Which is the true king of the 911 family?

Article by Brendan McAleer, photos by Brendan McAleer and courtesy of Porsche

I remember quite clearly the first time I drove a 911. It wasn’t a very good one: a rattly old cabriolet with the chassis stiffness of a tasseled loafer and more than a few horsepowers escaped from the barn out back. Even so, it was properly air-cooled and made all the right noises as I stirred up the gearbox and fizzed across town.

Some years later I got a ride in a ludicrously expensive 1973 2.7RS (it had just been picked up for a whopping $400K+). Despite its irreplaceable rarity, the owner happily zipped along the curving coastal road in West Vancouver, dodging the odd inattentive Honda Accord. It was like watching someone carry the Mona Lisa through a train station.

Then, my first Porsche presser, a PDK-equipped all-wheel-drive model with the base engine. Though it was November, this car still wore summer tires – I drove it back to my folks’ acreage high in the hills above the Fraser Valley, waking early on a frosty morning to go blasting through piles of crystalline leaves. The sluggish light of a wintry dawn poured out over the countryside like honey. The 911 danced among the tarmac.

The 1960s

All special in their way, these machines, tracing their roots back to ’63, and the sheets coming off the first sleek, teardrop-shaped car in Frankfurt. It wasn’t actually called the 911 at first. Porsche dubbed their car the 901 until Peugeot complained – the French company built models with a three-number code x0x. Porsche changed the name to 911 for the 1964 production year, and there it was.

Porsche Family
Porsche 356
Porsche 901 Prototype
Porsche 901 with engineering team
A Brief History of the Porsche 911. Click image to enlarge

The car was styled under the stewardship of Ferdinand “Butzi” Porsche, grandson of the man who created the Volkswagen Beetle, son of the man who built the Porsche 356. We’d be remiss if we did not mention the contributions of Erwin Komenda, designer of the 356 and chief of the body designing/construction department, his role as design visionary was undisputed within the company at the time, and whose contribution to the 901’s design long went unrecognized and to this day remain shrouded in mystery in favour of Butzi’s legend origins.

Porsche’s history of innovation can hardly be believed – hybrid cars in 1900, the first front-wheel-drive car, the first electric car, an electric land-train, race-winning modified lightweights, a V-12 speed record car shaped like a manta ray in flight.

With such genes, the third generation Ferdinand had much to live up to. Problem was, and it was a big one as a designer, he wasn’t very good at drawing. Luckily, Butzi’s model-making abilities were that of a Renaissance sculptor, and after a brief apprenticeship in the engine department, he created the beautiful 904 racecar. This svelte beauty proved a success in racing, and he moved on to an even bigger project: creating a replacement for the 356 road car.

Early concepts were not particularly good. Especially with the hindsight of knowing what the 911 would eventually look like, viewing some of the ungainly four-seater prototypes is a bit disturbing.

But Butzi was a stylist, not an engineer like his father and grandfather. Finally, the design team got it right, and the world was introduced to a short-wheelbase, rear-engine machine, gazing back at its audience happily with friendly round headlights. It made 130 hp from its 2.0L, flat-six engine and was capable of a for-the-time-quick 210 km/h top speed, with a standard five-speed gearbox.

Unlike the inverted-bathtub of the 356, the 911 shared almost nothing with any VW. The odd 60:40 weight distribution (in favour of the rear) meant that the 911 was able to have lightweight, unassisted rack-and-pinion steering that provided exceptional feel. This affinity for the road would become a 911 hallmark.

So, unfortunately, would be the somewhat skittish handling. Mounting an engine behind the rear axle might free up weight over the rear wheels and allow for greater luggage and passenger space, but slug the 911 through a corner in a ham-handed fashion and you’ve just engaged a dangerous pendulum. Lift off the throttle or brake, causing the rear tires to unload, and the 911 would spin off the road like a backwards hammer.

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