This little-known but highly touted hyper-Porsche turned the 1980s definition of high performance completely upside down with its futuristic approach to speed, handling and computer-controlled hardware.
It was a car that was light years ahead of its time and one that would become the benchmark for all Porsches that followed.
Conceived, designed and built in the 1980s to race in a new factory-experimental class, Porsche set out to build about 200 copies (as mandated by the rules) of the 959 for public consumption.
Of course, racing had been in Porsche’s blood since the company’s modest beginnings shortly after the Second World War. From its earliest “bathtub” cars to the modern-day 911, all models have benefited from the lessons learned on the track.
The starting point of the 959 was the mid-1980s 911 Carrera, a competent sports machine, but not aerodynamically suited for high-speed competition. To address the issue, new bodywork was designed, including a smoother nose and a flat spoiler that extended across the rear deck. Bulging Kevlar-reinforced fibreglass fenders and protruding rocker panels allowed for extra-wide wheels and tires. Under the body, a special belly pan was attached to further enhance air flow.
Porsche also went all-out to develop its flat-six-cylinder powerplant for maximum velocity. Displacing just 2.8 litres, the horizontally opposed double-overhead-cam engine featured twin turbochargers and intercoolers, three separate cooling systems, six oil pumps and 12 fuel injectors. With 444 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque, the 959 made 230 ponies more than the production car upon which it was based.
To give the car suitable torque at low speeds, the turbos operated in sequence. At 4,000 revs or lower, only one turbo was working. Above that range, the other turbo would kick in and the engine would rocket to its 7,800 rev limit.
The performance numbers generated were staggering for the day. Zero-to-60 mph (96 km/h) flashed by in about 3.8 seconds, with 100 mph (160 km/h) occurring in less than nine seconds. Top speed was 195 (310 km/h).
Porsche’s success in breaking the four-second zero-60-mph barrier can largely be attributed to the 959’s all-wheel-drive system that virtually eliminated traction loss from a dead stop.
The amount of power directed to the axles depended upon which one of four driver-controlled settings was selected: Dry; Wet; Ice; and Traction. The latter locked up the front clutch and rear differential for maximum off-road grip and was successfully employed when early test versions of the 959 finished first — not once, but twice — in one of the world’s toughest automotive contests: the 6,500-mile (10,000-kilometre) off-road Paris-Dakar (France to Senegal) rally.
Two trim levels were offered. Comfort included air conditioning, ride-height control and power windows and seats. Sport contained none of the Comfort’s extras, which provided a 125-pound (60-kilogram) advantage.
There were a number of major obstacles that stood in the way of prospective 959 buyers when the car was finally put on sale in 1987. First was the prohibitive $227,000 price tag. Second, the company was very particular about who was allowed to buy it. Only regular customers who were deemed important or mature enough to handle the 959 were given a spot in a line that was only 230 buyers long. They also had to promise not to sell within six months.
Further complicating matters was the fact that the car could not be certified for use on North American roads (although a few vehicles managed to sneak in under the noses of government watchdogs).
Although the closest to a 959 that most people will ever come are the pictures accompanying this story, the benefits of this true supercar can be found in many of today’s Porsches. In fact, the 400-horsepower, all-wheel-drive mid-1990s 911 Turbo is a direct descendant of the 959 program and was just as quick and fast.
And every 911 Turbo after that had even more performance.
If you can find a 959, expect to pay just about whatever the seller wants due to the high demand. Such is the demand for this high-tech Porsche that left behind an impressive technological legacy.