To see a Porsche 959, the supercar that redefined what it means to be a supercar, I went to Bruce Canepa's shop in Scotts Valley, California. I drove the 260 miles from my house in Santa Barbara in one of the 959's descendants, a $214,000 . The Panamera is an exemplary car, faster and safer and more luxurious than the 959, but it owes that machine a debt. Supercars are in the business of predicting the future, and the 959 is the supercar that got the future right.
Consider the Turbo S: It makes 550 hp and features a massively complex, computer-controlled all-wheel-drive system. It's a 190-mph four-door that, given the chance, could probably run from New York to L.A. in under 18 hours. But it's not an earthshaker. When the Turbo S—a hot-rodded version of the $139,625 Panamera Turbo, itself a hot-rodded version of the $76,825 —was introduced, the world didn't look twice. Pundits offered nods of approval, but the car's launch was almost a routine moment, one dusted with a sense of been-there, donethat. In the Panamera, Porsche already had a fast, world-beating four-door sedan. When it evolved that car to extraordinary levels, the company was just following a template.
There was a time, however, when that template didn't exist. For the 1986 model year, Porsche introduced the 959—a twin-turbo, all-wheel-drive, 444-hp, range-topping 911 built with little regard for cost and packed with every bit of racing technology the company could spare. Just 337 examples were built, but they shook the world.
"Porsche engineers were given a goal and set free," explains Dieter Landenberger, the head of historical archive. "The 959 put Porsche on the map when it came to innovative automotive technology. There were 934s and 935s, and even the 956/962, but to put it all together in a street car was unheard of. It was a major factor in moving Porsche's racing prowess from the track to the street."
It was also an instant legend, the kind of thing ready-made for poster duty on some kid's bedroom wall. Poster-wise, in the 1980s you were either a 959 guy or a Ferrari F40 guy. The raw, bewinged F40 exceeded the 959 in terms of visual wallop, and with 471 hp aboard it could be quicker when driven well. But it was a technological dead end. It had Kevlar body panels and a twin-turbo V-8, but the car's tube frame was retro-tech from the start, and there was nothing particularly pioneering about its drivetrain. Ferrari hasn't built another turbocharged car since.
The 959, with its tire-pressure-monitoring system and four-channel antilock brakes, may have been a little less sexy, a little more cerebral, perhaps a little slower. But it was a legitimate 200-mph car, far faster than the Ferrari Testarossas and Lamborghini Countaches adorning lesser posters. And more significantly, the 959's technological DNA abounds today not only in the world's 911 Turbos and Panameras, but in plenty of practical, affordable cars that people don't think twice about.
In a 959, and it doesn't feel like you're ensconced in a $700,000, paradigmshattering icon. Save a few gauges, everything here would be familiar to anyone who's driven an air-cooled 911. By contrast, the Turbo S cockpit is upholstered in two things: leather and electrical switches. The 959 offers similar accouterments—electronically adjustable dampers, drivetrain modes for inclement weather—but it's far simpler, and it feels sophisticated in a way that modern performance cars don't. It's a confident machine that doesn't demand constant adjustment.
Beyond that, the 959 feels very small. Compared with today's cars, it is: it's only 168 inches long and rides on a short, 89.4-inch wheelbase. A 959 is about the size of a . You could drum your fingers on the car's windshield while gripping the steering wheel, touch any surface in the cockpit without stretching the seatbelt.
All of this is to say one thing: A lot of supercars feel like legends, cantankerous icons that you need to warm up to. The 959 is better than a legend. It's a real car.
The amazing bit comes when you look at the details. The 959's broad strokes are impressive but not outrageous. Its composite body, though shaped strictly for aerodynamic efficiency, was clearly 911-based. The DOHC four-valve heads are water-cooled and swiped from the 956/962 parts bin, but the 959's 2.8-liter block is still air-cooled. Turn the key and it sounds like a 911, chuffy and complex.
More than anything else, it was the computerization that was innovative. The 959 featured electronically controlled four-wheel drive, sequential turbocharging with computer-controlled wastegates, and electronically adjustable suspension. It was built with seven computers at a time when some cars survived with none at all.
A lot of that computing power went into managing the car's drive system. The 959's torque split could vary from 20:80 front-to-rear all the way to 50:50. The genius lay in software that varied the torque split according to conditions and load. A 959 driver could choose between four different modes of operation for the all-wheel-drive system using a dial in the cockpit: normal for operation on dry roads; another mode for wet surfaces; one for snow and ice; and a lock-up mode that distributed torque in a 50:50 split during emergencies.
When the car was new, the Porsche factory claimed a 0-to-60-mph time of 3.9 seconds, with the quarter-mile flashing by in 12.5. Almost 30 years later, the Panamera Turbo S slams to 60 mph half a second quicker and runs the quarter in 11.6 seconds. This is impressive, as the Turbo S weighs a full ton more than the 959, with luxurious seating and climate control for two additional people. But it doesn't take away from the earlier car's accomplishment—it simply cements it.
To put the 959 in context, it's important to remember that Porsche itself was at a philosophical crossroads when the 959 was conceived in 1981. The German marque was pushing the front-engine 944 as its volume model and the V-8-powered 928 as its high-end GT and 911 replacement. But for better or worse, the 911 was still the Porsche that buyers wanted. Stuttgart faced a decision: It could abandon the 911 altogether and betray its customers. It could continue tweaking the model and sell it as a nostalgia machine indefinitely. Or it could do something epic: reinvest in the 911 and reinvent it for the future.
The 959 was that reinvestment. It was a huge step forward for Porsche as a marque and an order of magnitude more sophisticated than anything else on the road. But it was also a signpost. No other supercar of any era did as much to predict the path of the automotive industry or fast cars in general. Nor was any other machine as much of a technological leap forward, at least in terms of practical, usable, enduring innovation. Virtually every carmaker worth its salt now sells a version of the 959—something turbocharged, computer-controlled, and all-wheel drive. Before 1986, no one had ever made that combination work in a docile street car. Now you can buy warmed-over economy cars with the same basic blueprint.
Logic dictates that a leap this large can't happen again, but the great thing about innovation is that you rarely see it coming. The 959 was a watermark. It won't be the last one, but it just might be the greatest.