There are a scant number of nameplates that have lasted half a century with uninterrupted production: Mercedes-Benz SL, Jaguar XJ, Chevy Corvette, Chevy Suburban, Ford F-Series. But there’s only one car whose iconic design and sporting identity has remained truly consistent, only one whose recognition as among the best sports cars in the world has gone unmatched for 50 years… the Porsche 911.
This rear-engined sports car has been a legend since first arriving as a replacement for the 356 at the 1963 Frankfurt Motor Show. Its air-cooled, rear-mounted flat-six engine offered two more cylinders than the 356, and its more toned design was decidedly sportier. Every generation of 911 from that original 148 hp 911 to the current 350 hp 991 is a head-turner, garnering attention like a leggy supermodel taking a leopard for a stroll. The power, the allure, the sex in the machine — all are present in surplus in this rear-engined marvel. It’s on every car lover’s list of all-time greats, has found its way onto every young boy’s wall-based shrine of automotive dreams. It would not be a mistake to call the 911 the greatest sports car name in all of automotive history.
What’s more, the 911 isn’t losing any steam. Instead, its design language has officially pervaded every car in the Porsche lineup, and for good reason. The 911?s DNA is a formula that’s intoxicating, one that the car world respects and envies. The half-century mark for a car is a colossal achievement, and when that car is the Porsche 911, that much more so.
In this 50th year of the 911, we decided to take a deeper look into the generations and iterations of this remarkable car to see how far it’s come. Not all of the car’s modifications were good ones, but they will all be remembered as part in parcel of what it takes develop an icon through multiple decades.
Porsche was hellbent on replacing the 356 with something sportier and more powerful. The first 911 bowed at the 1963 Frankfurt Motor Show powered by a rear-mounted 128 hp flat-six engine. The 911 had a four or five speed manual transmission and was technically a 2+2, since the rear seats were only good for children or contortionists. The more potent 158 hp 911S was introduced in 1966, when the now famous “Fuchs” wheels were also introduced. In 1967, Porsche made the Targa available with a single panel removable roof, created due to an erroneous interpretation of U.S. law supposedly outlawing true convertibles. The wheelbase of the 911 was lengthened in 1969 to improve handling; engine displacement was increased to 2.3 liters (known as the 2.4-liter engine) in 1972, and a beefier transmission was added to accommodate the increase in the 911's power.
The RS was built to fulfill homologation requirements for FIA Group 4 class racing. Even the name indicates racing intent: “Carrera” came from the Porsche victories at the Carrera Panamericana race in Mexico in the early 1950s, while the “RS” came from the German “Rennsport” or “race sport”. The Carrera 2.7 RS had 210 hp, a beefed-up suspension, more powerful brakes, bigger rear haunches to accommodate the wider rubber and an upturned “ducktail” rear spoiler. The RS 3.0 added twenty more horses, a racing chassis based on the RSR and brakes from the wicked 917 — and also managed to reduce weight from its predecessor. Both the 2.7 RS and the 3.0 RS from these years are considered some of the most desirable 911s by collectors, largely because they were light, fast and pure in their design. Does any 911 get any better looking than this? We think not. It’s no wonder that Singer Vehicle Design uses this as a base for their reimagined custom 911s.
A bump in engine displacement from 2.4 liters to 2.7 liters in 1974 gave the 911 a solid torque boost. Porsche also added K-Jetronic CIS Bosch fuel injection in the 911 and the 911S. Low-speed impact bumpers were added to accommodate crash requirements. Though this addition might seem undesirable for design on paper, Porsche did it in such a cohesive and unobtrusive manner that the design went essentially unchanged until 1990.
The Carrera 2.7 sold in America housed the 2.7-liter, 173 hp engine from the European 911S. It also offered the famous 1973 “ducktail” spoiler as standard equipment, and later the iconic and much larger “whale tail” spoiler became an option on the Carrera, making the car look more aggressive and providing a more modern look. As a result, it was easy to confuse the Carrera 2.7 with the 930 Turbo, especially at a distance. A bit more sophisticated than the Ferrari-badged Pontiac Fiero, in our estimation.
