Some 999,916 cars later, I’m sitting in the one-millionth 911 and more frightened than I’ve been in a 911 in years. It is the day before it goes on a global tour before being retired to the museum. One hundred miles away in Edinburgh, journalists from around the world are arriving, along with Porsche top brass. Marching bands – literally – are assembling at Edinburgh Castle to mark its public debut. This may be ‘only’ a standard production Carrera S, but right now to Porsche, it is probably the most important 911 in the world. I have no chaperone, the Highlands lie before me and the roads are wet. Briefly, I picture spinning it off the road and physically shudder. So instead, I go to my happy place and think about what brought the 911 to this point.
In essence, the answer is pragmatism. Not once in its life that I can recall has the 911 ever held a road car record. No 911 has ever been the fastest, and it’s certainly not the longest-serving sports car still to be in production, nor even has it been built in the largest numbers. The Chevrolet Corvette, launched 10 years before the 911, passed the one million mark 35 years ago and 1.5 million in 2013. By now, it must be close to two million. Yes, the 911 was the first to make a real success of turbocharging, but it was not even close to being the first turbocharged road car. Only on the track, where it is head, shoulders, knees and toes the most successful racing car of all time, has it proven indomitable. And yet the real reason for the 911’s success is that it works.
Seems simple, doesn’t it? Simplistic even. But it’s true: had the 911 not combined a wild spirit with the ease of ownership of a Miele dishwasher from the outset, I’d not be writing these words now. It slipped deftly into people’s lives yet turned every journey into an occasion. And it never went wrong.
After a while, even that reputation for being tricky on the limit started to help. It marked out 911 owners as adventurers, skilled hands who laughed in the face of danger. No matter that the 911 was nothing like as difficult as my predecessors made out, or that to avoid all chance of encountering its dark side, all you had to do was keep away from the limit. And even if you did feel like prodding the tiger, so long as you obeyed the one basic ‘slow in, fast out’ rule that really should apply to all cars being driven quickly on public roads, even early 911s were fine. Pussy cats indeed.
The last normal 911 that was in any way over-exuberant on the limit (for ‘normal’, read pretty much all save the GT2s) went out of production more than 30 years ago, but the legacy lives on. Which means the legend of the 911 has become selfperpetuating to a very great extent, insofar as can you imagine how big a duffer Porsche would have to produce to kill it now? Me neither.
And it has stayed faithful to the formula. You might scoff at the very notion when you see how large the 911 has become, but relative to the generational growth of family cars like, say, a Volkswagen Golf, it has hardly grown at all. The 911 still has easily the shortest wheelbase of its competitor set, and if you have cause to keep up with a powerful midengined supercar, you’ll appreciate its relative narrowness as much now as you’d ever have done then. Probably more.
Ghosts are gathering. A 1960s short-wheelbase Targa buzzes alongside, followed by the growling prototype G-series ClubSport to cover the 1970s and 1980s. A 964-series Turbo is an interesting choice for this is one of the few genuinely difficult 911s – an urbane sophisticate in a tuxedo with a stiletto blade up his sleeve: the Patrick Bateman of the 911 world. Then there’s a 993, the last of the aircooled cars, complete with Targa top and four-speed Tiptronic gearbox. I always preferred the manual coupés, but the shape is a delight as ever. And one water-cooled car, an original 996 GT3 to serve as the final spectre of 911s from decades gone past.
I try them all before deciding what to do with the millionth car. The original Targa illustrates perfectly an enduring old 911 truth: they look fragile but are preposterously robust and respond beautifully to a firm hand and confident foot. It feels fast, too, faster than a 2.0-litre car half a century old has a right to feel.
Although it is not, the ClubSport feels like the mid-point in 911 evolution, as closely related to the cars of today as the very first. It is a joy to drive. The 964 is hilarious because it’s so quiet and so civilised yet you know it’ll mug you as soon as its back breaks loose. Don’t give it that chance.
An early rear-drive manual 993 coupé with 17in wheels and air conditioning (silver with black leather as you’re asking) would be pretty much the 911 of my dreams. It’s tiny, air-cooled, very quick, beautifully behaved, exquisitely built and completely out of my price range.
And then the old GT3. My, oh, my. Because all these cars are owned by Porsche and maintained by the factory museum, they are in as-new condition. So it not only leaps down the road, but its chassis also feels a lot more together than many modern sports cars. Like all the best 911s, it makes you want to drive it as fast as you sensibly can and then, instead of punishing your foolhardiness, it rains reward down upon your head for taking it at its word.
So now we have context; what we don’t have is time. Somewhat understandably, Porsche wants its car back and I can only ignore the supplications of my telephone for so long. I have a Carrera S long-term test car not dissimilar to this car so I could just turn around and slink slowly back to Edinburgh, write the words and no one would be any the wiser. But this is a landmark car and, save some rather lovely details (wood inside, special needles, houndstooth upholstery, the odd plaque and so on), it’s in deliciously basic spec: manual with iron brakes and very little else. I simply cannot not drive it.
I’m lucky. I get a good run of 15-20 miles of effectively uninterrupted driving, which is enough to get the one-millionth 911 singing and me feeling as privileged as if I were driving the original prototype. It feels quick – quick enough for me to wonder if it has a GTS engine on board (a £7k option on the Carrera S) – but most of all, it feels like a 911.
What do I mean by this? No, it doesn’t corner in a state of incipient oversteer like the early cars. No, the wheel does not writhe around in your hands like that of the Clubbie. It lacks the split personality of the 964 Turbo and the animal aggression of the GT3. In its character, it is most like the 993: complete, rounded, your faithful friend and clandestine conspirator. But in its love for the open road, the inimitable melody of its engine, its compactness, its look and that sense of sheer unbustability, this car is a 911 down to its dust caps.
But the best thing about the millionth 911 is simply that: it’s just another 911. Porsche is keeping this car so could easily have turned it into a show pony, the 911’s greatest hits all under one gently sloping roof, but it declined the opportunity. A touch of paste and Irish Green paint aside, it could be any other 911. One of the crowd. Not one in a million, but one of a million. The distinction is crucial. An ordinary example of the most extraordinary sporting car there has been or will ever be. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.