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A Childhood Hero: The Porsche 959

August 30, 2011 by Matt

Porsche 959

This one was on a bedroom poster. Right next to the Countach poster, that is. But if push came to shove, I’d have taken the Porsche 959 in a heartbeat.

The supercar world was subdivided in the ’80s in a very different way than at present. For one thing, there were simply fewer supercars. Lamborghini, Ferrari and Porsche were the established marques; the rest were poseurs (Lotus Esprit), liars (Vector W8) or simply in the process of laying groundwork for themselves vis-a-vis the “giants.” No McLaren, Mercedes wasn’t yet making performance cars, and the idea of a Japanese supercar was still a bit of a joke. Nowadays, with a more global perspective, as well as launch control and de rigeur power levels, there are at least a dozen cars (super or otherwise) capable of a sub-4-second 0-60 sprint; in the ’80s anything less than 5 seconds was seriously quick.

Porsche 959 Rear

The upshot of the differences between the eras is that ’80s, supercars had a distinctiveness relative to one another unheard of in the much more homogeneous modern scene, where mid-engined cruise missiles are not to say common, but less, shall we say…exclusive. Not only were there fewer examples to choose from, the supercars that did exist then had very different methods of achieving the requisite performance numbers. Put all that together, and whichever you chose as your favorite said quite a bit about you and your predilections when it came to cars.

The 959 had one natural rival: The Ferrari F40. Released a year later as a response to the 959, the F40, for all its prowess, always seemed to me to be a hastily cobbled-together shell of a car, lacking the Porsche’s spit and polish. F40 fans will argue that that was exactly the point, that Ferrari delivered the more unstudied, visceral approach to performance in contrast to the 959’s almost surreal lack of drama as it rewrote the production car record book.

Porsche 959 Interior

However, that argument always struck me as facile, if not outright disrespectful of the attention to detail Porsche sunk into the 959. Perhaps if their places had been reversed, if the F40 had come first and the 959 second, enthusiasts would rightly appreciate the fact that the 959 could match the 95% of the F40’s performance figures and offer an ease of drive as well as amenities like electric windows, A/C and, um, carpets. As it is, though, car buffs seem to rather look at the F40 and admire Ferrari for slapping together a 959-beater in as short of a timeframe as they did… It’s backward.

As someone as much jazzed by the technical wizardry (to a point) of a supercar as the anticipated thrill generated by a drive, the 959 sits atop my list of favorite automotive siege weapons. The alternately docile and ferocious 450 hp 2.8l twin-turbo flat-6, the amazingly ahead of its time torque-splitting AWD system, the functional and alluring contours of the bodywork–the car took the 911 concept and went an order of magnitude beyond anything in production at the time, with a 3.7 second 0-60 time and near as makes no difference 200 mph performance. And those were honest-to-goodness numbers, too, repeatable by mere mortals and if Porsche’s history is any indication, probably underrated.

The 959 was an amazing piece of work. If my fandom pegs me as a “passionless,” dyed-in-the-wool car nerd in contrast to the more swashbuckling F40, so be it.

Filed under: Porsche


  1. John D says:

    I dunno…I think Porsche fans are just as passionate about their cars as the Ferrari crowd is about theirs. They (the Porsche People) simply tend to be a bit less…flamboyant…about it. But once engaged in conversation with one of these Porsche People, there is no lack of passion for Porsche or driving in general. Some of this may have to do with the demographic.

    To me, the Porsche People seem to generally be of the upper-middle class and the lower-upper class. (There are, of course, exceptions, but go with me on this one.) Most of the porschefiles that I’ve met (at autocrosses, track days, etc) tend to be doctors, entrepreneurs, well to do businessmen, etc. They are generally considered to be well off, slightly more advanced in years, and posses a mature and ‘refined’ passion for their cars as well as a generous helping of common sense. Sure they could have afforded to spend a little more for a Ferrari or the like, but the Porsche made sense to them and, like you mentioned earlier, generally says something about their preferences and personalities. They typically either go for the peculiar and refined engineering, the overall practicality vs. other exclusive sports cars, unique character, driving characteristics, or some combination of these elements. You rarely come across a Porsche garage queen. These people buy these cars to drive them every day. They didn’t buy a Porsche because they couldn’t afford something else, but because that’s what they connected with. They also didn’t buy a Porsche for the status or ‘bling’ (for the most part). A Ferrari does have a bit more of the ‘wow’ factor, but that’s not really what Porsche People are looking for. Hence the misunderstanding that they are not as ‘passionate’ about their cars. That’s not it at all. They’re just not as ostentatious about it.

    At least that’s my .02

  2. John D says:

    (I mean, really…who would buy a F40 and drive it every day? They are two very different cars. Anyone who has any sense of value for the money would laugh at a F40. It’s a one purpose machine. And you wouldn’t even want to use it for that one purpose for an extended period of time. Let the armchair jockeys say what they will, anyone who has had to work to earn the money to pay for just one of these cars will not be buying a F40. They want something they can drive and enjoy on a daily basis. When the time come to put that money on the table, well…unless you plan on owning more than one supercar, you’re probably going to wind up with a Porsche.)

    • Matt says:

      Neat observations. I’ve of course seen Porsche owners and track rats at meets, but I haven’t had as much interaction with them as you have. It’s always interesting how the personality of the owner is almost an “extension” of the brand’s key attributes… I wonder if owners become more like their cars, or if they choose the cars based on their already-established personality? Probably a little of both.

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