The 930 Turbo has certainly gone down in history as one of the most famous of the 911 breed, largely because it was the first 911 to make use of turbo power. In America it was first known by its internal “930? Porsche coding but shortly shifted to simply the “911 Turbo”. Everything about the car was made more performance-oriented. The fender bulges were enlarged for wider tires; the huge whale tail was standard. The first models were powered by a 260 horsepower, 3.0-liter engine, and models from 1978 and after were upgraded to 300 hp, 3.3-liter engines with an intercooler added, providing better performance from the turbocharger. The 930 nabbed impressive racing chops in both FIA Group 4 and Group 5 racing.
The SC was a new model for Porsche. It bore no “Carrera” name but instead carried over part of the 356SC name. The SC was powered by a 3.0-liter, 180 horsepower engine that was later boosted to 188 and then 204 hp. In 1982 Porsche capitalized on the SC by creating its first true 911 convertible, as opposed to the Targa: the 911SC Cabriolet. Far more expensive than the standard coupe, it sold quite successfully and marked the start of regular convertible 911 production for future 911 generations. Even more significant for Porsche’s future was the decision to retain the 911 as an ongoing model. Porsche had originally planned to kill the 911 in 1982 and replace it with the front-engined 928. Instead, Porsche CEO Peter Schutz insisted that the 911 stay — essentially, forever. A wiser move in the automotive industry was never made. Now, where is that 928?
In 1984 Porsche revived the Carrera nameplate for the first time in seven years. That year’s 3.2 marks the end of the 911 Classic design. As the name denotes, the engine’s displacement was increased to 3.2 liters. Power jumped to 207 hp for the states and 231 hp elsewhere (we were robbed!). The domestic version got to 60 in a respectable 6.3 seconds. When Porsche changed the fuel mapping and programming, the 3.2?s output was raised to 217 hp, while the overall driving experience was improved with system upgrades like fuel and ignition controls.
Borrowing heavily from the 959 supercar, the new Carrera 4 was Porsche’s first four-wheel-drive production 911. The new car also introduced a new chassis, ABS, power steering and a deployable spoiler. Most noticeable, however, was the revamped aesthetic. Save for the classic first-gen cues like vertical rear taillights and the iconic round headlights, it brought the 911 into the modern age with larger bumpers and a more rounded shape. Purists critical of the four-wheel-drive were appeased with a rear-wheel-drive model in 1990 that sold alongside the Carrera 4.
The 964 Turbo carried over the 930 Turbo’s potent 3.3-liter engine, and power was upped to a very capable 315 hp. As if this wasn’t enough, Porsche dropped a 3.6-liter turbocharged engine with 355 horsepower in the back for its final year of production. The 964 remains one of the more desired of the 911 line and is considered a true automotive find.
The 993 marked another significant change for the 911?s design. The car was sleeker, angling the headlights and taillights under complete design revisions. The 3.6-liter flat six stayed, and power was rated at 268 hp. The internals of the car were seriously upgraded along with the new design, including new multi-link rear suspension, improved chassis and an industry-first variable intake system. As a result, the car handled more smoothly and was easier to drive hard. Porsche kept the Carrera 4 but introduced an improved four-wheel-drive system. The new Targa no longer had a removable roof panel, instead showing off a retractable glass version for the first time. Now that the roof didn’t have to get stowed, no Targa owner really had anything to complain about anymore.
The turbocharged 993 was significant in its power output (402 hp) and in its use of twin turbos and full-time all-wheel-drive for the first time in a production Porsche. The 911 Turbo S, which increased boost and added the now Turbo-standard side scoops, was sold alongside the Turbo. Many Porsche cognoscenti consider the 993 Turbo the 911?s swan song: it marked the end of air-cooled 911s. They remain iconic from a design standpoint and coveted due to the finality of their cooling system. Bookmark it may be, but the 993 by no means marked an end to the 911?s legacy in the pantheon of performance cars.
The introduction of a water-cooled engine in the new 996 marked the most significant change in 911 history. Purists poo-pooed it, calling it was an abomination. The car also looked different. The interior was more modern, with virtually zero cues from the old 911, and the “cracked egg” headlights deviated from the iconic 911 circular lights. But the 996 brought a new future for the 911, allowing for an increase in power and refinement thanks to the 4 valves per cylinder — something the air-cooled version could not provide. Purists griped about the new cooling system and the Boxster-like front end, but the new and improved 911?s power and drivability also enticed new customers. In 2002, 911 customers complained enough such that both the two-wheel-drive Carrera and the all-wheel-drive Carrera 4 got nosejobs (including clear lens indicators) to further separate them from the cheaper Boxster. Power came first from a 3.4-liter engine with 296 hp and then from a 3.6-liter making 315 hp in 2002.
