|aka||Porsche Gruppe B|
|Production||1987 - 1989|
|Weight||1451 kg (Komfort)|
|Engine||2.85 litre turbocharged flat-six|
Both air and water cooled.
370 lb-ft of torque
|Similar||Ferrari F40, Ferrari 288 GTO|
By the year 1980, Porsche had come a long way. In merely twenty years, the Stuttgart-based company had quickly become the performance benchmark to which all other car companies would aspire to - past, present and future. The dedicated engineers and motivated designers had shown the world that they could beat the best at Le Mans. They had proved their worth at rallying, with a 1965 win in Monte Carlo, and they had become champions all over the world in the Grand Touring class. Most prolific of all, the team had produced a quick, reliable and desireable sports car, in the shape of the 911, from a seemingly 'flawed' chassis - which had a large proportion of mass behind the rear axle. The most recent triumph had been to harness turbocharging efficiently and safely in a road car.
Instead of lying back amongst their many laurels, the Porsche engineers decided to bring all the knowledge, experience and hard-won data together, and create a Car for the Future. A car that would beat all comers on road and track. A car that would form the very essence of Porsche DNA. And it was to be called the 959.
In 1980, the FiA unveiled the regulations for the new Group B class of the World Rally Championship. Helmuth Bott, Porsche's Research and Development Chief, saw these new regulations as the ideal field for which to build a new super-Porsche, and soon became immersed in talks with the engineers and designers, hatching plans for the supercar. Bott envisaged a car which made elaborate use of exotic modern compounds and composites for the bodywork, an exciting and technologically advanced chassis and drivetrain, and electrically adjustable, computer-controlled suspension. With these plans, he headed off to speak with Peter Schutz, Porsche CEO, and the rest of the board.
Schutz paricularly like Bott's idea, and shared his enthusiasm for a super-Porsche. However, other board members were not so pleased with the propositions, and pointed out the financial strain that the project would place upon the still-young Porsche. The regulations demanded the production of 200 near-identical cars, built to match the specification of the race car that would be entered in the championship. Porsche realised that this figure was too high for a race car - after all, there were only so many privateer rally teams. The high figure would necessitate the production of road legal cars, which would involve intensive development into making the car reliable for long journeys, and comfortable to use from day to day. And anyway, trying to recoup the mighty development costs of such extreme engineering would be impossible from the sale of a single batch of 200 cars.
Despite the naysaying board members, Schutz greenlighted the project, and the finalisation of the design took place. One compromise Schutz and Bott were willing to make was to use the 911 shell as a (loose) base, to keep tooling costs to a minimum. However, the roof, doors and wings were to use Kevlar, a recently patented plastic composite material, that was very strong, very light, and very expensive. The use of Kevlar involved new tooling anyway. Other materials were used for the remainder of the car - aluminium, for where a modicum of strength and a degree of lightness was strived for, and steel, for where torsional rigidity was desired. The design of the car used an almost-identical 911-esque roofline, complete with the same glass as the smaller coupe, but featured fresh bumpers, with integrated air vents (the rear bumper containing an interesting pair, that would create a vacuum behind the car to draw out hot gasses from the engine) and a new rear spoiler and bootlid. The front lights remained very similar to the 911, although were flush to the wings and canted back a few degrees, to give a fresh-faced and contemporary look. The shape was honed in the company's wind tunnel, and tweaked to ensure that it was 'zero lift' - important for the high speeds that the car would be able to perform. New wing mirrors were fabricated, and small air intakes were cut into the rear wings, to provide cooling.
The chassis of the car was where the engineers were allowed to show off all their talents. For a start, the 959 was four-wheel drive, as the design brief wished for the maximum traction possible. Called Porsche-Steuer Kupplung (PSK), the system ensured that the drive was split automatically between the axles, by a split differential - a first for commercial cars, and the basis of all modern four wheel drive automobiles. The traction itself was switchable - Porsche wanted the car to be used to its greatest ability, no matter what the conditions. Thus, there was a dial on the dashboard with which the driver could select modes to conform to the current weather. The system started off as a 'Wet and Dry' only - but with cold weather testing taking place in Scandanavia, the engineers realised that even the 'wet' mode was incompetent in snow. A 'snow' option was added. The dial actively changed the suspension levels and the drive split to provide the optimum for the conditions. The fully changeable suspension consisted of 4 shock absorbers per wheel, and the ride height was adjustable, from a ground hugging stance perfect for the track, to a heightened level capable of driving in snow or crossing shallow fords.
