Happy 50th birthday, Porsche 911!

For 50 years it's been a car that people (mostly men) have lusted after. As a lavish new book celebrates the 911's anniversary, David Thomas looks at one of the greatest cars ever made

A couple of years ago, when Steve McQueen’s 1970 Porsche 911S came up for sale in Monterey, California, its $2.31 million price-tag was undoubtedly inflated by its provenance. Nonetheless, the car itself was a star in its own right.

For those who care about technicalities, it was a classic, first-generation 911, chassis number 91103 01502, painted slate grey. It had an air-cooled six cylinder 2,195cc engine producing 200 horsepower and a five-speed manual transmission (pictured below).

McQueen was a serious petrolhead, so it’s hardly a surprise that he should have wanted to be seen in one of the greatest cars in automotive history. The 911 is one of those rare designs, like the Mini and its close relative the Volkswagen Beetle, that is timeless.

A modern 911 may be packed with 21st-century technology, but its essential look and principles are unchanged from those first on display when it first made its debut at the 1963 Frankfurt Motor Show. (So great an event was it that the car’s semi-centenary is now being celebrated with a lavish coffee table book  from teNeues for a mere £80.)

However, there is one significant difference between the car shown in Frankfurt and today’s models. That 1963 Porsche was actually designated the Porsche 901. But Peugeot protested that it had a copyright in France on cars with a zero in the middle of their model number. So the car was given the 911 model name that it has kept to this day.

Right from the start, the key elements of a 911 were in place. The design was first sketched by Ferdinand ‘Butzi’ Porsche in 1959. Its origins – in both human and creative terms – can clearly be traced in the Porsche 356 sports car, designed by his father Ferdinand ‘Ferry’ Porsche in 1948. (Steve McQueen owned a 356 Speedster, too, by the way.)

This was in turn closely based on Ferry’s own father Dr Ferdinand Porsche’s 1935 creation: the Kraft durch Freude, or ‘Strength Through Joy’, car, designed at Hitler’s behest and otherwise known as the Volkswagen.

(The VW, meanwhile, was hugely influenced by, not to say borrowed from, Hans Ledwinka’s designs for the Czech Tatra car company, but that’s a whole other story.)

Ferdinand Alexander Porsche in 1963 with a Type 901. Photo from Porsche
Ferdinand ‘Butzi’ Porsche in 1963, with a Type 901 (later retagged the 911). Photo courtesy of Porsche
Porsche_911_S_2.7 _1974 Photo from Porsche
Evolution: a Porsche 911S in 1974

With such an illustrious pedigree, perhaps it is no surprise that the 911 was and remains an aesthetic triumph. Some sports cars have gloriously feminine lines, but the 911’s brilliant melding of curves and straight lines, strong verticals and sharply defined end-points gives it a sense of purpose and thrust that is altogether more testosterone-laden.

That masculinity, when taken to excess, has long been the 911’s Achilles heel. There was always a certain hairy-chested feel to the 911’s handling characteristics, for example. A high-speed turn, taken a little too fast or too sharply was liable to send its engine-laden rear end spinning catastrophically across the road – a characteristic, incidentally, that went all the way back to those Czech Tatras.

The 911 needed mastering, and that only made it all the more irresistible to those desperate to prove their masculinity.

The 911’s looks became correspondingly macho. From the mid-Seventies onwards, the Turbo and, later, GT models sported gigantic rear spoilers and bodywork so pumped up by customised panels that they seemed to have overdosed on steroids.

No wonder that by the Eighties, Porsche drivers tended to be merchant bankers, in both the professional and Cockney rhyming slang senses of the term.

Nowadays, thankfully, the 911’s design is more refined and its owners less maligned. Even if it were not, I defy anyone who has even the slightest love of cars not to look at McQueen’s 911 and think: that is a glorious piece of kit.

The Porsche 911 Book, 50th Anniversary Edition, £80, is published by TeNeues on 15 April 2013