Porsche 959 – flat out in the original hypercar
Porsche’s extraordinary, tech-laden 959 set the benchmark for the 200mph superclass that followed. At its launch in 1987, Mel Nichols took it driving – hard
We came out of the bend at around 125mph in fifth and on to a straight that ran clear for a mile or more across rural Germany.
With its throttle going down hard, the Porsche 959 lunged on in an instant from 5800rpm through to 6500 where all 450 horses were unleashed; and then on again to 7500 and 160mph, where I needed to tug the little gearlever through to sixth.
In top, the thrust of that volcanic power band – as both turbochargers blew hard – went on again and the scenery pelted at us crazily. By the time I needed to brake hard for the tight right-hander leading into the village we'd hit 190mph.
I grinned as I braked because stopping was just as effortless; all part of the efficiency and ease and control; all part of the stupendous performance of the Porsche 959.
I'd started the task of tackling Porsche's fastest-ever road car with a measure of trepidation.
Responsibility, I kept telling myself, had to be the order of the day: don't feel compelled to try to run flat-out; don't attempt to push this four-wheel-drive paragon of automotive technology near its cornering limits – just take it as it comes and go as far as you feel able, nothing more.
But in 12 hours the 959 had taught me to relax; to know that I could use all of the 2.8litre flat-six’s 450bhp even in the wet.
It taught me that I could open it up on any half-decent stretch of road and travel at speeds that would have been unbelievable if they weren't so uneventful.
It taught me that I could push beyond the edge of its staggering roadholding and not fear the consequences. It taught me that all I had to do was to calculate speed and distance as never before and not run out of road.
But most of all, as my spirits soared with the increasing realisation that I was driving a car that rewrites the supercar rules, the 959 demonstrated that Porsche has achieved the fantastic goal it set in 1980: creation of a car that nudges the performance of contemporary racing cars yet can be mastered by a driver of normal experience within a short learning period.
Here was a car that accelerates from 0-60mph in 3.7secs, to 100mph in 8.5secs, to 150 in 21.5 and runs on to 197mph but can be driven by you, me and our wives or sisters in comfort and in any weather, anywhere, anytime.
On the flight into Stuttgart, I had harboured a certain amount of apprehension as I re-read the description of the 959’s revolutionary features such as the twin turbocharger system, the electronically variable four-wheel-drive system and adjustable suspension, the race-like anti-lock brakes, and the anti-lift aerodynamics.
A friend, who’d driven a 959 at the Nurburgring, had wondered whether, on the road, the car would prove to be blindingly quick but so competent that it was almost boring.
I ran into him again as I checked into my hotel in Stuttgart. He was just returning from a long day's drive in the 959 on the autobahns and ordinary roads, and the miles had opened his eyes.
"The car is gorgeous" he enthused. "It tootles along in the traffic then you strike a stretch of open road and you're up to 180 or 190mph.
“You don't mean to go that fast but it just seems so natural that you're there in no time. And it demands nothing of you. It's stable, it's relaxed, it's wonderful." I slept a little easier.
It all chimed in with the aims set down by Porsche’s development chief, Professor Dr. Ing. Helmuth Bott. He’d told me: “We wanted more performance than any road car had ever had – but we wanted a car that any driver, man or woman, with an average amount of experience, could master within the range of his or her normal abilities and within a short learning period. They should not have re-orientation problems when switching from other cars.”
So this ultimate road and rally Porsche (it’s homologated for Group B rallying, hence a production run of 200) is based on the 911 to keep the Porsche virtues of small size, uncompromised cabin, easy vision and reasonable luggage space. Then Prof Bott’s team crammed it with technology which, while allowing mere mortals to access the performance, also created a test bed for advanced systems “which might become interesting for our normal production cars”.
“We decided,” said a proud Prof Bott, “to fill this car with more technical systems than anyone has done before.”
Early the next morning I ran my eyes over Kevlar and aluminium bodywork that integrates the best of the Porsche 911's visual character with aerodynamic addenda and inlets that are as beautiful as they are functional.
In the low dawn light, the rear fenders that flow like extruded toffee into that lovely rear wing looked the most sensuous elements.
But I knew from the Porsche engineers' papers how, along with the smooth undercladding and a host of other detail shaping and tuning, they contribute to the 959's achievement of zero lift and similar loading on the wheels at low and high speed.
This breakthrough is one of the keys to the 959's exceptional high-speed stability and safety. With that preoccupying the Weissach engineers, they were happy with a drag coefficient of 0.31, given that the car has a small frontal area and, at 2970lb for the sports version, is relatively light.
No fear of maxing out at 197mph
As you unlock the door and slip into the cockpit you find there are other benefits from Porsche's decision to base its technological tour de force on the 911.
The doors don't open very wide but you sit up nicely in the familiar 911-esque cabin behind the upright windscreen, with nice big windows at the sides and the sort clear rear vision unknown in the pacesetting supercars that have gone before.
So, as you start to ease the 959 out of the car park, there is none of the initial intimidation that afflicts a novice Countach driver, or the bulk that makes a Testarossa awkward.
But then Porsche thought hard about all of this. The 959's ends are shaped and proportioned to allow for ramps, the computer cuts off drive to the front wheels at parking speeds, and in the 'Comfort' version the height adjustment system makes parking against high kerbs painless.
Other features in the Comfort model are folding rear kids' seats, air conditioning and a second driving mirror. The trade-off is a 110lb weight penalty and a power-to-weight ratio of 317bhp/ton against the Sport's 339.
Slipping into Stuttgart's sparse early morning traffic in our Sport and heading north couldn't have been easier. The flat-six engine had fired immediately and idled perfectly. The clutch was light and quick.
With power assistance, the steering was even lighter than a 911's although slightly more anaesthetised, and the ride was taut but comfortable.
There was nothing to suggest the phenomenal performance potential: no quirkiness and appreciably more refinement than a 911. The magnitude and appeal of the 959 was starting to show.
On the autobahn, I soon saw what my friend had meant. In the first mode of performance (using just the first, full-time turbo) the acceleration hardly felt lacking by any normal standard. But once the tachometer neared 4000rpm and the second, part-time turbo kicked in too, the 959 simply took off, thrusting us back into our seats with a potency well beyond even a 455bhp Countach (power-to-weight ratio 311bhp/ton).
It was then a matter of changing gears thick and fast and recalibrating the eyes and the brain to deal with scenery that someone had just dialled up to fast.
The vast difference between the two modes of performance is salvaged by the fact that the first is strong enough not to be disappointing. And the second is contained by the ability of the drive system, the chassis and the aerodynamics, so that it feels nothing other than downright exhilarating.
It isn't like having the smooth and consistent flow of a big flat-12, but it certainly is as effective: 100mph feels like 50.
The road clears, even for a short way, and without worrying much whether you're in fourth, fifth or sixth, you floor the throttle and the car shoots down the road.
In moments you're at an equally relaxed-feeling 160mph. Then another aspect of the 959's balanced make-up comes into play: the brakes.
It takes merely a squeeze of your big toe on the pedal to bring the speed back down again. Press the throttle once more and you're back in the stratosphere.
After a few miles of this, when the 959's effortlessness and stability make you realise you really are driving something that heralds a new era, you run hard into sixth.
If the road is clear, you're soon at 180mph and that's fine. The engine keeps growling and with remarkable ease you're beyond 190.
It's not entirely arrow-like; there is some impression of the front working around over ripples that at this speed have become bumps, and there is loud jolting over the bigger irregularities.
But on the whole you soon learn that you can run this car to its 197mph maximum without fearing anything other than someone else getting in your way.
Yet it's as well to remember that, magnificent as the brakes are, it will still take around three-quarters of a mile to stop from maximum speed.
Later, on another autobahn and suddenly striking miles of dense traffic, came another kind of respect for the 959. From travelling at up to 190 a few minutes before we were suddenly down to a stop-and-start trickle, but there was no temperament from the engine or any other part of the drivetrain.
The 959 is as unfussed in these conditions as it is at the other end of the scale.
The 959 was hunting in a territory of its own
And on two-lane roads, among the trucks and tractors of rural Germany, often as not you glance at the speedo and see that you're slipping along at 100mph and you're surprised because you're doing nothing other than easing along at what seems like 60.
Then there's a tractor and you drop down to 1000rpm in fourth, and that's no bother either.
It was on one narrow road like this that we hit rain and a streaming wet surface.
Touching a switch on the steering column stalk changed the four-wheel drive system's traction program from dry to wet, and we stormed on, unaffected.
Apart from subtle differences in the way the torque is apportioned to the wheels for wet or dry surfaces, there is a third instantly-available program for snow and ice, and another for ultimate traction in deep snow or mud.
So, if the traction of this 450bhp car had been impressive in the dry, with never a trace of wheelspin, the benefits of its complex four-wheel-drive system came out now in the wet.
On those sodden roads, I was able to peep past the trucks then plant my foot and go, deploying that sensational acceleration in every gear, including first.
Within a few miles it was clear that the 959 really was now hunting in a territory of its own. No way could this sort of power be put down in a two-wheel-drive car.
The wet roads revealed other things: that aquaplaning was the only real danger. Deep water called for lower speed. When the roadholding was broken in bends, the 959 simply slid mildly at the front, in line with Porsche's deliberate programming that understeer should increase with speed or lost traction.
The best thing wasn't so much the stability as the clear and instant communication of what was happening. All I had to do was lift the throttle a fraction and the nose drift would stop.
It was subtle stuff, and the message now was that the 959, for all its computerised administration, was still a fingers and toes handler of a car. My soul rejoiced.
Back on dry roads, I now felt more than happy to run the car very hard. In a wonderful series of switchbacks I found that I could push right to the limits of the 959's superb grip – better than 1g, Porsche says – and beyond and have it do nothing nasty.
Brought in hard in third to a 70mph hairpin, it demonstrated all the benefits of its technology. With its ABS, I couldn't lock the brakes as I strove for the last degree of retardation. The 959 just followed the wheel and went around the bend until the power and speed began to create that carefully calculated understeer.
Because the bend opened out beyond the apex, I could keep my foot hard down and sweep out to the exit, with the car’s attitude going to neutrality as the engine's full power approached. Finally, there was the tiniest shrug of oversteer.
At different times after that I lifted off when near maximum power and all the car did was tighten its line neatly. There was no way that tail – so strident in these circumstances in a contemporary 911 – was going to come around.
So here was the 959's supreme message, when cornering at a speed I suspect would have been unmatched: supreme safety.
I kept driving hard, on tight roads and fast open roads.
I pushed brutishly on deliberately crude lines into some tightish bends at 90mph and got strong understeer that said "lift off", and when I did the car just stuck again and tracked around.
I ran around other bends in gears too high and with revs too low. It made no difference other than that the performance felt flat compared with the verve of being at the right revs in the right gear.
I pressed through long open bends at 130mph in fifth, feeling the car holding firmly to its line and asking for nothing other than guidance.
I went on driving late into the night, able to enjoy much more of the Porsche’s performance than I had envisaged before I started, running it flat wherever possible just to go on experiencing the thrill of its acceleration.
Through it all, the 959 remained supremely safe and easy to drive. It was effortless and untiring. It was comfortable and convenient although there were times during the heat of the day when the air conditioning of the Comfort model would have been welcome. I would want the fold-down seats too, mostly as a luggage platform to counter the 959's only obvious drawback, almost non-existent space in the front boot.
For days after this was all over I couldn't stop thinking of the Porsche 959 and its exemplary behaviour.
The great Italian supercars feel and sound more sensuous, and are more challenging and perhaps more rewarding to master. But no car, to date, has impressed me so deeply as this one.
Its performance alone makes it more thrilling – but I loved it most because it gave so much and asked for so little.
That is Porsche's achievement. It has built a racing car for road drivers, with it mattering little whether the road is wet or dry.
And magnificent as that achievement is, the good news is that it is the tip of an iceberg. Other Porsches will gain the 959's technology and degrees of its prowess. Other manufacturers have been set the challenge.