Before The 959 Porsche Dominated The Dakar With The 953, The First ‘911 4×4’
Photography by Robb Pritchard
A quick glance through the advert section in the back of many magazines will show you what prices a (relatively) common 911 in good condition commands these days. It’s been the topic of much talk over the past half-decade, but what about a much rarer example of the breed? How do you value an ex-works rally car, one of only ten 4×4 cars Porsche ever competed with, including the 959s? And what if it was the only one of those ten cars that was privately owned? That Porsche would be held aloft in the realms of motoring mythology, and the value would be simply priceless, in my opinion.
Wolf-Dieter Ihle is the lucky—and very proud—owner of this ex-Jacky Ickx 953 that finished 6th in the 1984 Dakar Rally, and fortunately for us enthusiasts he doesn’t keep it locked away in a collection, and I had the chance to get inside this fabled machine myself.
When I was young I used to save up my pocket money to buy the 1/24th-scale Tamiya kits of the rally and circuit racing cars I loved. Wolf-Dieter does the exact the same thing, only his collection is full of full-size cars with motors in them…and it seems he has more of the originals than I had miniature replicas of! His kink is collecting the ex-works rally cars from German marques, and in the workshop we’d met in for our conversation there’s also an ex-Stig Blomqvist Audi S1 E2, and an ex-Michèle Mouton Sport Quattro being prepped for rallying once again. He owns more than a dozen cars like this though, and at the rate of one or two purchases a year, if his collection was open to the public I think it would be a very cool museum exhibit in tribute to this niche he’s fallen so far into.
But there’s one car that clearly stands out from the rest. Other people own ex-works Audis, VWs, Opels, and Mercedes, but no other person on the planet owns a four-wheel drive ex-works Porsche rally car. And high-achieving classic car collectors would probably squirm with envy to know that Wolf-Dieter found it completely by accident. In 2004, back in the days before 911 values shot up to astronomic heights, he was looking for a 2.7 RS. However, browsing through some online ads one evening, he came across one for a 953. Of course he clicked to see some more information, but the asking price was so suspiciously modest that he arranged to pay a deposit and sent someone knowledgeable in such matters of authenticity to inspect the car at the Porsche Rennsport Reunion back when it was held at Daytona. There were no official papers to check the numbers against, but everything seemed legitimate and through its previous owners the car’s history could be traced back 30 years to the Porsche workshop.
As soon as it was wheeled out of the trailer for the inspection though, an impromptu bidding war broke out with a mob of would-be buyers offering a lot more money than Wolf-Dieter had agreed upon with the seller. Fortunately said seller was a fair and honest man, and he kept his word. Jacky Ickx, at the event as a Porsche ambassador, was convinced enough of the originality to sign the car’s roof. Purchase completed, it was flown back to Germany to complete a decades-long journey around the world to now reside just a few miles from where it was originally built.
The 953, or “911 4×4,” was the first wave of Porsche’s massive and now infamous assault on the Dakar Rally which culminated in them further developing the four-wheel drive 959 for the 1985 and 1986 events. Le Mans legend and reigning Dakar winner Jacky Ickx was the main driver, and it was he who brought the iconic Rothmans sponsorship to the project. 1981 Dakar-winner René Metge was drafted in as support, and although Ickx set the more fastest stage times than anyone else, his event was stymied near the beginning when a wheel jack broke free and shorted out the wiring. The resultant fire meant they had to wait for the service barge to catch up, and so they started again from practically last place. In an event of such mammoth proportions, it makes the current iteration of the Dakar in South America look like a regular round of the WRC. And the 953 fought back the entire way across the Sahara, then west through the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Mauritania, to get up to an incredible 3rd place within figurative sight of the finish. Unfortunately, on the penultimate stage before they got to Senegal, they broke a driveshaft and dropped back down to 6th. Another Porsche-entered car, driven as a fast assistance vehicle by Roland Kussmaul, finished 26th and has remained untouched, still covered in Saharan dust. René Metge drove his 953 to overall victory.
The car featured in this story however was destined for the endless dunes of Africa again in 1988 when Jacques Laffite entered it in a green Foltene livery, but he retired on one of the first stages though, so the car was kept in very good condition when Porsche brought it back to the factory for a full overhaul. This is why it has the scrutineering sticker on the dashboard from the 10th Dakar, rather than the 6th, which it ran in 1984. As the history goes, while it was in the Porsche workshop, a private collector made an offer that saw it shipped for the first of two sojourns in America, which were interrupted for a few years when it was part of a Japanese collection. Wolf-Dieter bought it from the guy who reimported it to the ‘States. “Two times to Africa, Europe, America, and Asia,” Wolf-Dieter chuckles. “It’s been to more continents than most people go to in their lives!”
Before he could start enjoying it, very little apart from a full fluid change needed doing, as to the best of his knowledge it hadn’t been driven in anger since the 1988 Dakar so there’s no story of a big restoration or fabricating parts for a prototype 4×4 system that was never available on the market. But while everything was being checked, his mechanics found something that for all intents and purposes proved that this is an original car; hidden away under the dash is a switch with no obviously apparent purpose. “It was in such a strange place, like a secret one for an immobilizer, but they traced the wires to the back lights and realized that it was so Ickx could turn the rear light clusters off so no one could follow him through the dust! No one would think of something like this for a replica!”
