It’s hard to believe the Porsche 959 is three decades old. Endowed with truly efortless performance and elegantly styled, it’s the original Porsche supercar (if you think modest of the 930 Turbo), a pioneering machine that has captured the imaginations of car enthusiasts across the globe ever since – and, as we shall find out, mapped significant chapters of the 911’s own evolutionary journey. Although there is conjecture to the contrary, the 959 is a close relation of the 911 at the very least.
With a flat-six engine positioned past the rear axle, its layout is, crucially, the same, and even a quick look around the car will uncover various styling cues from Neunelfers of the time and thereafter. Consider it a Porsche 911 on steroids, then; a relative heavyweight champion of international box oice appeal, with only Ferrari’s F40 able to share ring space with Weissach’s seminal creation. The 959 has, like its uncompromising counterpart from Maranello, gone on to define the entire automotive generation of which it hails from, yet for Porsche enthusiasts the story of the car’s beginning is just as captivating.
Originally displayed as a ‘Gruppe B’ concept on its stand at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1983, Porsche’s new creation was conceived with racing intentions in mind for the 1984 season. However, CEO Peter Schutz and head of Research and Development, Professor Helmuth Bott, had one eye on the future of the company’s sports cars too. Gruppe B rules stipulated at least 200 examples had to be produced for homologation purposes (though interestingly, the car could be raced prior to series production) and Bott was of the principle that if 200 cars had to be made, why not make a thousand? Thus, development of the recently-saved Neunelfer was thrust into the limelight. One of the first new aspects of development was all-wheel-drive. Schutz had watched the Audi Quattro, brainchild of one-time Porsche supremo Ferdinand Piëch, dominate rallies at international level, and early testing of prototypes in the desert encouraged Bott and his team of engineers to explore this further.
A competition concept was duly trialled in the 1984 Paris-Dakar rally, the car running under the internal designation code Type 953. Some trial it was, too: the 953 finished the 12,000-kilometre race in first place, piloted by René Metge and Dominique Lemoyne. However, ever-evolving technologies meant the car was not ready for production, as hoped, by late 1984, or even 1985. The car was clearly becoming quite complex: Bott wanted to create a Porsche for the next ten years, and development of the 959 could never stay in-house. As Randy Leingwell outlines in The Complete Book Of Porsche 911, Dunlop needed time to create a special tyre capable of prolonged travel at 200mph but which could also run flat for up to 50 miles. WABCO’s ABS system had to be perfected for all-wheel-drive, and Bosch revised its DME to monitor acceleration, braking, steering, traction and suspension loading up to 200 times per second. Bilstein, too, were called upon to develop active shocks that lowered the ride height at high speeds, a first for the automotive industry. Meanwhile, the appeal of Gruppe B was wavering due to issues over safety; suddenly Porsche’s disposition over the 959 seemed far removed from its initial remit.
As Schutz himself said in 2013: “We thought we were going to build a super 911 that could compete in Gruppe B, but the amount of resources we committed got totally out of hand.” The company persevered and the finished article, designed as a high performance car for the road and christened ‘959’, was unveiled at the 1985 Frankfurt Motor Show, two short years after the original, flowing concept. Two variants were ofered: the Komfort model was the 959 in its most lavish expression, while the rare Sport came without height adjustable suspension but had a fixed roll cage for additional stifness. Cloth seats also replaced the standard leather-covered thrones.