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PORSCHE 911 50TH ANNIVERSARY

The Porsche 911 is not only one of the world’s most iconic supercars but one of the few that can genuinely be driven and enjoyed as a daily rider. With the 50th anniversary of this enduring marque on the horizon, Anthony ffrench-Constant presents a brief history lesson before taking to the wheel of the latest iteration, the seventh-generation Carrera 4S

The Porsche 911 is the most successful sports car in the world. It’s that simple. To date, on the eve of its 50th birthday this September, over 820,000 examples have been built. Moreover, given that Porsche has always carved its cars from solid granite, it’s a fair bet that a remarkably high proportion of that number are still on the road today.

It would also be interesting to unearth the proportion of 911s that have ended their days prematurely, disappearing backwards through hedges. Because, let’s face it, no other car in history has so wilfully ignored engineering conventions for as long as the 911, turning what should be a sure-fire recipe for disaster and Elastoplast into one of the world’s greatest automotive successes.

Yup, the engine’s in entirely the wrong place; a relatively large displacement unit slung astern, outside the rear axle; a vast, flat-six pendulum waiting to punish the unwary. And it is to the credit of Porsche’s Tefal-heads that they have spent the last 50 years brutally engineering the laws of physics into submission with such unalloyed success.

Interestingly, 911 owners must take some credit for the marque’s longevity to boot; a 1970s attempt by Porsche management to kill off the car simply because its mechanical layout was just too different was firmly scotched, in part, by an owner’s uprising…

The 911s predecessor, the 356, was in effect a modified VW Beetle, harking back to the early post-war years when a rearengined layout was a popular design conceit for the maximisation of cabin space. Work on the 911 began in 1956 and – after a name change from 901 because Peugeot claimed sole rights to all car names with a zero in the middle – it made its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1963 and went on sale the following year.

Low slung and remarkably compact for a four-seater, with a wheelbase a good 10 inches shorter than today’s MINI Cooper, the 911 was an instant hit. Though its aircooled, six-cylinder ‘boxer’ engine was a mere 2.0 litres in capacity and delivered a humble 126bhp, the Porsche would still hit 60mph in under nine seconds and smear on to over 130mph.

But to drive, it was undeniably far more than the sum of its parts; rock-solid build quality underscored a superb five-speed gearchange, powerful brakes and sublime steering. Devoid of power assistance yet still relatively easy to wield at low speeds thanks to so little weight over the front wheels, the steering on this first 911 established itself as Porsche’s ace-in-the-hole; accurate, quick and positively trembling with feel and feedback. That, and, of course, the unmistakable, intoxicating, breathy roar of an air-cooled flat six at full chat… In 1966 the first 911 S pushed power output to 156bhp and, that same year, the open-topped Targa offered the sporting driver a first opportunity to be lashed to death by his own quiff. Power rose as displacement increased, first to 2.2 litres in 1969, then to 2.4 litres in 1971.

The development of the 911 for competition was always a racing certainty, and in 1967 the company built 20 ‘R’ models with stripped interiors, aluminium doors and about 210bhp. The lightweight road-racing 911 has been with us ever since. The Carrera RS 2.7 of 1972, combining 204bhp with a weight of less than 1000kg and that unmistakable ‘ducktail’ (the world’s first rear spoiler on a production vehicle), constituted first generation performance perfection and is still highly regarded to this day. Never a huddle to be hurried, it took Porsche’s engineers ten years to give the 911 its first thorough makeover, the second generation 911 of 1973 – known as the ‘G-series’ – being instantly recognisable by prominent, impact-absorbing bellows bumpers designed to meet American crash test standards.

The G-series’ 2.7 litre powerplant equipped the Porsche with sub six second 0-60mph performance for the first time, but true blistering status -and the famous ‘whale tail’- arrived with the unveiling of the first Turbo, boasting 3.0 litres and 252bhp, in 1974. In 1977, all 911 engines swelled to 3.0 litres, whilst the Turbo grew to 3.3 litres, generating 292bhp. The first cabriolet appeared in 1982, boasting all the structural rigidity of a blancmange, and the much vaunted 3.2 litre, 225bhp Carrera replaced the SC in 83. In fact, 1978 was intended to be the 911s swansong, when the front-engined, V8-powered 928 was launched as its intended replacement. But what the great American humorist P J O’Rourke once described as the ‘arse-engined Nazi slot car’ simply refused to die.

Fifteen years separate second and third generation 911s, then, the 964 of 1988 a relatively radical renewal featuring 86% new components including power steering, a sixspeed gearbox and the availability of fourwheel drive. With decidedly more svelte couture courtesy of the absence of those bellows bumpers, the 964 Carrera RS, 350bhp 911 Turbo S and 911 Carrera 2 Speedster are proving particularly collectible. The fourth generation 911, dubbed 993, arrived a scant five years later, the last 911 whose major dimensions and construction drew a direct link to the 1960s original. The prettiest of this lineage due to a lower-slung snout courtesy of a switch from round to poly-ellipsoid headlamps, it lasted only four years; the Boxster was coming, and Porsche knew this would force the 911 upmarket.

However, with a newly-designed aluminium chassis, a 3.6 litre engine tweaked to punt out 272bhp and new multi-link rear suspension that dramatically curtailed rear end on-the-limit waywardness, many 911 aficionados will tell you that this remains the finest of them all. There’s little doubt, moreover, that this adjudication has much to do with the fact that this was to be the last fully air-cooled 911, and the last opportunity to relish the spine-tingling yowl that more recent, water-cooled powerplants have proved unable to replicate.

