U.S. Markets closed

After 50 years of running, how the Porsche 911 remains the world’s sports car

Marco R. della Cava
Automotive Contributor

In the fall of 1963, a small group of Porsche employees arrived at the International Auto Show in Frankfurt to present the company’s vision for the future. Due to replace the Volkswagen-derived four-cylinder 356 was a new model called the 901, which featured both a refined version of the 356’s bathtub silhouette as well as two more cylinders. Initially, the biggest controversy was over the model’s name; Peugeot pressed its rights to three-digit appellations where the middle number was zero. So the 901 became the 911, and Porsche became Porsche.

“The 911 changed everything for the company, so it’s rightly the icon,” says Pete Stout, editor-in-chief of Panorama, the magazine of the Porsche Club of America. “When you fire up a 911 and hear that overhead cam flat-six with its cooling fan whirring, that’s Porsche’s unique sound. The 911 has stayed true to itself, which is a rear-engined car that delivers more from less.”

Porsche is marking the 911’s 50th anniversary in a variety of ways, including sending a 1967 model on a five-continent tour stopping at a range of high-profile automotive events and races. There’s also a "50 Years of the Porsche 911" exhibit at the company’s gleaming museum in Zuffenhausen, near Stuttgart, as well as a forthcoming factory-published book called "911 x 911."

The celebration seems warranted. Fifty years is a long time to keep a single automotive line going, especially in an age when innovation rules and customers, trained by the insta-upgrades of the tech world, shun the old and demand the new. Yet here we are in 2013 and, 820,000 911s later, the car remains not only a staggering benchmark in a field crowded with high-displacement offerings, but it also represents the core DNA of a company now offering five models ranging from mid-engined roadsters to turbocharged SUVs. To drive a new Panamera sedan is to taste that fabled rear-wheel-drive 911 experience. And to drive a 911 is to enter into a relationship between car and driver that is demanding, engaging and never boring.

“So many modern sports cars allow you to drive at 10/10ths right away, but the 911 requires you to know a little more about the car and your own skills so it actually develops you as a driver,” says Jeff Zwart, who has both raced to victory in a 911 at the grueling Pikes Peak hill climb and explored the marque in many commercials produced by his company, Radical Media.

Zwart learned to drive in Southern California at the wheel of his father’s very early 911, a 1964 sporting chassis number 35 good for 130 hp. Today he runs around in a monstrous 4-liter, 500-hp 911 RS. Yet each time he sits down in his modern rocketship, Zwart still feels the same visceral thrill that gripped him as a teenager.

“The 911 is the most developed sports car in history,” he says. “It broke a lot of rules, and it’s still here today.”

The biggest of those shattered taboos was that engines should be placed in front of the rear axle. Yet Porsche put its air-cooled “boxer” (a word that refers to the banks of cylinders boxing at each other) powerplant close to the rear tail lights.

The effects were immediate. Careless motorists in slick weather could find their 911 swapping ends with aggressive stabs of the accelerator or brakes. But those who took the time to master their car’s dynamics were rewarded with knife-like precision into, and blistering acceleration out of, turns. This feature wasn’t lost on amateur and pro drivers alike; the 911 has notched some 30,000 race victories to date. Says Zwart: “When I’m flying into a hairpin turn at Pikes Peak at 100 mph with no guard rails, it’s just an amazing feeling to shift down into first and feel the weight set on those drive wheels. The traction is just unbelievable.”

Stout calls Porsche’s far-rear engine design “a vice that became a virtue,” while Zwart insists that racers trained on 911s develop an acute sense of car dynamics that make them better drivers. But despite such properties, this venerable car almost didn’t make it to middle age. In the early ‘80s, Porsche was in financial difficulty and word began circulating that the 911 would soon be replaced by the front-engined V8-powered 928. In the end, it was Porsche’s only American CEO, Peter Schutz, who decided the latter’s birth shouldn’t mean the former’s death.

Befitting a model that’s been around a half-century, fans of the 911 have varied allegiances. Some are smitten by the spartan feel of ‘70s cars, while others love the bullet-proof build quality of the ‘80s SCs and Carreras. Among air-cooled purists, there is perhaps no more adored modern 911 than the last of that series, the 993, which in 1999 gave way to Porsche’s new series of water-cooled engines. Although the 993 featured a new rear suspension design that helped curb the 911’s tail-happy nature, it was really the car’s looks — a sensuous shape that drew heavily from the company’s 959 supercar — that seduced, so much so that its hallmark oval headlights and pinched rear tail-lights now infuse the latest 911 iteration, the 991.

“My RS is a beast of a car, but then they make the 991 and wouldn’t you know it, this new car is faster around the Nurburgring than the last generation GT3,” says Zwart. “The fact that Porsche can keep improving the 911 like this gives you hope it’ll always stay around.”

Adds Stout: “In the ‘80s, a major American car magazine said the 911 would die because there was simply no way it could be improved further. It’s hard to imagine it disappearing now.”

Not when there remain legions of sports car fans for whom a Porsche 911 remains a childhood fantasy. Scott Dixon, a Bay Area real estate investor, remembers growing up with modest means in Los Angeles fantasizing about the 911. Last year, he finally treated himself to a 2009 black-over-tan 911 Cabriolet.

“I call it my bucket list car because as a kid I had the Matchbox version of the 911, and of course anyone who was cool seemed to drive one,” Dixon says of a model whose fans and owners include the likes of comedian Jerry Seinfeld, rapper Jay-Z and actor/racer Patrick Dempsey. “I test drove a Ferrari, but frankly the car scared me. This car gives me confidence as well as reliability and comfort. It’s the best of all worlds.

"My only regret is I didn’t get it sooner.”