Porsche 959 is First Produced
The Porsche 959 was a sports car manufactured by Porsche from 1986 to 1989, first as a Group B rally car and later as a legal production car designed to satisfy FIA homologation regulations requiring that a minimum number of 200 street legal units be built.
During its production run, it was hailed as being the most technologically advanced road-going sports car ever built and the harbinger of the future of sports cars: it was one of the first high-performance vehicles to use an all-wheel drive system; it provided the basis for Porsche's first all-wheel drive Carrera 4 model; and it convinced Porsche executives of the system's viability so well that they chose to make all-wheel drive standard on all versions of the 911 Turbo starting with the 993 variant. During its lifetime, the vehicle had no other street legal peer. The 959's short production run and performance have kept values high. In 2004, Sports Car International named this car number one on the list of Top Sports Cars of the 1980s.
Development of the 959 (originally called the Gruppe B) started in 1981, shortly after the company's then-new Managing Director, Peter Schutz, took his office. Porsche's head engineer at the time, Helmuth Bott, approached Schutz with some ideas about the Porsche 911, or more aptly, a new one. Bott knew that the company needed a sports car that they could continue to rely on for years to come and that could be developed as time went on. Curious as to how much they could do with the rear-engined 911, Bott convinced Schutz that development tests should take place, and even proposed researching a new all wheel drive system. Schutz agreed, and gave the project green light. Bott also knew through experience that a racing program usually helped to accelerate the development of new models. Seeing Group B rally racing as the perfect arena to test the new mule and its all wheel drive system, Bott again went to Schutz and got the go ahead to develop a car, based on his development mule, for competition in Group B.
Porsche developed an already existing engine instead of creating a new one from scratch. The powerplant, a twin-turbocharged six-cylinder boxer engine with an air-cooled block and water-cooled heads, displaced 2.85 liters, about half a liter less than a contemporary 911 engine. The motor had originally been developed for the "Moby Dick" race car and then been redeveloped slightly for the short-lived Porsche Indy Car and several other projects before being "tweaked" a last time for use in the 961, the 959's racing counterpart. The water-cooled cylinder heads combined with the air-cooled block, 4-valve heads and sequential turbochargers allowed Porsche to extract 331 kW (444 hp) from the compact, efficient and rugged power unit. The use of sequential twin turbochargers rather than the more usual identical turbochargers for each of the two cylinder banks allowed for smooth seamless delivery of power across the engine RPM band, in contrast to the abrupt on-off power characteristic that distinguished Porsche's other turbocharged engines of the period. The engine was used, virtually unchanged, in the 959 road car as well.
In an attempt to create a rugged, lightweight shell, Porsche adopted an aluminium and Aramid (Kevlar or Twaron) composite for body use along with a Nomex floor, instead of the steel normally used on their production cars. The vehicle's weight of 3,190 pounds (1,450 kg) helped to achieve its high performance level.
Porsche also developed the car's aerodynamics, which were designed to increase stability, as was the automatic ride-height adjustment that became available on the street car (961 race cars had fixed suspensions). Its "zero lift" aerodynamics were a big part of keeping it drivable. The 959 also featured Porsche-Steuer Kupplung (PSK) which was at the time the most advanced all-wheel-drive system in a production car. Capable of dynamically changing the torque distribution between the rear and front wheels in both normal and slip conditions, the PSK system gave the 959 the adaptability it needed both as a race car and as a "super" street car. Under hard acceleration, PSK could send as much as 80% of available power to the rear wheels, helping make the most of the rear-traction bias that occurs at such times It could also vary the power bias depending on road surface and grip changes, helping maintain traction at all times. The magnesium alloy wheels were unique, being hollow inside to form a sealed chamber contiguous with the tire and equipped with a built-in tire pressure monitoring system.
The 1983 Frankfurt Motor Show was chosen for the unveiling of the Porsche Group B prototype. Even in the closing hours of October 9, finishing touches were being applied to the car to go on display the next morning. After the first two prototypes, the bodywork was modified to include air vents in the front and rear wheel housings, as well as intake holes behind the doors. The first prototype modified like this was code named "F3", and was destroyed in the first crash test.
The street version of the 959 debuted at the 1985 Frankfurt Motor Show as a 1986 model, but numerous issues delayed production by more than a year. The car was manufactured in two levels of trim, "Sport" and "Komfort", corresponding to the race version and the street version. First customer deliveries of the 959 street variant began in 1987, and the car debuted at a cost of $225,000 USD per unit, still less than half what it cost Porsche to build each one. Production ended in 1988. In total, 337 cars were built, including 37 prototypes and preproduction models. At least one 959 and one 961 remain in the Porsche historic hall in Stuttgart, Germany.