The maddening 996 GT3 was all business and designed largely for track use; everything about it was leaner and meaner. The car was lower, lighter and more powerful for a more focused driving experience. The water-cooled engine derived from the 911 GT1 produced a whopping 360 horsepower, later bumped to 381 horses. Thinned-out windows and the complete removal of the 911’s rear seats helped drop weight. So much for bringing your short friends for a track-induced vomit-fest.
Now that the Turbo was established in the 911 lineup, Porsche delivered a 996 version in 2000. Twin-turbo powered, it delivered 414 hp in stock mode. With the added performance package, you could get 444 hp and do 0-60 in a supercar-like 3.8 seconds. The 996 Turbo was sold in coupe and cabriolet versions.
Porsche wisely went back to the 993 for design cues in the 997 Series. Gone were the cracked egg headlights from the 996; the cabin saw retro nods while maintaining modern themes. Power numbers for the Carrera and Carrera S were 321 hp and 350 hp, respectively. The 997 had bigger brakes, a stiffer suspension and the new PASM (Porsche Active Suspension Management), providing adjustable settings to adapt to changing driving styles. The Carrera 4 and 4S emerged in 2006, and the glass-roofed Targa made its way to the market in 2006.
The 997 Turbo is the car that brought the 911 into the territory of insanity. 473 hp from the 3.6-liter twin turbo engine meant the car could accelerate to 60 in 3.5 seconds with a top speed of near 200 mph — all this with better fuel economy than the 996 Turbo. It also borrowed the Cayenne SUV’s all-wheel-drive system with Porsche Traction Management (PTM), improving the car’s performance and overall handling in varying conditions.
The speed-focused GT3 craziness continued with the 2006 GT3 RS, which was homologated for the international racing circuit. From the bonkers engine to the orange or green paint choices, everything about the RS screamed for attention. Unlike its slightly lesser qualified GT3 brother, the GT3 RS utilized the 911 Turbo’s stiff chassis and wide body structure for improved handling. With upwards of 500 hp, a wider rear track, and a giant carbon fiber wing that looked ready for takeoff, the GT3 RS was a street car built for the track. Interiors were lightened, and the Euro-spec version even had a lightweight plexiglass rear window and a fat roll cage for increased stiffness. The RS was light (2,998 pounds), and the aerodynamic elements created enough downforce to pull your upper teeth from their sockets.
With the kind of power that makes current sports cars quake in their brake shoes, the 997 GT2 was the first 911 to break the 200 mph barrier. The 523 hp, 3.6-liter flat-six also launched the GT2 to 60 in under 3.5 seconds. With rear-wheel-drive, a manual transmission and ridiculous amounts of power, this wasn’t the car for the unskilled. The RS was good for 612 hp and weighed 150 pounds less than the standard GT2 (the equivalent of kicking your wife out of the car) and represents the ultimate expression of the 997 as a driver’s car. Top speed was 205 mph, and 60 mph came in a little over three seconds. If you could afford it, you could also probably handle the hospital bills if the car got away from you.
The current model 991 represents another huge improvement to the 911. Though the 911 has always been stunning, the 991 represents the most attractive modern iteration of the 911 we’ve seen. Because it’s wider and longer in overall length and wheelbase, the car is easier to drive hard. Those increased dimensions are also noticeable to the eye, making the new 911 a fuller, more attractive car. Still, the more slender taillights make the bigger car seem sleeker from the rear view.
The 991 also makes great use of Porsche design DNA, taking interior cues from the Carrera GT supercar with it angled and button-happy center console. The Carrera is powered by a 350 hp 3.4-liter engine, while the S makes 400 hp from its larger 3.8-liter powerplant. Not only is the 991 more powerful, its copious use of aluminum drops the weight of the 991 by 110 pounds over the previous car. It’s faster (0-60 in 4.6 seconds for the Carrera and 4.3 for the S, both with the PDK transmission). The 991 also comes with a seven-speed manual that rev-matches by throttle blipping, making shifting nearly seamless. Handling is also improved with the brilliant use of a torque vectoring system that brakes the inside wheel in turns. Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control (PDCC) further improves handling by keeping the car flatter in turns and more stable at high speeds.