Fast forward to the future

In the mid-1980s, a new Porsche went on sale that looked like it had jetted in from the future – which, in many ways, it had. The twin-turbocharged 959 was considered an astonishing achievement back in 1986, regarded as the most technologically advanced road-going sportscar ever created. It was also the catalyst behind Porsche’s decision that all its future turbocharged sportscars would be equipped with all-wheel drive – an approach adopted since then by many other supercar manufacturers. A vehicle that was full of gamechanging technology that, even today, as one of the greatest of all classic Porsche supercars, is an engineering masterpiece.

The story behind the 959 had begun several years before, when Porsche began to wonder how they could further exploit the 911, and in particular its unique rear-engine design, at a time when they were looking to develop four-wheel capability for their cars. The decision was taken to develop a new car to be based on the 911 platform, as a Group B rally car – the 959 – with the hope that this would help accelerate its development.

Red Porsche 959 outside an office building
When it was launched in 1986, a top speed of 317km/h made the 959 the world’s fastest production car

Powered by motorsport greatness

As you might expect from a company with such storied success as a motorsport competitor at the highest level, it was powered by something very special indeed. The sequential twin-turbo, flat-six, 2849cc engine installed in the 959 was based on the fabulously successful 956 and 962 racing Porsche engines. These sequential turbochargers helped solve the on/off power delivery that car manufacturers had been contending with since turbo engines were first introduced. Even now, some 35 years after the road-going version of it first went on sale in 1986, the headline figures of the 959 will blow your mind… and blow away most other cars on the road. Back then, its near 320km/h top speed was a stunning number when most supercars were in the range of about 275km/h. Likewise, with a 0-100km/h time of just 3.7sec, this classic Porsche supercar still puts many modern supercars in the shade, all courtesy of the 450PS flat-six engine of the 959.

Of course, having access to enormous power is all very well, but the qualities of the 959 extended far beyond that. The all-wheel drive set-up of the 959 can deliver power to the front or rear axle depending on the conditions, sending as much as 80% of power to the rear wheels to help deploy the kind of grip you need in a supercar like this. Likewise, automatic ride-height adjustment gave the 959 an aerodynamic edge over rivals at the time. These are all technical elements that now feature on a modern Porsche but were available to the select band of 959 customers more than three decades ago. And speaking of wheels, the magnesium alloy examples on the 959 are hollow inside, forming a sealed chamber with the tyre and equipped with a built-in tyre pressure monitoring system. This was another gamechanging feature way ahead of its time in the late 1980s.

Red Porsche 959, rear three-quarter view, driving up slope
The ingenious sequential twin turbocharged engines of the 959 helped eliminate the ‘turbo lag’ that afflicted other cars

The classic Porsche supercar owned by the famous

Porsche began delivering customer cars in 1987, priced then at US$225,000 each. Today, if you want to buy a decent example – although your biggest task may be to even find one for sale – you can expect to pay upwards of four times its original price for one of these classic Porsche supercars. Famous owners have included Bill Gates, comedian Jerry Seinfeld and tennis great Martina Navratilova, who is a huge fan. “I drove a 959 Porsche in Germany 20 years ago now and I had the thing going about 200mph [around 320km/h], so that was fun,” she told Motortrend. “I think we drove for two hours and averaged about 150mph [about 240km/h]. So that was a blast.”

The Porsche 959 can accomplish almost any automotive mission so well that to call it perfect is the mildest of overstatements
Car and Driver magazine, 1987

The perfect Porsche

When automotive writers got time behind the wheel of the 959, most simply ran out of superlatives to describe its performance. When US magazine, Car and Driver, drove a 959 in 1987, here’s what its breathless reviewer said: “We hesitate to call any car perfect. But we have finally had a chance to drive a Porsche 959 on the street, and the word ‘perfect’ is difficult to avoid. What single word more accurately describes a car that combines race-car performance with luxury-sedan comfort, that is equally adept at commuting through rush-hour traffic, profiling in jet-set locales, negotiating blizzard-swept mountain passes, and outrunning light airplanes? The Porsche 959 can accomplish almost any automotive mission so well that to call it perfect is the mildest of overstatements.”

View of interior of red Porsche 959
The groundbreaking 959 was the world’s first-ever production car to have active suspension

And relatively recently, UK automotive journalist, Andrew Frankel, drove a 959 back-to-back with a new 911. Here’s what he said about this classic Porsche supercar: “And then you hit 4800rpm [in the 959]. Which is where the big turbo cuts in. At once, you realise that, up until now, the car has been barely trying. It doesn’t press you back in your seat: it slams you rearward… you need another gear, fast. The ratios are perfect because the needle drops back down to exactly 4800rpm and the whole show starts again. By [modern] standards, this 959 is a startlingly quick machine. In 1986, it must have felt like an artillery shell.”

In total, 292 road-going customer cars were built, with most still believed to be on the road (or, more likely, tucked safely away in a climate-controlled garage). The 959 was considered a benchmark for sportscars when Porsche stunned the world at its launch – a feeling that hasn’t changed to this day. Quite simply, the 959 remains an unrivalled driving experience.

Overhead shot of red Porsche 959
In its earlier pre-production form, the 959 won the 1984 Paris-Dakar Rally and completed a one-two in 1986

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Line-up of classic Porsche cars in the snow