Nature provides adrenaline as a warning that it’s really pain and fear keeping us alive. Every node in the limbic system — right there below the cerebrum — screams at you to stop chasing it. At five and a half thousand rpm in a Porsche 959, self-preservation begs you to lift.
And you will the first time, I promise you, you’ll lift in a multi-million dollar car — one of 29 unhinged Sport lightweights ever built and an actual display piece in the Porsche Museum’s rotation, the very car that recorded 339kph at the Nardo Ring in the Eighties for Auto, Motor und Sport’s legendary high-speed test feature.
The reflex to survive will overwhelm every curiosity of what more could possibly be out there beyond 5,500rpm, yet there it is, the redline all the way at 7,500… So of course you’ll lift, and after the shock and awe once you’re ready to compute again, all you can think about is one more hit of the Type 959/50 engine’s big, right-hand turbocharger. When unleashed on public roads in 1986 this car was from another time and another world, and 30 years ago nature’d never met anything like a 959 head on.
Porsche people might remember it with even more fondness, as the car that saved the 911. Now, wheels meets the original bedroom-poster supercar in the Black Forest for a day out celebrating its birthday, to commemorate one of the greatest technical throwdowns in automotive history. Around some of Germany’s finest driving roads S:GO 9590 will help us unravel the whole story.
And like every good supercar story that ends in complete financial disaster, this one also begins with an unlikely and loveable protagonist, an American… Peter Schutz, a German emigrant to be precise who grew up in Chicago, graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology as a mechanical engineer and remained in the state to work for Caterpillar. Rising through the corporate world, Schutz ended up taking over as Porsche’s CEO in 1980, having never so much as sat in a 911 in his life and just in time for the company to post its first ever annual loss.
Until then the fastest road-going Porsches could do 270kph and Röscheisen simply didn’t know what to expect...
Things were looking grim: the wrong-cooled 928 was groomed to sacrilegiously replace the 911 altogether and the hallowed Porsche name was being muddied with ‘those People’s Cars’ like the mid-engined 914 VW project and 924 with its Audi-derived four-cylinder. Schutz, bless him, believed in the 911 formula into the faraway future, and spurred on his engineering department in Weissach with motivation in solidarity — they didn’t care much for 928s either. So money be damned, in January 1983 Schutz gave technical genius Helmuth Bott free reign in pursuit of the ultimate 911 concept.
Today, behind the thin, hard steering wheel rim when you’re ready to ignore beads of sweat, too busy to bring a hand up to your brow, stretching every one of the five gears as far as you dare becomes a game in the 959. With the driver’s window wound down the sound of the side intake slurping so loud is a frightening conveyance of power. The big turbo jumps into the fold like an accidental bomb discharge, just out of nowhere so fast, so violent, even your third, fourth, fifth time, it still jolts you. It’s the lag, the tension, the excitement of the inevitable, and then when Big Daddy wakes up at 4,300rpm and gets going and lets rip at 5,500pm, you just can’t grab a gear quick enough. Tuned by an extra 65bhp over a regular 959, for me the S experience is a lot about submission, and all about engine.
And it figures, because Bott started with the flat-six guts of a 956 Le Mans-winning prototype. The 959 project was formed purely as a motorsport demonstration of Porsche’s technical prowess, set in motion after the FIA introduced new racing rules under the Group B regulations. Happily Porsche had an engine from a successful Group C car ready to help, and requiring 200 road-going examples to meet homologation, wealthy enthusiasts ended up getting a bargain supercar.
Recounting the story for us in front of the museum on Porscheplatz 1, Zuffenhausen, is Porsche’s official archivist Dieter Landenberger: “Schutz asked Bott to prove to the world that the 911 idea is not an old-fashioned idea, that it’s not 30-year-old technology. Nonetheless it was a risky move. So everything started very small. Still at the end, the budget was really crazy, more than 300 million Deutschmarks…”
Only loyal customers and collectors were invited to buy one of the 337 road cars made, each getting a cassette tape with detailed instructions for their hi-tech purchase narrated by Walter Röhrl. Zuffenhausen asked DM420,000 or about $150,000 (Dh550,500) back then, and Porsche management was much displeased with ownership contracts changing hands at twice that sum on the grey market Porsche itself lost double the cost of every 959 produced.
After Schutz’s home runs with drop-top SCs and all-wheel drive 911s, as well as the successful new 3.2 Carrera, Bott could continue to claim expenses, though. In the early Eighties, Porsche earned $20,000 (Dh73,400) on every car just from the positive currency exchange; 85 per cent of production sold in the States.
The development team kept at it then, and anyway with so much money already in the project there was no sense giving up. Even when any chance of racing in Group B faded after more FIA rule changes, Bott produced a prototype for the Frankfurt motor show in a little over two years, designed by Freeman Thomas based on the original sketch by Olivier Boulay.
