The 959 attracted buyers including Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Boris Becker, and King Juan Carlos of Spain. But the Emir of Qatar topped them all with his gold-painted 959, whose steering wheel bears the emblem of Qatar.
In today’s speed-of-light fast world, we can easily lose track of time and the invaluable perspective it gives us on so much of life. That goes for automobiles as well. These days we have hypercars such as the 350-kmph Mercedes-AMG Project One, which has a hybrid powertrain that produces over 1,000 horsepower, and the aerodynamically wild, fully carbon-fibre Aston Martin Valkyrie with its remarkable low 1:1 power-to-weight ratio.
When the Porsche 959 debuted in 1985, it pushed the boundaries of automotive performance. After its first drive in the US$230,000 supercar, Car and Driver said, “The Porsche 959 can accomplish almost any automotive mission so well that to call it perfect is the mildest of overstatements.” In its November 1987 issue, Automobile magazine called the Porsche 959 the ‘car of the century,’ said it rewrote the rules for supercars and added that Porsche’s competitors would struggle to build something that surpassed the 959’s “astonishing abilities.”
Development of the 959 ushered in a new era of Porsche sports cars, introduced then-exotic technologies now commonly used by Porsche, and set the industry standard for high-performance cars.
Discussions about the 959 began in 1981. Porsche had a new CEO in Peter Schutz who wanted to breathe life back into the automaker’s hallmark model, the 911. Around the same time, the World Rally Championship introduced a new, highly competitive class called ‘Group B’ and Porsche wanted in. In order to race, Porsche would be required to produce only a handful of street-legal cars based off its rally car, and those street-legal cars could easily be sold at a high price to well-heeled customers.
Helmuth Bott, then Porsche’s chief technology officer, insisted that the rally car be based off the 911. “I deliberately wanted to base the 959 on our production car and hence remain in a position where we were represented by our products,” Bott said at the time. Soon the ‘911 Group B’ got the green light; no one could have known how complex the final car would be, or that it would take until 1987 for the first models to be delivered to anxious owners.
The Porsche we know today—an automotive powerhouse producing some of the most compelling performance cars out there—did not exist three decades ago. While Porsche had success with both its street cars and its racing cars, it had yet to truly combine its learnings in one product and push itself to the edge of an emerging, more advanced automotive age. The 959 would change that. While the car would share its general shape, structure and wheelbase with the 911, just about everything else on the 959 would be reimagined.
Engineers designed the 959’s body so that it produced absolutely no aerodynamic lift, thanks to an integrated rear wing, a flat underbody cover and smooth, polyurethane mouldings that replaced the 911’s bumpers. Aluminium, Kevlar, and plastic body panels supplanted traditional steel bodywork in order to keep weight down, which is also why the 959 used deck to improve aerodynamics and driving performance. Most important, the 956 benefited from an intelligent all-wheel drive system that imperceptibly and almost instantaneously divvied up power between the front and rear axles depending on driver inputs and demands, making the car’s handling more responsive, controllable and consistent.
Not only did the 959 have a myriad of modern technologies never before seen in a street car but it managed to package it in a way that didn’t punish the driver. The ‘comfort’ version of the 959 had niceties uncommon in supercars of the time, including air-conditioning, an audio system and power windows and seats. The relatively lavish cabin had high-end trim, good visibility, and little wind noise, and a low, quiet idle and pleasant exhaust note meant the 959 could realistically be used as a daily driver. When the first 959 prototype made its public debut at the 1983 Frankfurt Motor Show, no one had seen anything like it. “CDs, VCRs, and home gaming consoles had just started to appear, and then the 959 shows up at Frankfurt?” jokes Dave Engelman, Porsche’s North American spokesperson for motorsports and brand heritage.
Still, the 959 had a long way to go; its technical complexity and the complications around getting its various systems to communicate properly would require a few more years of development. Wanting to confidently transpose its racing experience into an approachable road car, Porsche challenged its engineers to test the 956 beyond its limits and under the most extreme conditions. So in 1984, the engineering team entered an all-wheel drive test mule in the gruelling Paris-Dakar endurance race, torturing the 959’s drivetrain across harsh desert terrain. The team returned the next year with yet another mule, and it literally went up in flames. It wasn’t until 1986, when Porsche arrived at Paris-Dakar with three ‘real’ 959s and drivers René Metge, Jacky Ickx, and Roland Kussmaul that the automaker found the podium, winning first, second, and sixth place, respectively.
Porsche finally had its first 959s on the road, but by then the car faced a new, formidable opponent from Italy: the savage Ferrari F40, a US$260,000 exotic with a 478-horsepower and twin-turbo charged V-8 mounted behind its two seats. The 959 accelerated quicker than the Ferrari, going from 0 to 100 kmph in 3.7 seconds, but its top speed of 314 kmph fell short of the Ferrari’s 323-kmph top speed, which made the F40 the first production car to go over 320 kmph. The fortunate few lucky enough to sample both the Ferrari F40 and the Porsche 959 were astonished by the performance each offered, but most preferred the Porsche as a friendlier, more well-rounded car
that didn’t chase speed at the cost of comfort.
By the time production versions of the 959 rolled out of the factory in the spring of ’87, the World Rally Championship had dissolved the ‘Group B’ class, which had turned into a breathtaking spectacle with an unfortunately high rate of fatalities for both drivers and spectators. While Porsche never got the chance to race in the series it created the 959 for, its remarkable car had made its mark, shown the world what Porsche engineering could do, and inspired a whole new way of thinking at the automaker’s headquarters. “The 959, much like the 918 Spyder that came 30 years later, featured technological advances that many people were initially sceptical of,” Engelman says. “Yet in both examples, technology first found on those two supercars soon found its way into serial production Porsche sports cars.”
Porsche racing driver Kees Nierop, who in 1987 raced a 961 (a modified 959) in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, says, “The 959 was the first real supercar. It looked the part and acted the part.” All told, Porsche produced 339 examples of the 959. While the 959 couldn’t be sold in the States due to regulatory issues, a few slipped into the country on the ‘grey market’ before U.S. laws changed to allow legal importation. Now 959s can be found in the enviable garages of folks like comedian Jerry Seinfeld and Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen.
In the past 30 years, exemplary supercars like the McLaren F1 and the Bugatti Veyron have eclipsed the 959’s achievements, but even today the Porsche tugs at the heartstrings of automotive enthusiasts. The 959 refused to break free from restraint, wowed the world with its standout technologies and proved that a supercar could be balanced instead of boyish and still make people swoon.