The founder of Porsche, Ferdinand Porsche, famously had an unbudging requirement for a new Porsche model he began planning in the late 50s. It had to be able to accommodate a bag of golf clubs.
He also wanted it to be a 2 + 2 rather than a two-seater, which meant that two passengers should be able to squeeze in the back (although it definitely wasn’t to be a four-door). His other requirements were that it should be much quieter than its predecessor, and roomy and refined enough to be a road-going production car. Of course, it also had to be fast enough to compete with proper racing cars. Those requirements set the template for the sports cars, super cars and hyper cars of the second half of the 20th century, and right up to the present.
But the true pioneer was the Porsche 911, which was launched at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1963 and remained miraculously unchanged for three decades – except of course for the ceaseless refinements that continued throughout its lifetime. (In fact, the 911 got its first major change only in 1993 and it wasn’t until 1998 that it had its first major body shell redesign, which coincided with the definitive break with Porsche’s famous air-cooled engines, and marked the end of an era.)
The design itself was the work of Ferry Porsche’s eldest son, Ferdinand Alexander “Butzi” Porsche. It’s streamlined, perfectly proportioned shape is undeniably beautiful, having itself evolved its distinctive bug-eyed front and aerodynamic prowess from the design for the VW Beetle Ferry Porsche penned in the 30s.
Of course, the conceptual leap that the 911 represented would have meant nothing without the performance and engineering to back it up. And Porsche had that in spades, immediately outpacing the fastest of the 356es – although, funnily, it wasn’t until the 70s that the 911 really hit its stride in motorsport, especially with the introduction of the Carrera RS 2.7 in 1972, which kicked off an era of almost obscene motorsport domination.
Despite its curiously unchanging silhouette, Porsche constantly pushed the outer limits of motoring performance with constant innovation. A few examples: with the introduction of the Porsche 911S in 1967, the 911 sported the first light-weight forged wheels ever used on a production car: the famous Fuchs alloy wheels. The first-ever open-top car with a roll bar was a 911 Targa. In the late 70s, the 911 Turbo was the first series sports car with an exhaust-gas turbocharger (a move expedited by the fact that there was no room to accommodate ever-bigger engines, but a relentless need for more power).
Nevertheless, by rights, the 911 was about due to be pensioned off by the late 70s or at least the early 80s, and in fact, the company had planned to phase out the 911 by the mid-80s, to be replaced by the 928 and 944. But, despite its plans, sheer customer demand forced the company to continue production and development of the 911 alongside its intended successors. It was more-or-less reinvented in the 80s with its distinctive whale-tail spoiler and given fresh life for another decade.
Even in the 90s, towards the end of its lifecycle, the 911 Turbo was still defying time and keeping up with a new generation of super- and hyper-cars. Finally, in 1998, with the last of the air-cooled 911s being produced and its first full body-shell redesign, Butzi’s original design was superseded, although it remains undeniable that something of the 911’s design DNA permeates every modern Porsche today.
It’s an old joke that the 911 represents “a triumph of development over design”, but in the joke is something of the secret of its incredible success: evolution rather than revolution; refinement rather than reinvention. Through a happy combination of its distinctiveness and adaptability, the 911 managed to persist at the cutting edge of motoring innovation without succumbing to fads and trends. As a result, it will always be the exemplar of its kind.