Back to the future
It’s early morning in May of 1987 on the A6 autobahn near Hockenheim, two years after the car’s introduction. It’s time for the first independent test: the speedometer shows 260 km/h, the tachometer reads 7,600 rpms—time to shift into sixth. A brief pause, press the short gearshift into the far right corner, then the boxer engine in the rear continues its unrelenting acceleration. Three lanes and the shoulder are available, but the autobahn seems to grow narrower by the second; slight bends turn into sweeping curves; the usual suspects in the left lane are suddenly all on a lazy stroll.
We crank it up to 7,200 rpms, bringing us to a recorded speed of 317 km/h; it’s the car’s top speed. The noise level is surprisingly moderate; steering corrections are superfluous; nothing disturbs the flow; there’s no struggling against side winds or lane grooves. No sweaty palms. The car is as stable as other cars at 160 km/h, or 130 km/h. You have the control, but the technology does the work. It takes care of the risks, effortlessly surpassing the usual thresholds of motorized vehicles. “It can do things that cars can’t do,” writes a British colleague, aptly. This overachiever expects just two things of the driver: utter concentration and an unflappable sense of responsibility.
At the time, the
But first, the 959 became the “learning car,” as project manager Manfred Bantle put it at the time. The aim was to break new ground technologically, on every front. “Some things did stretch beyond our original timeframe,” Bantle said. Another exacerbating factor was the typical
In the end, this tour de force traversed even the remotest fields of technology: double-wishbone suspension with coil springs in the front and rear, adjustable shock absorbers (sport, normal, comfort), and a hydropneumatic leveling system (120, 150, and 180 millimters) with automatic lowering at speeds over 150 km/h, all adorned with four magnesium wheels with central locking, hollow-cast with air pressure monitoring.
Until then, most of the aforementioned advances in automotive engineering had been mere visions of the future, and now they were bellowing their arrival in the here and now: this
The power that had to be distributed was astonishing. The 959 raised the bar to 500 Nm and 331 kW (450 hp)—unmatched among series production cars of the day. The source of these imposing figures was a boxer engine—so far, so 911. This engine, in traditional
The essence of the street-legal variant, then, was less about the absolute values and more about their derivation. Granted, two turbochargers were no sensation by the mid-1980s, but two turbochargers working in a sequential configuration certainly were. They were one-of-a-kind. The idea: down below a small exhaust turbine powers faster responsiveness; when the engine is revving higher, the full-size turbo kicks in for maximum thrust at up to one bar overpressure. The secret to its success was in the electronic control, which ensured smooth transitions and a harmonious unleashing of power. Other exclusives: polished titanium connecting rods, hydraulic tappets functional up to 8,000 rpms, a double-chain camshaft drive, and dry-sump lubrication with 18-liter oil volume.
Of course we all had an inkling back then that the 959 was well ahead of its time. Today we know it for a fact. It was even ten to fifteen years ahead of its kin in the
First impression: somehow the 959 is still a classic 911 in spite of the wide tail. Inside too—upright seat position, the floor-mounted pedals, and the instruments. You sit shoulder to shoulder. Notwithstanding the generous width (1.84 meters), the 959 strikes one as narrow. Like a classic 911, then. Only the center console is different, sitting as it does above the transaxle pipe. On the shifting button, the “G” where one would expect the “1” for first gear stands for “Gelände”—German for terrain—a minor subterfuge to get around noise regulations, confides Roland Kußmaul.
Which program to choose, which damper setting? “Just leave everything as is,” recommends the engineer with a wink; today’s exercise is not really about the fine-tuning. Besides, everything’s dry and traction is good. While idling, the 959 rattles like an air-cooled beast, and it hits the road running. The clutch is tight and grabs late, but the steering forces are acceptable—after all, it was the first rear-engine
“It doesn’t bite,” was the bon mot that got things started. Although, when the phrase comes from the likes of driving legend Walter Röhrl, a healthy dose of skepticism is in order. “If you let up off the gas,” he says, “the tail rears up, but if you hit the gas again, it immediately stabilizes.” And that’s exactly how it went. You’re not dancing on a razor’s edge in the 959; it inspires confidence. Of course, the steering in its successors today is more precise, tighter. They’re faster, too, on their modern tires. But one thing remains unchanged: playing with that many hp with such a feeling of ease and absence of fear is exceedingly rare. Even today.
By Wolfgang König
Photos by Christoph Bauer