How the Porsche 911 became an icon

By Simon de Burton

The tale may be apocryphal and the quote certainly isn't verbatim, but anyone who has fallen under the spell of arguably the world's most successful sports car will probably choose to take as gospel the alleged response of Dieter Rams to a journalist who asked why he chose to drive a Porsche 911. 

With a quizzical look (and, I like to think, a slightly raised eyebrow) the doyen of German modern industrial design is said to have replied: "Simply because it is the most efficient means yet devised of travelling quickly by road from A to B...." 

The question this article is intended to answer is simple, too: "How did the Porsche 911 become an icon?"

Porsche 911SC xray breakdown from A Collected Man Lonodn

The anatomy of an icon, with an inside view of the Porsche 911.


The answer, however, is anything but - in fact, it can be compared to asking how the Rolex Submariner achieved the same status and, indeed, it's probably fair to say that the two have a great deal in common in terms of the 'form and function' requirements which have always been so intrinsic to Rams's creations. 

In fact, both meet nine of the criteria that Rams set-out in his famous 10-point design ethos - namely innovation, usefulness, 'understandability', unobtrusiveness, honesty, longevity and not 'over done'. Only the Rolex, however, truly meets point number 10: environmental friendliness. But nine out of 10 ain't bad, (as Meatloaf didn't say).

At this point, it's probably worth mentioning that I have owned and enjoyed a 911 for the past 15 years. Like many people who are 'into cars', buying a 911 had long been a goal that simply had to be achieved and, after years of thinking about how I couldn't afford one, I was suddenly seized with an inexplicable 'now or never' urge.

It happened so suddenly, in fact, that I didn't even give myself time to look into the myriad pros and cons of ownership, the upsides and downsides of different models or whether or not I wanted a coupe, a cabriolet or a Targa; an E, a T, a Carrera, an SC or an RS; an early car with slim bumpers or a later one with impact bumpers  - or a two-litre, a 2.4, a 2.7, a three-litre, a 3.6, a Turbo, a 964 or a 993. And as for gearboxes - did I care if the car I ended up with had a type 901, 911, 915 or G50? Not a jot....
 

Porsche 911 from the 1971 Monte Carlo Rally with Rico Steinemann Björn Waldegaard and Gérard Larrousse from A Collected Man London

A 911 at the Monte Carlo Rally of 1971.


In fact, I hadn't given much thought at all to the mind-boggling choice of cars available, I just knew I wanted one, my only specific criteria being that it should not have Tiptronic transmission and that it had to be air-cooled (not that I could have afforded a water-cooled 996 model anyway, as even the earliest were only seven or eight years old and therefore were still expensive).

And, although 2005 doesn't seem that long ago, the market for old 911s was far removed from what it is today. Back then, for example, I didn't think it unusual that a yellow 2.7RS (now worth a solid half-a-million) should be abandoned on Chelsea Embankment for such a long time that its glass had become completely opaque with road dust. Likewise, the rusty but running 2.4S that I was offered for £5,500 didn't seem much of a bargain (now hard to obtain in good condition for less than £100,000) and the £6,000 price tag on a 2.7 seemed a bit steep in view of its minor oil leak. 

All I wanted, you see, was a 911 that wasn't rotting from the inside out, that had been well maintained, that wasn't displaying an inter-galactic mileage and that hadn't had a dozen careless owners.  

On the basis that the majority of cars on offer back then, certainly in my sub-£10,000 price range (yes, that's what they could be bought for) were in a terrible state, my impetuous quest to find something within a week should have ended in tears. But it didn't.

Porsche 911 SC sports car in red from A Collected Man London

 A red Porsche 911 Targa, from a range of angles.


Having called too late to snap-up what promised to be a perfect buy - a white SC Sport coupe with a blue leather interior, sunroof, 79,000 miles on the clock and a long-term woman owner asking £10,500 - I alighted on another SC, also white, but this time a Targa model.

At the time, Targas were considered undesirable by hard-driving 911 anoraks who claimed they were 'not stiff enough', with white SCs of base specification (ie 'cookie cutter wheels, not Fuchs,  Berber wool seats instead of leather and no spoilers) being looked upon by the experts with undisguised disdain.