Under the bonnet, the ubiquitous flat six configuration of the 911 was retained, though extensively modified. Twin turbochargers were added, and benefitted from 'multi-stage turbocharging', in which boost strength was increased or decreased according to engine revs. This provide a lag-free system, and ensured a constant, Earth-moving acceleration. The engine itself (2.85 litres in capacity), was air cooled, apart from the cylinder heads, which were water cooled, for the improved efficiency. The lump developed 450 BHP, and 370 lb ft of torque, allowing the 1451 KG car to power from 0-60 mph in 3.7 seconds - quicker than anything else out there, at the time, and still comfortingly quick these days. The 959 topped out at 197 mph.
Development, which took place around the infamous Nurburgring Nordschleife, highlighted a loose link in the 959-branded chain - the tyres. The harsh acceleration and high top-end speeds, added to the stress from the four-wheel drive chassis, caused the tyres to wear unperceptably quickly. Also, due to the width of the new design alloys, a spare could not be fitted anywhere in the car. So, Porsche joined forces with Dunlop, to create a tyre that would 'never go flat'. Called the Denloc, the tyre featured much stiffer sidewalls than a standard version - thus providing continued support in the event of a deflation, allowing a 959 driver to drive 150 miles, with a speed limited to 50 mph, with a flat. The pressures were monitored by a computer, and the driver was alerted to a pressure drop. The forged magnesium wheels hid suitably humungous brake discs - 322 mm at the front, and 308 mm at the rear.
As spy photographs of the 959 circulated, the rumour mill wound into overdrive. Porsche received over 100 letters of interest from loyal customers, inquiring into the new car. The specification and technology was kept tightly under lock and key, and several styling bucks, named 'Gruppe B', did the worldwide motorshow tour. Schutz was getting tetchy over development times, and to solve the problem, Porsche enlisted British rally specialists, Prodrive, to help produce three 959s for the 1985 Paris to Dakar rally. The rally was to provide a test bed for the car - and Porsche gained so much data that it reputably slashed two years from the development time. The rally 959s used the basic Carrera engine, due to the early stage of the real engine's development, but featured all the technology from the finished article. However, results-wise, the '85 Dakar was a flop for Porsche, with one car rolling spectacularly, and other smashing into a sand-covered rock at near-on 170 mph, and the third and final car suffering from a burst oil pipe - but Bott was quick to explain that the race was never about the results.
By 1985, Porsche had received 120 firm orders for street-legal 959s, and 20 for racing versions. However, by 1986, Group B rallying was dead, and Porsche was suddenly left with an almost-finished hypercar, which now had no final purpose. For a while, development remained stagnant, but Schutz and Bott decided to persevere, and in 1988, the first customer examples were delivered.
The Porsche 959 was designed, out and out, to be the biggest performer of the range, and still succeeds in this aim today. The turbocharged engine allows the car to blast from 0-60 mph in 3.7 seconds - 0.2 seconds quicker than the Carrera GT. 0-100 mph was dispatched in 8.3 seconds, and 0-140 occurring in a barely believable 19 seconds, the car travelling less than 900 metres in doing so. The quarter mile took only 11.8 seconds, with the car crossing the line at 119 mph. One thing the 959 could never be called was 'a bit slow'.
The ride height automatically lowered at different speeds, along with the stiffness of the suspension. This meant that around 30 mph, the ride was soft and supple, but by 110 mph was at its stiffest. The driver was unaware of the changes, due to the system being controlled entirely by computer. Although manual changes to the suspension settings could be made, the ability was switched off above 110 mph for safety reasons.
The period press revelled in the car, and fought each other for the most superlatives - the general consensus was that Porsche had created a wonderful automobile. It was truly all-weather, and although it may have lacked a little of the passion of its arch-nemesis, the Ferrari F40, it was a great deal more reliable and less temperamental. Porsche eventually produced 283 959s in total, this figure including Komfort and Clubsport specifications
The Porsche 959 was created in a number of variants on a purpose-built production line in Stuttgart. The first cars were shipped across to Prodrive for conversion into the Dakar rally cars, in 1985, and continued in desert rallying until 1987. The cars, with the synonomous Rothmans tobacco advertising, were then sold to privateers, many of whom continued to race the cars.
