Porsche 959: The Ultimate Driver’s Car of the ’80s
The ’80s weren’t exactly the golden age of performance cars. Still struggling with the emissions and safety regulations of the decade before (especially in the U.S.), it was an era when every automaker from Ford to Ferrari left something to be desired in the power department. That said, few decades can rival the ’80s when it comes to the sheer number of dream cars that seemed to bring millions of gearheads to their knees. From the unattainable Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari Testarossa, to the real-world C4 Corvette and outright bonkers Vector W2, there was no shortage of exotics to lust after. But as great as they looked – and sounded – each one had flaws that seemed to make them better suited for a bedroom wall poster than in the garage.
The Countach was about as reliable as a Soviet cellphone, the Testarossa was criticized for its gimmicky styling, the Corvette shared interior bits with the Chevy Cavalier, and Vector was so embroiled in lawsuits that it barely built cars. And in 1986, Porsche made everything worse for them by releasing the 959, single-handedly wrecking the bell curve for exotics and changing the supercar game forever.
It wasn’t like Porsche’s rivals weren’t warned. In 1982, the FIA introduced Group B rally racing, and it quickly became one of the most competitive, high-profile, and loosely regulated classifications in motorsports. During its brief, legendary lifespan, it spawned both the original Audi Quattro and legendary Ford RS200, and other automakers saw Group B as a means to develop and homologate performance cars as quickly and easily as possible. But the rallying was hell on cars, and not just any fast exotic could cut it. As the racing class was being developed, Porsche was looking for ways to update its aging 911, and saw Group B as the perfect catalyst.
Dubbed the “Grouppe B” by the company, the new car wowed the public when it was unveiled at the 1983 Frankfurt Motor Show. But the car quickly grew too heavy and complex to compete against the flyweight rally cars, so Porsche quickly decided to scrap the idea of building a world-beating rally car – and focus on building the world’s greatest supercar instead.
The 959 wasn’t released to the public until early 1987, but by then, it was already a legend. In 1984, Porsche entered three modified all-wheel drive 911s in the Paris-Dakar rally to test its new PSK drivetrain. In ’85 Porsche returned to the desert with three 959 mules, and in ’86, ran one at Le Mans (as the 961), finishing first in its class. By mid-1986, Porsche was ready to show off its handiwork, and the automotive world was shocked by how familiar radical change could feel.
In profile, the 959 doesn’t look that different from a 911. Climb behind the wheel, and you’d swear you were in a run of the mill coupe. But like any great disruptive technology, it’s just familiar enough to not scare people off. Porsche ditched steel for the 959’s familiar lines, opting instead for a composite kevlar and aluminum body, along with a fireproof Nomex floor. The PSK technology was cutting edge for its time, and all but eliminated the brutal oversteer of the 911. And to keep the car planted even more, the unique front and rear fascias made it one of the few cars of its time to not produce any aerodynamic lift – a huge advantage for handling.
While Porsche had pioneered turbocharging in the ’70s, it raised the bar even higher with the 959, employing a then-radical twin-turbo setup that reduced lag time, and gave the car a seemingly unlimited powerband. Its 2.8 liter six was well smaller than the 3.2 available in the 911, but that didn’t stop the 959 from blowing it out of the water. Or any other car in the world, for that matter. Zero to 60 came in 3.6 seconds, and with a top speed of around 195 miles per hour, it easily took the title of the fastest production car in the world.
To the automotive press, the 959 was the greatest thing to come along in years. After his first drive, Csaba Csere of Car and Driver said “The Porsche 959 can accomplish almost any automotive mission so well that to call it perfect is the mildest of overstatements.” Road and Track’s Paul Frere agreed, saying:
“Driving the 959 on public roads is possibly even more exciting than driving a full-blooded race car on a track. With ordinary road cars sharing the asphalt, everything takes on a new dimension. You come up behind that big Mercedes overtaking another car at 125 mph, and you have to brake hard until it moves over. While waiting, you shift down into 5th. As soon as the Mercedes moves right, you simply leave it standing.”
In many ways, the 959 was the Bugatti Veyron of its day. It wasn’t some tarted-up 911, it was a purpose-built supercar with a complex computer system to ensure the all-wheel drive, tire pressure monitors, turbos, and active suspension systems were all working together and seamlessly. Much of its technology was exclusive to the car and took years for Porsche to develop. Because of this, it was the perfect halo car, as many of its features eventually found their way into future Porsche models. Features like an adjustable suspension, ride height, and settings for different weather conditions wouldn’t become commonplace in most cars for another 25 years, yet they all worked flawlessly in the 959, making its slower competition look ancient too.
At least it did for a year. In 1987, Ferrari gave itself a 40th birthday present with the F40 supercar, a bare-bones carbon fiber-bodied flying wedge with a twin-turbo V8 mounted amidships that shattered the 959’s record by hitting 201 miles per hour. And while they each have their die hard fans, neither car really outshines the other. In many ways, they’re two sides of the same coin: both were the fastest cars in the world, only one did it with technology, the other with brute force. Together with the 1992-98 McLaren F1, they make up the holy trinity of supercars, the standards by which each newcomer is judged. And in most cases, the 959 is still more desirable than any newcomer.
With only 337 produced between 1986-’89 (compared to Ferrari’s 1,311 F40s), the 959 is one not only the most desirable car of the ’80s, it’s fast becoming one of the most desirable cars ever built. Despite selling new for around $300,000 (or around $630,000 today), Porsche was said to have lost at least $150,000 on each car. Today, no one loses money on a 959; the gray 1988 car above was sold by RM Sotheby’s in January for over $1 million. It places them well out of the range of drivable classics, which is the ultimate irony. The 959 was arguably the best driver’s car of the ’80s. It may have ended up on poster too, but it’s really the only ’80s exotic you’d ever need in your garage.
Follow Derek on Twitter @CS_DerekS