Porsche 959
Darin Schnabel ©2020 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

Porsche 959 – The Pursuit for Perfection

If you ever saw a Porsche 959 in the wild, consider yourself very lucky, because the car was built in extremely limited numbers. In fact, it is one of the rarest Porsche’s ever created. Moreover, it is probably the greatest Porsche of all times too. It is a crown jewel in every car collection and a phenomenal driver’s car, and the story of its creation is as exciting as the car itself. Let’s talk about the 959, the car which left an everlasting mark on Porsche and the whole automotive world.

Bruce Canepa and the Porsche 959. Source: Porsche, YouTube

The Origin of the Porsche 959

To understand the processes that ultimately led to the creation of the 959, we must travel back to the early 1980s and see Porsche as a small and independent, yet influential and ever-growing company relying on the same basic design dating all the way to the 1950s with the 356.

Speaking from the road car angle, Porsche was in trouble departing from the 911 despite the fact that they tried diversifying their range numerous times: first, there was the baseline 912, then they tried with the 914 and 914-6, and at one point, the company moved to front-engined 924 and 928. However, they couldn’t rely on these models which diluted the brand, nor on the aging 911 alone.

Porsche 924
Porsche 924

On the other hand, there was Porsche, the racing car manufacturer, and their undisputed global on-track domination since the early 1970s. Name the endurance race in the 1970s and the 1980s and Porsche has won it in different classes. There were the 917, the 936, 956, 962, but also the famed 911-based 935 and numerous 911s scoring wins around the lesser-known races and rallies worldwide. 

The #1 Gulf Porsche 917
The #1 Gulf Porsche 917 of Jo Siffert and Derek Bell coming into the old turn three at the 1971 24 Hours of Daytona.

Relying exactly on their racing success, Porsche sold more and more 911s, especially in the United States, but they were always followed by an aura of a one-trick pony. The company needed something more and sustainable.

At the time, Porsche had a newly appointed CEO Peter Schutz and an experienced chief engineer Helmuth Bott. A blend of ambition and experience prompted a new project. The original idea behind the Porsche 959 was to test the limits of the 911 platform, but also to build a more advanced car on which Porsche could rely for years and decades to come.

Porsche 959
Porsche 959. Darin Schnabel ©2020 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

With their new top tier model, Porsche wanted to incorporate the best of both worlds, and fuse their road-going and race track know-how into one car. Bott also got the green light for developing a four-wheel drive, a system that could easily improve the aging Porsche lineup in the future.

With the eyes set on the goal, the development started in 1981 and was finished five years later, in 1985, when the car was finally unveiled at the Frankfurt Auto Show. Due to further complications in the production process and Porsche’s reluctance to even build it, the first production cars rolled off assembly lines in 1986. The road car production was almost scrapped because of severe miscalculations, but as Porsche had contractual obligations with the customers and the contractors, the assembly had to commence no matter the final cost.

Development of the 959

Originally, the 959 started as the project Gruppe B, so Porsche was quite straightforward about the purpose of the project. At that moment in time, Group B was the most demanding proving ground in the motorsport world, and competing in would provide the most precise feedback for sorts of advanced technologies Porsche planned to implement.

Porsche 959 Dakar Rally Car
Porsche 959 Dakar Rally Car

Body Construction of the 959

Given that the Gruppe B project was primarily conceived for technological advancements, Porsche relied on what they knew the best – the classic 911 silhouette. The best proof of it? The same wheelbase as the 911. However, what later became the 959 was a special kind of beast. 

Birdseye view of Porsche 959
Darin Schnabel ©2020 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s
Front of Porsche 959
Darin Schnabel ©2020 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

To a casual observer, the 959 truly looks like a wide-bodied 911, but even the shell was way more than that. In fact, Porsche tested both aerodynamic advancements and use of super-lightweight materials. To achieve the 959’s kerb weight of 3,196 lb, Porsche built the doors and the hood of aluminum, while the rest of the body was Kevlar composite, all mounted to a steel unibody. Even the floor was specially constructed in lightweight Nomex rather than steel like on regular road cars.

WIth the construction settled, it was time to make the body as drag efficient as possible. Porsche took the basic principles used in constructing the legendary 935/78 Moby Dick race car and remodeled the body to create a slippery silhouette that also produced massive downforce thanks to its longtail design. As the first result, the Gruppe B project was a streamlined wonder of a concept car, but those looks were significantly toned down for the production car by adding extra vents. In the end, the drag coefficient of the Porsche 959 was just 0.31. Mechanical lift? Zero.

Wheel
Darin Schnabel ©2020 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

Even the five-spoke wheels were a work of art. Magnesium alloy was chosen for its light weight compared to aluminium and to further lighten the wheels. To reduce the unsprung mass of the car even further, Porsche constructed special hollow spoke wheels which made the wheels even lighter without them losing their structural rigidity.  Porsche continued using this revolutionary technology beyond the 959 and transferred it to cars like 964 Carrera 4 and 993 Turbo. These revolutionary lightweight wheels were equipped with a pioneering tyre pressure monitoring system and Bridgestone RE71 Denloc run flat rubber too, first of their kind ever put onto a passenger car.

