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For Porsche racing has always been part sport and part business. The German manufacturer does not only race to sell cars, but also sells their racing cars to customers. The extensive rule changes before the 1982 season worked out particularly well for Porsche. The elaborate Group 1 through 7 classes were replaced by just three 'groups'; A through C. Group C for one-off prototype sports racers was pretty much written with Porsche in mind and with the 956 and subsequent 962 the German manufacturer dominated endurance racing. Group A was intended for high volume family saloons, so there was no business there for Porsche. The Group B class, which would be used for the World Rally Championship, was under scrutiny from Porsche's engineers. They felt that only a purpose built rally car could be competitive. One of the big stumbling blocks was the minimum production requirement of 200 units within in 12 months. There was no way that Porsche could find that many customers for a rally car, so the project was put on hold. The focus was instead on the 956 Group C racer and a Group B rally car based on the 911 SC road car.
Group B proved to be hugely popular with the likes of Audi and Lancia campaigning rally cars that were packed with the latest technology. They had met the homologation requirements by simply building 200 thinly disguised road versions of their rally racers. Not surprisingly a Porsche Group B car was considered once again early in 1983. Porsche's competition department reasoned that the technology required for the rally car could later be used on the production cars. Their ideal Group B car featured a mid mounted engine, four wheel drive and the 'PDK' dual clutch system. Eventually a compromise was agreed upon, which did include four wheel drive, but with a traditional gearbox and rear mounted engine. Quite in contrast with their competitors, Porsche decided to develop the new Group B racer as a road car first. The very high performance 'super Porsche' would propel the German manufacturer into the supercar ranks and ensure that the minimum number of 200 cars could be built and most importantly sold. Work on project '959' started in the spring of 1983 and production was planned to start early in 1985. The designers estimated the 959 would be priced at DM 150,000, which would make it the most expensive Porsche ever built.
By using the basic 911 monocoque, the Porsche engineers had something familiar to start with. Much of the early work focused on the four wheel drive system, with which the Porsche engineers had very limited experience. Various systems were tested in combination with different suspension types. The hardware of the Porsche four wheel drive system was fairly straightforward; the real beauty lay in the software. The system was equipped with a computer that controlled the amount of drive to the front wheels, through a 'PSK' clutch fitted between the gearbox and the front differential. It compensated, for example, for the weight shift during acceleration. The driver was also given four settings to manually control the power sent to the front wheels in extreme conditions like ice or snow. The engineers also found that the four wheel drive system worked best with double wishbone front suspension instead of the McPherson struts normally found on a 911. To ensure that the front wheels had traction at all times, each side was fitted with twin coil spring over damper units. The rear suspension also consisted of double wishbones, however with just one coil/damper combo and an additional damper on each side. With its potential rally career in mind, the 959 chassis was equipped with four different mounting points for each wishbone to adjust the ride height. The pressure in the dampers could be adjusted from the cockpit.
While the four wheel drive system was still under scrutiny, attention was shifted to the exterior styling. Porsche was eager to show a preview of the company's new Group B contender at the upcoming Frankfurt (IAA) show in September of 1983. The styling of the fully equipped, but non-running 'Gruppe B' concept shown in Frankfurt differed only in detail from the production 959. Apart from the shell very little from the 911 body was carried over. Light weight and low drag were top priorities for the designers and to complicate things further, the Porsche 911 shape had to be retained. They succeeded remarkably well to include the key features of the original 911 launched exactly 20 years earlier into a much wider and smoother body. The new shape was quite a departure from the contemporary 911 range and would form the basis for future 911 generations. The designers had hoped to get away with a wingless design, but wind tunnel tests showed that the rear end could not do without. They came up with a very elegant integrated rear wing. Thanks to a fully enveloping underbody the drag figure was kept down to a very competitive 0.32. All of the panels were crafted from either aluminium alloy or composite materials like Kevlar. The Kevlar panels were reinforced by steel frames. Even the 911 derived steel roof was replaced by a light weight plastic example.
Matching the exceptional chassis and drivetrain was a similarly advanced engine. Needless to say it was an air-cooled flat-6, but distinctly different from any engine ever fitted in a 911 road car. In fact it shared many components with the six cylinder in the back of the all conquering 956. The main departure from the 911 design were the cylinders that featured twin overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. More important still; they were water cooled. Displacement was just over 2.8 litre, right at the maximum set for Turbocharged engines in the Group B class. Two sequential Turbos smoothly boosted the power to 450 bhp. There was however a flaw in the initial design of the engine: vibrations from the camshafts had a destructing effect on the chains driving them. The solution was a twin-chain setup, but that meant that several parts had to be recast, causing considerable delays. With this much power available, the brakes were very important. Porsche suggested using an anti-lock system, which had recently been developed by Mercedes-Benz. Using it on a four-wheel driven car provided additional complications. In the end the engineers had to basically redesign the system from scratch to make it work, but they succeeded handsomely.
