The Porsche 959 is remembered as one of the greatest cars of the modern era, and certainly one of the jewels in the crown of Porsche, the eternal sports car king. What’s considerably less well-known is that the car was a fantastic failure at literally every point of its life.
Porsche put the 959 into production in 1987, and when it did it was probably the most technologically advanced car in the world. It had not one but two turbochargers. It made 450 horsepower from just a 2.85L engine. It did 0-60 mph in 3.6 seconds and topped out at 315km/h, still impressive figures today.
It had computer-controlled variable all-wheel drive. It had driver-adjustable ride height and suspension settings along with a number of electronic systems advanced for the time. We’re quite used to these kinds of systems today, but this was radical 30 years ago. Each one of these technologies would have been a big deal at the time. Porsche, then still a relatively small car company, bundled them all together at once.
It was ambitious. It was a total mess.
The thing was that Porsche first showed off the concept for this car in 1983 and was going to put it into production in 1985. It was to be one of the most successful road and racing cars in history.
It’s regarded as such by car fans today, but the 959’s development was much more tortured than today’s memory of the car would have you believe. It took so long to engineer that it debuted two years late, missing its window for racing, almost instantly losing its spot in the supercar pecking order, and costing the company more money than it had the stomach to make back.
The problem with the 959 was the same thing that made the car so amazing. Putting all of the 959’s new technologies into the same car meant that Porsche had to develop them all at the same time.
Maybe Porsche didn’t think it’d be particularly difficult. After all, when Porsche started the 959 project all the way back in 1983 it already had a chassis (the 959 is based on a regular 911 platform), it already had its bodywork planned (Porsche did all the aero for this on an internal ‘C29’ study car), it had most of its engine (the 959 ran something like a 911 block with Le Mans racing 962 heads) and it had experience with turbocharging.
Porsche was one of the first carmakers to sell a modern turbocharged car to the public after years of racing turbo sports cars.
Basically, the 959 was a super version of the Porsche 911 already on sale. All Porsche had to do was make the 911 Turbo all-wheel drive. And the car was pretty easily set up for that as it was. Since the 911 is rear-engined, all Porsche had to do was run an output shaft from the front of the transmission to the front half of the car with a differential in the middle. This is the trick that made similar systems quickly adapted in everything from the Audi Quattro to the Toyota Tercel.
So this 959 project was going to be easy, right? Of course not. Porsche was not interested in easy. Porsche was interested in brutally and scientifically rigourous at the cost of everything else.
Porsche didn’t merely want to make an all-wheel drive car; Porsche wanted to make an all-wheel drive car with uncorrupted steering, with impeccable handling and stability, easy in low speed driving and perfectly stable knocking on the door of 322km/h, faster than any production car had gone before, equally at home in Monaco as in Alaska as in Qatar.
Oh, and it would need to be a world-beating race car at the same time.
It Was Meant For Group B, But Showed Up After Everyone Else Went Home
The original 1983 concept was called the Gruppe B concept, and it was as standard a design as you could imagine for the new Group B category of international racing.
Group B was already full of turbo, all-wheel drive and mid/rear engine cars competing in the World Rally Championship. It was clear that the category, which required carmakers to build at least 200 road-legal production cars to enter, was only going to expand with more cool and popular homologation specials.
It’s worth mentioning that the 959, though, was a significantly more adventurous project than the rest of what we saw in Group B. Audi had really gotten the category going with the Quattro, but it was backed by the serious engineering resources and funding of Volkswagen. Do not forget that Porsche wasn’t yet married to VW back then — despite occasional overlap and collaborations between the two that yielded cars like the 914 and 924, Porsche was not yet a VW Group company.
Even still, making a turbo, all-wheel drive car took Audi years, and it was a much more crude and mechanical car compared to the ultimately more digital Porsche. More similar to the Porsche project was what Lancia was building at the time, first the rear-drive 037 and then the all-wheel drive Delta S4, both of which were crazy advanced for their time.
But if you look at either of those cars up close, they’re really like kit cars. They’re nowhere close to modern production car standards. Porsche wanted to make a car as ambitious as any race car in the world, but it would only do it with the civility of a luxury car.
The company’s exact words in its 1985 brochure were, “The House Porsche prepares 200 street-proven 959 future-cars. The 959 is an exclusive high performance car with extravagant technology. Countless elements are carried over directly from racing. With the 959, high-value materials are processed in the highest quality, as is, in Zuffenhausen, standard. It is tested for everyday usability to the most strenuous standards.”
It continued: “The 959 opens up an as-yet unknown level of power and secure handling. It is tailored to the engaged and savvy expert, who wishes to have a say in the development of the sports car.”