The Flat-six Engine

Just like a classic Porsche 911, the 959 had an air cooled flat-six powerhouse, but it was far more advanced from any engine ever put in a Porsche. The 2.85 liter unit was a masterpiece of engineering closely related to the engines used in the 956 and 962 with the overall design being improved even more. 

Engine of car
Darin Schnabel ©2020 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

To extract maximum power from the engine, Porsche’s engineers constructed water cooled heads with four valves per cylinder and sodium-filled exhaust valves. However, the real groundbreaking moment was the 959’s turbocharging system.

Prior to the construction of this engine, Porsche utilized turbochargers notorious for their wild and unpredictable power delivery. But in the Porsche 959, the engine was twin-turbocharged. Parallel turbocharging with two identical turbochargers installed to each cylinder bank was ruled out since it could only add more unhinged horses.

Porsche Engine
Darin Schnabel ©2020 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

The 959 demanded more control, so the solution came in the form of KKK sequential turbochargers which ensured much smoother power delivery, greatly helping with eliminating turbo lag. The smaller turbo was activated in the lower RPM range, spooling up to 4,000 RPM. The larger turbo picked up from 4,000 RPM and above, so both turbos worked up until the end of RPM range, producing boost pressure of 14.5 PSI. The final result was impressive: 450 horsepower, 369 pound-feet of torque in base form, and 508 horsepower in the coveted 959 S guise.

Four-wheel Drive

The revolutionary four-wheel drive was named Porsche-Steuer Kupplung (PSK) and was a system capable of splitting and distributing torque between the axles to extract maximum grip under all road and weather conditions. The system worked automatically, but the driver could also manually select torque split and the percentage of differential lock was readable on a dashboard instrument. 

gear stick of vehicle
Darin Schnabel ©2020 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

The gearbox was a six-speed transaxle with one special feature: the first gear was actually G which stood for Gelände and was used for off-road conditions, while the rest of them followed a race-ready dogleg pattern with the first being down and Gears 2 and 3 in line.

Suspension of the 959

Given that the 959 was primarily conceived as a rally car, state of the art suspension had to follow the rest of the advanced components to make this car work as a perfect contender in Group B. With that goal in mind, Porsche constructed an electronically controlled adaptive suspension consisting of 8 hydraulically linked dampers, two for each wheel.

Porsche 959 Suspension Demonstration. Source: Modern Classics, YouTube.

The system featured multiple control-arm mounting points, enabling variable ride height which was vital for achieving dominance on rallies. So, sitting inside the cabin, the driver could set the ride height from 4.7 inches to 7.1 inches, depending on the road ahead.

This option was available on the 959 Komfort and was limited to three height settings. Damping could also be changed to maximize the 959’s performance, and the later variants of the 959 automatically lowered at high speeds to make the ride more stable..

Performance

Usually, this part comes right after stating the engine’s power output, but the 959 is more than just a straight line sprinter. Still, the 0-60 MPH was possible in 3.7 seconds and the top speed was 195 MPH in Komfort trim and 198 MPH for the 959 Sport, making it the fastest production car in the world until RUF came with the Yellowbird.

Dashboard of car
Darin Schnabel ©2020 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

The true beauty of the 959 lies in the fact that it was positively perfect mechanically. Each and every one of the components worked in synergy to conquer any surface with unwitnessed rigor and minimal margin of error. When tamed by the most seasoned drivers, the Porsche 959 was a precision tool like no other car ever created.

Komfort, Sport and Mystery

The 959 was assembled by an outside contractor Baur, commonly known for its work on BMW Targa top convertibles throughout the 1970s and the 1980s.

It was available in two basic trims: Komfort and Sport. The starting price was $225,000 and it was only a half of what it cost Porsche to make it.

Side profile of Porsche 959
Darin Schnabel ©2020 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s
Interior of car
Darin Schnabel ©2020 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

The Group B regulations stated that a minimum of 200 cars had to be made for homologation purposes, but in the end, a total of 337 cars were built between 1986 and 1988. A vast majority of them were street-friendly civilized examples in Komfort trim.

For those who wanted more, 29 cars got the upgraded 959 Sport treatment, resulting in before mentioned 508 horsepower 2.85l twin turbo and sportier trim.

Some distinguishing features of the 959 S were conventional coil-over suspension, no air condition, and no stereo, all resulting in 220lb weight cut and a more intense driving experience.

Porsche 959 Sport
1988 Porsche 959 Sport. Source: Remi Dargegen ©2016 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s
Interior of sport car
1988 Porsche 959 Sport. Source: Remi Dargegen ©2016 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

Now comes the really fun part. Somewhere in 1992, six more cars were assembled in Porsche’s Zuffenhausen plant. Those cars were Komfort variants put together from spare parts and are mechanically identical to 959s built during the original product run.

These cars are under veil of mystery and according to semi-confirmed speculations, a rich collector from Macau was willing to pay $700,000 per example just to have them manufactured, which was the sole reason Porsche made this enigmatic limited run.

