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Fifty Years of the Porsche 911

Michael Cotton Reminisces on the Competition History of Zuffenhausen's Most Famous Product.

The Volkswagen Beetle was the best-selling car of all time, production reaching 21.5 million by the time the last one rolled down a line in Puebla, Mexico, in 2003. Nothing else comes close. The Beetle, originally designated KdF in the 1930s, was designed by Professor Ferdinand Porsche, and it was his son Ferdinand ‘Ferry’ Porsche who oversaw the design and production of the 911 model which celebrates its Golden Jubilee this year. More than 820,000 have been produced so far, all in Zuffenhausen, and demand is greater than ever.

In terms of volume it may not be the most successful sports car in the world, as Porsche now claims, since production of the Chevrolet Corvette passed 1.35 million at the end of 2012, but in terms of sporting success the supremacy of the 911 cannot be challenged. To count all the victories would be…well, like counting snowflakes, though Porsche’s statisticians say that “a good two thirds of Porsche’s 30,000 race victories to date were notched up by the 911.”

Porsche’s 356 model’s success was founded on various competitions class victories in events like the Mille Miglia, and an outright victory on the Marathon de la Route, so the heritage was very clear. The longer and tougher the event, the more likely it was that a Porsche would succeed.

The 901, as the new model was designated at the Frankfurt Show in 1963, was designed with development for competitions very much in mind. It was powered by an air-cooled flat-six engine, 2-litres capacity to fit comfortably into the lower capacity bracket for competitions, and the power level was fixed at 130 bhp at the outset. When the 911 went into production in the autumn of 1964 two employees, Herbert Linge and Peter Falk, turned their thoughts to the Monte Carlo Rally in January 1965. They replaced the six Solex carburettors with a pair of triple-choke Webers for better throttle response and fitted Koni dampers, “but that was about it” according to Falk. Linge drove the timed stages, saying he was a bad passenger, Falk the liaison sections, and they survived deep snowfalls to finish the event in fifth place overall. “This Monte Carlo Rally really sparked interest among all Porsche drivers” says Linge. “Back then it was already a huge fraternity. Just look at the starting grids with 356 Carreras, with 40 to 50 cars in the race every weekend.”

It was not the basic 911 that competitions oriented customers wanted. They had to wait for the 911S version to come along in 1966 with 160 bhp, helped by Webers and a range of engine modifications, Koni dampers, a rear anti-roll bar and ventilated disc brakes. Vic Elford and David Stone contested the European Rally Championship in 1967 with a 911S with no more than 170 horsepower, and won the series outright. A 100 litre fuel tank was installed in the front compartment and the a ZF limited slip differential was fitted in the gearbox, and Elford and Stone then achieved an outstanding outright victory in the 1968 Monte Carlo Rally with a version designated 911T. There were two more ‘Monte’ successes for Porsche’s 911 in the next two years, driven by Björn Waldegård and Lars Helmer. Oh, and another in 1978, against all expectations!

The 911 proved itself as a potent rally winner, but the racing pedigree was not far behind. Jean-Pierre Gaban and ‘Pedro’ won the Spa 24-hours in 1967, and in the same year class victories were achieved at Daytona, Sebring, the Targa Florio and the Nürburgring. Although technical boss Ferdinand Piëch was heavily into space-frame racing cars the 911 was given special treatment too. The 911R was produced in low volume, three reserved for the factory and 19 for customers, who had to compete in the prototype category. The car had the first use of aluminium doors and was extensively lightened, by 230 kg, to 800 kg, and powered by a special version of the flat-six engine, with twin-spark cylinder heads and titanium con-rods, developing 210 bhp at 8,000 rpm. So, the 100 bhp per litre threshold was crossed early in the 911’s life, indicating how much reserve was built into the ‘boxer’ engine by Hans Mezger, the engine-engineer who headed development.


