Featured: A Porsche 959, the Lottery, Government, and You

A Porsche 959, the Lottery, Government, and You

By Yoav Gilad
October 22, 2014
24 comments

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.

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Sanjay VermaPeter J SmithRobz3mcLeon PrinslooMau Ferrusca Recent comment authors
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Peter J Smith
Peter J Smith

A thoroughly over-rated car. AMAZING on paper, but, the road going versions were built as an afterthought, and, it showed in their awful build quality. It is the ONLY Porsche that was truly an unreliable piece of sh*t.

Sanjay Verma
Sanjay Verma

You sound like a disappointed owner

Robz3mc
Robz3mc

The 959 is still high-tech even by today’s standards. In the 80’s, it was unheard of for a supercar to have AWD and tire pressure sensors were completely unheard of on any car! The fact that it was illegal in the US made it more exotic. Cars like the 959 and F40 broke the record books in the 80’s for top speed and 0-60 times. They beat the records with lightness and technology. Modern supercars break records with gargantuan horsepower but not lightness. It’s boring to see another supercar with 700+ horsepower than can hit 220 mph. The supercars of… Read more »

Leon Prinsloo
Leon Prinsloo

Stunning photography and a great article. Thank you.

Mau Ferrusca
Mau Ferrusca

Interesting article. Superb photography. But no interior photo. 🙁

Jim Graham
Jim Graham

Ok, heres the crazy thing. I see that first photo and I’m like “That looks like it was shot right down the road from me.” And each successive shot is “That’s Highway 9” and then I’m like “How on earth did I not know this was happening?”

And the 959 is awesome, too. Also.

Ryan Corneliusen
Ryan Corneliusen

Lovely photos, Gil. Wallpaper-worthy ones in there. So how does one submit photos for article incorporation? We need to collab.

Simon
Simon

I think think your lighting is perfect for the car and setting, the pearl pops, and the forest still looks rich in detail. Your approach differentiates a pro from someone taking a snapshot. I turn to petrolicious because they elevate and celebrate passion for cars and their owners, these pics do the 959 justice!.

B RAD T
B RAD T

Beautiful pics and beautiful car. In the early 90’s I worked at Laguna Seca, at the Russell Racing School that used to be there. One day a 959 visited the paddock to buy some race fuel. We had the shop door open working on the race cars and the sound of that flat six made all of us stop and run outside! One of the all time epic cars in my opinion, and yes if I won the lottery there would be one in my stable for sure.

Ronnie M
Ronnie M

Is it true that Bill Gates is one of the people to have one of these gray marketed into the US?

JB21
JB21

yes indeed. Bill Gates helped pass “Show and Display” law. Years ago, I read that his 959 is a pre-production model, not even a regular production version.

Miguel Sanchez
Miguel Sanchez

Congratulations! what amazing photographs for a marvellous car!

Marc
Marc

Great work, what nikon is it ?
just bought a little one for starting seriously: a nikon D3200

Lawrence Peabody
Lawrence Peabody

One of my all time favorite cars!
It looks like the photos were taken on Skyline in San Mateo County?
Was the car actually there? Because it looks like it was photoshopped into the scenery in every photograph!

Gil Folk
Gil Folk

Hi,

I am the photographer who took these photos. The photos were taken in the Redwoods near the Canepa museum. Yes, the car was actually there. It was not photoshopped into the scenery. The car was lit using artificial light (two strobes).

Wisler Edwards
Wisler Edwards

and there you have the danger of using artificial light for car photos mixed with sunlight – you get that fake look. much rather prefer realistic photos

Gil Folk
Gil Folk

I wouldn’t necessarily call it a “danger” that I used artificial light in daylight. Everyone has their own opinion and I can respect that. The lighting situation we had during the shoot was not ideal (sunny with tons of shadows and reflections from the trees) so I used artificial light to get rid of the reflections and shadows on the car.

Ronnie M
Ronnie M

I’ll add my praise to the photos in this set. The lighting and iridescent quality of the paint against the arborous background make it look like a spaceship that’s landed in the forest like something out of E.T.

TJ Frey
TJ Frey

Great write up on the 959. I never understood the hold back on those cars, and like you found in writing the article, there has never been a clear answer. Seems that whenever politics get involved in shit like this, no one wants to document truths. Photos look unreal. And I mean that as a compliment. Great contrast of vehicle lighting versus the environment. Have you been to the Porsche Museum? It’s like you took a vehicle from their ‘clean room museum setting’ into the dirty, unfiltered nature. Looks bad ass. Car looks like it was digitally placed into the… Read more »

Kuroneko
Kuroneko

Agree the photographs look faked (or at least CGI or perhaps overcooked HDR) but that does add to the surreal nature of the car in this surrounding. I am sure a film with decent latitude would have been able to overcome the natural lighting limitations, but then we would have missed out on the cartoon-like results here. With the strong compositions, a 959 (!), in the woods, the whole supernatural vibe comes across well. Great stuff to look at and dream… Nice commentary too! Thanks again Petrolicious. Neko.

Gil Folk
Gil Folk

Thank you for the compliments and input on the photos. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I respect that. I’m only here to set a few things straight: 1. Absolutely no CGI or HDR was used on any of the images. 2. The car was lit using 1 or 2 strobes (artificial flashes for those who don’t know) depending on the shot. Detail shots: 1 flash was used. Full-body shots: 2 flashes were used. 3. The car was NOT placed in the background via photoshop; it was actually there, on the dirt, in the forest. It was HWY… Read more »

Michael Anderson
Michael Anderson

Absolutely beautiful work! Thank you.

Patrick Frawley
Patrick Frawley

Since 959s are all over 25 years old now, they’re outside the DOT/EPA statutes and can be imported freely. Everything above – the federalization process, Euro vs. US testing, the ridiculous tease that is Show and Display – gets consigned to the model’s history books. (Thank God.) Would still wonder about proper maintenance for such a fiercely complex machine, but fun to think they’re available pending adequate income.