IN 1987, ON A 15.5-MILE TEST OVAL in Ehra-Lessien, Germany, a 469-hp twin-turbo Porsche 911 went 211 mph. Only it wasn’t technically a Porsche—it did not wear a Stuttgart VIN and was known legally as a Ruf CTR. The car had been completed just one week before, in a small garage in the village of Pfaffenhausen, by a 37-year-old man born in the house next door. And for a brief, shining moment, it was the most potent production device this magazine had ever seen.
A moment we made happen. The July 1987 issue of R&T holds a test called “The World’s Fastest Cars.” It was the second running of an experiment we first tried in 1984. The ’87 version includes nine exotics, from an Isdera Imperator 108i to a Lamborghini Countach 5000S Quattrovalvole. Porsche sent no less than two examples of its range-topping 959, and a Ferrari Testarossa was clocked at 185 mph. The slowest machine went 176, in an era before computers were used to keep supercars aerodynamically stable. Before the invention of electronic stability control, when an industry discovered how to claim a slide using silicon and wheel-speed sensors. Before the 253-mph Bugatti Veyron made the top-speed question almost irrelevant. When most new sport sedans would only crack 150 mph if you dropped them from space.
At 211 mph, the CTR topped everything. A heady achievement, in heady company. Like all the cars in that test, Ruf’s machine was driven by Phil Hill, the magazine’s de facto chief tester. He was a graceful writer, a three-time Le Mans winner who drove for everyone from Ferrari to Chaparral, and the first American to land the Formula 1 drivers’ world championship. Assisting him was Paul Frère, R&T’s European editor, another Le Mans winner and a former Ferrari factory F1 driver who had long been considered the dean of European automotive journalists.
The story was penned by Peter Egan. In what can only be taken as a measure of the test’s four-wheeled stock, Frère dryly called the 959 “not all that exhilarating” at low rpm. (Lest you think the man jaded, at one point in the Ruf, somewhere above 200 mph, he grinned manically and yelled to his passenger, “This is faster than I’ve ever gone in my life!”) Egan’s story noted that Ruf’s car had been nicknamed “Yellow Bird,” because that’s what the thing looked like, blistering across the landscape. The moniker stuck, and Ruf proceeded to sell production versions under the name CTR, for group C Turbo Ruf. Shortly after, he put his best friend Stefan Roser in the car, on the Nürburgring, with a video camera. The resulting tape featured a man in shirt sleeves and no helmet, drifting one of the world’s most dangerous tracks. It became one of the first viral car videos, circulated on countless VHS bootlegs .
Ruf Automobile GmbH is still in business. Alois Ruf turned 67 this year, and his 65-man firm is still registered with the German government as a vehicle manufacturer, still earning its own VINs through altered Porsche engineering. He still works in the same garage that housed his business in 1987.
But none of Ruf’s creations have rung quite as many bells as the Yellow Bird, which he still owns. There is no European hot rod more evocative of the freedom of its time, no more epic Road & Track test, and no machine as tied to this institution. At this year’s Geneva auto show, to mark the CTR’s 30th anniversary, Ruf released a carbon-bodied, 700-hp successor, again in the shape of an air-cooled 911. In late 2016, we spent a day at his shop, discussing Porsches, the changing tuning industry, and the role of sports cars in an unstable world. Plus the undeniable pull of a simple, straightforward machine that looks an awful lot like a 911, but isn’t.
SAM SMITH: Two hundred and eleven miles per hour, at a time when Porsche’s fastest production machine was 13 mph slower, almost $100,000 more expensive, and twice as complicated. I read somewhere that you finished building the Bird less than a month before.
ALOIS RUF: About one week. [Laughs.] It was rainy. April, lousy weather–just black sky. And the cars were running at high speed, throwing water. It was crazy. After, we had lunch in Pfaffenhausen, celebrating Phil Hill’s 60th birthday. Can you believe it? He said, “It’s my birthday today.” I said, “Okay, then happy birthday. Let’s have a party.”
SS: When your father built a garage, he probably didn’t foresee world champions partying in your office.
AR: Yeah, the company has been around since 1939. The house [next door] is where I was born. My father said, “This is going to be a big business. The entrance of Pfaffenhausen. This is meant to be a car business.” In the difficult years after World War II, my father was very successful, because he was somebody who could put something together out of nothing.
