The Porsche 959 was a technological masterpiece when it launched in 1986. Porsche was already well known for their 911, but the German car manufacturer wanted to take it to the extreme with the 959.
Motor Trend aptly termed this 911-based uberwagen “the fastest, most technologically advanced sports car in history.” Car and Driver said “The 959 can accomplish almost any automotive mission so well that to call it perfect is the mildest of overstatements.”
Porsche’s 959 was originally designed for one thing, to compete in the mental Group B rally series. Group B produced some of the most insane cars of all time, including the twin-charged Lancia Delta S4, the Peugeot 205 T16 and of course the mighty Audi Quattro. The 959 was the combination of ideas and designs from Porsche’s best and brightest. It was a car that tested the limits of what was possible at the time and showed the world what the future held.
This is the complete history of the Porsche 959, from the beginning to the end. Carry on reading below.
Development & Production
Porsche started development of the 959 (originally named the Gruppe B) in 1981, shortly after the company’s then-new Managing Director, Peter Schutz, took his office. Helmuth Bott, Porsche’s head engineer at the time approached Schutz with ideas of a new sports car based on the 911. Bott convinced Schutz that development tests of a new car should take place, and even proposed the idea of a new all-wheel drive system. Bott also saw that Group B rally racing was a perfect arena to test the new car and knew that a racing program usually helped to accelerate the development of new vehicles. Bott received a ‘green light’ from Schutz to develop the car for competition in Group B racing.
Rather than developing a new engine from scratch, the design team decided to further develop an existing engine. The power unit, a twin-turbocharged, six-cylinder boxer engine with air-cooled cylinders and water-cooled heads, displaced 2.85-litres, which is about half a litre less than the 911 of the time. This was then mated to a manual gearbox that offered five forward gears and a “G” off-road gear.
The water-cooled four-valve cylinder heads combined with the air-cooled cylinders and sequential turbochargers allowed Porsche to extract 444hp from the power unit. Porsche’s use of sequential turbochargers, rather than the more typical identical turbochargers for each of the two cylinder banks allowed for smooth delivery of power across the engine speed band.
To save weight, Porsche created an aluminium and Aramid (Kevlar) composite for the body and used a Nomex floor, instead of a steel one normally used on their production cars. The total weight of the car came in at 1,450 kg, which helped Porsche achieve the 959’s significant performance level. Porsche’s use of unique materials didn’t stop there though. The wheels were made of a magnesium alloy that were hollow inside to form a sealed chamber contiguous with the tire and equipped with a built-in tire pressure monitoring system.
While the body and the engine were technological masterpieces on their own, the 959’s most impressive claim to fame is arguably the car’s aerodynamics and AWD system. The aerodynamics were designed to increase stability, as was the advanced automatic ride-height system that was available on the road car (961 race cars used fixed suspension). Porsche mated this aerodynamic trickery with their own Porsche-Steuer Kupplung (PSK) AWD system, which was at the time the most advanced all-wheel-drive system in a production car.
The PSK system was capable of dynamically changing the torque distribution between the rear and front wheels in both normal and slip conditions. Under hard acceleration, the 959’s PSK system could send as much as 80% of available power to the rear wheels, which added traction and improved the cars performance. The AWD system could also vary the power bias depending on the road surface and level of grip. All of the information regarding the power bias and AWD system was displayed on the dashboard, with gauges displaying the amount of rear differential slip as well as power transmitted to the front axle.
Interestingly, all of Porsche’s 959s were produced at Baur, not at Porsche, on an assembly line with Porsche inspectors overseeing the finished bodies. Most of Porsche’s special order interior leather work was also done by the workers at Baur. Baur is a coachbuilder in Stuttgart, Germany and was established in 1910.
Launch & Life
Porsche unveiled the original Group B prototype car at the 1983 Frankfurt Motor Show, but it wasn’t until the 1985 show that the company showed the world the road version of the 959. Production issues delayed the car more than a year after the 1985 Franfurt Motor Show, with the first customer deliveries of the road version taking place in 1987. The 959 was offered in either “Sport” or “Komfort”, corresponding to the race version and the road version. Customers had to lay down $225,000 for a 959, which was half what it cost Porsche to build each one. Production ended in 1988 with 292 959s from the assembly line. Porsche produced a total of 337 cars, including 37 prototypes and pre-production models.
In 1992 and 1993, Porsche assembled another eight 959s from spare parts at the manufacturing site in Zuffenhausen. These were based on the “Komfort” version of the car, with four being made in red and four in silver. The eight cars featured a newly developed speed-sensitive damper system and are considered to be the most valuable 959s produced.
The performance of the “Sport” and “Komfort” editions was similar with a 0-100km/h time of around 3.6 to 3.7 seconds. Where things changed was at the top end, with the top speed of the “Sport” being 319km/h and the “Komfort” at 317km/h.
