While driving the latest Porsche 911 4S recently, I gave my mother a lift to Montreal. Leaving there, I made my customary pit stop at Abie’s Smoked Meat for a couple of medium fats to sustain me on the long drive to Toronto. Just as I turned in to the parking lot a warning light appeared on the dash, indicating some sort of cooling system failure. Over lunch, I called around to find a dealer that could accommodate me. I was overheard.
“Did you hear about the guy who put it on his Facebook page that he was ordering a new 911?” an elderly French-Canadian fellow seated near me at the counter asked. “The next day, he had 2,000 new Muslim friends!”
The cooling problem turned out to be inconsequential. While soaring effortlessly past lesser vehicles on the 401, I got to thinking about that man’s joke. It seemed obvious that if—say— back in 1941 Packard had launched a roadster called the Pearl Harbor, the model would not have seen Christmas. How was it that Porsche shrugged off the whole regrettable 9-11 coincidence as easily as it did the car’s longstanding reputation for swapping ends under mid-corner throttle lift?
Obviously it’s all part of the privilege of being an automotive legend. For the 911 has ruled the world of sports cars for automotive eternity. This is its 50th anniversary. The 911 was introduced in the same year the Rolling Stones recorded their first Top 20 single (“I Wanna Be Your Man,” if you must know). The 1963 car had only 130 horsepower. But with a mass of just 1,000 kilograms, it was still quick.
Or it seemed so then. Fifty years of Germanic refinement has wrought many measurable improvements—one of which has been to increase power much faster than weight. For example my 1,500 kg 4S had 400 horsepower—100 more than 1977’s record-shattering intercooled Turbo. And with its nifty seven-speed manual box it can both bolt from 0–100 km/h in just 4.3 seconds and post shockingly efficient mileage on the highway (I managed about 12 litres per 100 km).
Improvements to chassis and suspension (and optional four-wheel drive) have long since neutered the 911’s handling quirks. The arrival of water-cooled engines (in place of air) in 1998 remedied the original cars’ odd metallic wheeze. But there are still a few things shared by 911s old and new.
There is the sloping tail and taut crouch of Butzi Porsche’s uniquely enduring original shape. There is the strange rear-engine layout, never duplicated—not even by Porsche. And there is the suspicion that builds every time you take the wheel that no other car combines the same coincidental levels of performance, road feel, quality and comfort. It all adds up to an irresistible je ne sais quoi. Let me put it this way: as my mother disembarked from the car in Montreal after all those hours in the passenger seat, she announced that she wanted to buy one. But she hasn’t had a driver’s licence since the ’60s, is 83 years old, and blind, too—so we’re struggling a bit with the details.
The Porsche 911: a visual history