That, however, was the exact specification of the car being sold by one Rudy van Wyck, a gentlemanly South African living in London's Docklands who had scratched his own 911 itch a few years earlier by buying 'PRU 389W'  but was now selling it in readiness for the arrival of a baby.  Which, given that a 911's rear seats are perfect for carrying children from the ages of nought to around 12, I couldn't really understand.....

Anyway, I bought the car which, at £8,800, was the most expensive object aside from a house that I had ever purchased. As a result, I drove it gingerly around London and, on longer journeys, kept strictly to speed limits. 

It took me a while, you see, to discover the fact that these cars really have earned their reputation as 'icons' by the way they work, not just by the way they look.

 

Built for endurance, this Porsche 911 SC was piloted by Björn Waldegård and Vic Preston Jr. in a rally race held in Kenya, along a 5,000-kilometre route. 


Even then 'PRU' was almost 25 years old but, I gradually realised, it seemed to relish being driven hard (not idiotically and over-revvingly hard, just quickly and thoughtfully), its three-litre, flat six engine producing an intoxicating banshee wail as the revs soared rapidly towards the red line.

Third gear, in particular, was a revelation, being sufficiently flexible to provide a speed range of  below 30 mph to almost 90, while gentle cruising in fifth resulted in a remarkably quiet and comfortable ride, with the gentle hum of the engine being not only unobtrusive, but actually adding to the general feeling of relaxation.

I seem to remember it took me around six months to fully 'bond' with my car, with true love being cemented by a journey to the south of France with my then-pregnant wife (how ironic, given Rudy's reason for selling...).

It was then that I realised just what a truly incredible piece of engineering the 911 is.  

How, for example, did Porsche manage to make a three-litre petrol engine in the late 1970s (when the SC was introduced) that would push the car to an easy 140 mph, yet which would return the 'mixed driving' 35 mpg promised by the handbook when used sensibly? And what was the secret of the 911's shake-free, rattle-free, one-piece feel that placed it leagues ahead of any other classic cars I had ever owned (and, by then, the number had already surpassed 200...)?

Porsche 911 SC in burnt red for A Collected Man London

 A 1974 Porsche 911 Targa.


The car isn't even expensive to maintain, with a full, annual service costing an average of £350 (Terry, the mechanical genius who has maintained mine for the past decade, charges even less), it is a genuinely practical sports car - the boot is sufficiently capacious for most occasions and, with two people aboard, the rear seats fold into a flat load area - and, despite the fact that it will be 40 next year, the cast-iron reliability my car has demonstrated means I actually feel more confident in driving it long distances than I do in an ultra-modern supercar laden with electronics.

And, speaking of modern supercars, perhaps the thing I find most remarkable about owning an old 911 is the joy of getting back behind the wheel of one after driving something new. My work provides many opportunities to try contemporary exotics from most of the revered marques and yes, they are invariably fabulously fast, incredibly confidence-inspiring, remarkable looking and superbly appointed.

But they are also big, weighty, aggressive, flamboyant and, worst of all, lacking in true driver connectivity (of the old-fashioned sort, I mean, not the infotainment variety).

As a result, it's always a relief to get back into the old SC, with its small, unobtrusive shape making it comparatively low-key, its heavy steering, slightly pondrous gearbox (mine features the notoriously vague 915 version) and less than remarkable brakes serving as constant reminders that this car won't drive itself -  and, above all, that spine-tingling engine note and willingness to rev that promises instant thrills the moment they are demanded.

 Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, the designer of the 911, leaning on his design.


And, as well as all that, I reckon Rams' belief that an original  911 is 'the most efficient means of travelling by road quickly from A to B' still stands. Yes, modern sports cars are way more powerful and way faster, but few seem to match the lithe nimbleness of Porsche's finest - even dare I say it, the latest 911s. I recently drove the new Type 992 version which looks lovely, goes like the wind and offers creature comforts galore - but it didn't seem to fit the wonderful description once applied to my car by an admiring Frenchman. 

It is, he said, a 'savonette' - a little bar of soap that follows the road like a leaf rushing down a fast-flowing river. 

