The Porsche 911: a timeline of one of motoring's most iconic cars

A look back at the most famous three numbers on a car in the history of motoring.

Damien Reid November 6, 2014

It is one of the most recognisable car shapes of all time, even to people who have no interest in motoring. But not only that, just about anyone can tell you the make and model.

The Porsche 911 has been the quintessential sports car for half a century but its fame hasn’t come from being a James Bond car and for a long time it wasn’t all that active in motor sport, it was just the sports car to have. Before the 911, Porsche was a small engineering firm which sprouted during post WW2 Germany with a VW Beetle-based, four-cylinder sports car called the 356.

It became popular on the West Coast of America but it was a limited edition racing version called the 550 Spider which gained the most notoriety after rising Hollywood actor, James Dean was killed in one when driving his new car home from the dealer. 

Human nature being what it is, that piqued curiosity in the brand and probably gave it the momentum Porsche needed when it released its next model, the 911. The Porsche 911 started life as a design by "Butzi" Porsche, son of Ferdinand Porsche who created the VW Beetle and 356. It was due to be released as the 901 until a letter from Peugeot appeared kindly informing them that they owned (and still do) the rights to every three digit number with a zero in the middle for car names.

Porsche graciously renamed it the 911 and brought it to the 1963 Frankfurt Motor Show. When production began in 1964, the car had a two-litre, six-cylinder engine and sold for around $5,500. The design and engineering remained largely unchanged for the next 34 years with its trademark flat-six, air-cooled engine proving to be supremely reliable.

In 1975 the company added a turbocharger and with its large “whale tail” on the rear engine cover, the Porsche Turbo, now three-litres in size, became the poster car for teenage boys for the next 39 years. porsche917 Porsche’s success at the LeMans 24-Hour race in the 917 prototype cars gave the company the idea to enter the 911 as a GT car with a three-litre, 800bhp turbo engine and called it the 935. It was the development mule for what would become what many still regard today as the ultimate 911, the twin-turbo, 320kmh, Type 959.

This was built to compete in the 1986 Group B World Rally Championship and started a supercar war with the likes of the Ferrari F40, Jaguar XJ220 and McLaren F1. The 959 won the Paris-Dakar rally in 1986 but took its maiden win in the Middle East when Qatari driver Saeed Al Hajri and Dubai-based British expat John Spiller won the Pharaoh’s Rally in Egypt in 1985.

Porsche returned to LeMans in 1996 with the 911, this time as the vaguely street-based GT1 that produced 640bhp and of which only 25 were built to comply with the regulations. It won the 24-hour enduro on debut. porsche1996 1998 was a milestone year as the most radical change in the car’s history took place when the 996 series of the 911 was released with a completely new body and a water-cooled engine. The 911 was lucky to make it that far as a global recession in 1991 nearly closed the doors of the Porsche factory altogether after the 911 became the symbol of all that was bad with the greed-is-good generation.

However confidence was restored and the 996/997 version of the 911 continued for another 14 years as the company enjoyed unprecedented success thanks to the addition of other models such as the Boxster and Cayenne. These allowed Porsche to indulge in building low volume sports cars without fear of going bust.

In 2012, the company released the most recent version of the 911, the Type 991 which features a completely new body and drivetrain and is only the third time the car has been overhauled in its 50 year history. porsche2012 Images: Corbis