Porsche 959 redefined ‘high performance’ in 1980s

How does one describe the indescribable?

When it comes to the Porsche 959, you could pull out every superlative and every piece of hyperbole from your verbal arsenal … and it still might not be enough.

This little-known but highly touted hyper-Porsche turned the 1980s definition of high performance completely upside down with its futuristic approach to speed, handling and computer-controlled hardware. It was a car that was light years ahead of its time and one that would become the benchmark for all Porsches that followed.

Conceived, designed and built in the 1980s to go racing in a new factory-experimental class, Porsche also set out to build about 200 copies (as mandated by the rules) of the 959 for public consumption.

Of course, racing had been in Porsche’s blood since the company’s modest beginnings shortly after World War II. From its earliest "bathtub" cars to the modern-day 911, all models have benefitted from the lessons learned on the track.

The beginning point of the 959 was the mid-1980s 911 Carrera, a competent sports machine, but not aerodynamically suited for high-speed competition. To address the problem, all-new bodywork was designed, including a smoother nose and a flat spoiler that extended across the rear deck. Bulging Kevlar-reinforced fiberglass fenders and protruding rocker panels allowed for extrawide wheels and tires. Under the body, a special belly pan was attached to further enhance air flow.

The basis for any successful racing Porsche sits beneath the rear decklid and the company went flat-out to develop its flat-six-cylinder powerplant for maximum velocity. Displacing just 2.8 liters, the horizontally opposed double-overhead-cam engine featured twin turbochargers and intercoolers, three separate cooling systems, six oil pumps and 12 fuel injectors. With 444 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque, the 959 made 230 ponies more than the production car upon which it was based.

A six-speed gearbox, featuring an ultralow first gear for getting under way on off-road terrain, was standard. Dropping the clutch in second gear was the norm when starting off on paved surfaces.

To give the car suitable torque at low speeds, the turbos operated in sequence. At 4,000 rpm or lower, only one turbo was working. Above that range, the other turbo would kick in and the engine would rocket to its 7,800 rpm redline.

The performance numbers generated by the 959 were staggering. They still are, even by today’s standards. Zero-to-60 mph flashed by in about 3.8 seconds, with 100 mph occurring in less than 9 seconds. Top speed was 195 mph.

Porsche’s success in breaking the four-second zero-60-mph barrier can largely be attributed to the 959’s all-wheel-drive system that virtually eliminated traction loss from a dead stop.

The amount of power directed to the axles depended upon which one of four driver-controlled settings was selected: Dry, Wet, Ice and Traction. The latter locked up the front clutch and rear differential for maximum off-road grip and was successfully employed when early test versions of the 959 finished first — not once, but twice — in one of the world’s toughest automotive contests, the 6,500-mile off-road Paris-Dakar (France to Senegal) rally.

Other complex groundbreaking items included computer-controlled hydraulic ride height, twin shock absorbers and coil springs positioned at each wheel, and a tire-pressure monitoring system used with low-profile Bridgestone run-flat rubber.

Two trim levels were offered: Comfort, which included air conditioning, ride-height control and power windows and seats; and Sport, containing none of the Comfort’s extras, which provided a 125-pound advantage.

There were a number of major obstacles that stood in the way of prospective 959 buyers when the car finally went on sale in 1987. First was its prohibitive $227,000 price tag. Second, the company was very particular about who was allowed to buy it. Only regular customers that were deemed important or mature enough to handle the 959’s awesome power were given a spot in a line that was only 230 buyers long. They also had to promise not to sell within six months.

Further complicating matters was the fact that the car could not be certified for use on North American roads (although a few vehicles managed to sneak in under the noses of government watchdogs).

Although the closest to a 959 that most of us will ever come are the pictures printed on this page, the benefits of this true supercar can be found in many of today’s Porsches. In fact, the 400-horsepower, all-wheel-drive mid-1990s 911 Turbo is a direct descendent of the 959 program.

Nearly 20 years after the last of these hand-built rear-engine monsters left the factory, 959 values continue to appreciate, regularly breaching the $250,000 barrier.

Such is the demand for this high-tech hall-of-fame Porsche that rewrote the exotic-car book and left behind an impressive technological legacy.

Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at: www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.

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