In 1992/1993, Porsche built eight 959s assembled from spare parts from the inventory at the manufacturing site in Zuffenhausen. All eight were 'Komfort'-versions: four in red and four in silver. These cars were much more expensive (DM 747,500) than the earlier ones (DM 420,000). The later cars also featured a newly developed speed-sensitive damper system. The cars were sold to selected collectors after being driven by works personnel for some time and are today by far the most sought-after 959s.
The 959 was not street legal in the United States prior to 1999 when the "Show and Display" law was passed, although an unknown number were imported via the "grey market" during the late 1980s as show pieces. During the model's development Porsche refused to provide the United States Department of Transportation with the four 959s they required for crash testing, and the car was never certified by the NHTSA for street use in the U.S. With the passage of "Show and Display" the crash test requirements were removed and importation of the 959 was allowed, assuming the car could meet the emissions standards applicable in 1987. The 959 can be fitted with a catalytic converter and a rechipped computer which allows it to meet those emissions requirements. Most owners refuse to modify their 959s, however, and the cars remain collection pieces. Most 959s are in the hands of collectors, but a few do occasionally come to market, with prices in the region of 180,000 - 250,000 EUR (cars produced in 1987/1988). It is impossible to estimate the price of cars from the highly limited batch of 1992/1993.
The lessons learned from the 959 project about engine management, aerodynamics, suspension tuning, and 4-wheel drive were what enabled the production life of the 911 to be extended to the present day.
An engineering tour de force of awe-inspiring power and ability, the 1987-88 Porsche 959 was the "everything car" enthusiasts dream about -- the one that can do it all.
Motor Trend aptly termed this 911-based uberwagen "the fastest, most technologically advanced sports car in history." Said Car and Driver, "The 959 can accomplish almost any automotive mission so well that to call it perfect is the mildest of overstatements." No less amazing, it remains a performance and technical benchmark even now.
More than just the "ultimate 911" to that point, it was the ultimate roadgoing Porsche, the sum of all Zuffenhausen had learned about production sports cars in its first 40 years. No wonder the Porsche 959 was such a towering achievement or that it pioneered features that have since become commonplace.
The 959 originated with the fully finished and evidently producible "Gruppe B" prototype unveiled at the 1983 Frankfurt Auto Show as Porsche's entry in the new Group B racing series for factory-experimental cars. Two years later, also at Frankfurt, Porsche announced that a production version, designated 959, would be sold to meet homologation requirements.
Production was limited to 200, and all were spoken for within weeks despite an otherworldly price of around 225,000 U.S. dollars. Still, Porsche lost a bundle on every one, as actual unit cost was estimated at a cool $530,000.
That was evident from even a cursory glance at the specs sheet. Though it used the 911 wheelbase and a similar inner structure, the 959 was strikingly different. Distinctions began with a lower body reshaped for good surface aerodynamics and with a profusion of ducts and vents for controlled airflow through it. Aero considerations also dictated a bellypan covering the entire undercarriage, except for the engine.
Dominating all was a muscular, ultra-wide tail topped by a large loop spoiler. The results: a drag coefficient of 0.31 (creditable, if not the lowest around) and -- the big news -- zero lift. To save weight, the doors and front lid were made of aluminum, the nose cap of polyurethane, and the rest in fiberglass-reinforced Kevlar.
Five-spoke, 17-inch alloy wheels wore low-profile Bridgestone RE71 tires specially developed for the Porsche 959 (and chosen over a Dunlop design, which raised eyebrows, as Porsche had not previously sanctioned Japanese rubber). Though heroically sized at 235/45 fore and 255/40 aft, the tires were only V-rated, meaning safe for up to 149 mph -- curious, as the 959's claimed maximum was nearly 40 mph more.
Hollow wheel spokes (first used on Porsche's 1980 Le Mans racers) provided extra air for the tires and a smoother ride. There was no spare, because the tires were designed to run flat for 50 miles after a blowout. Another innovation was electronic sensors within the wheels to warn of pressure loss.
Originally designed for Group B racing, the blueprint for the 959 gradually shifted to becoming the ultimate road car that Porsche could design and produce. The project got underway in January of 1983, and some 250 or so cars were built from 1986 through 1988.
Some highlights of the 959 were AWD; the heavy use of Kevlar, Nomex, aluminum, and carbon fiber for weight savings; automatic ride height adjustment; water-cooled 4 valve heads; and sequential turbocharging. But perhaps the standout feature of the Porsche 959 was its high price and over-the-top approach to ultimate performance. In many ways, the 959 is the spiritual ancestor to the many extreme supercars that followed it, such as the Ferrari F40, Jaguar XJ220, McLaren F1, and Bugatti Veyron.
Despite its high price, Porsche was said to have lost substantial amounts of money with every car sold. But in retrospect, the 959 may have proved to be an outstanding investment. Extremely popular as an aspirational vehicle among sports car enthusiasts of its day, the 959 served as an excellent halo vehicle for the entire Porsche brand. In addition, the technological advances made during the 959's development helped to ensure the continuing viability of the 911's rear-engine design.