout, and had a sleeker version of the Beetle’s teardrop body shape. All these design elements would be Porsche hallmarks for decades. The 356 was first sold in 1948. Although the 356 was Porsche’s first road car, it did have some racing success, taking best in class at Le Mans in 1951.
Over time, Porsche made small refinements to the 356. The company started machining more parts specifically for the 356 (rather than using Volkswagen parts) and changed the engine from a two-cam to a four-cam layout. By 1964, drum brakes were replace by discs for all four wheels.
During the 356’s run, Porsche also developed a racing model based on it. This was the now famous 550 Spyder, introduced in 1953. The 550 was built with a steel tube frame and weighed less than 1,000 pounds. The car went on to take class wins at races like the Mille Miglia and an overall win at the 1956 Targa Florio.
The 550 was famous for its versatility. It could be driven to the track, raced and then driven home. Even though only 90 were built, some customers bought 550s as road cars, most notably, actor James Dean. Sadly, Dean suffered a fatal car accident behind the wheel of his 550. Despite or, perhaps, even because of this, the 550 has achieved legendary status and has become one of the most replicated cars in the world with numerous companies building reproductions.
Porsche followed up the racing success of the 550 with the 718, which was largely a refinement of the 550 and used the same engine. The 718 won the 1959 Targa Florio, and the 1958 and 1959 European Hill Climb Championships. In 1961, the 718 took home a class win at Le Mans.
Enter the 911
By 1964, Porsche was having great success in racing and at selling lightweight nimble road cars. Porsche wanted to build a slightly larger, more comfortable and powerful road car. The new model retained the rear-engine, rear-wheel drive layout of the 356, but used a flat-6 rather than a flat-4 engine and its body was larger. Initially, Porsche designated the car like the 901, but Peugeot had the oddly specific exclusive rights in France to name cars with a three digit number with a zero in the middle. The 901 was renamed the 911 (or Neunelfer in German) and, over time, became the model most associated with the Porsche brand.
Although the 911 was introduced in 1964, Porsche continued to sell 356s to the public into 1965, and built a small number for the Dutch police, upon special request, in 1966. It turns out there was still a demand for four-cylinder cars, so Porsche introduced the 912, essentially the body of a 911 with the engine of a 356. It wasn’t as speedy as the 911, but it got about 30 miles per gallon and served as Porsche’s entry-level model from 1965 to 1969 (and again in 1976, strangely enough).
Meanwhile Porsche was making incremental improvements to the 911. In 1967, Porsche started using the five-leaf Fuchs alloy wheels still beloved by Porsche purists. That same year the company introduced the Targa top (named for the Targa Florio race that Porsche had so much success in). The Targa top design had a removable hardtop with a roll bar. Porsche believed that the United States’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would eventually ban open convertibles. Although this never came to pass, Porsche continues to sell Targa top cars.
Porsche’s next development would be a targa-top roadster. Porsche teamed up with Volkswagen to build the 914. Volkswagen wanted a roadster to replace the Karmann Ghia and Porsche wanted a new entry level model to replace the 912. The companies worked together to build a mid-engined two-seater, released in 1969. The car was sold in Europe as a VW-Porsche 914 and in America as a Porsche 914. It was available with a four-cylinder engine or a six-cylinder engine in a configuration known as a 914/6. The sixes were nearly as expensive 911s, and so sold poorly. The fours, on the other hand, were Porsche’s top seller during their production run from 1969 to 1976. The 914 was being phased out in the mid-70s, but before its replacement in the 924 arrived, Porsche briefly sold 912s again as the entry model.
Meanwhile, some developments from Porsche’s racing teams were finding their way to the top-of-the-line cars. The 908 racing car was only modestly successful, being frequently defeated by Ford’s GT40 at high-speed course with long straightaways like Le Mans and Sebring. It did however introduce quick-cooling ventilated brakes in 1970, which made the car successful at curvier tracks like the Nurburgring and the Targa Florio (always a good track for Porsche, it seems). Ventilated brakes made their way to the 911 in 1974, on the Carrera RS submodel.
Porsche campaigned another racing car in the seventies, the 917. The 917 won overall at Le Mans in 1970 and 1971, the first being Porsche’s first overall win there. Porsche has gone on to win Le Mans overall 17 times, the most for any manufacturer. At Le Mans, the 917 used a naturally aspirated flat-12 engine. For the less restrictive Can Am series, Porsche experimented with turbocharging the engine (after deciding against increasing the engine to a flat-18). In its Can Am configuration, the 917 could hit 60 miles per hour in just over two seconds and top out at about 240 mph. Legendarily, the forces experienced by the transmission gave off so much heat that the metal gear knob had to be replaced with a wooden one to protect driver’s hands from burns.
Porsche was planning to apply turbocharging to the 911 for racing purposes, but due to a recent rules change, the company would have to make a number of the cars available to the public. In 1975, Porsche sold about 400 911 Turbos (known internally as the 930). The 911 Turbo quickly became very popular, despite a reputation for touchy handling at high speeds. The 911 Turbo, like the Carrera RS before it, used ventilated brakes based on the 917’s. Car and Driver found that the 930 could accelerate from zero to 60 in 4.9 seconds, making it the quickest car the magazine tested in the 1970s. To handle the torque, the 911 Turbo had wider rear wheels (necessitating wider wheel arches) and a “whale tail” spoiler to help rear wheel traction. The look was so popular that it was adopted to other 911 submodels soon after.
Engines in the Front?
The improvements at the top of the line were impressive, but Porsche wanted a new entry level car to replace the 914. Again, working with Volkswagen, Porsche developed the 924 for release in 1976. The 924 was a big departure from Porsche’s other cars. The engine was water-cooled, mounted in the front of the car, and was an inline-four, rather than a boxer engine. It did keep the transaxle in the rear, though, giving the car a nearly 50:50 weight balance, which made it “the best handling Porsche in stock form” according to Excellence magazine. Still, many were disappointed with the 924’s lack of power and acceleration. In response, Porsche introduced a turbocharged version of the 924 in 1978. A Car and Driver headline declared the 924 Turbo “Fast… At Last.”
By the late seventies Porsche thought front-engine cars would be the company’s future. The 911 was, by then, over 20 years old and although it had many enthusiasts in the sports-car realm, Porsche wanted a more refined flagship car. In 1978, Porsche introduced the 928, a grand tourer, with the intention of eventually replacing the 911. The 928 shared the 924’s front engine, rear transaxle layout and even weight distribution, but used a much more impressive V8 engine. At one point in development, a V10 was even proposed, but the idea was eventually scrapped. Over the model’s run, the engine grew from 4.7-liters to 5.4.
The 928 was designed as a high-speed long distance cruiser rather than a nimble sports car like the 911. As such, it featured a more luxurious interior and a reasonable amount of space for luggage. A 1984 ad claimed that the 928 was “the fastest street legal production car sold in the US.” In 1986 a 928 hit 171 mph at Bonneville, taking the record for the fastest production car without a turbo. The 928 was also famously featured in the Tom Cruise movie Risky Business.
Porsche released another front engine model in 1982, the 944. The 944 was built on the same chassis as the 924 but featured a new, more powerful engine. The inline-four used in the 944 was based on one bank of the 928’s V8. Porsche continued to sell the 924 for the first six years of the 944’s production until 1988. The 944 followed in the 924’s footsteps by adding a turbo option in 1985. Although Porsche purists were skeptical about the front engine cars, but the popularity of those cars has grown over the years. Today, there is an entire grassroots race series for front engine Porsches called the 944 Cup sponsored by Pirelli Tires.
Racing Through the ‘80s (and beyond)
Porsche’s racing success continued through the ‘80s. In 1982 Porsche introduced the 956 racing car. It featured a turbocharged flat-six engine and the world’s first production dual clutch gearbox, with the odd numbered gears engaged by one clutch and the even numbered gears by another. This system, dubbed Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe (Porsche Double-Coupling or PDK for short) makes shifts faster as one clutch can engage as the other disengages. In 1982, 956s finished first, second, and third overall at Le Mans. The dual clutch technology would be adopted to Porsche’s road cars much later, in 2008.
The 956 was banned from competition in the US due to a safety regulation requiring the front axle to be forward of the driver’s feet. Porsche designed a lengthened version of the car, which became the 962. Some damaged 956s were even built into 962s. A 962 won Le Mans in 1987.
Porsche sold a number of 962s to private racing teams. When the teams were no longer racing them, they modified the cars to be street legal. One tuner who did this was Jochen Dauer. In 1994, he entered his modified Dauer 962 at Le Mans under the GT1 class (intended for cars based on road cars). The Dauer 962 not only won its class, but won the race outright, a full 10 years after the 962 was introduced.
