31 October 2016

You may already own a Porsche 959. Well, parts of it.

“Once in a great while, an automobile is born to wreak havoc. Car nuts froth at the mouth, visionaries get their eyesight checked and auto execs known for getting the job done wonder out loud, ‘How did they do that?’”

That was Don Sherman, writing for Car and Driver in July 1986, after his first encounter with the Porsche 959.

In truth, we’d seen that kind of wide-eyed assessment before, for the first Lamborghini Countach in 1975 and the Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer a few years later. But what Sherman may not have foreseen 30 years ago was the extent to which the 959’s technical wizardry would become mainstream, standard equipment in all sorts of Porsches and even lesser family cars.

No question, the 959 was different. The supercars that preceded may have been outlandish and even beautiful, but the “super” came from nothing more sophisticated than brute horsepower. Even Porsche’s own 930 followed the same formula, with nothing more scientific than wider wheels and tires to battle the laws of physics.

But the sum of technology applied to the 959 was unprecedented: one of the first automotive applications of Kevlar composites for body panels; a twin-turbo flat-six with water-cooled heads, six-speed gearbox and all-wheel-drive with variable-split differentials, capable of changing the torque distribution between front and rear wheels as conditions dictated.

Perhaps that’s why tech titans like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who had not been so enthusiastic about supercars, couldn’t resist the 959, even though it was virtually impossible to license one for public roads in the U.S. To the chagrin of ultrawealthy American enthusiasts, Porsche chose not to certify it for sale here. As a result, U.S. Customs impounded Gates’ imported car for 13 years until the Gates-backed “show and display” law came into effect in 1999.

Further distanced from the Italian supercars that led it, the 959 wasn’t particularly pretty, at least not in the classical sense. Sherman likened it to “a soapbar caricature of the 911 that didn’t quite clear a low version of the St. Louis gateway arch.”

No matter, it was still the ultimate forbidden fruit.

Although common today, the driver’s aids found in the 959 were the stuff of science fiction for the late 1980s. A stalk on the steering column let the driver select four different modes: dry, wet, ice/snow and traction. And lest you think that nobody ever went off-road in a 959, you need to review the world rally scene circa 1986, where the 959 of René Metge and Dominique Lemoyne, striking in the white, blue, red and gold livery of its Rothmans sponsor, won the brutal Paris-Dakar Rally.

Performance, even by today’s standards, was impressive. Top speed was 190 mph and the zero-to-60 run took 3.6 seconds, according to a 1987 Car and Driver road test. All from “just” 444 hp.

Production numbers are sketchy, but roughly 330 Komfort and Sport 959s were built in 1986-88. Not surprisingly, they’re breathtakingly expensive – up to $1.8 million or so. But for Porschephiles who simply must experience something of the 959, its direct descendant, the 996-series Turbo, is a tempting bargain at the moment. Just about $45,000 or so puts you in a 415 hp, twin-turbo, all-wheel-drive 911 that channels the spirit – and benefits from the technological hand-me-downs – of the 959.

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