Journal: Driven by Design: Porsche 911

Driven by Design: Porsche 911

By Yoav Gilad
May 1, 2014
21 comments

(This article is part of the Driven by Design series.)

Photography by Josh Clason for Petrolicious

In some ways the Porsche 911 was an evolution of the 356. It maintained the 356’s rear, air-cooled engine, rear-wheel drive, and 2+2 layout. But as any Porsche fanboy will eagerly tell you, it was an all-new model. For starters, the engine gained two cylinders going from a flat-four to a flat-six, while the individual cylinders lost some displacement (395.5cc to 331.8cc). But perhaps more importantly, the car grew in every dimension and was designed to be more comfortable than the outgoing 356.

Before we delve into the finer points of the 911’s design, I want to establish that I believe that the 911’s fundamental design is flawed. And I’m certain that I’ll receive emails and comments suggesting I have my head examined or that I stick it in all sorts of horrible places, but I hope that you’ll allow me to explain.

Hanging a massive lump of metal (the engine) out past the rear axle (or front axle, for that matter) increases the car’s polar moment of inertia, which makes it harder to recover control once the car begins a slide (just ask Mr. Jonathan Mills).

This isn’t a real problem for a 40hp VW Beetle, but as power and speeds increase, and hence the speed of weight transfer, it does become an issue. We could discuss physics and the 911’s merits all day, but as my ultimate example consider the vast majority of modern racecars: they are equipped with an engine mounted amidships. That’s probably just coincidence, though, right?

Regardless, the styling is evolutionary, clearly a development from the upside-down bathtub 356, and was all about aerodynamics. The overall proportion and stance heavily emphasize the rear engine; however, they’re a bit at odds with the downward sloping roofline and beltline which carry your eyes over the rear too quickly, (consider the substantial flares over the rear wheels in more recent years, designed to counter this) de-emphasizing the rear.

While the proportion and surfaces are a bit at odds, the surfacing itself, while evolutionary, is beautiful. The transition from the engine cover to the fender as two surfaces seem to become one (they never actually do) is much more elegant than the 356’s rear treatment (it just flattens out, vertically). And from a functional perspective, the low hood, narrow dash and more upright A-pillars allow for a commanding, confidence-inspiring view of the road. Personally, I suspect this is the primary reason for the 911’s popularity; the fact that it’s a subconscious feeling makes this part of the design sublime.

In typical, German fashion, detailing is sparse and is limited to items that serve other functions besides pure ornamentation. It is this simplicity that gives the Porsche such a timeless appearance. The Porsche 911 could be described as elegant or efficient, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to call it beautiful in the traditional sense, say like a Ferrari 250GT Lusso. And if you’re so inclined we can debate the merits of a rear-engined car until hell freezes over.

But there is beauty in the design of this car. And that beauty exists in the organization of multiple, disparate components that conspire, like a symphonic arrangement, to make you feel invincible behind the wheel.

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Derek Richards
Derek Richards

Here’s my further take on this wonderful design…..their is clear DNA to aircraft engineering (think German WW2 planes, I loved my Revell kits) and to the motorcycle and this creates a different feel, therefore a differently nuanced response. Both when driving and also when thinking about it as a piece of object design. It is also the concentrated extraction of a one designer / owner / family / philosophy etc etc. This has creates a tangible personality and a clear link to the maker…you know decisions were made in the interest of its development…as a car owner you are a… Read more »

Gary leong
Gary leong

I agree with Doug. Most standard features are consistent with a 71, lwb, basket weave dash trim, ext door handles, grill, horn grills, chrome turn signal edging. Window frames are swb coupe items, as are chrome bumperettes. Rear licence panel is custom. Best bet 1971. Nice car! Very tastefully assembled.

John Gulliver
John Gulliver

Nice images and article, but do we really still have to argue whether the ‘engine is in the wrong place?’ After all – the 911 has excelled and won consistently in all aspects of motorsport over 50 years – no other car has achieved what the 911 has. What is there left to argue about?

Douglas Dill
Douglas Dill

This is definitely a high-bred based on a 1970 or 1971 chassis. It is a long-wheel base model with short-wheel based door side window vents.

ez e
ez e

Anyone know what year this particular 911 is? It has windows of a pre ’69, but interior of a post ’69…. just curious.

Robert Rensch
Robert Rensch

The part about high polar moment might be functionally incorrect. To measure moment you need a “zero” point. If you locate the zero near the rear axle/tire contact patch as during acceleration weight transfer, the car achieves a rather short moment. The Porsche, for all intents, has what amounts to a throttle adjustable polar moment. There is no corresponding inertia mass in the front of the car, so in order to achieve a long effective moment, deceleration or braking can move the zero point forward. In a turn, if weight is transferred forward, the lateral grip of the rear tires… Read more »

JA Garfield
JA Garfield

What you refer to as a fundamental design flaw is exactly what makes the 911 such a great and engaging driver’s car. Granted, when the first cars appeared in ’64 there were problems. But, Porsche being Porsche, saw the problem and engineered solutions that took a theoretical flaw and made it work. Engineering overcoming physics! 50 years later the myth persists that it’s easy to spin a 911. I find that if you have [i]any[/i] seat of the pants feel, they are very hard cars to spin, lifting mid corner will do it though. And if you spin one on… Read more »

pjrebordao

The continued success of the 911 is due to several factors, the aesthetics are just one. I would add: practicality, convenience, reliability, reasonable cost and economy and… racing success (probably the car with the most wins overall, since…) Regarding physics, you only mentioned the downsides, but there’s an upside: good traction, especially uphill an on corner exits, and that inherent imbalance is a virtue if you are skilled enough to take advantage of it, enabling it to quickly change direction. PS – Any modern fighter aircraft in inherently unstable to aid manoeuverability. They’re able to fly because they have a… Read more »

Jarek
Jarek

I partially agree with the author but I feel most people who own air cooled 911s (as I do) initially bought them because the are pretty. Also if you follow his logic, that a combination of shallow dash, upright A pillars and low hood make for a superior view of the road, then the 914-6 would be the most sought after classic car. (It’s ugly). No the reason we love 911s is because of all our senses, especially the way driving a 911, with its engine in the wrong place, feels. I also disagree that the 911s design is a… Read more »

geelongvic
geelongvic

The driving experience of the 911 is sublime, unique. I have been enchanted for the past 38 years of 911S ownership. The 911 has taught me the nuances of throttle control that has made me a better Ferrari driver, not the other way around. Mastering an older 911 without modern electronic controls on a track is so satisfying. Leaving the main straight at Mid-Ohio into the Madness complex with deep braking followed by throttle steering for positioning is so unbelievably satisfying in a 911. No Ferrari and no Jaguar that I have driven gives me the inherent pleasure that a… Read more »

ronvoyer
ronvoyer

Rear end break out is not a problem, its just a way of driving. My 356 has about 100 hp and when I get into a corner going too fast, I never hit the brakes, just hit the fuel – it will rarely/never break. If it breaks, its totally controllable if you keep your foot into it. If you lay off on the fuel, the rear end will lift and you will lose all control. For the higher hp models, its a bit on an art. My father in law had a 79′ 930 and hitting the fuel was like… Read more »

Eugene Dantser
Eugene Dantser

Porshe 911 is a fabulous car and I like very much your work, Petrolicious, but there are so many interesting cars that are driven by design too (Aston Martin, Maserati, Citroen etc.: different models)! They deserve to be included in this topic, or at least some articles about them to be written.. I respect a lot your work but there are so many articles on 911 but none or very little can be found about such sport and design legends like Aston Martin, Citroen (DS & SM), Bentley, Lotus and many others. P.S. Any way, you’re the best site about… Read more »

Andreas Lavesson
Andreas Lavesson

I agree that from a physics standpoint, having a lot of weight outside the either the front- or rear axis is far from ideal. However, I do also think that the early 911s are incredibly beautiful. Granted, not in the same way as the E-type, Ferraris or Maseratis of the time, but in a different way. It’s got a strict spartan elegance to it, as for example the BMW E9. Perhaps, the styling isn’t sensual in an Italian way, but in my opinion that’s not necessarily superior.

Beck
Beck

Being a person who is still discovering the driving dynamics of various types/platforms of cars.. I have to say, RR is inherently a not-so desirable layout. As mentioned by Yoav, in a Physics stand point, having the motor at the rear most of the chassis yields inefficiency in braking, steering/cornering, ability. Grip for acceleration is great otherwise, due to all that weight at the back. Thus, it calls for a different approach in piloting these machines. Then one may ask why? Why would we want to change our way of driving to suit the car? My answer would simply be:… Read more »

Phil
Phil

I do not agree with the comment on the flaw of the design.. why is the 911 so successful at racing? engine placement has something to do with it allowing it to go slow in (control the rear end) and FAST out! You can get on the gas so much earlier in a 911 as the weight in the rear increases your traction on an exit. So the flaw is an advantage just like anything else. Driving a 911 at speed on the track is magic and a big part is where they attached the engine.. same as a daily… Read more »

D L
D L

The flaws and uniqueness is what makes it so endearing. Most of the practical, efficient, and balanced cars are incredibly boring. Take the Camry or any similar small or mid size sedan. Very efficient design, but undesirable because everything about them is average and mass market. It is the unpredictability and quirks which make it fun.

Garm Beall
Garm Beall

I read all the words, but to be clear, I don’t quite get the point. Is the flaw found in the context of performance driving, or in just looking over the shape of the car? No comments on the sublime suspension, interior comfort, etc.? My love remains undiminished. It’s a “bucket list” car for any enthusiast, in my opinion!

Steve
Steve

I agree with your view somewhat but is it not also true that a mid engine car driven to its limit is equally a handful. The back end on a 911 stepping out in no more difficult to control than the sidewards slide of a middle engined car. My 911 has taught me more about driving than any other car I´ve owned, I´d even go as far as to say its made me a better driver. Its been said and I agree with that it can be compared to riding a motorbike. Get your braking and line right going into… Read more »

Dustin Rittle
Dustin Rittle

I have always felt that the Porsche 911 is one of the most iconic and most recognisable cars on the planet. I would but it in the same level as Jaguar E type, C2 Corvette stingray, Ferrari 250 GTO. You just know when you see a 911. I wouldn’t say it was a ugly car but not quite elegant as a Ferrari or E type. What I believe makes the 911 different is that it is very well organized it seems like its built with only one purpose in mind. The 911 simply gives you everything you want and nothing… Read more »

Benjamin Shahrabani
Benjamin Shahrabani

I agree!