Specifications of the Porsche 959

Price£145,000 (1987)
EngineFlat-six, 2849cc, turbocharged
Transmission6- speed Manual
Power444bhp @ 6500rpm
Torque369lb ft @ 5000rpm
Weight1450kg
Acceleration0- 60mph 3.7 seconds
Top Speed197mph
BrakesVented Discs
Front SuspensionCoil springs. Double wishbones. Anti-roll bar.
Rear SuspensionCoil springs. Double wishbones. Anti-roll bar.

959 vs USA

As you probably know due to the highly publicized feud between Bill Gates and the USA, Porsche 959 wasn’t legally sold in the United States. It wasn’t compliant with crash testing and emissions standards along with United States Department of Transportation importation laws, primarily as Porsche simply refused to provide four cars for testing.

The car was illegal until the “Show or Display” law was passed in 1993, but as with every other highly desirable commodity, some were snuck into the States as grey imports. 

In 2003, retired racer turned high profile car dealer Bruce Canepa came up with a program that modified the 959 so it could comply with then-current environmental and safety laws in the USA.

The modifications included a reworked ECU, a modified exhaust system, and turbochargers. So, before turning 25, a number of cars eventually entered the United States legally. Bruce Canepa continued to improve the 959 and his work is recognized and highly praised within the community.

Today, as all the cars are older than 25, they are eligible for legal import, and yes, Bill Gates got his car after 13 years of it sitting in the Customs Service storage at the Port of San Francisco.

Racing the Porsche 959

The 959, as well as some components from the pre-production models, participated in various racing series around the world. The World Rally Championship required homologation to participate, but another notoriously demanding rally didn’t. That’s why Porsche tested the 959 on the daunting Paris-Dakar Rally.

1985 Porsche 959 Paris-Dakar
1985 Porsche 959 Paris-Dakar. Robin Adams ©2018 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s
front of 1985 car
Robin Adams ©2018 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

Before PSK found its way onto the 959, three 911-based cars were fitted with early versions of four-wheel drive and sent to the 1984 Paris-Dakar Rally as Porsches 953. Battling grueling conditions of the Sahara desert, René Metge won the rally in what was his second out of three victories. In 1985, the single-turbo 953 was mated to a 959 body, but none finished the 1985 Paris-Dakkar.

Chassis #010014
1985 Porsche 959 “Paris-Dakar” Chassis #010014

The first two twin-turbocharged 959-based rally cars competed at the 1985 Rallye des Pharaohs, where one took the overall win while the other unfortunately caught fire and didn’t finish the race. The final Paris-Dakar outing was in 1986 where Porsche 959 took a 1-2 victory with Metge and Jacky Ickx.

The 959 was ready to conquer Group B, but delays in production crushed the dreams of everyone involved in the project. In 1986, the Group B was disbanded after a series of incidents in controversies which culminated at the 1986 Rally Corse. As a result of changed regulations, Porsche never entered the 959 in any World Rally Championship event.

The versatile 959 competed in endurance racing and this racing variant was renamed to 961. Again driven by Metge, it finished 7th overall and first in the 1986 Le Mans. The same year, it participated in the United States at the Camel GT Championship’s final round at Daytona International Speedway, where it finished 24th. The following year, the 961 race car crashed at the 24h of Le Mans. It was rebuilt by the factory and now resides at the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart.

Porsche 961 Driven at Goodwood 2011. Source: Porsche, YouTube

How much is a Porsche 959 Worth?

1988 Porsche 959 KomfortCoupe 6-cyl. 2849cc/450hp Twin Turbo FI Valuation

ConditionValue
Concours$1,350,000
Excellent$1,000,000
Good$825,000
Fair$659,000
Valuations as of September 2020 Courtsey of Hagerty.

1988 Porsche 959 Sport 2dr Coupe 6-cyl. 2849cc/575hp Twin Turbo FI Valuation

ConditionValue
Concours$2,400,000
Excellent$1,800,000
Good$1,350,000
Fair$1,110,000
Valuations as of September 2020 Courtsey of Hagerty.

Legacy

Looking almost forty years back, the automotive world is blessed to even have both Porsche as a living company and the 959 as its most influential car. The miscalculated production costs left Porsche losing money on each produced example and the enormous cost of the development alone was catastrophic for a small company. The 959 could have been a swan song, but the company managed to overcome the losses and get back onto its feet.

Perfect Porsche
Darin Schnabel ©2020 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

Fortunately, Porsche is still living and flourishing, and 959 has been recognized as one of their most lucid cars. Sadly, its main purpose to dominate Group B rallying was unfulfilled because the racing series was shut down before the 959 debuted as a production model and it ultimately didn’t produce an heir to the 911. However, the innovations that the 959 brought managed to push the timeless 911 platform even further into decades to come, even helping with the development of other cars like the Cayenne.

Porsche 959 didn’t just influence all subsequent range-topping cars coming from the factory, but other manufacturers as well. This sublime work of engineering set a high benchmark for many more amazing supercars and hypercars coming from big and independent companies. Remember the 959 every time you see a small displacement twin-turbo performance car with all wheel drive. For all this, the Porsche 959 will always remain not just one of the most superior automobiles ever built, but one of the all-time greatest human creations. 

Show Comments (0)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *