Supercar Chronicles: Porsche 959 – Technological Supercar

February 1, 2012


In 1983 at the Frankfurt Motor Show, Porsche introduced their entry for Group B rally racing. Rally Racing was and still is huge in Europe, where the contestants’ race point to point in a timed format on public or private roads with modified production or specially built road-legal cars. Group B was reserved for the quickest, most powerful and sophisticated rally cars built and also provided the perfect arena to test an all-wheel drive system. To compete in the series, the manufacturer had to only produce 200 copies available for public sale to become homologated (certified, approved for competition). Unfortunately, a string of deaths in Group B resulted in the series being disbanded before the 959 was able to run. Thankfully Porsche was bent on delivering the most technologically advanced road-going sports car ever built.

In 1985, again at the Frankfurt Motor Show, Porsche unveiled the street version of the 959. It left behind the traditional engineering of the Porsche 911 and embraced the future: a 2.85 liter, 444 horsepower, twin-turbocharged, liquid-cooled flat-6 with a six-speed transmission (5 forward plus a “G” off-road gear). The turbo system was designed with a sequential setup; with one turbo operating below 4000 rpm’s and the second providing additional thrust until redline.

Porsche’s goal was to build a rugged, light weight car that could dominate both on and off-road. To accomplish this task, they decided to abandon the use of steel that was common in the rest of the production line in favor of an aluminum and Kevlar composite for the shell and Nomex for the floors. The new materials contributed to a total curb weight of 3,190 lbs, which aided in obtaining a 0 to 60 time of 3.6 seconds and a top speed of 197 mph. Additionally, the 959 boasted all-wheel drive, a double-wishbone suspension, run-flat tires and automatic ride-height adjustment. The all-wheel drive system wasn’t as blasé as it sounds… it was a technological marvel.

The AWD system was able to change the torque distribution between the rear and front wheels in both normal and slip conditions which gave the 959 the adaptability it needed as a race car and as a “super” street car. Under hard acceleration, the AWD could send as much as 80% of available power to the rear wheels, helping make the most of the rear-traction as well as vary the power depending on road surface and grip changes, helping to maintain traction at all times.

Between 1986 and 1989, Porsche produced 337 units all of which were quickly spoken for at $225,000 a copy.  Ironically, the company actually lost money on every 959 it sold as the cost to produce each 959 was close to $500,000. The losses were justified/recouped in free advertising, international coverage and increased sales of other models in the Porsche line including the 911, 924, 928 and 944.

In 1986 the Porsche 959 won the grueling Paris-Dakar rally as well as the 24 Hours of LeMans endurance race… a feat that no other car in modern history has accomplished.

The Gate’s 959 Bill Gates of Microsoft fame was one on the first to order and import a 959 to the United States. There was one hitch though… the car wasn’t approved to be street legal by the DOT and EPA and therefore was confiscated and impounded by US Customs and stored at the Port of Seattle for 13 years. In 1999, the “Show & Display” law was passed, making it legal for car collectors to import cars for use in their private collections. Vehicles classified under this law were limited to a maximum 2,500 annual miles.

Porsche… There is no substitute