The List




The List


Porsche 911


It is unlikely that even the most ardent Porsche fan would have predicted, in the mid 1960s, that the company would still be producing a car with its engine, ‘in the wrong place’, over 40 years after the first 911 rolled off the production line.


But that is exactly what has happened; the latest 997 model 911 may not have the snappy handling of some of its predecessors, and its engine may be water rather than air cooled, but it is still resolutely hung out low over the rear wheels, giving the 911 its trademark rear-biased weight distribution.


But we are not interested in modern 911s in the context of The List. 996 and 997 models are the preserve of city boys and the nouveau riches, who are more interested in the ostentatious display of wealth that owning a modern 911 represents than the unique lines of the earlier cars. The 911s that have gained their place on The List stretch from the early 1960s models, through to the 1970s Carrera RS, and are largely distinguished (apart from the RS) by their chrome detailing, and the absence of the ugly impact bumpers of the late 1970s cars. We will refer to these as ‘classic 911s’.


A cursory glance at the opening scenes of the Steve McQueen film Le Mans will dispel any doubts as to why these particular 911s have earned their place on The List. McQueen’s car, resplendent in period colour, just looks and sounds cool in a way that a modern 911 cannot.


To some extent, McQueen’s car, and any classic 911, has attained some of this coolness through its retro charms, but this is not the whole story; even at the time of the film, the 911 had an aura of specialness, of being a connoisseur’s car, around it. This, to bring in Plato’s theory of forms, is the archetypal 911; all others are just imperfect imitations of it, where Porsche has played with the shape, either from external pressure to conform to regulations, or from the internal desire to modernise.


Unless you are driving a Carrera RS, or its race derivative, the RSR, don’t expect a classic 911 to deliver the same sort of straight line performance as a 996 or 997. Although all of the classic models are significantly lighter than their younger relatives, the engines are smaller and less technologically advanced, and it is only really the S and Carrera RSR models that are what a modern driver would term as ‘rapid’.


Reach a corner, and your progress will be largely dictated by the age of the car you are driving. Although the exterior changed little during the 1960s and early 1970s, small alterations to suspension settings and weight distribution mean that the earlier cars are significantly more prone to very abrupt lift-off oversteer. Of course, every 911 will do this to some extent, due to its unusual rear weight bias, but it is much more pronounced in the early cars.


Whichver 911 your are driving, though, there is no doubt as to where the weight is situated. Before turning into a corner at speed you always need to ensure that you have effectively transferred enough weight forward to counteract the natural tendency for the light front end to understeer. Similarly, on the exit of corners, although the rear bias enables good traction from the rear wheels, you need to feed in the power progressively to avoid giving the heavy rear too much sideways momentum. Being optimistic with your turn-in speed, or over-enthusiastic with the throttle will only result in the car taking on the form of a thrown hammer, where the head is eager to overtake the handle.


But none of this detracts from the experience of driving a classic 911. In fact, it is deeply satisfying to be able to adapt one’s driving technique to the demands of the vehicle, and the rewards of feeling the car balanced perfectly on the limits of adhesion are always worth the effort.


To use a final comparison with modern Porsches, a 996 or 997 GT3 may shout to the world that the owner is a person of discernment when it comes to choosing a car that will enable them to travel as quickly as possible either on road or track. It does not, however, reveal anything about their aesthetic judgement. On the contrary, a classic 911 will always discreetly inform the cognoscenti that the owner is an aesthete of exquisite taste who is able to utilise his driving skills to obviate some of the quirks of handling inherent in the car’s character. After all, character is what makes the world interesting.