Porsche’s 959 Defined Cutting Edge in the Hi-Tech ’80s
The eighties were indisputably the decade of high-tech. Our iron-age, post-industrial revolution, analog ways were rapidly disappearing, replaced by the emergence of newly-affordable integrated circuitry—the microchip. Human-scaled, solid-state technologies, physical mechanisms of gearworks and tube valves were giving way to a new, digital means where the work of machines was reduced to an intangible world of electrical impulses, translated into hominal language and writ large on red-on-black or gray-on-green LCDs. It was a massive leap forward. Cars weren’t immune to the change—nothing was—but few cars embody the times like the Porsche 959.
The 959 was greenlighted as a way of accelerating development of new technologies at Zuffenhausen, specifically through Group B road racing. Though that formula eventually became more focused on rallying, the 959 project continued on as primarily road-focused machine whose advanced engineering and super-high performance would have a kind of halo-effect for Porsche as a whole. Upon its 1986 release, in fact, the 959 was the fastest production car in the world, with a top speed of 195 MPH for standard cars and 197 for sport models—a record Porsche could claim for less than a year, for Ferrari was about to release their own Group B-inspired twin turbo missile upon the world, the mighty F40.
The F40 gets a special mention not only because of its role as the 959’s sole contemporary competitor, but also because of the stark contrast it shows between two engineering philosophies, a chasm seemingly larger even than the distance between Stuttgart and Modena. The F40, though built of similarly techy composites, was a raw and wild beast, an unrefined and single-minded machine designed with the sole intent of being the fastest and purest expression of a road-borne racecar possible at the time.
While both cars utilized twin turbos, the F40’s were parallel whereas the Porsche’s were sequential in order to reduce lag. A fully sound-proofed, leather lined interior with electrically adjusted and heated seats, climate control, and multi-speaker hi-fi in the 959 compared to bare wire door pulls, naked carbon floors with joints sealed by hand-applied, goopy-looking caulk, plasticky and cheap-feeling Fiat parts bin controls, a felt-lined dashboard, and sliding-panel Perspex windows in the Ferrari. As a disclaimer I should point out that I equally adore both cars, it’s just that each one is uniquely reflective of the national ethos that birthed it—horses for courses, right?
The 959 had a total of seven computers at a time when many cars still had none, or typically one at most, and among their responsibilities were turbo, AWD, and suspension control. Its 2.8 liter, DOHC, pancake six was water and air-cooled, its 962-derived four-valve heads the sole beneficiary of liquid heat management. It sounded gruff, gritty, and cranky from idle to mid-rev range just like a 911 should, but with an underlying tone of complexity not heard before. Churning out a custard-smooth and relatively lag-free 444 HP, the 959 was capable of 0-60 in three and a half seconds, aided by a lithe 3,200 lb. weight achieved through aluminum and Aramid bodywork in conjunction with a Nomex composite floor.
Fitted with the world’s production first six-speed, it was technically a five-speeder equipped with an ultra-low “G” (for “Gelände”, or off-road”) gear. Other unique features included hollow-spoked magnesium wheels with a built-in pressure-monitoring system and so-called “zero-lift” aerodynamics. Up to 80% of power could automatically be sent to the rear wheels depending on demands and which of the four (normal, snow/ice, wet, and a 50/50 differential lock mode) cockpit-selected drive profiles was selected.
Today the 959’s legacy lives on in the form of Porsche’s current crop of complex, AWD, and turbocharged cars, encompassing not only the latest and greatest 991 Turbo, but also the Panamera and Cayenne (ugh.) turbos. The fact that performance has only improved marginally in nearly three decades is a testament to the incredibly cutting-edge stuff that went into making the 959, for me, the greatest road-going version of the greatest sports car the world has ever known. God bless you, Porsche.