The Porsche 959: a Story of Baur, Bott, Boost, and Bill Gates
Welcome back to car stories. Last time I did this, we had a look at the Subaru BRZ and how it had a profound impact on the car world. Now, I want to dive into an even bigger story of one of the greatest cars ever made. There I said it, the 959 is one of the greatest cars ever made. Continue reading to learn why myself, Bill Gates, and countless automotive journalists adore this car.
It was the early 80’s, Reagan was in the white house, Phil Collins released his hit single “In the Air Tonight, the automotive industry was slowly recovering from the oil crisis of the 70s, Porsche had a front engine line-up except for the Porsche 911 which remained a top seller, but most of all the FIA introduced Group B rally and touring car racing which only required a run of 200 cars for homologation. The purpose of Group B was to spark innovation that was stagnant due to slashed Research and Development Budgets following the oil crisis, and this proved a golden opportunity for Porsche to advance their 911 platform. It all started when Porsche’s head engineer, Helmuth Bott, approached Peter Schutz (who became Managing Director at Porsche), with some new ideas about the future of Porsche’s 911 and wanted to see how far they could take the rear engine 911 design. The primary technology was the development of a new Porsche all-wheel drive system. Group B rally and Track Racing was seen as a good way to test this new technology, and Schutz approved the development of the previously approved test mules into a design for Group B competition. As Group B shifted more towards rally (not the preferred racing competition for Porsche) focus shifted away from homologation racing towards creating an innovative super car.
With the release of the Gruppe B concept at the 1983 Frankfurt Auto Show, Porsche announced loud and clear they were creating the Ultimate 911. Finishing the development of the car after the concept took another two and a half years. The 959 shared more than just spirit with the 911, as the 959 was powered by the six-cylinder boxer engine from the 1970s endurance racing variant of the 911 nicknamed “Moby D!ck” for its gaudy rear wing. In their stubbornness, Porsche even found a way to water cool only the four-valve cylinder heads and turbo, and air cool the rest of the engine. Impressively, this engine was only 2.85 liters and used twin turbos to reach 450 bhp and 369 lb/ft torque and remain within homologation rules. The list of advancements did not stop at the engine; the 959 had a six-speed manual transmission with a power split of 40-60 front to rear in normal conditions(20-80 during hard acceleration), adjustable ride height at the turn of a knob, 17 in magnesium alloy rims, ventilated ABS disc brakes, was the first road car with a tire pressure monitoring system, and most of all had beautiful yet effective exterior carved out by a wind tunnel and constructed using aluminum, special plastics, and Kevlar reinforced glass fiber, a list of features which set the 959 apart from other supercars at the time. Porsche proved they were the greatest automotive engineers in the world, and even though Ferrari’s F40 was slightly faster, the 959 was the first car able to reach 200 mph which you can daily drive in comfort, something still rare in the automotive world. In short, the 959 was the greatest car ever made when Porsche wrapped up production and was the “one small step for Porsche and one giant leap for motor kind”.
One thing few people know is that the 959 was not actually assembled at the Porsche factory, but instead at Baur, a coach builder in Stuttgart, Germany, overseen by Porsche inspectors. Baur also did most of the special order leather work in this comfortable supercar. Baur was known for their convertible conversions and worked for other German manufacturers BMW and Opel to create convertibles. Its hard to find lots of information on Baur, but it appears their work on the cars was limited to assembly and leather work, and it appears the cars turned out well. The price of the 959 was 420,000 Deutschmarks, 150,000 British pounds or $ 225,000 USD, a lot for the time, but it still took Porsche twice as much to produce each model. This large loss of money on every car did not matter, as the technology from the 959 would go on to reinvigorate the 911.
At the time, the 959 was not allowed to be sold in the US due to lack of crash testing by the US Department of Transportation and lack of EPA approval. Porsche could have legalized the 959 in the US, but was unwilling to sacrifice 4 cars for the crash testing. 30 US Spec 959s were built in 1987, and attempted to enter the US. Only one entered the US, and the rest had to be sold in Europe. That one that remained only because it was to be a museum piece. Bill Gates and fellow Microsoft founder Paul Allen each ordered 959s, which would sit in the Customs Service of San Francisco for 13 years, until the show and display law was passed in 1999, which allow for certain listed vehicles to enter the US given they do not travel more than 2,500 miles in a year, thus legalizing the 959. Now that 25 years has passed, any American can bring a 959 into the US legally, provided they are willing to pay a price tag of over 1 million dollars (one sold for 1.7 million recently).
By the time the 959 came to market, Group B had already been canned due to deaths on the rally stages of drivers and co-drivers in deadly crashes, as well as from dangers to spectators. The 959 did, however, enter the Paris-Dakar Rally, with a 959 spec 911 winning in 1984, and the 959 entering in 1986 and 1987. In 1986 Porsche’s three 959s did not finish, but in 1987, Porsche’s 959s finished 1st and 2nd. Group B rally was not considered, due to the high costs. In 1986 Porsche also entered the 961 (racing variant of the 959) in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and it finished first in class and 7th overall. The 961 did not finish the 1987 24 Hours of Le Mans, flaming out while in 11th overall. The 959’s racing career, while not always smooth sailing, adds to the legacy of the 959 as a catalyst for technological advancement.
When Porsche ended the production of the 959, 292 Komfort and Sport models had been produced. An additional 29 Sport enhanced models with 515 hp were also produced and also a 530hp upgrade was offered. Six were also built from spare parts in 1992, as well as the 37 pre-production and prototypes which were built. Numbers vary, but well under 500 were built in total, somewhere in the 300s.
With the success of the AWD system in the 959, Porsche came out with an all new 964 911 in 1989, just one year after 959 production came to an end. The Carrera 4 model was the first 911 to have four wheel drive, and the 964 incorporated abs brakes as standard with power steering also added. A turbo model was offered, but twin turbos would only make a return on the 993 Porsche 911. The 993 was in many ways the mass production successor to the 959, which was the last 911 to have an air-cooled engine, but had much of the technology offered in the 959 especially in the Turbo model. The 993 came to market in 1994 and introduced the Turbo model 993 in 1995 with twin turbos and all wheel drive. The 993 was the first turbo 911 with all wheel drive and twin turbos, and produced 408 bhp. A run of 183 Turbo S models where also produced, which produced 450 hp, more than the standard 959, but only reached 187 mph top speed. Now, the best and fastest 911s can beat the 959 on the track and in a straight line, but without the 959, its hard to see where the 911 would be today.
Even though the 959 was made 30 years ago, it still outclasses most modern sports cars. The 959 was the most technologically advanced road car of its time, but not so advanced that the driver is not required to work it. That may be seen as a shortcoming to some, but I like the idea that the 959 is still a drivers car, even with its complex AWD system, computers, and power that manufacturers do not let you have unregulated today. That is not to say the 959 was a raw car, however, that’s what the Ferrari F40 was for. No, the 959 was just approaching the edge of how much power you can safely give a normal driver in an AWD car without loads of electronic assistance we have today. The 959 was the expression of the 80s as a decade of excess, so it followed that the 959 should be the Ultimate 911. The 959 is a car people stare at, and are naturally drawn towards. It may have been shaped by the wind, but unlike a Bugatti Veyron, it is a truly beautiful looking car, with its well-crafted scoops, subtle wing, and flowing curves. The Porsche 959 is just such a complete car, a perfect combination of engineering and art, which is at the core of many Porsches. One man even claims his father, who worked on the 959, borrowed a 959 the day he went to buy his wedding rings, but says that his father remembers the day because he was driving a 959. The 959 is one of those cars that is so amazing, it more than just makes your day, but can be the greatest experience of your life. I’ll probably never own a Porsche 959, but one day I will see one in person, and maybe even drive one. The 959 is a hero car, and that’s what it will always be. #blogpost