With its legendary flat-six growl and sling-shot acceleration, Porsche’s 911 has arguably delivered more driving thrills than any other sports car over the last 6 decades. Long after its own maker tried to supersede it, the iconic rear-engined marvel remains the mainstay of the company’s product line-up. And its success is arguably thanks to the (now) seemingly humble SC model of the late 1970s and early ’80s.
By Graeme Hurst
Some years back I had the privilege of interviewing two-time World Rally Champion Walter Röhrl. Back then, he was on Porsche’s payroll as a senior test driver and I was after his views on the 911’s development, including why Porsche had gone to the substantial expense of developing a double wishbone rear end for the 993 when the air-cooled format was facing the axe. “Because the board told us we can’t have customers going off backwards into the Black Forest no more,” was the ace driver’s reply.
It summed up the reality the famous Stuttgart sports car maker faced back in the early ’90s: the appetite for its famous rear-engined design (one deemed too twitchy and unforgiving on the limit) was simply never going to die. But customers were, unless Porsche made the concept safe. The same concept that had gone from delivering 130bhp in 1963 to 360bhp almost 30 years later. It must have been a frustrating but happy conundrum for the board; while rivals had to shell out for a new model from scratch, Porsche just had to tweak what was already great to up their game.
But in truth, Stuttgart grappled with that dilemma on a regular basis. Rewind to the early 1970s when the then-board signed off on the G-series derivative (known as the ‘smile bumper’ thanks to its rubber-fronted concertina bumper) to give the 911 concept a stay of execution in the face of US Federal safety legislation. That’s all it was meant to be: an extension of time for an already long–in–the-tooth design. One that was pretty basic ergonomically. And one boasting DNA links to the original VW Beetle.
But that’s not how 911 owners saw it: where rivals like Mercedes and Jaguar had morphed their sports car offerings into Autobahn-eating Grand Tourers, Porsche’s 1973 G-series still offered an addictive if somewhat raw persona that made for an exhilarating drive. More so when the flat six’s capacity was stretched from 2.7 to 3-litres. That brought in the Carrera moniker with the ‘Carrera 3.0’ badge on the 911’s rump. And with a healthy 201bhp in a car tipping the scales at just over 1100kg, that’s the only view most other driver’s got to see – more briefly if they were looking at the 260bhp 911 Turbo variant launched a year on.
The stonking performance of the latter soon afforded Stuttgart near supercar status but its price tag meant it only sold in small numbers. By comparison, the naturally aspirated variant was in huge demand. So much so, Porsche tamed it a bit with the launch of the 180-bhp SC (for Super Carrera); a more driveable variant with wider appeal.
A drop in power (albeit with a better torque curve) with a new model? Didn’t make business sense but that was 1978: a year after Porsche pulled the cover off its fabulous 928 at Geneva. This hugely capable front-engined V8 offering was meant to give the world a taste of the future and consign the 911 to the history book. The press agreed, electing the 928 as European Car of the Year in ’78. But Porsche fans were underwhelmed by the newcomer’s radical looks and sophisticated road manners. As as result, SC sales continued to climb and Porsche quickly cranked up the horses to avoid buyers being embarrassed after pulling out of the showroom.
So what lay behind the attraction? Drive a 911 like this ’79 SC today and you’ll likely develop an appetite for one. After firing up the flat-six you quickly appreciate the 911’s simplicity and rawness, even at low speeds. Aspects that come thanks to having less; the unassisted (and un-damped) steering is direct with oodles of feedback while the un-servo’d brakes make one feel as if your right shoe’s doing the stopping. There’s a directness in the basic ergonomics too, with the rev counter taking centre stage and a gear action that’s deliciously tactile.
But the real thrill is the growl of the flat-six and the massive amount of traction that it delivers at the back. Fast, sweeping corners are particularly addictive as you revel in the slingshot effect as the wide rubber on the rear digs in. It’s a highly visceral experience and, while an SC’s performance metrics wouldn’t stand out today, they were impressive 40 years ago. More so with the Carrera that followed in ’84 and offered an emissions-friendly 231bhp for all markets.That was the G-series in full-fat form before it bowed out to the 964 in ’89, some 26 years and 200,000 cars after launch. 120,000 more than the original 911 and a number Porsche’s board would only see again with the 997 but which arguably only came thanks to the success of the longest-running 911 variant.