After 50 years of running, how the Porsche 911 remains the world’s sports car
In the fall of 1963, a small group of Porsche employees arrived at the International Auto Show in Frankfurt to present the company’s vision for the future. Due to replace the Volkswagen-derived four-cylinder 356 was a new model called the 901, which featured both a refined version of the 356’s bathtub silhouette as well as two more cylinders. Initially, the biggest controversy was over the model’s name; Peugeot pressed its rights to three-digit appellations where the middle number was zero. So the 901 became the 911, and Porsche became Porsche.
“The 911 changed everything for the company, so it’s rightly the icon,” says Pete Stout, editor-in-chief of Panorama, the magazine of the Porsche Club of America. “When you fire up a 911 and hear that overhead cam flat-six with its cooling fan whirring, that’s Porsche’s unique sound. The 911 has stayed true to itself, which is a rear-engined car that delivers more from less.”
Porsche is marking the 911’s 50th anniversary in a variety of ways, including sending a 1967 model on a five-continent tour stopping at a range of high-profile automotive events and races. There’s also a "50 Years of the Porsche 911" exhibit at the company’s gleaming museum in Zuffenhausen, near Stuttgart, as well as a forthcoming factory-published book called "911 x 911."
The celebration seems warranted. Fifty years is a long time to keep a single automotive line going, especially in an age when innovation rules and customers, trained by the insta-upgrades of the tech world, shun the old and demand the new. Yet here we are in 2013 and, 820,000 911s later, the car remains not only a staggering benchmark in a field crowded with high-displacement offerings, but it also represents the core DNA of a company now offering five models ranging from mid-engined roadsters to turbocharged SUVs. To drive a new Panamera sedan is to taste that fabled rear-wheel-drive 911 experience. And to drive a 911 is to enter into a relationship between car and driver that is demanding, engaging and never boring.
“So many modern sports cars allow you to drive at 10/10ths right away, but the 911 requires you to know a little more about the car and your own skills so it actually develops you as a driver,” says Jeff Zwart, who has both raced to victory in a 911 at the grueling Pikes Peak hill climb and explored the marque in many commercials produced by his company, Radical Media.
Zwart learned to drive in Southern California at the wheel of his father’s very early 911, a 1964 sporting chassis number 35 good for 130 hp. Today he runs around in a monstrous 4-liter, 500-hp 911 RS. Yet each time he sits down in his modern rocketship, Zwart still feels the same visceral thrill that gripped him as a teenager.