Swiss drivers Rico Steinemann, Dieter Spoerry, Jo Siffert and Charles Vögele set world records at the Monza autodrome in a 911R completing 20,085 kilometres in 96 hours at an average of 209.23 km/h (130.01 mph), including time taken to change the front struts which were hammered by the concrete banking. Going to the other extreme, Porsche decided to show off the new Sportomatic, semi-automatic transmission in the Marathon de la Route, an 84-hour regularity trial around the Nürburgring. Vic Elford, Hans Herrmann and Jochen Neerpasch completed this marathon in first place, but the Sportomatic did not become a popular option.

Taking the regulations to the limit Porsche succeeded in homologating the six-cylinder model as a touring car, meeting the interior dimensions by removing most of the upholstery. The 911L, homologated into Group 2 for touring cars, with 170 bhp, started cleaning up the touring car events against BMW 2000s, Ford Mustangs and Alfa Romeo GTAs, and when Porsches claimed the top four positions in the Spa 24-hours in 1969, led by Guy Chasseuil and Claude Ballot-Lena, the FIA yielded to rival manufacturers and outlawed the 911 in 1970. As GT cars, 911s would again win the Spa 24-hours in 1993 and in 2003.

A 911R powered by a four-cam engine developing 230 bhp was prepared by the factory for the Tour de Corse, though in early trials at Mugello the drivers found that it was just too inflexible. After its one outing in Corsica the twin-cam project was dropped, as better results would be obtained by the B-series Porsches introduced for the 1969 model year, with longer wheelbase (for better handling) and 2.2 litre engines with fuel injection, which could be taken up to 2,247 cc and 230 bhp at 7,800 rpm. For the 1971 season, the same engine with bigger bore dimensions reached 2,380 cc capacity and 250 bhp.

The ultimate 911, if you like, was the 911S campaigned by Gerard Larrousse, first on the 1969 RAC Rally of Great Britain, then on the Monte Carlo Rally, resulting in second place overall. Then, engineers and mechanics set to work to take every spare ounce of weight out of the car, even to the extent of drilling holes in the instrument needles, reducing the weight to 789 kg. It was the lightest 911 ever built, and rewarded Larrousse with an overall victory in the 1970 Tour de France, an event which included circuit races and hillclimbs around the country.

Le Mans has always been central to Porsche’s racing strategy, and the Zuffenhausen manufacturer finally won the great race in 1970. Making up for some near misses, Porsche claimed the top three positions overall, headed by Richard Attwood and Hans Herrmann in a 917K, but another 917 was second, a 908 was third, two Ferrari 512s claimed fourth and fifth positions, a Porsche 914/6 was sixth and a 911S driven by Nick Koob and Erwin Kremer was seventh. Due to wet weather conditions only these seven cars were classified, out of 51 starters, and the thought might have occurred to the organisers that if the Porsche family had not been involved in automobiles, then two Ferraris would have been first and second, with no other finishers. If anything, the result in 1971 was even more remarkable. Porsche 917s finished first and second, Ferraris were third, fourth and fifth, and the next seven cars to finish were all production Porsches, led by the 911S of Raymond Touroul and “Anselm”. In fact seven of the 13 cars classified, were Porsche 911s!

Dr Ernst Furhrmann, designer of the ‘Fuhrmann’ four-cam Porsche engine, rejoined the company in 1971 as ‘spokesman for the board’ a position that would be better described nowadays as chief executive. One of his early decisions was to accelerate development of the 911 model, Porsche’s ‘flagship’ model as it was usually referred to. Engineer Norbert Singer was put in charge of race development and as a first step, he took Larrousse’s rally car to the Paul Ricard circuit and progressively improved the suspension, concentrating at the engine-heavy rear end. Singer realised that while the regulations obliged him to keep the torsion bar springing he was allowed to fit auxiliary springs, which became the main form of suspension. This also overcame the 911’s inherent problem of lifting its nose under hard acceleration and, combined with wider wheels, the RS and RSR race versions were born.