The New Neunelfer
Although the 928 was intended to replace the 911, demand for the earlier car remained strong. In the end, Porsche decided it was time to develop an update to its most popular and iconic model. To explore possible avenues of development they decided to push the rear engine layout as far as they could at the time, developing a small-run supercar.
The car was built around a twin-turbo flat-six engine based on the one used in the racing versions of the 911 turbo. The engine had water-cooled heads but air-cooled cylinders. Among the first ideas the development group considered was adding an all-wheel drive system to counter the oversteer common to the 911 Turbo. With that addition, Porsche decided to set its sights on Group B rally racing. Following the lead of other Group B manufacturers, Porsche made the frame and body out of lightweight materials like aluminum, Kevlar, and Nomex. The resulting car weighed in under 3,200 pounds. The light weight and powerful engine allowed the 959 to hit 60 in 3.6 seconds, with a top speed of 198 mph. Eclipsing the 928, the 959 was the world’s fastest production car. The 959 was not street legal in the US, because Porsche refused, perhaps understandably considering the manufacturing costs, to offer any to the NHTSA for crash testing. This proved disappointing to many stateside fans, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Many, including Gates, tried to import the car through grey markets. Gates’ 959 was held by Customs in San Fransisco for 13 years. Gates advocated for a law to allow “Autos of Interest” to be imported for “show and display.” The Show and Display law passed in 1999.
Fans wouldn’t get to see the 959 race in Group B either. The costs, in a series where body damage could be common, were simply too high. Instead, Porsche entered the car in the Paris-Dakar rally. Two 959s finished first and second that year. The production run of the car only lasted until 1989 and fewer than 340 were built.
As impressive as the 959 was, it was simply too specialized to serve as the company’s flagship. What it did do was pave the way for major improvements to the 911. Porsche introduced the second generation of the 911 (internally designated the 964) 35 years after the first in 1989. The new 911 used the same chassis as its predecessor, but featured 85% new parts. Shocks and springs replaced the earlier torsion bar suspension (as they did for the 959, although the 959’s suspension was overall more complicated with 8 shocks and electronic ride height adjustment). Power steering and anti-lock brakes were also added. The engine was also new, but retained the air-cooled flat-six design. The new 911 was also available with all-wheel drive. Again, this was a simplified version of the system used on the 959.
The 911 wasn’t the only model in need of an update; the 944 was now about 10 years old. Porsche’s engineers were working on designs for the second generation 944. By the time they had finished, in 1992, 80% of its mechanical components were different from the 944’s. So Porsche decided to designate the new car as a new model, the 968. As was typical of Porsche’s front engine cars at the time, a Turbo version followed soon after. From 1993 to 1995, Porsche sold a lightened Club Sport version which Performance Car magazine named Performance Car of the Year in 1993. Although Porsche once thought it would abandon rear engine cars, the 968 would be Porsche’s last front engine car until 2002.
In 1994, Porsche introduced yet another update to the 911. Compared to the previous generation gap, this constituted a rapid development for the 911. The new 911, internally designated the 993, featured an all new frame and 80% new parts. The engine was also new, but was, once again, an air-cooled flat-six. The 993 ended up being the last air-cooled Porsche. As the pinnacle of that line of development, the 993 remains highly sought after by collectors. This was the first generation of the 911 to use a six-speed manual transmission. Previous generations used four- or five- speed transmissions. The only prior Porsche with a six-speed was the 959. The suspension, brakes and exhaust were also updated, compared to the previous generation.
The End of the Air Cooled Era
By the mid-nineties, sales of Porsche’s front-engine cars were lagging, and the company was struggling financially. Porsche consulted with Toyota to find ways to save money. Eventually, Porsche developed a plan to share more parts between different models. Design of a new 911 and a small two seater roadster began concurrently. The roadster would be named the Boxster after its boxer engine and roadster layout. The Boxster, released in 1996, would share its hood, headlights, some interior parts, and an engine block with the next generation 911, which would arrive three years later. The engine, notably, was completely water-cooled, the first such engine Porsche had put behind the driver in a street car. The Boxster’s visually styling was influenced by Porsche’s early roadsters, the 356 and the 550. In 2006, Porsche introduced a coupe version of the Boxster named the Cayman.