It may not, at first glance, have look it then, but the fifth generation 996 which rolled of the assembly line in 1997 was an entirely new car, the first to be driven by a water-cooled version of the boxer engine. Significantly larger than its predecessor with an infinitely more refined, comfortable interior in which the switchgear was no longer applied via blindfold and blunderbuss, the 996 moved the 911 away from its three decade-long role of compact sports car into the realms of the grand tourer.

This move was met with far from universal approval… As far as the diehards were concerned, the new car was too big, didn’t sound right, didn’t quite handle with the same alacrity and didn’t still shrink around you like clingfilm on a hot sausage when the going got serious. It was, though, undeniably far easier to drive, especially at a potter.

Keeping Carrera RS traditions alive, however, the 1999 911 GT3 was not to be sniffed at, nor was 2000’s 911 GT2; the first car to be fitted, as standard, with ceramic brakes. The sixth generation 911 of 2004, the 997, brought wider tracks, bigger wheels, a stiffer body, heftier brakes and more powerful engines; the Carrera’s 3.6 litre engine now good for 317bhp, the 3.8 litre unit of the Carrera S 345bhp.

And so to the seventh and most recent generation of the 911, dubbed 991, which arrived in 2011. Now, I just happen to have a Carrera 4S version of same parked outside as we speak so, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll forgo further historical musings and report back shortly after a serious hoon…

PORSCHE 911 CARRERA 4S

The seventh generation Carrera is but a couple of inches longer than its predecessor and a whisker lower, but it has grown some four inches in the wheel base. Conversely, laced with aluminium, it’s actually 45kg lighter and 20% stiffer. I personally think it’s destined to go down in history as one of the best looking 911s, but I’m gently unconvinced that the nod-to-RS ‘ducktail’ adorning the rump of this ‘SportDesign Package’ embellished 4S does it any favours in the couture department.

On board, the replacement of the workmanlike, upright dashboard of previous generations with a Cayenne and Panamera-inspired sloping centre console cannot be quibbled over, and the interior certainly feels more spacious, even though the back seats remain fit only for small children and Douglas Bader. The driving position, however, remains absolutely perfect, as does the instrumentation, which, with a large central tachometer and the inclusion of oil and water temperature gauges, remains devoted to function.

Cantilevered astern, a 3.8 litre engine develops 395bhp and 324lb ft of torque, flinging the 4S to 62mph in a whisker over four seconds and on the 184mph. This particular car benefits from £9,388 worth of ‘Powerkit Carrera S’, however; a raft of powerplant tweaks which boost power to 424bhp, as if the standard machine isn’t quick enough…

I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but I’m delighted to discover Porsche’s 7-speed PDK automatic transmission installed here. Because, I confess, I struggle with the 5 gate format of the new 7-speed manual shift, once suggesting that you’d be more likely to find Narnia at the back of the wardrobe than 6th when changing down from 7th.

Purists grumble about the new electric steering. Truth is, that’s absolutely fine; it’s the gearchange that’s the problem.

And here’s the rub, the manual is actually the same PDK gearbox with a stick installed at the business end. Why?

Because 75% of new 911 buyers opt for automatics. No stick stirring? No heel-and toe work through Porsche’s peerless pedal placement as you lean on the best brakes in the business? So much for 911 owners being diehard sporting enthusiasts…

I do miss the pedal play; the quest for the perfect approach to a slow bend or roundabout. But you only have to spend a few miles behind the wheel of a venerable specimen such as the editor’s own 1982 SC Targa to recognise how ludicrously easy the 911 has become to drive. Very quickly indeed.

Combining constantly adapting fourwheel drive with entirely oleaginous shifts up and down the ‘box via flappy paddles, the 4S is a fast as you dare wherever you dare, and considerably braver than me.

Perhaps the only downside to this relentlessly exhilarating experience is the unwelcome presence of something Porsche calls a ‘Sound Symposium’; a pipe, to you and I, which funnels engine noise into the cabin. I’m not convinced by this, because you no longer have to chase revs in the hunt for the inimitable flat six howl which inevitably sets the hair on the nape of your neck trooping the colour, it’s now more of a constant companion. I have to be careful here; I’m beginning to sound like one of those grumbling diehards myself. Which I’m not. I’ve never been a 911 addict, yet I do attribute some of the finest hoons I’ve ever enjoyed to various iterations of this fabulous car.

The ffrench-Constant bottle – a miniature – should dictate that I’d be far happier in the latest generation of 911 than a water-cooled specimen of yore. But the finest fling I ever had was in a 993 Targa; a car so utterly involving, enthralling and downright intoxicating at speed that it persuaded me to put my faith in engineering rather than the laws of physics within a matter of miles.

PORSCHE 911 CARRERA 4S TECHNICAL SPECIFICATION

Price: £87,959 (as tested: £105,925)
Engine
: 3800cc 6-cylinder boxer, 395bhp @ 7400rpm, 324lb ft @ 5600rpm
Transmission
: 7-speed dual clutch automatic with paddle shift override, all-wheel drive
Performance: 0-62mph in 4.3 seconds, 184mph, 31.0mpg average consumption, 215 g/km CO2
Weight
: 1450kg

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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