One of the most newsworthy aspects of the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show is the introduction of the eight-generation Porsche 911.
You can read a lot about this car elsewhere, but here we are looking back rather than forward across more than half a century of 911 history.
That history began 55 years ago at the 1963 Frankfurt Show, the year before the 911 first went on sale. Porsche was going to call it the 901, but Peugeot pointed out that it had the rights to sell cars with three-digit numbers including a middle zero in France.
Rather than market its new car with different names in different countries, Porsche simply switched to 911. Whether the car would have been as successful if it had been known as a nine-oh-one rather than a nine-eleven (or, in Germany, a Neunelfer) is something we will never know.
The first 911
The 911 was devised as a larger and more powerful alternative to the Porsche 356.
Both cars had air-cooled, rear-mounted engines, though the 911’s two-litre flat-six produced around 130bhp, well beyond anything the 1.6-litre four-cylinder unit in the 356 could manage.
The 911’s design, which has not changed radically in 55 years, is largely credited to Ferdinand ‘Butzi’ Porsche, son of the company’s boss at the time and grandson of its founder.
Carrera RS 2.7
Porsche developed the 911 continuously through the 1960s, raising the power output and doing its best to improve the handling, which was quite exciting thanks to the heavy engine being mounted behind the rear wheels.
One of the most dramatic of the early cars was the 1973 Carrera RS 2.7, the first road-going 911 capable of producing more than 200bhp.
The Carrera name, which Porsche had already been using for several years, referred to the Mexican Carrera Panamerica road race of the 1950s. RS stood for Rennsport, a German word meaning ‘racing sport’.
Also known as the 930, this was the first turbocharged car Porsche put into production.
Launched in 1975, it was very quick, and looked very dramatic thanks to its wider body and a large rear spoiler known variously as the whale tail or the tea tray.
For most of its life, it was sold with a four-speed manual gearbox. Thanks to the engine’s spread of power, this was all it needed, but customers wondered why a four-speed 911 cost more than a five-speed one. Mostly for that reason, Porsche eventually gave the Turbo an extra gear in the late 1980s.
Although there had been many detail changes, the first major revision to the 911 came in 1989, a quarter of a century after the car had been introduced.
The body shape was much the same as before apart from being noticeably smoother. This was also the first 911 available with Tiptronic automatic transmission (a different system called Sportomatic had been used earlier) and four-wheel drive.
Porsche’s code name for the car was 964. Enthusiasts often use this to distinguish the model from other 911s, but it was only ever sold under the usual name.
Porsche produced 911 Turbos for most of the 964’s relatively short history.
Early versions had 3.3-litre engines, but a 3.6 producing 355bhp was introduced in 1993. Unlike the previous Turbos, all the 964s had five-speed gearboxes.
Though still related to the 1984-89 964, the 993 was said to be 80% new.
It was the first 911 sold with a six-speed gearbox, its rear suspension was quite different from what had gone before, and its appearance – the work of British designer Tony Hatter – was much more rounded than that of any previous model.
On the other hand, it still had an air-cooled engine. Porsche had persevered with this technology long after it had been abandoned by almost every other manufacturer, and would persevere with it until nearly the end of the century.
The first of several 911s to be given the GT2 name was launched in 1993.
It existed as a road car simply to allow Porsche to go racing in the GT2 class. The regulations allowed for a powerful turbocharged engine but not four-wheel drive, so power went to the rear wheels only.
This simpler drivetrain, along with several weight-saving measures, meant that the GT2 was significantly lighter than the contemporary 911 Turbo.
One of the most fundamental changes in 911 history happened in 1998, when Porsche switched from the 993 to the 996.
Based on a new platform, this was the first 911 to have an engine cooled by water (like more or less every other car on the planet) rather than by air. Traditionalists weren’t happy about this at the time, but nobody seems to mind now.
The front end of the 996 looked similar to that of the smaller Boxster, which had been introduced two years earlier.
The headlights had a more complicated shape than before. They were referred to derisively as ‘fried eggs’, and Porsche soon replaced them with simpler ones.
As with the 993, Porsche created a GT2 version of the 996, which again had a turbocharged engine and rear-wheel drive.
There was also a non-turbo GT3. This had over 100bhp less than the GT2, but it was very light and had uprated brakes and adjustable suspension.
The 997 was more a development of the 996 than a radical departure from it. The most visible change was the switch to oval headlights from the previous ‘fried eggs’.
Unlike the last few 911 generations, this one stayed around for a long time, being produced for around eight years.
There was a mid-life update, though. This included the first appearance of the PDK (Porsche Doppelkupplung, since you ask) seven-speed twin-clutch semi-automatic transmission, which replaced the more traditional and less efficient Tiptronic automatic.
Introduced in 2011, the 991 was arguably an even bigger step forward than the 996 had been. Porsche said that 90% of it was either new or fundamentally redesigned.
It was based on a new platform (only the third in 911 history) and for the first time the body was made largely of aluminium. It was therefore lighter than the 997 despite being slightly larger.
With the exception of short-lived R model, all 991s had seven-speed gearboxes. This was fine if the box was a PDK semi-automatic, but a bit of a challenge for the driver in the manual cars.
Most 991s had engines producing over 400bhp. The most powerful, found in the GT2 RS, could manage nearly 700.