“This pearl white show car in 1985 created such a stir,” says Landenberger. “People went crazy. We were really surprised by the response actually, so we thought maybe this serial production could work… But they had no project control — the engineers in Weissach did whatever they thought was best for the 959, and what they thought was the maximum they could do, and there was no cost control. It was almost an unlimited budget because they just tackled any wild idea they had without any restraint.”
It was like spring break, engineers gone wild — the 2.85-litre Type 959/50 motorsport engine came with sodium-filled exhaust valves and titanium con-rods, and a water-cooled cylinder head for the first time in a flat-six production Porsche. Sequential turbocharging attempted, feebly, to get rid of lag, with only the smaller left-hand turbo active across the rev range. Sensors all around the car detect speed, wheel slip and angle, engine speed and steering angle, and the all-wheel drive system could vary power transfer between the front and rear on the fly. All this 30 years ago, technology consumers never heard of before. And technology we now take for granted, like adjustable suspension (twin shocks per corner) that automatically lowers the car at speed, and an electronic knob in the dash to choose driving modes from dry, wet, snow and ice, to gravel.
“They had a list of mandatory parameters the car should fulfil,” says Landenberger. “Top speed of more than 300kph; aerodynamics completely neutral, no uplift at any speed; the engine should have more than 400 horsepower… And then a long, long testing process, a lot of work, which cost way more than anyone expected.”
Landenberger considers his close friend Dieter Röscheisen as one of the best test drivers alive, and although he is now in his 40th year with Porsche always hard at work behind the wheel, Röscheisen was still a cadet in those days when Bott entrusted him with his biggest Weissach gig yet: honing the 959. He is the man with the most miles in 959s on the planet and the task took him from the arctic to the deserts through to Volkswagen Group’s Ehra-Lessien test track. The engineers’ brief was succinct calling for the unprecedented, a racing machine with the luxury and driveability of a Mercedes S-Class, and testing this new ground was paramount.
Until then the fastest road-going Porsches could do 270kph and Röscheisen simply didn’t know what to expect, but he certainly didn’t expect early 959 prototypes (16 were put together in 1985) to wander across three lanes of Ehra-Lessien’s 8.7km-long high-speed test track over 300kph. Pioneering use of digital management systems, suspension electronics and bespoke new beadlock tyre sorted all that. However, at 959 speeds the 322mm and 308mm cross-drilled and ventilated brakes (about the size of new 718 Cayman brakes) were an unknown too, so torture testing went to extremes.
“They would do acceleration runs non-stop,” says Landenberger, “Full revs, from zero to 320kph to zero again, over and over like that until the brake pads disappeared and there was only metal on metal, and fire flames shot out of the wheel wells 20 metres long — the VW guys at Ehra-Lessien with their Golfs and Polos thought they were insane…”
Remember, at the time the Ferrari F40 hadn’t surfaced yet and the fastest cars in the world such as the 288 GTO and Lamborghini Countach 5000QV could only just nudge 300kph. Meanwhile, 30 years ago this red thing went 9kph faster than a 2016 911 Turbo S.
“Those speeds were a big, big step for the engineers,” says Landenberger. “They had to work very hard on the aerodynamics — they had to cover the entire underfloor of the car, and design these integrated spoilers, with a Gurney Flap on the rear. They had to change the 911 design heavily, adding integrated bumpers, which didn’t reach 911s until the Nineties’ 993 generation.”
Additionally, the headlights were totally flush, the panel gaps minimal and there wasn’t even a rain duct on the roof for a completely smooth surface. The body was made of stuff like aluminium, synthetic aramid fibres and Kevlar, which was completely crazy in those years — the car is full of tiny innovations each costly to realise, because none of them had ever been done before, and it passed over to the supply network, which also struggled with Porsche’s extreme demands and pioneering tech. Even something as trivial as the tyre valve cap isn’t simply a universal item but twice the size and bulk, and made of an alloy — the car premiered four-corner air pressure monitoring with dashboard warning lights and was basically a run-flat thanks to Dunlop’s deadlock design. I mean, 1986 and automatic height levelling… And we were busy playing Bubble Bobble. Bott really didn’t hold back.
The 959 Sport took it further, getting rid of luxuries including the leather, rear seats, and sound insulation to lose 100kg in total. Some had roll cages. For the engineers to meet the zero-lift target at top speed every aero trick was employed, and drag lowered with a flush windshield and a Cd of 0.31. Even the passenger side mirror was scrapped. About the only thing more slippery back then was the Audi 100 saloon touted as a revolution in aerodynamics at the time.
Not many customers were ready to sacrifice so much kit, not to mention the stiffer fixed suspension in the Sport. On derestricted bits of the A8 autobahn away from Stuttgart it rides firm but fine on its early run-flats.