Porsche also offered a power package for customers who wanted a bit more out of their 959s. A factory 530hp upgrade was offered that gave the 959 a top speed of 336km/h and a 0-100km/h time of 3.4 seconds. Octane magazine drove a car with 585hp from factory and 29 cars were built in a performance-enhanced 515 hp sports version.
Porsche 959 vs Ferrari F40
The Ferrari F40 was undoubtedly the 959’s main rival at the time. Just one year after Porsche started delivery 959, Enzo Ferrari unveiled F40 in Maranello, aiming to re-clinch the “Fastest car” title from Porsche.
In theory, the F40 was even faster than the 959, thanks to its 2.9-litre twin-turbocharged V8 that produced 28 more horsepower and 56 more lb-ft of torque. The F40 also weighed a mere 1100 kg, thanks to the tubular space frame chassis and full carbon fiber body. Even adding winding windows and air-con like most customers did, it still weighed less than 1,200kg.
While the F40 had a drag coefficient higher than the 959 (0.34 vs 0.31), it could still reach a higher top speed of 320km/h and 325.9km/h which was tested by Auto Motor und Sport and Quattroroute magazine, edging the standard 959’s 317km/h mph recorded by AMS. With the optional power upgrades, the 959 did have an edge in performance (see performance above). The 959 Sport’s 3.6 second time to 100km/h was faster than the F40’s 3.8, but once the speed passed around 150km/h the F40 could accelerate quicker.
United States and the 959
Up until 1999, the Porsche 959 was not street legal in the United States. This was because Porsche refused to provide the United States Department of Transportation with the four 959s they required for crash testing, and the car was never certified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for street use. An unknown number were imported via the “grey market” during the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until the “Show and Display” law was passed on the 13 August, 1999 that the 959 could be imported legally. As the 959 is now 25 years old, the 959 can be imported completely legally and does not need to comply with show and display laws.
To meet some of the US emission requirements the 959 can be fitted with a catalytic converter and a re-chipped computer which allows it to meet those emissions requirements; however, as they are pre-1996 they would not be required to pass any emissions tests.
Although the 959 had created a huge amount of initial excitement when it was first announced, many people still felt that the car had to prove itself in a motorsport environment. After all, that was why Porsche started the project in the first place. In the early stages of development, the car wasn’t ready enough to be pitted against the WRC competition so Jacjie Ickx, a former factory Porsche driver, persuaded Porsche that the Paris-Dakar rally would be a good place to show off the 959’s capabilities. For the 1984 season, Porsche had to run three 911s modified to 959 specifications, albeit with a largely detuned 232hp power unit. These three 911s also used a less complex AWD system than the final 959’s system.
With the success of the modified 911s in 1984, the 959 made its first real motorsport appearance in the Sahara Desert in 1985, complete with Porsche’s high-tech wizardry on board. Disappointingly for Porsche, two 959s were involved in accidents and the third suffered a broken oil pipe. Despite the failures in 1985, Porsche returned for the 1986 season with three 959s again. This time the boost was lowered to cope with Africa’s low octane fuel, decreasing the power output to 390hp. While the previous year was one to forget for Porsche, the 86 season saw them take first, second and sixth.
The 959 was never seriously considered for Group B rallying, despite the original intention of its design. It was considered to be too costly to complete a full season, outweighing any technical information that would have been gained from competing.
Porsche’s success on gravel spurred them on to develop a second racing derivative of the 959. The 961 was aimed directly at circuit racing and shares a close technical and visual resemblance to the 959. Porsche debuted the 961 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1986 and it featured a tweaked engine that produced an impressive 640hp. It was also the first 4WD car to compete at the famous race. Driven by René Metge partnering Claude Ballot-Léna, it finished first in its class and 7th overall. The 961 returned for the 1987 race, but failed to finish after a spin while in 11th place by Canadian/Dutch driver Kees Nierop of Vancouver. Porsche had to retire the car after it caught fire once it re-joined the race.
Porsche had proven the potential of the 959 and 969 for motor racing; however, the cancellation of the Group B class would ultimately put a premature end to the 959’s racing career. While Porsche produced over 200 cars for homologation requirements, the company did not apply for the official documentation papers. Their reason for this was that the project had already cost too much money and seeing as the class was banned, they saw no point in homologating the 959.
Bill Gates 959
The 959 had all manner of owners, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Gates bought his 959 before the model had Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency approval. This meant that the car could not be officially imported and was stored for 13 years by the United States Customs Service at the Port of San Francisco. Gates had to wait until regulations were changed to allow “Autos of Interest” to be imported before he could get his hands on the car.
The 959 is one of the most legendary cars ever created. It changed how supercars were made and pushed the motor industry forward. This is everything you need to know about the Porsche 959 and the complete history of it.
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