The Porsche 959 is one of the most iconic cars of the eighties. It was the fastest production car and the most technologically advanced car of its time. But did you know that the 959 was originally intended for rally racing?
It all began in 1981 when some of Porsche’s high ranking people were thinking of a possible replacement for the Porsche 911. A new sports car was needed, one that would take Porsche into the future. The next generation car from Zuffenhausen would also serve a testbed for an all-wheel drive system. The engineers received an assignment to see what they could to with the rear-powered Porsche 911.
A 911 Turbo was reworked to adhere to than Group B rally racing rules, the popular racing series were regarded as the perfect arena to test and develop new models. The rally car was also developed as a production vehicle in order to comply with the FIA regulations, which stated that at least 200 road going units has to be produced before the manufacturer was allowed to compete in Group B rallying.
At the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1983 Porsche unveiled a concept named Gruppe B. One year later, three 911’s modified to 959 specifications were entered in the Paris-Dakar Rally. The true rally version of the 959 was ready in 1985, but all three cars failed to finish the race through the desert.Success came the following year, as the 959 driven by René Metge finished first in the Senegalese capital Dakar.
When the production version of the four-wheel drive 959 was finally launched in 1985, times had changed. Porsche felt that the relevance of racing to production cars was reduced, so the development of the 959 wasn’t focussed on rally racing anymore. During the car’s time in development, rules of Group B rally racing were altered, unintentionally making it less attractive for Porsche. So exit Group B, but nevertheless development of the 959’s racing variant continued but now as technological showcase. Inspired by the success in the Paris-Dakar rally, Porsche turned to the world’s most famous endurance race: the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The racing variant of the Porsche 959 was designated 961. The car was powered by a twin-turbocharged 2.85-liter boxer engine which provided 680 horsepower, an impressive 200 more than the 959. For endurance racing the amount of horses was brought back to 640, still a lot more than its road-going sibling. This engine would later also propel the successful 956 and 962, the sports-prototypes which competed in Group C racing.
The only ever built Porsche 961 Coupé debuted at Le Mans in 1986 in its own class, the experimental IMSA GTX. The race was a great success for Porsche with nine cars in the top ten, but the 961 ended 7th overall. After Le Mans the 961 entered the last round of the IMSA championship at Daytona in the United States. The tyres of the Porsche were struggling with the banked turns of the circuit, resulting in several blowouts. Eventually the 961 finished on a disappointing 24th place. The year 1986 also marked the end for Group B racing, as it was being disestablished following a series of fatal crashes.
In 1987 the Porsche 961 returned at Le Mans. The white racing car had received a new livery, now it beared a Rothmans trim. An additional ten horsepower was added, resulting in a total of 650. But this was no to avail, as the car spun out of control, hit the barriers and was engulfed in flames. The third race was also its last.
While the 961 was severely damaged and retired, the first customers received the keys of their 959, the first supercar to use an all-wheel drive system. A total of 337 cars were produced, but Porsche lost money on every one built. The price tag of $225.000 dollar wasn’t enough to to cover all the expenses, according to some sources the price tag was half what it cost Porsche to build each one, others even suggest the retail price only covered a quarter of the total costs. Whatever the 959 may have cost, Porsche had given the world the most advanced sports car of its time. But the 959 never raced again, the only Porsche 961 was restored and is now on display in the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart.