For the past few days, I've been thinking about exactly what the term "Exotic Car" really means. First of all, it should be made of unobtainium — that is, an exotic should be ultra exclusive and rare. Sightings of these cars should be few and far between.
Secondly, they should shatter barriers of performance and technology. There should be kit on these super-expensive cars which has never been seen before and may take years or even decades to filter down to normal, everyday cars.
And finally, and perhaps most important of all, they should inspire. Car fans around the world, both young and old should look at exotic cars and aspire to one day own such rare and beautiful works of rolling art.
If I run back through the cars that inspired me in my younger years, I'd have to pick this car: the Porsche 959 as one of the cars at the top of my list. In the mid 1980s this car was all over the top US car magazines like Road & Track and Car & Driver. It was a truly ground-breaking machine. No auto manufacterur had previously attempted to pack so much high-tech, cutting-edge technology into a high performance, low volume GT. Motor Trend magazine called the 959 "the fastest, most technologically advanced sports car in history."… and they weren't exaggerating!
Back in the late '70s, Porsche had a little bit of a problem. Their flagship model, the 911 was starting to become a bit of an aged dinosaur and was thought to have reached the end of its production life. What more potential could be extracted from such a compromised chassis layout? The company introduced the front engined 928 with the thought it would become Porsche's new flagship model, but it was not a success. A new direction was needed.
Thankfully Porsche's head engineer at the time, Helmuth Bott had a pretty clear idea of what to do. In 1981, he approached the company's new Managing Director, Peter Schutz with a clear road map for the development of a high tech AWD 911 concept. He also recommended they build the car to the new for 1982 Group B competition rule set for low production run, two seat GT cars. It would provide an ideal test arena to develop their new AWD systems.
Now most of you will associate Group B with the famous rally cars of the mid 1980s, but it's worth remembering, at its inception Group B was intended for GT racing too. All you needed to do was to homologate 200 low volume road cars and you were in business. With this production run in order, 20 evo competition models could then be readied for both road race and rally events.
Porsche debuted their "Gruppe B" concept car as early as 1983 Frankfurt Motor Show.
The specs at the time, were astounding. Porsche poured everything they had learned about production sports cars into the 959 to produce the ultimate 911.
The first thing you'll notice in the above photo is, what at the time was the most advanced AWD system ever seen on a production car. Labeled "Porsche-Steuer Kupplung (PSK)" it could dynamically alter the torque distribution between the front and rear wheels dependent on driving conditions and accelleration. This was integrated with a new technology: ABS which was based on wheel mounted speed sensors and the Bosch Motronic engine computer.
Suddenly the speed of the 911 (a car known for its tail happy handling characteristics) was accessible to the average driver. No longer was it going to throw you off the road at the first sign of a high speed throttle lift.
Let's have a look at the engine….
Interestingly, the 959 used a rejigged version of the 935/82 engine first seen in the Moby D-i-c-k 935 and later adapted for use in the 956 and 962 race cars among other motorsports programs.
Displacing 2.85 Liters, it featured water-cooled heads and a trick sequential turbo system. A single turbo was active below 4,000 rpm; the second turbo gradually phased in as exhaust-gas flow increased toward 4,000 rpm, marrying low speed tractability with top end power. Suddenly the "on-off" power characteristics of early turbo Porsches was tamed and smoothed.
The twin intercooled engine developed a then heady 450 bhp. It was enough to propel the 959 from 0-60 in an astonishing 3.6 seconds. The car could accelerate to a top speed of 197 mph or 317 kph. At the time this was like visiting the moon… Until the arrival of the Ferrari F40 a few years later, the 959 completely reset the goal posts of supercar performance.
Here we can see the prototype being wind tunnel tested in 1982. The car cut through the air with a drag coefficient of just 0.31 and was fabricated from start-of-the-art Kevlar and FRP composites with some use of alloys for the front lid and doors.
Although the basic layout was 911 based, in truth this was a low volume exotic car in every sense of the word. Each of the 113 1987 and 179 1988 models were built in a special assembly area, completely by hand.
It's in the cockpit that we see more evidence of the 911 parts bin. The most obvious difference between the cars is the larger transmission tunnel to house the drive shaft assembly.
Porsche engineers took as much time as they needed to ensure all
aspects of the car were as technically perfect as possible. It wasn't until 1985 that the production car was announced, and then a further two
years until the first customer deliveries began.
This photo illustrates the difference between the normal 911s and the 959. It looks like a mid 1990s 993 prototype next to the old 930s. You can even seen traces of the current 997 model, thus underlining the deep influence this car had on all subsequent 911 models.
I'm sure most of you know about the history of the Group B rally cars.
What was conceived to be a formula for both high-end rally and GT cars soon became very
rally-centric and saw high budget, high tech rally machines being
de-engineered for road homologation.
Porsche decided not to get involved with this doomed formula and instead set about converting the 959 for an assault on the Paris-Dakar Rally.
The 1985 version of the car was naturally aspirated and put out a merger 230 bhp. The rally itself was a bit of a disaster with all three cars retiring from the event.
For 1986 the full turbo engine setup was installed. Now 370 to 450 bhp was on tap and the cars took home a memorable 1-2 Paris-Dakar victory.
Desert success aside, Porsche's natural stomping ground has always been Le Mans…. Porsche had to bring the 959 out to La Sarthe didn't they?
Enter the type 961, the single 959 based car, converted to full road race spec. It featured high down force bodywork, race suspension and a Group C derived race engine.
Power was 680bhp at 7800rpm, which pushed the 961 to a top speed of 205mph down the famous Mulsanne Straight.
The car had an amazing debut at the 1986 Le Mans race, finishing an incredible seventh overall against a field of sports prototypes.
For 1987, a year after the full collapse of Group B, the 961 again returned to Le Mans, this time with Rothmans sponsorship.
It was running a credible 11th place, when gear selection problems caused it to crash out of the race.
And that was it for the 961. Without any clear race category or opponents to compete with, the car was retired back to the Porsche museum.
Western culture has their BC – AD time measurement system and by the same token you could break up the lineage of the 911 into pre and post 959 eras. Pretty well every technical innovation seen on this car has made its way on to the regular 911s.
From the styling cues which informed the 993, the AWD system implemented onto the Carrera 4 and Turbo models, ABS, water-cooling, aerodynamics, suspension and engine management systems- this car gave the 911 a new lease of life and ensured it's survival into the 21st century.
And for that we should all be thankful!