Steve McQueen isn’t the only movie star to find himself upstaged by the effortless, Teutonic cool of the Porsche 911. Sure, he gives it a serious run for its money in the pre-credit sequence of his glorious 1971 film Le Mans – the turtleneck, desert boots and Persol sunglasses form a much-copied look
– but the 911 S he’s seen driving around Circuit de la Sarthe edges it.
What about Robert Redford’s 911 T, his four-wheeled co-star in 1969’s Downhill Racer? Or even the 911 Diane Keaton’s crazy on-screen brother, played by Christopher Walken, drives in Annie Hall, prompting one of the funniest lines Woody Allen has ever written (‘I have to go now, Duane, because I’m due back on planet Earth’). The Porsche 911 isn’t just another sports car, it’s the sports car. Film makers understand this, but so do Porsche’s peers in the car business. Every automotive designer I’ve ever spoken to – including, when pushed, the ones that work for rival sports car makers – cite the 911 as the product they most admire.
It’s partly because brand consistency is one of the qualities they all strive to deliver. And the 911 is certainly consistent. A beacon, in fact. Since arriving in 1963, Porsche has disdained revolution in favour of the most carefully managed but at times utterly brilliant evolution when it comes to its signature car.
Originally conceived by Ferdinand “Butzi” Porsche, grandson of the company’s founder, he stuck to his father Ferry’s idiosyncratic insistence that the engine should sit over the rear axle. Anyone who’s ever hammered a 911 out of a corner will know how unique and addictive the resulting sensation is, but it’s
a layout that also demands maximum respect. The 911 places the driver at the heart of the machine, and the lucidity of its responses – through the steering wheel and throttle pedal – has always been apparent.
The Carrera name, of course, is a key part of the Porsche lexicon. It was derived from the early 1950s, 2,178-mile Carrera Panamericana road race that was to Mexico what the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio were to post-war Italy. Porsche’s motorsport boss was the larger-than-life Prussian aristocrat Huschke von Hanstein, himself a handy driver, but also a great marketeer who spotted the event’s PR potential. Much of Porsche’s early mythology rests on the success of the ultra-lightweight 550 Spyders that competed in the gruelling Mexican event – renowned as the most dangerous in the world; in 1954, the last year the Carrera Panamericana was run in earnest, Porsche finished third and fourth overall.
According to Porsche’s official timeline, the Carrera name first appeared on the Type 547 four-camshaft engine designed by Dr Ernst Fuhrmann (a clever and complex engine, one he himself ascribed to ‘the folly of youth’). From there, it became the suffix on the company’s most powerful model derivatives. The first of these was the 356 Carrera, unveiled at the 1955 Frankfurt Motor Show, which featured numerous competition-inspired technical modifications.
As for the car we today associate with the Carrera moniker, the magnificent and ever-popular 911, it arrived in 1963, smoother of body and powered by an air-cooled flat-six 2.0-litre that produced 130bhp. Well, it had to start somewhere. The 1966 911 S upped the power; the following year’s Targa removed the roof panel and immediately infused the car with the zesty spirit of Californian good times.
In truth, there are more great 911s than we have space to list here. The Carrera name re-appeared when Porsche affixed it to 1972’s Carrera 2.7 RS, a road car teeming with racing know-how and easily recognisable thanks to its ducktail rear spoiler. By modern standards, the 208bhp mustered by its enlarged engine doesn’t sound like much, but its lightweight construction – some versions of the car were made of thin gauge steel – saw the Carrera RS set the template for the astonishingly interactive driving dynamics that Porsche has since honed to perfection. Only 1,580 versions of the model were made, and they’re now the most sought-after of all.
A heavily revised 911 arrived in 1974, wearing the impact-resistant bumpers demanded by US legislators. Porsche’s first supercar, the 930 Turbo, landed a year later, heralding a wildly high performance car whose competition siblings would dominate the world sports car racing championships.
The Turbo’s enormous whale tail saw it challenge its more flamboyant Italian rivals for space on many 1970s bedroom walls. Interestingly, 1978’s all-new front-engined 928 model was meant to replace the 911, but never did. It never could.
The 911’s path to glory throughout the subsequent decades is a testament to Porsche’s remarkable engineering rigour, rather than clever marketing. It spawned a sensational Speedster version in 1988, and was reborn in early 1993 with a crowd-pleasing design that cleverly referenced the original.
This was also the last time its famous six-cylinder engine would be air cooled. Track-oriented GT2 and GT3 versions showcase how methodically Porsche engineers its thrills these days. But even the ‘entry-level’ 2021 911 Carrera sets the bar sky-high. The world’s greatest sports car has honestly never been better than it is right now.
Jason Barlow Long-standing contributor to BBC’s Top Gear and GQ