A Porsche 959, the Lottery, Government, and You
Photography by Gil Folk
Thanks to unmatched number-picking strategy, you won the Mega Millions jackpot and are pondering purchasing something Italian that howls (on the road, mind you). You’ve narrowed the field to the otherworldly Lamborghini Aventador and ferocious Ferrari F12. Well done, my friend. But you didn’t arrive at this lofty position through foolhardiness. No, caution and safety matter when driving or buying a car nearly as much as when picking those lotto numbers.
But if it all goes wrong, which car will save you in a collision? Ferrari or Lambo? That has to depend on the type of collision, right? Surely the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has data servers full of minutia on frontal, side impact, rear-end, and rollover crashes. But how can small-volume manufacturers ‘donate’ a vehicle from their limited production and jeopardize bottom-line so egregiously at the request of the government? Maybe it’s the cost of doing business in the Nanny States of America, remember the Porsche 959?
Well, the dirty little secret is that the government isn’t so overbearing. No, the NHTSA does not require supercar manufacturers to provide a vehicle in the name of research or safety. Not Ferrari, not Lamborghini, not Aston Martin or Porsche either. Actually, no OEM, no matter how exotic or pedestrian has to supply a car for any federal crash testing. According to the NHTSA, “each manufacturer is responsible for certifying that its products meet all applicable safety standards.” But it “does not require that a manufacturer base its certification on a specified number of tests or any tests at all; a manufacturer is only required to exercise due care in certifying its motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment.”
So long as manufacturers declare that their products meet the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) at the time of production according to best practices, their cars can be sold. If your car doesn’t meet the FMVSS, sue the manufacturer. However, the NHTSA will test vehicles that account for eighty-five percent of all the passenger car fleet sold in the US this year, purchased with your tax dollars thank-you-very-much, in order to verify that OEMs are, in fact, meeting the FMVSS and to provide crash-worthiness ratings for consumers. Nevertheless, fifteen percent of car buyers will have to rely on the respective manufacturer’s word.
How can this be? I remember reading somewhere that Porsche refused to ship the NHTSA four 959s for crash testing. And upon further research, it seems that nearly every website (including Wikipedia.org) mentioning the 959 credits the Department of Transportation with putting the kibosh on Porsche’s ubercar. Is this some kind of information super-highway urban legend? Surely, the internet doesn’t lie.
Or does it? According to Bruce Canepa, Porsche racer, collector, and restorer extraordinaire, “Porsche abandoned plans to export the 959 to the US market due to financial constraints.” So importer and Porsche North American Racing Boss Al Holbert sought to import the Porsche 959S, which wasn’t street legal in Europe either, as a “racing vehicle” to his eagerly awaiting customers. But the only concessions to racing made by the first imported 959S’s were leather covered roll bars, four point harnesses, and deleted air conditioning and radio. Becoming suspicious, the feds pulled authorization. All deliveries still headed to the US were subsequently cancelled and sold elsewhere. Owners of the few 959s that entered the country paid storage fees to keep their 959s in so-called Foreign Trade Zones (areas adjacent to US ports where goods are not considered to be in the US for legal purposes) as the cars weren’t permitted in the US proper.
Canepa’s work helped lead to legislation allowing for importation of limited production cars (the Show and Display law). He was able to bring one into his shop for research and development using an import bond, which eventually led to their federalization. So were the 959’s crash tested? Yes and no—the US government never crash tested them, because they don’t test anything. But Porsche tested the 959 to European standards, which happen to be slightly different from American ones—hence the lack of US federalization. Now, you might say to yourself that Porsche had to have known that they’d have to federalize the cars and you’d be right.
Those plans to export the 959 to the US were scuttled though, due to project cost overruns. The Porsche 959 was initially priced at $250,000, but over time ballooned to about $360,000, and yet Porsche was losing about $200,000 on each one at that price. The decision not to federalize the 959 for the American market had been made earlier on (due to the crushing economics of the project and an unfavorable USD/DM exchange rate), and the Porsche 959S was a half-hearted attempt to get them into the country by a roundabout means.
Over the years, so much speculation and scapegoating has obscured the facts that most articles blame a variety of US Government agencies, some due to crash tests, others because of emissions. But the reason the 959 wasn’t imported is simply because the 959 was so expensive to produce that Porsche didn’t want to further increase its cost by federalizing it for a market where its product would cost even more.
The fact that the Porsche 959 met all the European crash test standards and that Canepa was able to not only pass emissions standards but also increase output by nearly 200hp is proof that it could have been federalized without too much difficulty, cost to Porsche, and the customer, notwithstanding.
So rest assured, well-heeled auto enthusiast, your cars are crashworthy. Ferrari or Lamborghini can both smash into a concrete wall at thirty miles per hour and you’ll probably survive. But your faith will have to rest on the manufacturer’s word, not the government’s.