Andrew Frankel has been racing cars for over 20 years and testing them for nearer to 30. He is senior contributing writer to both Autocar and MotorSport magazines, sits on the Car of the Year jury and was chief car tester for the Sunday Times for 15 years. He cites driving and writing as the only disciplines for which he has any talent and therefore considers himself vocationally employed. When he is not working he lives quietly in the Wye Valley with his family, a small and unimportant accumulation of cheap old cars and some sheep.
It is well remembered that the Porsche 911 was launched in September of 1963 at the Frankfurt Motorshow and for the purposes of this exercise we will gloss over the fact that, technically, it was the Porsche 901 – at least until Peugeot cried foul. You know what I mean.
Less easily recalled is what those early cars were like to drive. I’ve been lucky enough to get behind the wheel of a few in recent years and the one thing all had in common was that none had a factory standard engine. Although the 911 was launched with a very healthy 130bhp output from it 2-litre carb-fed motor (a far superior specific output than that offered by the 4.2-litre Jaguar E-type that went on sale at the same time), the Porsche engine was always designed with racing and far higher outputs in mind, which is why today they’ll give an easy and entirely reliable 180bhp without drastic modification.
The only allegedly standard 130bhp car I drove felt pleasantly rapid but no more; which appears to be what Porsche was thinking when, half a century ago this year, it launched the first 911 to be significantly modified from the original specification. It was called the 911S and from 1966 to 1973 and through three different engine sizes, it was the highest performing Porsche mere mortals could just turn up and buy. It was, and remains, an utterly wonderful car.
When first offered in 1966 it came with game changing performance. Careful attention was paid to the engine, which came with higher compression, bigger valves, different valve timing and larger venturi for its two triple choke Weber carbs that lifted power to 160bhp – a figure you could trust far more than some of the outputs claimed at the time for certain Italian and, indeed, British sports cars. For a tiny 2-litre engine 50 years ago, that was an extraordinary figure, as was the 7,300rpm speed to which it would happily spin. To say it transformed the 911’s performance is no exaggeration. In 1965 the brilliant Belgian race driver, motoring journalist and Porsche-phile Paul Frere coaxed a standard 911 to 60mph in 8.8 seconds, a very creditable time for the era. A year later and this time armed with a brand new 911S, he did the same in 6.8 seconds, which was utterly extraordinary. An American magazine managed 6.5 seconds, but having seen how they record figures over there – throttle to the floor between shifts – I’m not sure how long the car actually survived. I seriously doubt a standard E-type on more than double the engine capacity would have been even as fast, let alone faster.
But it wasn’t just the power. Remember those Fuchs alloy wheels, the gorgeous five-spoke design that provided so much of the identity of the early 911? They made their debut on the ‘S’ and saved over 2kg of unsprung mass per corner, as did fully ventilated disc brakes at all four corners – marque expert Karl Ludvigsen says it’s the first time such a configuration was offered on a European car. There were new shock absorbers, the fitment for the first time of a rear anti-roll bar and a completely revised set of ratios for a gearbox with five speeds as standard, one more than Jaguar was offering on the E-type even in the mid-70s!
Porsche continued to develop the car over time, raising engine power to 170bhp with fuel injection in 1969 and then, in 1970, 180bhp thanks to a new 2.2-litre capacity and, ultimately, a true 190bhp in 1972 with the 2.4-litre engine. People will argue over which is best, the 2-litre for the purity of its design, the 2.4 for its grunt or the 2.2 in the middle. For me it’s the 2.2 because it was bored, rather than stroked like the 2.4 for its extra capacity and screamed all the more as a result. But it’s just an opinion: the 2.4 is far more tractable and easy to live with.
And that was the peak. The oil crisis hit in 1973 and it would be seven years before a standard non-turbo 911 beat that figure, and it would need a 3-litre capacity to do it.
As for the ‘S’ name, it disappeared from normal use for almost a quarter of a century, re-appearing in 1996 in the 993 generation, denoting a standard car wearing wider Turbo bodywork – not really what Porsche had in mind 50 years ago. But at least it exists today to signify the high performance version of the standard 911 offering. But say 911S to me, and it’s not some modern machine that springs to mind, but the original, with its jewel of an engine, that wonderful sound and, of course, those Fuchs alloy wheels.
Images courtesy of Hemmings.