During the Paris-Dakar rally early in 1984, observers had the first chance to see what Porsche was up to. They had fielded three 911 SC based racers fitted with a simplified version of the new four-wheel drive system. Porsche thought of the rally as nothing more than a big test and were pleasantly surprised when one of their cars crossed the line first in Dakar. Encouraged by the results in 1984, three 959s were prepared for the 1985 edition. Due to the engine development problems, the cars were fitted with the 232 bhp engine fitted in the Dakar winning 911 SC. All the advanced 'gizmo's' were fitted on the three cars. Untested they departed for Dakar on New Year's day. The drivers quickly discovered that the cars really were not quite ready and all three were forced to retire. Porsche returned a year later and much better prepared. They fielded three 959s again, but this time fitted with the twin-Turbocharged engine. The boost of Turbos was lowered to cope with Africa's low octane fuel, which saw the power decrease to 390 bhp. Another change from the 959 road car was the absence of the ABS system. Only 67 of the 488 starters survived the 1986 edition of the Dakar Rally. Among them were the three Porsches, which finished first, second and sixth. With its point proven, the 959 did not return to the Paris Dakar; it was the end of the 959's rally career, but not yet of its racing career.
The engine problems had caused the introduction date of the production car to be delayed several times. Homologation for Group B had lost all priority. The engineers instead concentrated on building the very best road car they could. To ensure the 959 met all the quality standards expected from Porsche nearly 20 pre-production prototypes were built and subjected to extensive testing. The 1985 IAA in Frankfurt was set as the new launch date of the 959 road car with deliveries expected to start in the fall of the next year. The final specification included a fully appointed interior with luxurious leather seats, electric windows and air-conditioning. That was quite unlike the other Group B 'homologation specials' and clearly showed where Porsche's priorities were. The price had almost tripled from the initial estimate to a staggering DM 420,000. Nevertheless Porsche received as many 1,600 inquiries. Eventually 250 orders were accepted after the customers placed a down payment of DM 50,000. That was a mean feat considering that the 959 was not going to be available in the potentially biggest market. Porsche refused to waste additional resources to adapt the new car to the very strict emission and in particular safety standards upheld in the United States. It took until April of 1987 before the first car was finally delivered. By that time the original buyers were offered premiums of up to DM 150,000 for their new cars, underlining the excitement the exceptional 959 had created in the market.
Alongside the Paris Dakar rally machines, Porsche's engineers developed a second racing derivative of the 959. Although officially known as the 961 it shared a close visual and technical resemblance to the 959 road car. The project had its origins very early in the 959 development and was to form the basis for the Group B racer. The plans were delayed and changed considerably. The 961 was eventually turned into a circuit racer and destined to compete in Porsche's home away from home; Le Mans. It finally appeared during the official Le Mans test in May of 1986. A wider body and larger wing distinguished the all-white 961 from its road going counterpart. The engine was tweaked to produce a hefty 640 bhp. Entered in the IMSA GTX class for experimental cars, the 961 was the first 4WD car to race at Le Mans. The sole IMSA GTX, the 961 scored a default class win when it finished a credible 7th overall, after problems early in the race had thrown it right down the order. Porsche hoped to sell copies of the new racer to the United States and shipped the sole 961 to Daytona for the season ending three-hour race. The track's banking proved very destructive for the tires and the 961 finally limped home in 24th. Due its relatively high price, Porsche failed to sell a single example. Liveried in the Works Rothmans colors, the 961 was raced at Le Mans again in 1987. An accident 17 hours into race saw the 961's racing career come to a very fiery end.
A final version of the 959 was developed late in 1987. Dubbed the 'Sport,' it was an extensively lightened version of the standard, or 'Comfort' 959. By stripping luxury items like electric windows, leather power seats and air-conditioning, as well as removing the adjustable ride height control, a total of 100 kg was shaved off the kerb weight of the original 959. An ingenious attempt to make the 959 available for some of its American customers a second version of the 'Sport' was developed. Fitted with a full roll cage and stripped of its adjustable dampers, it was marketed as a racing car. This meant that the strict emission and safety standards did not apply. The American government thought otherwise and sent the first batch of seven cars back to Germany. After trying one on a track they stated that the stripped down version 959 was still far too smooth and comfortable to be considered a racing car. Since then several examples have been imported to United States under the 'Show and Display' law. One of the conditions of this type of approval is that the car can only be driven on the road for 2500 miles per year. Canepa Motorsports have more recently developed a package that both increases the performance and meets the strict emission standards. The latest version of the 'Canepa 959' produces a mind boggling 610 bhp. The modifications take an equally amazing 1100 hours to be completed.
Today the Porsche 959 is considered one of the finest and certainly the most advanced car built in the 1980s. Where the other supercars of the era were raw, uncomfortable and hard to drive, the 959 managed to combine the superb performance with a smooth ride and fully equipped interior. All this did come at price; Porsche lost money on every one of the 329 examples built. It is estimated that each 959 sale covered only a quarter of its cost. It must be said that much of the technology developed for the 959 was put to good use in the Porsche 911 range like the 4WD system that now comes standard on the Turbo models. For nearly two decades the 959 remained the sole Porsche supercar and it was only 'replaced' in 2003 by the all carbon-fibre and V10 engined Carrera GT. There may have been better looking and better performing cars built before and since, but no supercar can match the 959 for its technological advancements. In this respect it is unlikely the Porsche 959 will ever be surpassed.
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