The Porsche 911 Carrera 2.7 was announced late in 1972, and became one of the most sought-after models in the 911’s 50-year history - a genuine classic. Outright victory in the Daytona 24-hour race in January 1973, the opening round of the World Endurance Championship, was way beyond anyone’s expectations, but two Carrera 2.7 RSs were entered in the prototype category for the Penske and Brumos teams, because homologation had not yet come through for GT racing. As the fast but fragile Matra and Mirage open-top prototypes fell by the wayside, the Brumos Racing entry, wearing the number 59, won in the hands of Peter Gregg and Hurley Haywood. The ‘ducktail’ flip on the engine cover became one of the most emblematic sights of the era, and with homologation the Carrera RS dominated the European GT Championship, while in America Peter Gregg won both the IMSA GT Championship and the Trans-Am series with his Daytona car.

Porsche achieved another shock result in the Targa Florio, the second round of the World Championship run on the mountain roads in Sicily. Again the fragile prototypes, entered by Ferrari and Alfa Romeo, fell by the wayside, leaving Gijs van Lennep and Herbert Müller to claim victory in their Martini liveried Carrera RSR. This was elevated to the prototype category with wider wheels and a larger ‘Mary Stuart’ rear spoiler, as the factory team now preferred to develop the 911 progressively and leave the GT category open to customer teams.

Prototyping was taken a stage further in 1974 when the engine was turbocharged; a progression of the turbo-technology pioneered on the Can-Am Porsche 917s. The engine’s capacity had to be reduced to 2,142 cc because a 1.7 multiplication was applied by the FIA to engines with forced induction, and the absolute limit was 3,000 cc. Using a single KKK turbocharger the power was between 460 and 490 bhp, depending on boost. The power output was comparable to that of the Matras and Ferraris with 3-litre V12 engines but even in its lightest form the 911 Carrera RS Turbo was far heavier, at 930 kg, while the open prototypes were down to 650 kg. Clearly no victories could be expected, but Müller and van Lennep earned decent results, fifth at Monza, third at Spa and sixth at the Nürburgring.

The real test would come at Le Mans, where the long straights allowed the turbocharged engine to exploit its power, and sure enough the Porsche moved up to second position on Sunday morning, behind the Matra of Henri Pescarolo and Gerard Larrousse. First the Matra’s gearbox (supplied by Porsche!) began to fail, and was rebuilt in 20 minutes by Porsche team mechanics, and just as the Carrera turbo snatched the lead, briefly, its fifth gear failed and the drivers had to reduce speed. The Porsche finished a strong second, ahead of another Matra, enabling Porsche to remain in the WEC title chase right to the end of the season. Not bad, for a single car entry with new technology!

Porsche built three models for the all-new regulations which came into force in 1976, two of them 911s with turbocharged engines. The 934 was built to Group 4 regulations, real Grand Touring cars, the 935 was a much more advanced machine built to Group 5 regulations, while the 936 was an open prototype built for Group 6 racing. This, too, was powered by a 911 engine, in fact the 2,142 cc turbo engine developed two years previously.

No other manufacturer had prepared as thoroughly as Porsche, and the Stuttgart company succeeded in winning all three championships: the European GT Championship with the Porsche 934 prepared by the Kremer brothers for Toine Hezemans, the World Endurance Championship with the factory’s 935 driven by Jacky Ickx and Jochen Mass, and to boot, the World Sportscar Championship with the 936 also raced by Ickx and Mass. Both the factory cars were sponsored by Martini & Rossi, and their liveries were recognised around the world, rivalling the following earned by Gulf Oil’s blue and orange colours.

The 934 and 935 fairly dominated endurance racing for five years, up to the introduction of Group C racing, where Porsche would again go in heavily and successfully. All the while, great emphasis was put on the flat-six 911 engine, which could be developed to 800 horsepower with special treatment. This was the engine that powered ‘Moby Dick’, the extreme Porsche 935-78 powered by a 3.2 litre engine with water cooled cylinder heads, allowing the fitment of four valves per cylinder. This sensational looking car won its debut race, at Silverstone in 1978, by seven clear laps, but did not run cleanly at Le Mans and failed to finish at Vallelunga. At that, Porsche withdrew its factory team, leaving the field open to customer teams.