In 1998, Porsche went racing again with the Porsche 911 GT1. The GT1 shared the front of its chassis with the 993, and the rear, as well as the water-cooled twin trubo engine with the 962. The GT1 also featured a lightweight carbon fiber body. In order to enter the car in the GT class at Le Mans, Porsche created a street legal version, the GT1 Strassenversion, and sold two of them. Despite being in the GT1 class with modified street cars, the GT1 beat several racing prototypes and won Le Mans overall in 1998.
The next generation 911, internally called the 996, was released in 1999. It was the first 911 with a water-cooled engine. The round headlights iconic to the model were replaced by somewhat blobby, fried-egg shaped ones. These two changes proved very disconcerting to longtime aficionados. The headlights, at least, were changed in 2002. On the plus side, the 996 featured the first new chassis in the 911 model line. In 2001, the new Turbo model arrived, using a twin turbo engine based on the one in the GT1.
Porsche’s next model wouldn’t win over the purists, but it helped pull the company out of its financial doldrums. The Cayenne, released in 2002, was a crossover SUV with a V8 engine. It was Porsche’s first front-engine vehicle, and its first V8 since the 928. In 2014, Porsche introduced a plug-in hybrid version. Despite being so out of step with Porsche’s usual fare, the Cayenne proved to be its bestselling model. The enthusiasts may not have fallen in love with it, but the Cayenne helped the company shore up its finances.
Porsche followed up in 2004 with a car that did excite the enthusiasts, the Carrera GT. The Carrera GT was the result of two unrealized racing projects. First, Porsche began work on a V10 engine for a Formula One engines for the Footwork Arrows team. Footwork, however switched to Ford for power. Porsche later tried to build a Le Mans prototype around an enlarged version of the V10, but the project was scrapped to direct more money towards development of the Cayenne. Eventually, the engine was used for a small-run, street legal supercar, the Carrera GT. The Carrera GT used lightweight materials like carbon fiber for the frame and carbon and ceramic brakes. The gearknob was made of beechwood, which was a tribute to the ones used in the 917. The Carrera GT also featured such creature comforts as leather seats and a Bose sound system. Only 1,270 Carrera GTs were sold, in total, adding to the model’s prestige and allure.
2005 saw the introduction of the next generation of the 911, the 997. The 997 shared many of its mechanical parts with the 996, but featured upgraded looks, both interior and exterior. Porsche fans much preferred the looks of the 997 over the 996. The 997 was also the first Porsche road car to use the PDK dual clutch transmission that Porsche had been developing since the 956 race car. The short shifting times of the dual clutch transmission made acceleration very quick. A turbo model with the PDK could hit 60 in three seconds, even faster than the Carrera GT.
Following the success of the Cayenne, Porsche decided to broaden its market further by introducing a luxury car, the Panamera, in 2009. Like the Cayenne, the Panamera displeased the purists, but ultimately sold well. It uses a front-mounted V8, with rear wheel drive or all-wheel drive available. The body looks like a stretched out 911. In 2011, Porsche introduced a plug-in hybrid version of the Panamera. This was Porsche’s first plug-in hybrid, and paved the way for the Cayenne hybrid and 2013’s 918.
The current generation of the 911, the 991, arrived in 2012. The 991 represents a refinement of the previous model through small changes. For example, Porsche lengthened the wheelbase by about 3 inches, improving weight distribution and handling.
Hybrids and the Future
Porsche has recently undertaken two major performance hybrid projects, one for the street and one for the track. Unusually for Porsche, the road version arrived first, in the form of the 918. The 918 is a small-run supercar, with only 918 models produced. It uses a V8 engine as well as two electric motors, one for the front and one for the rear. It can hit 60 in 2.5 seconds and tops out at 210mph. In 2013, a 918 became the first street legal production car to complete a lap of the Nurburgring in less than 7 minutes.
Porsche has also built a hybrid racing prototype the 919, which raced at Le Man in 2014 and 2015. It took the overall win there in 2015.
With the success of Porsche’s hybrid cars, rumors have been swirling that a 911 Hybrid will soon follow. In January of 2016, Porsche’s chief engineer Erhard Mossle revealed to Auto Express that the company was working on “plug-in solutions for the 911.” Mossle also admitted that the project poses some difficulties, but suggests the 911 Hybrid may come in the car’s next generation.
These new hybrids are much more sophisticated than the Porsche Loehner Hybrid of 911, but in some ways they represent the company’s tendency toward constant refinement and development.
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