While twin-turbocharging makes a lot of sense for any engine with two cylinder banks, all production Porsches with forced-induction up to 1986 used a single KKK turbocharger. The 959 broke the mold. Not only was it the first Porsche to use two turbos, it arranged them in a sequential layout. The left-hand K26 turbocharger was tasked with building boost up to 4000 rpm and, by 2500 rpm, it provided 14 psi of boost. An intricate system of cut-in and relief valves was devised to use the boost from the first K26 to simultaneously accelerate its counterpart on the other side of the engine so that, by 4300 rpm, each turbo was responsible for 50 percent of the charge-air pressure. Past 4300 rpm, maximum boost was limited to 13.5 psi.
The basic engine was closer to a competition engine than the 3.3-liter flat six in the 911 Turbo. With water-cooled heads, dual overhead cams, and four valves per cylinder, the 2.85-liter 959/50 flat six was its own animal. Where the most potent contemporary production 911 had 330 bhp (in Turbo LE form), the 959 was good for 450 bhp and 367 lb-ft of torque.
The 959 featured four-channel ABS, active tire-pressure monitoring, speed-dependent adjustable dampers, and — on the Comfort version — ride-height control. The 959’s AWD system was an electronically-controlled variable system that could adapt to different road-surface conditions or the driver’s wishes via selected programs optimized for different scenarios such as dry weather, rain, snow, or “terrain.” Cruising on a dry road, the torque split is 40/60 front/rear, going to 50/50 on slippery surfaces. Under hard acceleration, 80 percent of the power is sent to the rear wheels — making full use of the rear-engined 959’s traction advantage.
With optimum grip off the line, Porsche quoted a 0-62 mph time of 3.9 seconds, 0-125 mph in 14.3 seconds, and a top speed of 197 mph. These were spectacular numbers at the time and they’re still impressive nearly 20 years later. In a famous top-speed shootout organized by Auto Motor und Sport and Road & Track in 1988 and won by Ruf’s CTR, the factory’s top-speed claim for the 959 Sport proved to be right on the money.
Today, the 959 looks small, stubby, and a bit bulbous next to its lower, wider, and younger compatriots. Yet its relatively diminutive size is a reminder of just how big and unwieldy modern supercars have become — at least as far as daily use on real-world European roads is concerned. In the quest for more speed and downforce, wide-track stability, and the space to optimize flat-bottom aerodynamics and crash technology, the supercars of today have become far longer and wider.
If you own a 911 from this period, you’ll feel right at home in the 959’s cabin. It’s only as large as a sports car needs to be. The first 959 I drove back in 1989 was the 3,593-pound Comfort version, and I recall its three-color leather seats were incredibly comfortable. The rarer Sport version — which is what we’ll drive today — featured sport-tuned suspension in lieu of the Comfort’s ride-height adjustable setup, which could increase ground clearance from 120 mm to 150 or 180 to clear driveways or other low obstacles. The 959 Sport also deleted the passenger-side mirror, rear seats, full-power front seats, air-conditioning, power windows, central locking, and some sound deadening. The deletions removed some 220 pounds, but the 3,373-pound 959S can hardly be considered light — even by modern standards.
The Porsche Museum’s red 959 Sport features superlative cloth sport seats. And, once you’re seated, it is time to twist the ignition key. The twin-turbocharged flat six bursts to life eagerly with the distinctive whirr of 450 horses waking up, ready to roll. The gearbox feels a lot like a five-speed G50 gearbox in a late 911 Carrera 3.2 — short and positive. However, the 959’s six-speed uses a dogleg pattern, with first to the left and down. The clutch is heavier than the Carrera 3.2’s, as well, because it must absorb the extra torque.
A slow lap of Malmsheim’s test track perimeter to warm the fluids and get used to the controls and their reactions brings memories flooding back. At a moderate pace, this car is so “eighties 911” that — apart from its AWD mode selector, center console, and gauges — you wouldn’t know you aren’t driving a 911 Turbo.
Until you push the throttle to the floor. Thrust is strong, but not as seamless as you might expect. Even though the 2.85-liter flat six has the advantage of sequential turbocharging, it still isn’t as instant as the later twin-turbo Porsches. Typical of turbo cars from this era, low-end response is initially sleepy. The horses are awake, but they don’t snap to attention. No, they trickle in progressively until you pass 4000 rpm. Then, suddenly, it’s time to go.
An unrelenting thrust pushes the 959 towards the horizon with real determination until it’s time to grab the next ratio. Still, while 450 bhp was a lot in 1988, it isn’t as mind-boggling in 2006. Not with four-door sedans from BMW and Mercedes churning out over 500 bhp — and with 480 bhp on tap in the 997 Turbo. Seen in the harsh light of the early 21st century, the 959’s rate of departure feels brisk but not overwhelming. Its soundtrack is similar to a 1980s 911 Turbo, so no surprises here.
Turned into a bend at speed, the Sport understeers noticeably less than a 959 Comfort. In fact, a few years back, I witnessed one of the driftmeisters from Auto Motor und Sport getting this very 959S pretty sideways in a long drift for the camera through the stadium section at Hocken-heim. The power-assist steering is medium-weighted and you can feel its resistance increase as you push deeper into a turn. Fully committed, the 959S moves around a lot more on its suspension than a modern Porsche does — and is more affected by weight transfer, too. Keep it smooth, though, and you will clearly feel the obvious transitional period when you drive through understeer and move the tail out into power oversteer.