SS: It’s funny how fame works—a lot of people think the company began with the Yellow Bird.
AR: There was a lot more before. I was born in 1950. When I started to crawl, I was in my dad’s workshop. I wanted to know everything. I fell into the waste-oil bucket. [Laughs.] One of the greatest things that my father did—that impressed me most as a child—was building his own tour bus. One day, he brings in two big steel beams, and he says, “My boy,”—I was six years old—“in one year, it’s going to be ready.”
SS: Something tells me he pulled it off.
AR: It was ready in one year! He built his own version of a Mercedes 0321H. Used the bus, over 15 years, to take people around. When he was driving it in 1963, a Porsche 356 passed him, lost control, rolled two or three times. My dad stopped and looked after [the driver]. He took him to the hospital, said, “I’ll pick up your car, bring it to the garage. Just relax.” A week later, he bought the [wrecked] car over the telephone. We fixed it, and that was our first Porsche.
The whole family fell in love with this car. Then one day, we [took it] to Munich, on a Sunday afternoon. I was 13, 14 years old. A young man knocks at the side window. “I want to buy your car. This is exactly the car I was looking for.”
SS: Because he just wanted a Porsche?
AR: It was a very rare model. A Karmann Hardtop. He gave us the money [right there]. He was driving another 356, and we drove home in his car. He trusted us. Nobody knew the Rufs at that time. My father said, “I have never seen anything like that. These people with Porsche, they must be special people. Maybe they’re crazy, but it’s good, you know?”
We built up an image as a specialist. Then in the late Seventies, Stuttgart announced the final call of the 911. [A few] more years, then it’s the end. I realized that there is a community of people who want 911s, no matter what. I said, “Even if the community is small, I’ll stick with those people, because I like the 911, too. I’m okay with that.” I wanted to continue making special models, because Porsche had shrunk the [non-Turbo] lineup down to the 911 SC. And the answer from Porsche was, “Well, the 911, you cannot do more with this car. This is the end. You should switch to a 928.” (Porsche CEO Peter Schutz decided not to replace the 911 with the 928 in 1981—Ed.)
SS: That thinking led you to build cars like the 1978 Ruf SCR—a 3.2-liter engine in a 3.0-liter Carrera. And, earlier, your own five-speed gearboxes.
AR: Porsche said, “This car doesn’t need a five-speed. Such strong torque. Four-speed is good enough. Most people who can afford that expensive car, they don’t want to mess with a fifth gear.” Complete reverse of what they do today and what they did before.
SS: But it left an opportunity.
AR: The 911’s last call, that was an opportunity. When they decided for a four-speed, we could go to a five. When they went to a five, we went to a six. They always left a gap where we said, “Okay, we can step in and do this.”
SS: So many people found your work in the Eighties, through car magazines. They were the main funnel—the information wasn’t available anywhere else.
AR: Like Auto Motor und Sport. You can always play with my name, because it’s very short, and “Ruf” means “call” in German. It also means “reputation.” So the headline was, “Porsches guter Ruf.” Which means, “Porsche’s good reputation.”
SS: And that you’re either saving it or . . . something else.
AR: I was not very much liked at Stuttgart for this. Then I made my crusade to California and went to the famous [Road & Track] Monrovia Avenue building.
SS: You just walked in?
AR: [Motorsport editor] Joe Rusz said, “Well, show me what you have been doing.” I brought those magazines, where [my car] was on the cover, and he started talking to me. [Laughs.]
SS: And then you were cold-called by Paul Frère, one of history’s coolest humans, for that first top-speed test.
AR: Frère says, “Mr. Ruf, we want to invite you for a Road & Track story.” He put that together. I had no clue what this event was. So I took our narrow-bodied turbo model, with a five-speed gearbox. 369 hp. I asked Dunlop to prepare a set of tires, and I thought, I cannot risk driving them on the autobahn. I may have a puncture or something. So I put them in the car—two tires on my passenger seat and two in the back. It was totally packed. I drove up to Ehra-Lessien by myself!
SS: It was this nutty era where manufacturers were actively pushing that barrier. Indy-car speeds with relatively simple engineering.
AR: Ferrari didn’t want to come, so the vice president of the German Ferrari owners club came with an outdated model. He says, “We have to represent Ferrari.” The Porsche factory sent a 930 Turbo. Aston Martin, they had bad luck—spark plugs that were too hot, not good enough for a high-speed run. Holed a piston. Nobody expected my car to be so fast.
Then we drove home, and Porsche was shocked.
SS: You were turning their cars into something else. The way that company works—I can’t imagine they were thrilled.
AR: It was always comme ci, comme ça. Because there was this jealousy, but at the same time, they could always say a Porsche won. Better than a Lamborghini or a Ferrari. The car that looks like a frog. A marketing director at Ferrari once told me, “I know, your car, it works. It’s a very good car. But look, next to a Ferrari, it looks like a frog.” [Laughs.] It’s the Beetle. But then, we knew what “World’s Fastest Cars” meant—serious driving, to the bone. If an engine lasts there, it lasts anywhere.
SS: The second World’s Fastest Cars round, in 1987—everything I’ve read, it sounds more dramatic.
AR: Much more, because now everybody knew what the event was about.
SS: There’s something with the yellow car that sticks in people’s minds. That test and the infamous Stefan Roser video, drifting the Ring in loafers and white socks.
AR: That project was originally called 945R. That idea came in 1980. I have sketches, design sketches, for what this car was supposed to look like . . . a Ruf supercar. “Nine” because it was based on the 911, and “45” for 450 hp.
That was an exorbitant number at that time. We were thinking how we could achieve that, twin turbocharging, because the [single-turbo] 930 engines, they were already too aged when they came out. But in 1982, I heard through the grapevine that Porsche was going to make a supercar . . . the 959. That scared me. I thought, Gosh . . . we have no chance. The [Yellow Bird] engine was the leftover from that dream. The five-speed gearbox was our design from 1981, so we put that all into the regular shape of a 911, with the shaved rain gutters, to make the car more distinctive and also better aerodynamically. We kept the car as light and as simple as possible.
It was so great. I mean, Phil Hill was so excited. The guys, they were competing with each other. Paul came in and he had the number written on his palm—336.1 km/h. He was all excited. And then Phil got in the car and came back—339.8 km/h. [Laughs.] It was a milestone.
SS: The industry has changed so much. So much that was possible for a small company, that you just can’t do now.
AR: The cars were analog. Cars today are computers from A to Z. But we were introducing, in our car, computer technology for engine management. The system was from Bosch, the so-called 1.2, a racing unit also used in the 962.
SS: The Bird had the engine brain from a Le Mans car?
AR: To get that kind of performance, you needed a digital management system. And they were not readily available like today. At the time, Bosch was the one who had the perfect match for our needs, and you were walking in and praying that they would serve you. Thank God, they had one guy who said, “Okay, I want to help you.” Normally, they only talked to the big OEMs.
SS: And yet, even Porsche was a small company until the Nineties. Has your relationship with them evolved as they’ve grown?
AR: It has always been curves, up and down, depending on who was running the company and how open-minded they were. With the Yellow Bird, the second high-speed run that we did at Nardó, in 1988, Porsche actually sent an engineer to collect data. They wanted to know cylinder-head temperature and all these things. It was great to work together with those men, because we spoke the same language. But then you get a new CEO, and everything’s over.
SS: The tuning business, in particular, is so different from what it was.
AR: The things that used to be possible are just not possible anymore. Everything is reduced to electronics and laptops. But we aren’t trying to be in that business anymore. We are a car manufacturer, and since 1981, we put our own chassis numbers on the cars. We are concentrating on building our special models. People have come back to the more . . . down-to-earth cars. Modern cars have stability control and all kinds of stuff. All of that is perfect, but it takes away some of your personal engagement.
SS: Does a car have to be imperfect to be interesting?
AR: It’s difficult to say yes or no. But you want to have this machine with its own life and tale. Imagine a dog with no personality.
SS: Part of the industry is now chasing simplicity—machines, like the Corvette Z06 or 911 R, that digitally simulate analog feel. Does any of that interest you?
AR: Yes. But more interesting is—and again, this is a small market—four wheels, a steering wheel, superlight weight, and power. The weight ratio is everything. And what type of horsepower. How do these horses feel?
Maybe we run an engine on the dyno, and we come up with a beautiful number. I say, “Okay. Looks great. But I want to feel them first.” We call this, in German, the Popometer. Popo is the butt.
SS: It’s conflicting, though, if you love technology. Because progress has undeniably made the automobile better, faster, easier.
AR: It’s a great achievement. Anybody can drive anything. With the 911, they used to say, “Widow maker. This must be a crazy guy that drives that car, a hero.” And today, anybody can drive a 911, because it’s so tamed. [Cars are] so much alike, it’s unbelievable. If you were blindfolded, you sometimes wouldn’t know which car you were in.
SS: A lot of people think Porsche doesn’t understand the appeal of simple. That it’s more than just numbers—the widespread protest when the last 911 GT3 wasn’t available with a clutch pedal, for example.
AR: When Porsche had only one model, it was a cult. We were always flashing headlights when you saw another Porsche, and sometimes you would even stop and talk, make friends. “Let’s go for a beer.” Exchange information. “Oh, did this also break? Did you have a chain-tension problem?” “Oh, yeah. Of course.” [Laughs.]
But you never blamed the company, because this was part of the whole charm. And when Porsche was in negative headlines, you would quickly order another one to help them.
SS: So much of that culture changed because car companies had to change. Manufacturing a safe, clean, and fast automobile is now exponentially more complex.
AR: It used to be, you went there, at the factory, picked up your car. You had to pay in cash. There was a little vault. There was blonde lady sitting there. Thick glass, like at a bank, and you were counting your money, and she pulled the money in, and she gave you a receipt, and then you could pick up your car.
SS: How long did that last?
AR: To the Eighties, even. And then, [they gave you a new car with] an empty gas tank. [Laughs.] But you were given a free lunch. The same lunch that the workers ate. The same ladies that served the workers, but you had white tablecloths and fancier napkins. Harald Wagner, the sales chief, he would maybe give [your wife] a scarf as a present. That was the charm of that company. When you were picking up a car and loving it, no matter how simple the food, because it was the best in the world on that day.
SS: What would you change about Porsche, as the company sits now?
AR: Too corporate. Every way, shape, and form.
SS: To be fair, though, the market pretty much requires it.
AR: Back then, when the car was purchased, people had the money made. Today, it’s leased. It was a different culture. “Okay, I’m going to lease a Porsche. Ah, I had it a year. I think I will do an Audi now.” It’s more of a fashion thing. When you had to make every penny to pay for that car first, you had a different relationship with it.
SS: The new cars you’re building . . .
AR: We’re coming through an evolution, and the evolution is going backward, actually. [Laughs.]
SS: Judging by how busy the shop is, people like it.
AR: They like the purity and simplicity. I have a customer in the United States, he’s a fashion designer. He says, “This is an honest car.”
SS: The shop echoes that—the place is just so warm and friendly. The building is small enough to see through.
AR: It’s just the way we do things, you know? People say, “This reminds me of what Porsche was in the Fifties and Sixties.” Customers knew certain people in the factory. They had this relationship. We want to continue like this. This is the best way, I think.
Ruf Porsche 930 Turbo: Used a Ruf- designed five-speed gearbox and a 369- hp, 3.4-liter turbo at-six. Reached 186.2 mph in R&T’s first World’s Fastest Cars test, in 1984.
CTR: The house the Yellow Bird built. Production cars based on the Bird blueprint. The 463-hp dyno rating is widely believed to be conservative. (Porsche’s twin- turbo 959, released the same year, made 444 hp.) Ruf later said, “We use very big horses in Pfaenhausen.”
CTR2: Built from 1997 to 1999. Based on the 993-platform 911. A claimed top speed of 213.4 mph.
CTR3 Clubsport: A tube-frame, Porsche-based supercar that looks like a fever dream of a Porsche Cayman. Still in production.
2017 Ruf CTR: Unveiled at the 2017 Geneva auto show. Pays visual tribute to the Yellow Bird but has a Ruf-designed, carbon-ber uni- body. Seven hundred horsepower and a claimed top speed of 224 mph.