How the Porsche 911 became the turbo king

When Porsche announced its first turbocharged production model in 1974 – the 911 Turbo, known in North America as the 930 – it was an occasion of shock and awe.

By 2016 standards, the 260 horsepower and a top speed of 155 miles an hour don’t sound so impressive. But this was the ’70s, an era when the squeeze of pollution control devices was overwhelming the efforts of powertrain engineers at the world’s automakers. Today, the turbocharger is increasingly the go-to solution for boosting output in the face of fuel economy laws, to the point that almost every Porsche sports car will soon be fitted with the power-enhancing device.

Turbochargers had arrived in cars early in the 1960s, but the 911 Turbo’s flat-six was still avant-garde for production cars in its day, a technological descendant of the early-’70s 917/10 and 917/30 Can-Am cars. Both racecars featured turbocharged flat-12 engines, the 917/30 rated at 1,100 horsepower in 1973. Although the 911 Turbo didn’t pack quite such a wallop, wide rear wheel arches that accommodated bigger tires as well as a distinctive “whale tail” rear spoiler accentuated it.

“Most people my age had a poster of that car in their rooms when they were kids – that and Farrah Fawcett,” said Andy Gusman, a 10-year member of the Metro New York chapter of the Porsche Club of America.

Gusman was in grade school when the car arrived on the market. “Back then, the turbo was really cool and cutting edge. Now, it’s just become normal.

A larger 3.3-liter engine arrived in 1978, bringing the 930’s power rating up to 300.

“When the turbo kicked in, it would snap your neck back,” Gusman, who owned an ’86 930, said. “Power wasn’t very linear; it was like there was an on-off switch. But that was the fun of it; it was a dangerous car.”

Porsche introduced a slightly more powerful turbo 911 – the 964 – in 1991. It was the last rear-wheel drive turbo 911 and boasted an improved suspension and better handling. The last air-cooled 911 turbo was the 993, which was offered from 1995 until the end of the millennium.

Wider-bodied water-cooled Porsche 911s hit the market in 2000 – much to the chagrin of air-cooled purists, Gusman said – in the form of the 996. They were followed in 2006 by the 997 and in 2010 by the 997.2, which featured a redesigned 500-horsepower 3.8-liter engine and an optional seven-speed double clutch automatic – gasp! – gearbox.

Now, Porsche offers turbocharged engines on most of its lineup. Why? The reason is simple. As Porsche executives have pointed out, turbocharging helps the company build smaller, more efficient engines that can still dish out heaps of power when called for. A glance at the automaker’s product catalog shows that turbocharging makes possible a 580-horsepower car – the 911 Turbo S – that will go from zero to 60 in less than 3 seconds on its way to a top speed of 205 mph. All that with the possibility of 24-mpg highway fuel consumption, dependent upon right foot restraint, of course.

Wolfgang Hatz, Porsche’s engineering chief, told Top Gear last year that the company’s race-bred hybrid powertrain would show up in its production cars in the future, once again tracing the route from racetrack to road cars.

“People are afraid of change,” Gusman observed, a statement that was true for Porsche owners in the switch from air cooling to water cooling. “But once they see what it can do, they get used to it.”

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