Brothers Erwin and Manfred Kremer further developed the 935 in their Cologne workshop, drawing unofficially on factory support, and the resulting Kremer Porsche 935K3 recorded a historic victory at Le Mans in 1979. It was a wet race with a high rate of retirement, but Klaus Ludwig was the kingpin of a driver line-up including the Whittington brothers, Don and Dale. Production derived Porsches claimed the top four positions overall at Le Mans, second place taken by Dick Barbour’s 935 shared by the owner with Rolf Stommelen and Paul Newman, while in third position was the Kremer team’s second 935, ahead of a Porsche 934. Rarely was a clean sweep more emphatic – until Porsche’s 956 models finished first, second and third in 1982.

There was a change of emphasis in the 1980s, as Porsche took a strong grip on the Group C World Championship with the 956 and 962 racers. Four-wheel drive became the new vogue, and a prototype 911 was exhibited at the Frankfurt Show as a ‘Studie’ in 1981, with drive taken to the front wheels via a drive shaft to a forward gearbox. Porsche had made several attempts to win the East African Safari rally, never successful, but found a new challenge in the Paris-Dakar ‘Raid’. Jacky Ickx had won this gruelling event in 1983 in a Mercedes G-wagen, and urged Porsche to prepare a special car to tackle the deserts of North Africa. The forerunner of the 959 was exhibited at Frankfurt, Paris and Birmingham in 1983, described as a Gruppe B prototype, indicating that it would be an all-wheel drive car to tackle World Rally Championship events, and the Paris-Dakar for good measure.

Three Porsches were entered in the 1984 Paris-Dakar, essentially 911 rally cars with naturally aspirated engines, rated at 225 bhp, but equipped with Audi Quattro differentials between the front wheels. Rothmans sponsored the team and Frenchman René Metge was the outright winner, followed by Ickx in sixth place after dealing with a wiring loom fire, and the factory engineer, Roland Kussmaul, acting as sweeper, in 26th position. At this stage it was announced that Porsche would make 200 examples of the 959 to gain Group B homologation, plus 20 evolutions for the race track, numbered 961. Production was delayed again and again, explained by r&d director Professor Helmuth Bott as difficulties in obtaining fuel injection systems from Bosch, in competition with Mercedes, Audi and BMW. Emission controls, involving catalytic converters, were being legislated and Porsche, with limited requirements, was being sidelined.

Porsche returned to the Paris-Dakar in 1985 with definitive 959s, save for turbocharging for the engine, but both Ickx and Jochen Mass had accidents and Metge, too, failed to finish. Porsche’s third and final appearance was made in 1986, still with backing from Rothmans, and René Metge was again the outright winner chased by Ickx in second position. Now the cars had electronically controlled differentials, and were powered by 2.8 litre engines with twin sequential turbochargers, developing 400 bhp. Notably, the 959s were the first production models to have water cooled cylinder heads, like Moby Dick’s, making it possible to include four valves per cylinder. The 959’s swoopy Kevlar bodywork, with wrap-over rear wing, was greatly admired.

The 961, intended for racing, was a further development of the 959, the twin-turbo engine pumped up to 680 horsepower. Weight was reduced to 1,150 kg, quite an achievement for a car with all-wheel drive, and it was timed at 310 km/h on the Mulsanne straight (192 mph). The 961’s race was steady, rather than spectacular, and despite a delay with an exploded tyre on Sunday morning it was classified in seventh place overall. Porsche returned to Le Mans with the Rothmans liveried 961 (only one was ever built) in 1987 but it had a troubled race and retired with accident damage. The 959 was not homologated for the American market and Al Holbert failed to take any orders from race customers for the 961, which was deemed to be over-priced (against tube-frame local products) and uncompetitive.

Group B machines were banned from the World Rally Championship following Henri Toivonen’s fatal accident in a lightweight Lancia, so ending Porsche’s vanishing hopes of running a team of 959s at the top level. Satisfied with their second victory in the Paris-Dakar, Porsche concentrated on producing 200-plus versions of the 959 for customers. They were sold, initially at a loss-making price of DM420,000 (£142,667), and the owners could boast of a number of ground-breaking features: twin turbochargers, all-wheel drive, fully adjustable suspension, six-speed gearboxes, a Westinghouse Webasto anti-lock braking system, and eye-catching Kevlar body styling.

