The Astonishing 50-year Legacy of the 911

by Rob Sass
17 September 2014 6 min read
The Astonishing 50-year Legacy of the 911
The Porsche 911 is now over 50 Years Old

THAT THE PORSCHE 911 IS NOW OVER 50 YEARS OLD and still relevant may offer some hope and comfort to those of us who, like myself, have achieved the same milestone. In fairness though, most of us are nowhere near as polarizing as the 911. It’s given car enthusiasts something both to treasure and to argue about for each of those 50 years. To its legion of fans, there is no substitute. To detractors like American stock car driver Bobby Allison, it’s ‘a $12,000 imported Corvair’. And Hagerty contributor P.J. O’Rourke once famously called it ‘an ass-engined Nazi slot car’. Nobody ever seems to be indifferent to the 911.

Most people are relatively familiar with the basic origins of Porsche and the 911, but few realize that it was only the second road car series produced by Porsche as an automaker. The first was of course the 356 of 1948, and while it shared few common parts with the Volkswagen Beetle, their common ancestry was apparent in both design and layout. The efficient-looking 356 clearly benefitted from the streamlining work pioneered by Paul Jaray and the pre-war VW Type 64 racer. Endearing though the 356 may have been — and beautifully built — it was also plump and dowdy. The Butzi Porsche-designed 911 (which was introduced at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1963) had a lower beltline, more glass and lovely elliptical rear quarter windows retained to this day. Quite simply, the 911 was beautiful where the 356 was not.

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While the basic architecture of the 911’s rear engine and torsion bar suspension harked back to the 356 and the pre-war Beetle, other than the floor-hinged pedals and primitive heater, by the 911’s introduction, most of the VW-ness was confined soley to the Porsche’s DNA. One of the main goals of the Type 901 — as the 911 was officially known (Peugeot claimed a trademark on the digit-zero-digit nomenclature) — was to expand the performance envelope beyond that of the 356, which strained to do a steady 100 mph. The costly and complicated four-cam, four-cylinder Carrera engine used in race cars like the 550 Spyder, the 904 and a limited number of 356 street cars was a developmental blind alley. The flat-six of the 911, with its chain-driven single overhead cams, was simpler to assemble and had far more potential. In its initial 2-liter form, it produced a full 40 more horsepower than the Super 90 356 motor. A top speed of 100 mph was now easy, and 130 mph was within reach. 

The early years of 1964–65 were a bit of a soft launch as the 911 was built in small numbers and offered alongside the 356C, which was superseded by the four-cylinder 912. After 1965, development of the 911 proceeded at a far more furious pace than typical for conservative Porsche. For 1967, Porsche added the 911S, a high-performance variant with 180 hp on which the company first debuted the iconic Fuchs alloy wheels. Although lacking in low-end grunt, above 4,000 rpm, there was nothing like it. Road & Track wrote that it ‘had performance on the order of an American muscle car, without the stigma of low cost’. Porsche also offered an open version of the 911 for the first time in the Targa, which had a lift-off roof, fixed roll hoop and, initially, a folding soft rear window.

For 1969, the wheelbase grew a few inches (engine placement stayed the same and the rear half shafts were angled back), and the wings were subtly flared to accommodate larger wheels and tyres; with the additional power of the 911S, the skinny 4.5-inch wheels and 165×15 tyres were beginning to show their limitations in restraining the natural tail-wagging tendencies of the 911. As the saying goes: ‘There are two kinds of 911 drivers, those who have spun and those who will spin’.

Also by 1969, a three-tiered model lineup had developed: the 911T with 110 hp and carburettors; the 911E with 160 hp, mechanical fuel injection and more comfort options; and the 180-hp 911S, also fuel-injected. Over the next four model years, horsepower increased a bit and there were two displacement increases, from 2.0 to 2.2 litres and then to 2.4 litres, which improved low-end torque. The four-cylinder 912 disappeared after 1969.

Like other automakers, in the 1970s Porsche faced U.S. emissions and safety requirements that affected its rest-of-world product. Unlike many other manufacturers, however, new bumper laws didn’t deface Porsche’s products, nor American emissions laws emasculate them. Bosch K-Jetronic electronic fuel injection became standard on the 1973½ 911T, making it perhaps the smoothest and most pleasant 911 yet. The 210-hp duck-tailed Carrera RS also bowed in 1973. It is most certainly a candidate for the best 911 ever.

