In recent years, Porsche has become a prolific creator of variations on a theme. The number of “911” Carrera, Boxster, and Cayman derivatives now available demonstrates a slick, dedicated approach to the concept of platform sharing. This is clever business strategy, and it has won the company both enormous profitability and a secure future.
It’s a far cry from leaner times, when Porsche’s model range was sparse and more easily defined. What was as clear then as now, however, is that a flagship model at the top of the range is vital for image-building. A limited-edition supercar with unique looks, performance, and technical innovations to showcase the company’s capabilities never does any harm. The 959, 911 GT1, and Carrera GT all pioneered new technologies or showed how existing materials and technologies could be honed to a finer point. They are the result of three succeeding decades of design and technological advances in Porsche’s development of the supercar genre. Each of these cars represents a uniquely different philosophical approach to the supercar as it has evolved over 20 years. And each of them sold into wildly differing market conditions…
The 959’s heyday was the crazy classic-car boom of the late 1980s, when rare cars changed hands for sums that made stockbrokers weep on the trading floor. Pity, then, that a car’s engineering excellence and dynamic abilities were almost irrelevant against this backdrop of bluster. The development costs for Helmuth Bott’s 959 were staggering. While the car was clearly based on the 911, it introduced highly advanced all-wheel-drive, twin-turbocharging, and height-adjustable suspension — all fully developed for production and street use. Porsche lost money on every 959 it sold, though speculators were able to make a tidy profit.
Production numbers for the 959 vary. When we asked Porsche for its numbers, it said 16 prototype and 21 “Vorseries” (pre-production) 959s were built in 1985. For 1987, 106 Comfort models and seven Sports were built. For 1988, one Sport and 149 Comfort models were built for the Rest of World market — in addition to 29 Sport examples intended for U.S. consumption. According to Porsche, a total of 329 examples were produced between 1985 and 1988 — making the 959 far rarer than the coveted 1973 Carrera RS 2.7.
It’s not nearly as rare as the 911 GT1, however. When this thinly veiled race car appeared ten years later, Wall Street was quite a bit calmer. The street versions of the GT1 and similarly conceived Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR did eventually find homes — but not as easily. Porsche says it built two street-legal GT1s for homologation in 1996, followed by 20 1997 models and just one 1998 street car. Interestingly, Porsche built as many road-going GT1s, at 23 total, as racing GT1s. The latter totaled 12 for 1996, six for 1997, and five for 1998.
The GT1 was a different kind of supercar than the 959. In the decade between these ground-breaking cars, Porsche’s financial struggles meant it didn’t have the money to develop a dedicated road-going supercar. Some of the spare cash it did have was diverted into motorsports activity aimed at maintaining the company’s image. Homologation for racing is always an excuse to build a road-going derivative of a race car, a process personified by 1973’s RS 2.7. And so, in 1996, Porsche announced a street-legal version of its forthcoming GT1 race car. Loosely based on a modified 993 tub and using the same basic engine block shared with the Turbo and GT2, a technical connection between the race cars and the mass-produced road cars was made. The company also got a viable, image-building supercar.
The Carrera GT debuted in 2003 amidst a flurry of other supercar launches. Where the 959 was an exercise in technical complexity and the 911 GT1 was a thinly veiled race car, the C-GT made its bid for superiority with a simple layout and advanced materials technology. Production ceased in early 2006, after 1,270 examples had been built — so it’s obvious which Porsche supercar is the commercial success story.
Porsche’s mainstream models have yet to benefit from technology developed by and for the Carrera GT in the way they did as a result of the 959. That’s because the C-GT’s carbon-fiber construction, extensive use of magnesium, lightweight trans-axle, and PCCC ceramic clutch are all still far too expensive and difficult to produce for normal production models.
959: Technological Wonder
No production Porsche of the 20th Century showcases innovation as readily as the 959. This was the first production all-wheel-drive Porsche, and it pioneered much of the technology that would find its way into the 964 Carrera 4 and 993 Turbo. A more spectacular technical tour de force in its time than the contemporary Ferrari 288 GTO, the 959 still fascinates today.
Made in an era before carbon-fiber was all the rage, the 959 still used pioneering construction materials. While its inner structure was essentially the hot-dip galvanized steel shell from the 911, its front fenders, sills, roof, and rear bodywork were made from Aramid Kevlar or fiberglass-reinforced epoxy resin. The door and hood skins were pressed aluminum. Compared to the 911, significant time was spent on the aerodynamics. Features like true flat-bottom lower bodywork helped the low-lift 959 achieve a 0.31 drag coefficient, a stunning achievement in an era when supercar aerodynamics were disgraced by the 0.30 Cd of family sedans like Audi’s 100 and Mercedes’ E-Class.