The 959 was the world’s fastest production car, capable of hitting 125 mph from rest in 13 seconds and reaching a maximum speed of 197 mph. At the final count, 37 prototypes were produced between 1983 and 1986, including the Paris-Dakar competitors, and 292 cars were made between 1986 and 1988, the price rising steeply as Porsche understood the level of demand and raised the price to DM747,500 (£326,767). Five more 959s were made in the early 1990s from spare parts.

Grand Touring cars were excluded from the renamed Sportscar World Championship when Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley claimed FIA’s right to write the regulations, in 1989, so at a stroke the grids were reduced in number and in variety. This was of particular importance to the Automobile Club de l’Ouest which really hit rock-bottom in 1992 when, in the final season of the FIA’s strictly controlled SWC, just 30 entries were accepted including five heavily handicapped Porsche 962s.

Fortunately for the future of endurance racing, the SWC collapsed in ignominy at the end of 1992 and GT cars, typified by Porsches, made a comeback, both at Le Mans and in the BPR Global Endurance series organised by Porsche’s Jürgen Barth, Parisian publicist Patrick Peter and wealthy enthusiast Stéphane Ratel.

Porsche announced a lightweight version of the 911 Turbo at the Geneva Show in March 1992, with 190 kg of luxury equipment stripped out, reducing the weight to 1,280 kg (it even had carbon composite doors, front hood and rear wing) and the power of the 3.3 litre flat-six was increased to 380 bhp. This was followed in the autumn of 1993 by a new version named the GT2, designed to meet homologation requirements and aimed at customers who’d go racing. The engine capacity was raised to 3.6 litres and, with twin turbochargers the power was raised to 450 bhp at 6,000 rpm. In race trim the Turbo S LM-GT made its debut with a class win at Sebring in March 1994, and it became a regular winner in the BPR series as Jack Leconte’s Larbre Competition team won four of the eight races, the driver team led by Bob Wollek and Jean-Pierre Jarier. Customer teams included those of Franz Konrad, Manfred Freisinger and Hans Mühlbauer.

The 1995 and 1996 seasons were dominated by McLaren’s F1 GTR and Ferrari’s F40 model. Porsche’s customer teams, starved of outright victories, uprated their GT2s, cars known as GT2 Evo with wider wheels, bigger wings and more powerful engines, now developing 600 bhp with larger turbochargers. In many cases the transmissions proved unequal to the task, and in some secrecy Porsche designed an entirely new car, the 911 GT1-96, raced at Le Mans in 1996. The 911 Turbo’s bodyshell was cut at the bulkhead behind the driver’s seat, and a new water cooled engine, forerunner of the 997’s, was installed ahead of the rear wheels, a layout reminiscent of the 962’s.

Two GT1-96 scored an immediate success at Le Mans, triumphing in the GT category and finishing second and third overall, right behind Joest Racing’s Porsche WSC. Hans Stuck, Thierry Boutsen and Bob Wollek drove the class winner, followed by the sister car of Karl Wendlinger, Yannick Dalmas and Scott Goodyear. Porsche AG then took the controversial decision to enter the GT1-96 for the BPR race at Brands Hatch in September, a move that angered the ‘gentlemen drivers’ made worse as Stuck and Boutsen were easy winners, ahead of three McLarens. With hindsight, this was the curtain call for BPR, as the FIA created a new championship for GT cars in 1997.

The GT1-96 was followed by the mildly modified GT1-97 and sold to customer teams, none of whom were satisfied. Up against ‘proper’ race-bred GT cars like the McLarens (with official BMW backing) and the new AMG Mercedes CLK GTR neither Porsche’s factory entry, nor the private teams led by Roock Racing, stood a chance. In simple terms, the marriage of a steel, production bodyshell and a race inspired engine layout failed to provide the stiffness that competitors required.

Porsche still referred to them as 911s, stretching the lineage, but the GT1-98 was also called a 911, on orders from on high, although it had an all carbon chassis and bodywork. The water cooled engine was now recognised as being related to the new 996’s but that was the only link with the production line. The GT1-98 fared badly against the AMG Mercedes team in the FIA GT Championship but came up trumps at Le Mans, giving Porsche their 16th victory at the Sarthe, much needed by the factory. Allan McNish, Laurent Aïello and Stéphane Ortelli were joined on the podium by Dr Wolfgang Porsche, who was leading the 50th anniversary celebrations of Porsche’s founding, in Stuttgart.

