Certain cars in history force the competition to pull their socks up and embrace the future.
The Ford Model T revolutionised the mass-production process. The original Mini completely rethought the way components of a car could be packaged with its transverse engine employed to maximise passenger space while minimising the car’s footprint. The Toyota Prius shudders may be a dirty word on this website, but it’s difficult to argue with the impact it had on attitudes towards hybrid and low-emission powertrains, now commonplace in vehicles at all levels.
Back in the late eighties, Porsche was working on a vehicle that would have a similar influence on supercar landscape: the 959.
Featuring a 2.85-litre turbocharged rear-mounted flat-six engine based on the flat-six out of a 911, which put 450hp at 6500rpm to all four wheels, the 959 was the peak of supercar performance in its day.
Features like anti-lock brakes were a fairly recent innovation at the time, but the 959’s technological innovation didn’t stop there. Eight hydraulic dampers – four at each corner – meant the 959 did without anti-roll bars. Electronic ride height and damping adjustments were made by the car’s on-board computer, allowing the car to automatically lift or lower itself depending on the conditions and speed.
The 959 was the first production car to be fitted with an electronic tyre pressure monitoring system, which worked on some of the world’s first run-flat tyres – Bridgestone RE71 Denlocs. Those tyres were fitted onto the world’s first production-car magnesium wheels, with hollow spokes. The 959 also featured a front diff with hydraulically-actuated clutches that were computer-controlled.
At a time when mobile phones were the size of your face and barely had screens, the technology seen on the Porsche 959 seemed out of this world, with performance figures that remain competitive with the current crop of supercars.
Design, Styling & Interior
Recognisable beneath the many aerodynamic additions to its shape, the 959 has some resemblance with its lineage; with a bloodline as pure as the Porsche 911, this apple was unlikely to stray far from the tree.
Massive flared arches direct airflow over the car towards the integral rear wing, with teardrop-shaped wing mirrors helping it slice through the air with minimal drag. Porsche managed to keep the 959’s drag coefficient to 0.31 with a ‘zero-lift’ air profile helping give stability at speed.
The ‘bodykit’ widens the car’s profile to accommodate the 959’s all-wheel-drive system and adding length at the back to allow room for the hybrid water- and air-cooling system employed on the flat-six.
To keep the 959’s weight low, the car features a mixture of aluminium, Kevlar and Nomex in its body panels – resulting in a kerb weight of just under 1500kg.
This is not so much a car that was designed in the traditional sense as calculated from the ground up.
Inside, surprisingly for such a high-performance model and breaking with the spartan tradition followed by rivals from the likes of Ferrari at the time, the 959 gets the full-on luxury treatment. Porsche had aimed to retain the luxury appeal of its 911 line, and 959 drivers received all the creature comforts of the ‘lesser’ sports car – air conditioning, leather seats, a radio, electric windows – all of which makes the car’s performance even more impressive.
Incredibly for a car that was designed over 30 years ago, the Porsche 959’s performance stacks up with many supercars and sports cars today. 0-60 takes just 3.9 seconds in the 959, with car topping out at 196mph.
How is this possible? The 959’s power comes courtesy of a 2.85-litre flat-six power plant, mounted in the rear, which is both air-cooled and water-cooled, as well as turbocharged for good measure. This endows it with 450hp at 6500rpm – with a 1450kg kerb weight and extra-slippery aero body helping make that engine’s life easier.
Most impressive of all is the all-wheel-drive system that transmits that power to the road. All-wheel-drive is a fairly common feature of many modern supercars, but back in the eighties a system like the Porsche-Stuer Kupplung (PSK) all-wheel-drive system had never been seen.
Running a 40:60 power split most of the time, the system could shift up to 80% of the power to the rear wheels under acceleration, helping to maximise the traction benefit afforded by the rear-engine setup.
While most all-wheel-drive systems even today rely on detecting slip to decide where to direct power, the PSK was governed by computers, which calculated the best way to direct power based on inputs from such variables as steering and throttle position, g-forces, engine boost, helping to optomise the power reaching the road.
Ride & Handling
That all-wheel-drive system also helped the 959’s handling, though it wasn’t the only aspect to have an impact here.
Comparatively, the 959’s tyres – at 255mm wide – were not the broad rubber expected of many supercars. Those tyres were Bridgestone RE71 Denlocs, the first run-flat tyres ever fitted to a production car, fitted to extra-light magnesium wheels with hollow spokes, keeping unsprung weight to a minimum while allowing the air pressure to spread out across through the wheels, aiding tyre performance.
Stopping power was provided by the then-largest set of brakes Porsche had ever fitted to a production car, 12.6 inch rotors at the front and 12.1 at the rear, with four-piston calipers at each corner. ABS – another first – helped keep things under control under heavy braking.
Front and rear the 959 had a double-wishbone suspension setup, helping keep those wheels on the road, with adjustable dampers and ride height. The 959 had originally been designed with the aim of competing in the Group B rally championship, featuring the fastest rally cars in the world – though the championship was cancelled in 1986 after tragedy struck when Jaoquim Santos lost control of his Ford RS200, crashing into spectators.
The adjustable ride height was aimed at allowing the 959 to be adjusted for off-road driving, with selectable settings at 4.7 inches, 5.9 inches and 7.1 inches. The car’s computer was also able to adjust the ride height depending on driving conditions, with the 959 dropping to its lowest setting above 100mph to reduce drag.
Prices & Specs
When new, the Porsche 959 cost $225,000, which at the time made it one of the most expensive cars on the market.
Despite this hefty price tag, it’s thought that each example cost Porsche in the region of $500,000 to produce, meaning the car maker made a hefty loss on each one sold.
These days, it is difficult to find a good example for less than $1 million. At the time of writing, Hemmings lists three Porsche 959s for sale, with one priced at $1,495,000, and the other two ominously price on enquiry only.