Still the king
Even with the proliferation of turbocharged engines across the automotive spectrum, one car still comes to mind when someone says, “I just saw a new Turbo,” 40 years after its introduction: the Porsche 911 Turbo.
After four decades, the mighty Turbo still presides as king of a 911 lineup that now numbers 20 different models. And it remains a road- and track-scorching testament to Porsche’s unrelenting devotion to its rear-engine sports car franchise.
Introduced in Europe in 1974, the Porsche 911 Turbo – officially called the Carrera Turbo and internally tagged the Type 930 – arrived on U.S. shores the following year as a 1976 model. Its fattened rear quarters covered wide tires that, along with the unique “whale tail” rear spoiler, were intended to instill high-speed stability. Those features also firmly established a visual signature that even Porsche came to call the “Turbo look.”
Porsche had used turbocharging for its astounding 12-cylinder Can-Am racecars, which ran with about 1,100 horsepower in race tune. But it was certainly not the first to issue a turbocharged production car. General Motors got its first in 1962 with the Corvair Monza Spyder (also an air-cooled flat-six) and the V-8 Oldsmobile Jetfire. The Corvair made a pretty good case for using the exhaust-driven compressor to boost power, while the Olds was mechanical mayhem.
If Porsche engineers looked at those GM turbo applications, they’d probably never admit it. But they faced some of the same hurdles that affected the earlier GM efforts, mainly controlling boost and detonation. At least Porsche had the advantage of working with fuel injection for its 911 Turbo, as opposed to fussy carburetors.
Stuttgart’s engineers didn’t just bolt a turbocharger onto the 911 Carrera’s 2.7-liter flat-six. They crafted a special 3.0-liter version that, like the Corvair turbo, used low compression in the cylinders as a first line of defense against heat-causing detonation. In the 911 Turbo, compression was an almost absurdly low 6.5:1.
Like the Olds Jetfire, Porsche used a wastegate to keep a cap on turbo boost, in this case 11.5 psi, about double that in the Olds. The biggest obstacle for Porsche was meeting U.S. emissions standards, which it did by using thermal reactors – far from ideal.
The result was an impressive 234 horsepower, compared to nearly 260 hp for other markets. Still, that was a big boost over the U.S.-spec 165-hp 911 Carrera. Torque was around 250 lb.-ft. The only transmission available was a 4-speed manual rather than a 5-speed that other 911 models used, and the first year Turbo rolled on 15-inch wheels. This was a limited-production car, originally conceived as a road racing homologation special. Just 530 came to the U.S. that first year.
An enthusiast born after the first 911 Turbo came out might wonder how such a legend could arise from specifications that seem humble in today’s context. Yet, the 911 Turbo translated those figures into forward motion that reset performance expectations for a generation. Car and Driver tested the Carrera Turbo in late 1975, laying down a blistering-for-the-time 4.9-second zero-to-60 sprint and pushing the car to a 156-mph top speed. For anyone who doubted there was a substitute for cubic inches, one drive in a 911 Turbo could effect the appropriate attitude adjustment.
In that magazine’s hands, the fastest 1976 model-year Chevy Corvette, with the optional L-82 engine, took seven seconds to reach 60 from a standstill and topped out at 124 mph. Such were the advantages of the 911 Turbo’s 2,800-lb. curb weight, about 600 lbs. less than the Vette.
Of course, you could have bought three lightly optioned L-82 Corvettes for the $25,880 asked for the 911 Turbo. The 911 Turbo made its name by embarrassing far more expensive Italian exotics, making it a “bargain supercar,” if such a term even makes sense.
The 911 Turbo was not without fault. Its ultra-low compression ratio and turbo lag took a toll on off-the-line response. The snap-oversteer that plagued earlier 911s was even more dangerous when combined with a 50-percent power hike and an inexperienced driver.
Porsche made the 911 Turbo its most luxurious model, which in those days meant air-conditioning, AM/FM stereo, power windows, leather seats, tinted glass, headlight washers, rear-window wiper and a power antenna. The short options list included a power sunroof and limited-slip differential. “Turbo” side graphics, the Teutonic equivalent of a Pontiac Trans-Am’s “screaming chicken” hood decal, cost $120.
A boost in displacement to 3.3 liters and the addition of an intercooler pushed output to 265 hp in the 1978 U.S. model, but then the fun ended. Porsche withdrew the 911 Turbo from the U.S. rather than try to meet emissions standards. After a seven-year absence, the Turbo returned with catalytic converters and 282 hp.
Horsepower, torque and acceleration curves headed skyward with each successive 911 Turbo model. Dual turbochargers and all-wheel drive arrived in the 400-hp 1996 version, and those features remained mainstays for this performance flagship. (The limited-production GT2 was rear-wheel drive.)
Forty years later, the 911 Turbo is still blowing minds, on road and on track. It’s now a 520-hp rocket starting at $151,100. But you can go even higher with the 560-hp Turbo S, in which Car and Driver recently blasted from 0 to 60 mph in 2.5 seconds and obliterated the quarter mile in 10.6 seconds at 130 mph. At this point, it seems that only the laws of inertia might hold the Turbo back. Options can now push the price toward $200,000.
A first-year 911 Turbo sold at the RM Sotheby’s auction in Arizona in January for $143,000. Consider that a 40th anniversary present – for the seller.
King of the Porsche 911 line, then and now.
||1976 Turbo Carrera*
||2015 911 Turbo S**
||3.0-liter flat six, air and oil cooled, single turbocharger
||3.8-liter flat six, liquid cooled, twin turbochargers
|Max. boost pressure
||17.4 psi (19.6 psi in brief overboost mode)
||246 lb.-ft. @ 4,500 rpm
||516 lb.-ft. @ 2,100 rpm (553 lb.-ft. in overboost)
||4-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
||7-speed dual clutch automatic, all-wheel drive
||13.5 sec. @103 mph
||10.6 sec. @ 130 mph
||197 mph (manufacturer claim)
* 911 Turbo, Car and Driver December 1975
** 911 Turbo S, Car and Driver May 2014