But if you don't want to swallow my rose-tinted owner's view of air-cooled 911s, how about that of a man who is internationally regarded as one of the most knowledgeable, experienced and respected 911 gurus in the business - Andy Prill who, through his Essex-based business Prill Porsche Classics, has been building, mending, improving and tuning these cars for 27 years.

On top of that, Prill is trusted to race some of the rarest Porsche cars in existence by their owners, who know his skill at setting-up and driving them will often boost their provenance and, therefore, their value.

Porsche 911 in white with doors open from A Collected Man London

The rear view of a 911 Carrera 4, type 964, recently restored by Porsche. 


Why does he think the 911 became an icon?

"I think the earlier comparison to the Rolex Submariner is very pertinent," says Prill. "The fact is, lots of people try to do things differently and fail, but both the Submariner and the 911 are examples of something being done differently and working really well.

"A lot of Porsche's attitude to development during the 1950s and '60s was imposed on them. The 356 - built from 1950 - 1965 - was, for example, a superb car and could have remained in production for a lot longer, being gradually improved along the way. It was only abandoned in favour of the 911 in 1964 for reasons such as tooling problems and safety regulations.

"But it had already demonstrated that Porsche's philosophy was one of evolution, not revolution. As with Rolex, once Porsche came up with a really good design, it stuck with it - not least because, at the time, the company was quite strapped for cash and everything had to count.

"And perhaps most importantly, they believed in what they did. When the 911 was launched in 1964, it was not particularly well-received for various reasons, including its relatively high price and the fact that early cars had some technical issues. But they didn't give up and, within three years, the 911 had become a world-beating GT and rally car.

"Like many of the best watch designs," says Prill, "the 911 was the epitome of less being more, the epitome of form and function. I have loved cars all my life, but when I discovered how the 911 epitomises the concept of making something extremely effective and reliable but not over-complicated, the truly exceptional nature of these cars really clicked with me.

"There is something that's bred into great architects and designers that enables them to understand a beautiful form and to combine that beauty with functionality, and I think much of the success of the 911 - and similar great designs - is down to the fact that people want to try to emulate that sort of understanding in their own lives. Driving a 911 or wearing a Submariner are examples of the way they feel they can do that."
 

Porsche 911 SC advert from A Collected Man London

A 1967 advertisement for the Porsche 911 2.0 Targa. 


Prill's observation about Porsche's determination to stick to specific designs strikes me as especially interesting - after all, how many high-performance car makers were still successfully using air-cooled engines in 1998, when air-cooled 911 993  production came to an end? Other than Porsche, precisely none.....

The fate of the air-cooled 911 had, however, been hanging in the balance two decades before when it was perceived that interest in the model was waning

Despite the arrival of the ground-breaking, Earth-shrinking 930 Turbo in the mid-'70s, Porsche already had plans to abandon the rear-engined format following the successful introduction of its front-engined, water-cooled 924 in 1976, followed by the 928 (1978) and later the 944 (1982).

Porsche 911 SC in green with the roof down from A Collected Man London

A vintage photograph of a Porsche Targa, from 1974, with its original green colour. 


But the 911s massive fan base led to a reprieve and the rest, as they say, is history - which is why it remains Porsche's halo model after a remarkable 56 years of development.

So which 911 variant is the one to own? I, of course, would say the trusty if comparatively unremarkable SC, not least for its under-stressed, three-litre engine and bullet-proof reliability. But what would Prill choose, if money were no object?

"That is an extremely difficult question to answer - but, of all the 911 variants, there are two that really stand out for me. From a racing point of view, it would have to be a 993 GT2 RSR. It is an amazing machine and, essentially, the ultimate incarnation of an air-cooled 911.

"But if it had to be a car for regular use, I would choose a factory-built 911 S/T from 1972. They can be driven both on the track and on the road and are absolutely sublime.

"The only problem, " adds Prill, “is that only a few were made and they are now worth upwards of £1.5 million apiece...." 

But icons never did come cheap, did they?

Built for endurance.


We would like to thank Porsche for the imagery provided in this article.



Older Post Newer Post