Porsche’s sister car followed in second position, completing the triumph, yet at the end-of-season prizegiving R&D director Horst Marchart told his stunned audience that the factory team was being disbanded. No more GT racing, no more factory appearances anywhere. The planned successor, an open prototype powered by a new V10 engine, was cancelled after just two test runs at Weissach, one by Wollek, the other by McNish.

Porsche’s competitions department in Weissach then followed a completely new path, developing the GT3R version of the 996 model 911, the cars first appearing in the hands of two factory supported private teams at Le Mans in 1999. The GT3R entered by Manthey Racing finished in 13th position with no delays. In fact the only criticism of the two entries was the loudness of the exhaust system, comparable with the Mazda rotaries remembered with awe by people in the pit-lane!

The GT3Rs were powered by 3.6 litre flat-six engines, naturally aspirated (there have been no turbocharged versions in the life of the GT3), initially developing 355 bhp, compared with 296 bhp from the road-going version. Dry sump lubrication was a follow-on from previous 911s, and numerous teams on both sides of the Atlantic took delivery of GT3Rs for the 2000 season.

The GT3R has been upgraded every year without fail, to RS and RSR forms, the engine enlarged to 3.8, and now 4.0 litres, and today it is recognised as a ‘holy grail’ motor developing 500 bhp, that is 125 bhp per litre. As well as dominating the GT2 class in America and in Europe for several years, the 911 GT3R achieved outright victories at Daytona in 2003, and again at the Spa 24-hours, against the odds posed by more powerful GT1 cars. 911 GT3 Cup cars, race prepped but not far removed from the road versions, have become crowd favourites around the world, with strong championships in Germany, Britain, France and in Asia.

This brief history of the 911 in racing would not be complete without mention of the 911 GT3R Hybrid, which was prepared for selected events in 2010. The 4-litre flat-six engine, developing 480 bhp, was supplemented by a flywheel driven hybrid system which distributed 120 kW of power – approximately 160 horsepower -- to a pair of electric motors driving the front wheels. This gave the drivers a huge assistance out of medium and fast corners, after braking which created kinetic energy by spinning the flywheel up to 40,000 rpm. The system, devised by the Williams Hybrid Technology company in Oxfordshire, added 100 kg to the GT3R’s weight, and a further 25 kg was added by the VLN, the organisation that controls a series of events at the Nürburgring. On the plus side, though, Porsche were allowed to install a supplementary 40 litre fuel tank, as well as the standard 80 litres in the front compartment, which gave the car an excellent range.

The Porsche 911 GT3R Hybrid claimed third place in the VLN race in April 2010 and was then prepared for the 24-hour race in May when it was raced by Jörg Bergmeister, Richard Lietz, Martin Ragginger and Marco Holzer. Against expectations it was a front-runner, actually leading the race for eight hours, but hopes were dashed by an unexpected engine failure (“nothing to do with the hybrid system” insisted competitions boss Hartmut Kristen) less than two hours from the end. Late in the season the Hybrid was invited to compete in the Petit Le Mans, though unclassified, and in the hands of Mike Rockenfeller, Romain Dumas and Timo Bernhard it raced well, starting from the back of the grid, to finish – unofficially – seventh in GT. Later it raced in a Le Mans Series race in Zhuhai, finishing ahead of all the GT2 cars. The Hybrid achieved its first, and so far, only race victory in the VLN race at the Nürburgring in May 2011.

By the end of 2012 no fewer than 2,395 911 GT3s had been produced for motorsports customers, quite apart from the road equipped versions, the majority of these being prepared for Carrera Cup competitions in many markets, and Supercup racing in support of Grands Prix. Dr Wendelin Wiedeking did not make himself popular by absenting Porsche from the front end of the grids, but in marketing terms his decision to develop the production range has been vindicated many times over.


Michael Cotton