Usually when someone comes up with a new and successful format for a car, it’s not long before everyone else piles in too. Not with the Porsche 911. Rear-engined cars with flat-six motors are not an exclusively Porsche province, but as the last one (the ill-fated Chevrolet Corvair) went out of production 50 years ago, I don’t think that need delay us here. Truth is the configuration was exceptional, providing a sports car with great packaging, a short wheelbase, incredible traction, a ground-hugging centre of gravity and superbly delicate steering. Yes, it had drawbacks, but none as great as was claimed, all capable of being engineered out of existence.
Why did no one follow it? Because from the off, Porsche did it too damn well and soon the layout became synonymous with the brand. Any attempt to do the same would be free advertising for Porsche.
All that explains what made the 911 great, but perhaps it doesn’t completely cover why the concept has survived so long. For that, look at the way the car has been developed: Porsche first tried to replace the 911 in the late 1970s when customers were asking for a more comfortable, user-friendly kind of car. But when that turned out to be something with a water-cooled engine in its nose, it turned out they’d rather have a 911 after all. So they adapted the 911 instead, adding a dizzying array of bodystyles and engine options so that there would be a 911 for everyone, including those only interested in the image a 911 presented to the outside world, and not the way that it drove.
Which could have been dangerous were it not for the fact that Porsche also took the 911 in the other direction too, particularly in the past 20 years of the GT series cars. And I think the real point lies here: for those of us who love great driving machines, the people who perpetuate the image of cars like the 911, the truth is that Porsche has continued to make 911s that are not simply better than ever, like the new 992, but cars that are greater driving machines too. While almost all other cars have their character diluted over time, the 911’s has become more concentrated.