The customer cars were available in two variants - the Komfort and the Clubsport. The Komfort was the most popular model, and was optimised for road driving and long cruises. Therefore, the interior was trimmed to the highest standard, with lush carpeting and a full leather package - the pillars, dashboard and seats trimmed in the finest. The interior colour was open to customer specification, with a number of vehicles leaving the factory trimmed in the attractive 'three-tone' leather, featuring a dominant colour for the seats and doorcards, with a series of silver and another colour or leather stripes across them. Other cars, like the one delivered to the Prince of Monaco, featured red seats, red dash and red carpeting. The interior design itself came under criticism - it was identical, apart from a few minor controls, to the basic 911, and customers complained that it was not exclusive enough for Porsche's greatest car.
The Clubsport followed in the footsteps of previous RS models - weight loss and a roll cage. The carpets were jettisoned, replaced with thin felt. The electric and heated seats of the Komfort were replaced with buckets, and harnesses replaced the inertia reel seatbelts. The rear perches were lost altogether, and the rear was dominated by a web of intertwined metal tubing - the roll cage. Bars also framed the windscreen, and removeable door crossbars were supplied with the car. The light 959 was made even lighter, and although usable on the road, was really a bit too harsh, and suited the smooth confines of a racetrack.
In keeping with the original concept of the car - a racing machine - Porsche unveiled the 961, a 959 for Le Mans and Daytona. Built to the IMSA X regulations, the car was moderately successful, but was terminally overshadowed by its bigger brother - the 962, which was taking the racing world by storm. Only a handful of cars were built, and the Porsche factory car was destroyed in a fire at Le Mans.
Living With a 959
Being such a specialised car, the 959 demands a high standard of maintenance which very few dealerships worldwide can offer.
British 959s can be serviced at Porsche Great Britain's headquarters in Reading, also the only service dealership in the country for the Carrera GT. Many European owners wish to return their cars to the factory for servicing, and Porsche can even supply mechanics to far-off countries for servicing and parts replacement. The cars seem to be reliable enough - which is just as well, as parts costs are extorsionate. To give you a little taster, the wheel centres (the plastic piece with the Porsche crest stamped upon it) each cost £700 - mainly due to the rarity of the parts.
The 959 was only made road legal in 1999, due to Porsche's refusal to allow the car to be crash-tested. A change in regulations with regards to the crash testing of automobiles sold in the USA (which itself was brought about by famous 959 owners Paul Allen and Bill Gates) allowed the legality of driving the 959 on US roads - but modifications must be made to the turbochargers and exhaust system to allow the car to pass emission and drive-by noise tests. However, many 959 owners simply refuse to have this done, and the majority of Stateside cars are garage queens, only venturing out for shows.
Porsche board members were right - the 959 never made back its investment - conservative estimates describe Porsche selling 959s for half of the build cost. Well, not in the sense of the single model, but traits of the 959 can be seen in modern Porsches. For example, the four-wheel drive entered series production with the 964, and had been part of the 911 range since. The changeable turbochargers made future racing models and Turbo models easier to produce and develop. The front wings and headlamps were simplified and formed the front end of the 993. The air intakes in the bumpers are echoed in the 996 Turbo, and the rear 'vacuum' have similar purposes. The mirror and alloy wheel designs became and integral feature of the 1990s Porsche range. And, most recently, the adjustable suspension has been released on the 997, Boxster, Cayenne and Cayman, as PASM, although in a more advanced format.
But the 959's influence spread wider than the confines of Porsche. The runflat tyres feature prominently on modern cars, as does the variable four wheel drive. The turbocharging technique features on almost all modern diesel cars, and is similar in essence to Porsche's own VTG system. The 959 became the benchmark for modern supercars - and its DNA can be found in the McLaren F1, Bugatti Veyron and almost every contemporary supercar. Porsche may not have created a monitary profit, but instead created a new benchmark for the automotive world.
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