The lights themselves were in fact another proof of originality. Eagle-eyed YouTube viewers might notice the stalk-mounted lights on the 1984 cars. This was one of the only vulnerabilities on the cars, and when it went back in 1988 there was a much more robust protector on the rear of the roof which is clearly visible in the shots Wolf-Dieter has of Laffite’s car in period.
I am sure that there are many collectors who would store such a valuable car firmly out of harms way, but thankfully Wolf-Dieter likes to enjoy his collection from behind the wheel, and he even invited two-time WRC champion Walter Röhrl take it out on some demonstration runs. “I don’t think it’s his favorite car to drive though,” he shrugs, “He called it the Eisenbahn; the train!”
When I managed to find a gap in his busy schedule I asked the great rally champion himself. “It was designed specifically for going very fast in a straight line on soft sands,” he explained. “And the stiff suspension and high centre of gravity from being lifted for better ground clearance means it’s not the easiest or most fun car to drive on tarmac. It feels like it is driving on rails, which is why I gave it that nickname. Also, to keep the authenticity, Wolf-Dieter keeps the gravel tires on, so it understeers worse than any car I think I have ever driven. Well, one that wasn’t broken! But it still has an amazing spirit and it’s a very important piece of Porsche history, so I get a lot of pleasure driving it for those reasons. Also the engine sounds great! From between 2,000 to 6,500 rpm it’s a real joy to hear.”
But it’s not just Walter Röhrl who gets to drive this priceless piece of history, as somehow I convinced Wolf-Dieter I was a good and careful enough driver to take it for a spin as well. The car hadn’t been out for a while, so when I arrived at the workshop it was up in the air having its fluids checked. The lightweight bumper with all of the holes drilled out to ventilate the auxiliary oil cooler was right at eye-level. So too were the beefy front lateral arms and half shafts that were only ever seen on the three 953s built for the suspension to be able to cope with the 27cm lift. There wasn’t need for any homologation runs, so Porsche were able to develop the car free from the restraints of having to make any road-going versions; it was basically a high-profile test bed for the 959 that was still a year away from launching.
I am 6’4” and often have trouble getting into cars through the roll cage—or wedging myself into replica 917s for track laps—but the 953 was so cramped that I needed a couple of attempts at a human game of Tetris to work out how to get my legs under the steering wheel. And the next time the interior gets cleaned, someone will find the buttons I ripped off the back of my trousers in the process.
The roof line at the top of the window is familiar 911 fare, but apart from the dials, from the dash down it doesn’t look like any Porsche I’ve been in before. There are exactly three 911s in the world that have transmission tunnels up front like this one, and not too many more with a pair of chunky spare tires bulging out between the tops of the seats. It was with a slightly shaking finger then that I pressed the starter button, and with a little dab on the gas pedal the 3.2-liter flat-six clattered to life in that unmistakable way they do—it’s a glorious sounding motor, and somehow a lot rawer than I was expecting.
The next thing I notice: the clutch is heavy and the bite point seems to be different for reverse than for 1st. Also, the battery wasn’t charged at the time, so every time I stalled it Wolf-Dieter’s mechanic Bastian had to get out to take the bonnet off and attach the starter pack again. It has no power steering either, and while that’s not so unusual for older Porsches, the four-wheel drive system is, so I am put in mind of a Series 1 Land Rover as I tug on the wheel with both hands. I wasn’t complaining though, it was just a very steep learning curve and if there are just a few cars worth more than the value of its parts, this is one of them. Emerging from of the small village and heading away from the populace, the country roads opened up in front of me, and I responded in kind: foot down in 3rd and the sound echoes everywhere, an incredible smile-forming riot of noise. As it goes, all Porsche changed on the venerable 3.2 was the compression ratio so it would run better on low-quality African petrol, but it just sounds so raw somehow! As if much more has been altered. I remember that the road is a public one after this pull, and my feet are a bit big for the pedals, so I let it coast rather than getting on the brakes. I soon learn that I don’t need to go fast in this thing to have a huge smile on my face. The special experience was not about performance really, it’s all about the privilege.
Looking back on it, it’s also quite mind-blowing how original everything has remained on this 953. The VDO City Pilot is still mounted on the dash, a humorously basic GPS device, but the forerunner for nearly every GPS device running today. Wolf-Dieter has been looking for 11 years for another one, but without success. Also, there are two very unusual knobs at the base of the dash. It wasn’t immediately apparent what they were put there for, but Wolf-Dieter tells me they are controls for a rudimentary differential lock that tightens the center differential for better traction in rough terrain. It’s something modern cars do with a flick of a switch these days, but thirty years ago this was an engineering marvel. There would be absolutely zero chance of getting any replacement parts for these though, so Wolf-Dieter has never touched them. In fact the only non-original part on the car is the internal bladder in the large 120-liter fuel tank in the front. His ex-Blomqvist Audi caught fire last year, and the rebuild is still not complete so it’s a safety upgrade he’s not reluctant to add to his cars.
The second 150-liter tank behind my seat never gets filled, but in another ingenious way to alter the handling with the tools available, the drivers back then could transfer petrol between one tank and the other to change the front and rear balance of the car.
Photos taken out in the woods, it eventually came time to drive this little treasure back to the workshop—looking over the curving fiberglass wings and the big Rothmans logo on the bonnet ahead of me, I did so with a very wide smile on my face.