Unforgettable. Unbelievable. Untouchable

It was one of those ‘I was there’ moments for all who attended. Something talked about in hushed tones by the global motoring press and sports car lovers alike. It was the day that the production version of the Porsche Carrera GT made its debut at the 2003 Geneva International Motor Show. It came three years after its debut appearance at the Paris Motor Show in prototype form – an event itself which caused such an explosion of interest that Porsche knew their dream needed to be made a reality. The birth of what is today considered one of the greatest of modern classic sports cars.

The Carrera GT is a car that pushed technological boundaries beyond any supercar of that time. Its beautiful profile encompassed a staggeringly powerful 612PS V10 engine that was a direct descendant of the 10-cylinder race engine developed for the Le Mans 24-hours of 2000. The only modifications the race engine required were those to meet worldwide emissions and noise regulations for road legal cars. In keeping with its push for innovation, the Carrera GT also pioneered the use of pure carbon fibre for its monocoque and subframe. This use of carbon fibre for components and select body sections has become a signature feature of modern Porsches – but then the pursuit of lightweight construction has been part of Porsche heritage going right back to when the company was formed.

Aerial view of rear portion of black Porsche Carrera GT
The electronically operated rear wing, a standout feature of the Carrera GT, deploys at 120km/h or can be raised at the touch of a button

And the headline figures for the Carrera GT go far beyond that staggering 612PS power output. Jump in one today and want to know how quick the Carrera GT is? It can reach 100km/h in just 3.9secs and roar on to 200km/h in 9.9secs. That quick. The top speed of the Carrera GT is officially 330km/h – which, 18 years ago, is a figure that would have been the preserve of low-flying aircraft. Even today it’s a mind-blowing number for a classic sports car.

Another signature feature of the Carrera GT is that there isn’t a single body adornment that isn’t functional – again, very much in line with Porsche heritage. The huge air intake along the car’s flanks, along with the three radiators – which are five times larger in area than that of the Porsche 911 Turbo of the time – means that the Carrera GT is extremely unlikely to overheat. That subtle approach extends to the fabled aerodynamic performance of the Carrera GT. For example, the make-up of its entire carbon underbody geometry, together with its rear diffuser, keeps the car stable even at very high speeds. And then there’s a rear wing that remains neatly tucked away until the car reaches 120km/h, at which point it rises up to reduce rear-end lift (although it can also be raised at any moment at the touch of a button).

View inside a Porsche Carrera GT from passenger window
The Porsche Carrera GT was designed by a team headed up by legendary Dutch car designer, Harm Lagaay

Such are these numbers and attention to detail that, this lion-hearted Porsche could easily have been stickered up with a set of race numbers and sent off to Le Mans to fight for a class win. But Porsche was adamant that the car would be tuned for everyday driveability, durability and comfort. So the interior is trimmed with the highest quality soft leather, while a Bose sound system and navigation were standard fit. Today, this is a true classic sports car that feels like few others.

While it was leading the way in 2003, there were of plenty of nods to Porsche heritage too. The ignition is located to the left of the steering column, recalling the early days of Le Mans racing when drivers had to sprint across the track and jump into their cars and start them up to begin a race. With the ignition on the left of the steering column, drivers could crank the engine as they jumped in. Another touch during the first year of GT production was a gear shift knob made out of beech wood. It’s a feature inspired by the all-conquering Porsche 917 racers from the 1960s and 1970s – although for the 917, it was a practical touch as it enabled the slow transfer of heat from gearbox to shift knob.

Birds-eye view of Porsche Carrera GT
The Carrera GT is inspired by the cars that Porsche conquered Le Mans with – and every bit as successful
It’s the kind of car that will deliver the goods all day, every day, for the rest of its lifetime without hiccup or complaint
CAR magazine editorial (2003)

Thrilling the public… and the experts

But as comfortable and easy to live with as it is, the over-riding mission for the Carrera GT was to uphold all of those dynamic elements that make every Porsche – whether a classic sports car or a current model – one for those who simply love the art of driving. The world’s leading automotive magazines of the day were truly blown away by it. CAR magazine in the UK was moved to comment: “There’s no denying just how significant a mark the Carrera GT makes on the supercar map. Expletive-inducingly quick, beautifully balanced and phenomenally engineered, it’s the kind of car that will deliver the goods all day, every day, for the rest of its lifetime without hiccup or complaint.”

And the doyen of European automotive writers, Georg Kacher, had this to say: “What’s surprising is the car’s controllability and tactility, rather than any drama or suddenness. I wouldn’t dare to push the Carrera GT to its limit on a public road, but the generous run-off at the track tempts me to rediscover the beauty of throttle steer and opposite lock. Although it takes determination and an emphatic stab on the loud pedal to upset the balance, the massive power and torque help light up the tires and pull through the slide.” Over the other side of the Atlantic, the enthusiasm was no less fervid. “That free-revving engine is unlike anything else we’ve ever sampled,” said Car and Driver magazine in the US. “It’s loud… the kind that prickles your body hair. The power peak is high as is the torque, but the engine is quite flexible.”

Detail of stainless steel on engine mount of Carrera GT
While the main monocoque was carbon fibre, stainless steels sheet cover the engine

A classic sports car with the support of a modern one

Some 1270 units of the Carrera GT were made in total over its production life (manufacture ended in May 2006). Today, the Carrera GT Type 980 is an official member of the Porsche Classic family, which means both owners and those Porsche Classic partners and Porsche Centres who maintain the cars have access to an extensive supply of genuine parts. As you might expect, many of them are still on our roads and retail at around the $1 million range for a reasonably good example.

On its launch, the Carrera GT was the culmination of a proud Porsche heritage of engineering and development stretching back to the company’s foundation – a car that shared its significance with benchmarks like the 959. Both a game changer and standard bearer when it first appeared, with the help of the likes of Porsche Classic today, it’s guaranteed to keep on setting our pulses racing for years to come.

Rear view of Carrera GT, sunlight shining on bodywork
From its looks to the way it sounds, the Carrera GT still stirs the emotions 18 years after its launch

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