Those dozens of dimples on the back of the steering wheel rim are reassuring somehow, and you need only the slightest touch to get a response from the bespoke front 235mm tyres. In the Black Forest’s damp twists and turns you can hustle a 959 civilised, pinkies in the air. The digital bit of the car was advanced enough even 30 years ago to get the most out of relatively narrow rubber — the 959’s rear tyres are 255mm wide compared to an F40’s 335mm or a Lambo’s 345mm monster Pirellis.
The bulk is disguised, too, with all-corner traction and no body roll through slower turns, but when you pick up pace down winding lanes the 959 doesn’t much like surprises, preferring a moment just to level itself before darting away again in the other direction. It’s not long until you realise this is just an old 911 with massive power — not that sharp, but involving and in need of you. Visibility is a revelation after today’s bunker sportscars, and the 959 is no longer that imposing and wide on the move. The air intake is your warning siren, and if you have more than a couple of seconds between corners you’ll bury the throttle and hear the intake slurp intensify and the right-hand turbo whistle, the drivetrain whine, and when the wick reaches 5,500rpm and everything finally detonates you hold on, bring the pinky down, because the 959’s full power hit jolts the thing into action and the front end tries to get away from you.
It’s relative power you can understand — 515bhp is crazy and this car doesn’t let you forget it, but it’s power that you can grasp, meekly. Every single time you bury the throttle in this 30-year-old supercar you are going against the grain, against every node in your brain distressed by a completely unnatural event.
With 13in-wide tyres, and half a tonne of noise and vibration insulation, new supercars are about passive speed. In this you are part of the motion, acting on it and the 2.85-litre twin-turbo will only scare you if you let it, if you don’t lift. You really feel, like flesh and bone and jelly. And a bit humbled that a machine made of rubber, and Kevlar and aramid and magnesium can do that.
With more and more miles a Le Mans-derived flat-six just can’t be ruffled and keeps reacting to the heavy pedal like a loaded gun. The brake, also heavy, has tiny racecar-travel so at first you’re looking for feel, but performance is fantastic. You don’t tend to brake deep into the turns anyway because your right foot can’t help but take over with the throttle as soon as possible — you try to prime the engine for the straight ahead early, or any excuse to get on the gas. So brake early and get it pointed towards as much open space as possible.
The 959 prefers to run for the redline rather than for too many hairpins uncovering its understeer. Three gears is about all you’ll use on a drive, even if the five-speed shifts tight, and the heavy clutch pedal has you aching after a day out. My instructions at the museum for the quickest starts were 4,000rpm and then dump it, and the 959 lurches like it wants to split in two — zero to 100kph is quoted in 3.7 seconds, very easy to believe.
Röscheisen’s torture paid off with a car that responds best to pounding — like any good 911 you can hit bumps and drop into dips without anything yanking the wheel out of grasp. The dread of pushing hard in a priceless museum car goes away when the 959 seems so unruffled by mistreatment — you can tell they built them tough, with a purpose: ’86 was the 959’s greatest year because a prototype development won its class at Le Mans and Porsche also scored a 1-2 in the Dakar Rally.
In fact, the car proved so reliable (plus many owners hid them away as investments) that Porsche didn’t even have to dip into the parts stockpile — in 1992 there were so many unused parts they put together a final eight 959s, asking a much more inflated price this time, and still lost money on each one. The company’s classic department takes care of the model, offering 2,300 unique parts for it. Every year some 30 959s come through the factory workshop with work ranging from servicing to complete restorations.
Although it is basically a 911, everything in the 959 is unique, which explains values today rocketing towards two million dollars for Sport models, not to mention the priceless heritage of this one. The gearbox, for example, features a dog-leg shift pattern, and a curiously labelled ‘G’ where you’d normally find first. This stands for Gelände or off-road, and was supposedly there to aid traction. Some owners just use it like a regular first gear for its conventional placing, because the G gear in fact had nothing to do with off-roading and everything to do with exploitation of the rules, i.e. cheating, so that Porsche could skip first gear and get around noise-limit testing.
And anyway, why wouldn’t you use the dog-leg first — the clutch is heavy and bites late but the H-gate is still slick after 50,000km in this car, and 30 years of hard use and the gear lever flicks about sweetly. There are knuckle scrapes on the thin leather wrapping the five-pod instrument cluster and scars on the gear knob, and there is a big paint chip spreading on that giant rear wing left to its own destiny — the museum isn’t restoring this car and wants every imperfection to be a part of its incredible story. Maybe the wing took a hit at 339kph… There are still Nardo miles on that rubber, and the smell of the glue bonding all that Kevlar was all the same when Röhrl or Röscheisen were behind the wheel. Fear hasn’t changed much since ’86 either.
In the end Bott called his creation, “The most expensive advertisement in the history of Porsche.” Thirty years later we’re still talking about the 959 — worth every mark.