Zero to sixty in 3.6 seconds. Zero to 100 mph in 8.8 seconds. A top speed of 195 mph. The standing quarter mile in 12 seconds. A modern supercar is worth its salt with these kinds of numbers, but thirty years ago? That was revolutionary. The Porsche 959 was a supercar birthed from the nearly limitless Group B rally racing homologation, and some consider it the best sports car ever created.
What It’s All About
Porsche wanted something to carry on the legacy of the longstanding 911. The idea was to create a successor to the 911 that could continue on for decades and be improved upon over time. Helmut Bott, Porsche’s Chief Engineer, approached Porsche AG Managing Director Peter Schultz with the idea, and the development of the 959 began in 1981. Porsche had found success developing cars through their racing program, and FIA Group B rallying was the perfect place to start, since the idea was to use a new all-wheel-drive system to catapult the new sports car. Under Group B stipulation, Porsche would be required to produce 200 road-going cars in order to put the 959 in races. Thus, a supercar was born.
From this, Porsche developed the world’s fastest street-legal production car, but they also created the most technologically advanced car produced to date. Everyone who drove it, from race car drivers to journalists, praised it for its stupefying performance, the ease with which it could be driven and its technological sophistication.
Looking at one aspect of the 959 impresses, but gathering together all the components is what makes it truly great. The engine, used in the 961 Group B car (the racing version of the 959) is a 2.85-liter, twin-turbo flat-six engine with air-cooled cylinders and water-cooled heads, good for 444 horsepower. The turbochargers were sequential rather than an identical pair in order to provide the 959 with smooth and readily available power throughout the power band, keeping operation of the 959 remarkably controllable and predictably progressive.
Not only was the 959 powerful, its body and underpinnings were lightened with the use of an aluminum and Kevlar composite body, as well as a lightweight and fire-retardant Nomex floor (instead of steel), giving the 959 a curb weight of 3,190 pounds, a couple of hundred pounds lighter than the current 911 Carrera 4 (and with nearly a hundred more thundering horses than the Carrera).
Aerodynamics on the 959 played a huge role in its high-speed stability. At speeds of nearly 200 mph the 959 was stable thanks to “zero lift” maximized aerodynamics from the front air dam, rear spoiler and underbody, an automatically adjustable ride-height adjustment feature and a slippery body design.
Another key features on the 959, for both the rally and road cars, was the PSK System, which stood for Porsche-Steuer Kupplung (Porsche “Control Coupling”), the most technologically advanced all-wheel-drive system for use in a production car at that time. The PSK’s torque distribution between the rear and front wheels adapted to the driving conditions, sending up to 80 percent of the power to the rear wheels and varying power distribution as needed in order to maximize traction — making the 959 remarkably agile in dry, wet and snowy conditions. What worked for the rally car was a boon for the street car, giving the 959 rear-wheel-drive feel most of the time and all-wheel-drive traction only when needed. And, a tire pressure monitoring system through the 959’s lightweight magnesium wheels provided important data for high speed runs.
The twin turbo system is also worth noting, since its setup was sequential rather than parallel, which keeps turbo lag to a minimum and accounts for ample power at low and high speeds. At low rpms (about 1,500), the first turbocharger gets maximum engine exhaust, bringing the 959 up to speed and at 3,000 rpm, max turbo boost is achieved by the first unit. Once the car reaches 4,500 rpm, power comes smoothly but noticeably as the engine moves the 959 to blinding speeds.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the 959, aside from the technology and power, was its everyday drivability. At that time, most supercars were a bitch to drive. They were temperamental, impractical and poor in construction due to the limited production. The 959 was an anomaly in its drive quality. The solidity of the body, the chassis and the components were flawless, and the car was even more comfortable than a 911.
Why It Matters
The 959 cemented a landmark achievement not only for Porsche, but also for the automotive world. Its remarkable capabilities both on and off road and its technological advancement make it an icon for all-wheel-drive supercars (like the Audi R8, Lamborghini Aventador and Ferrari FF). For its time, the 959 was insanely easy to drive fast, not a typical descriptor of cars in that performance echelon.
In 1987, the 959’s asking price was a cool $225K, a price that would equal over $450K today. Now that they can be imported for use in America, collectors wait for them to go on the auction block. One is due up for sale at Gooding & Company’s Pebble Beach auction in August, and is expected to net over $1.5 million. Its asking price isn’t elevated simply because of its rarity, but also because the 959 still stands as one of the best sports cars ever created.