The first major style change to the 911 came in 1974, with the advent of the aforementioned 5 mph ‘safety’ bumpers. They were well integrated and did nothing to spoil the car’s looks. Simultaneously, there was another displacement bump. The 2.7-litre formula that debuted in the Carrera RS for 1973 became standard across the line, with the mechanically injected RS engine finding its way into the Euro/UK-market Carreras. Americans got low-powered CIS injected 2.7s exclusively and with a host of problems from 1975 to ’77.

In 1975, Porsche introduced quite possibly the most influential and exciting car of the decade in the sensationally fast 911 Turbo Carrera, otherwise known as the 930. Stung by years of criticism over the rate at which its cars would rot, Porsche introduced galvanized steel into the equation for most of the car’s body in 1976. By 1982, the entire structure would be made out of zinc-impregnated steel that was heavily corrosion resistant.

Model year 1978 saw another displacement bump in the 3.0-litre 911SC, which adopted the wider rear fender flares of the Carrera and a host of other improvements. Most importantly, it extended the concept of extreme long life to the 911 equation. To go with the heavily rust-resistant galvanized bodies introduced in 1976, carefully maintained 3.0 engines were capable of covering up to 300,000 miles between rebuilds.

In 1983, Porsche added a truly open 911 — the Cabriolet — for the first time. The following year, the 911 received a new Bosch Motronic engine management system, a larger 3.2-litre engine, another 20-plus horsepower and the Carrera name. Previously applied only to special versions of the 356 and 911, purists howled at its use on the standard car. Major visual cues for the new car were few, with fog lights faired into the front valance and a new engine lid script. 

The 3.2 Carrera may have been the high-water mark for the classic air-cooled 911 in terms of simplicity, ease of maintenance and longevity. Subsequent cars like the 1989–94 Carrera 2 and Carrera 4 (known to enthusiasts as the 964) took inspiration from the fabulous 959 supercar and became far more complex, finally ditching the torsion bars and gaining power steering and all-wheel drive in the Carrera 4. The final air-cooled 911 was the 993 of 1994–98. It may well go down as one of the prettiest 911s ever. The rather bulbous front fascia of the 964 was replaced by an all-new front with flatter headlights and front wings reminiscent of the 959. A new rear suspension forever banished what was left of the 911’s infamous tail-wagging tendencies.

There is really no such thing as an undesirable 911, but some stand out from others. The earliest cars from late 1964 are rare and valuable as historic objects. The 911S of 1967–73 is sought after because it sat at the top of the regular 911 lineup in price and performance. The 1973 2.7-litre Carrera RS, with its wild graphics and the first rear spoiler on a production Porsche, stands out as perhaps the ultimate race-inspired 911 variant, while the Turbo Carrera from 1976 may be the one with the most dramatic upside presently. For a daily driver, most experts recommend the 3.0-litre 911SC and the 3.2-litre Carrera. They’re essentially unkillable, easy to maintain and tremendously rewarding to drive.

To those who get it, the appeal of the 911 has never been difficult to fathom. It’s one of the closest things to a race car that you can drive on the street. The unassisted steering is highly communicative, the brakes on nearly any year inspire confidence, the flat-six howl is addictive, and 911s and their pure racing variants like the Carrera RSR, 934 and 935 look enough like the street cars for ordinary 911 pilots to imagine themselves as Vic Elford.

With its competition legacy and its co-starring role with Steve McQueen at the beginning of the movie Le Mans, there was an undeniably romantic side to the 911. But the car also had a dangerous side with an ever-present threat of terminal oversteer waiting to punish the ham-fisted or the careless.

But the real legacy of the classic air-cooled 911s is their longevity, both in model history and survival rate. Many thousands were built, and particularly the 1978–89 models are heirloom-quality cars with nearly unlimited life spans. Carroll Shelby summed it up best: ‘Thank God there’s no 48-hour race anywhere in the world, because chances are nobody could beat Porsche…’ Indeed, legendary factory racer Vic Elford later proved the point and then some at the Nürburgring in 1967, when he piloted a 911 to victory in the 84-hour Le Marathon de la Route. It’s a fitting testament to such an enduring and durable legend.

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