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Porsche 911: After 50 years, its engine is still at the wrong end

I've driven Porsche's perennial 911 sports car, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, on a number of occasions.

Some proving more of an "occasion" than others.

I've thrilled, and frightened myself in 911s on tracks such as Mosport – where I also likely caused concern for my passenger, legendary Porsche racer Hurley Heywood – and Road Atlanta.

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I once spun one in the hairpin at Shannonville Motorsport Park, the instructor in the right seat shouting, "Don't lift! Don't lift!" after I'd carried too much speed into the corner. I did, of course, and around we went.

That was in the days before Porsche had largely cured its notorious and often-excitement-generating lift-throttle-oversteer issues. I feel privileged to have experienced being bitten (punished for my ineptitude?) by this nasty side of the 911's character.

Another occasion saw fellow Globe Drive contributor Dan Proudfoot and me use a pair of all-wheel-drive newly introduced Carrera 4s as snowmobiles on a snow-covered northern Alberta runway, and chased each other over a fast, snow-packed road through the Rockies, pelting each other with pea gravel.

And I felt an empty pit form in my stomach after doing a 0-100 km/h test launch of one of the ferociously potent Turbo models, thinking I had scrambled its engine. Turned out to be just a whiff, ahem, of clutch, and reading the oil level rather than the oil pressure gauge.

I drove another around Gmund, Austria, where the sawmill that served as the spiritual home of post-war Porsche was located, and from which the 911's predecessor, the original 356 sports car, was born. A dozen 911s were being warmed up outside my hotel room window that morning, filling the courtyard with a magic-charged metallic music. There have, in fact, been a number of memory-making drives in 911s, most fast, over great roads, through superb scenery, in a number of countries.

The most recent was last fall, while judging in the AJAC Car of The Year competition, an all-too-short road-and-track test session in a seventh-generation 400-hp, 2013 Carrera S. It went on to win the Best New Prestige/Performance Car over $75,000 class, and was later also named winner of the Best New Design award. Not bad for a car with a basic form still instantly recognizable half a century after its introduction, and with its engine still located at the "wrong" end.

That it won these accolades shouldn't come as a surprise. Since its introduction in 1963, the 911 has been wowing automotive journalists and, at last count, 820,000-plus new-car buyers, along with untold numbers who've bought them used, and winning awards and race and rally trophies (two thirds of all Porsche wins have been by 911s).

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It's a car that has not only stood the test of time, but overcome virtually every other type of test gauntlet thrown down in front of its sloped nose. Ferry Porsche, son of legendary Ferdinand Porsche, who oversaw the 911's creation, described it as "the only car you could drive on an African Safari [rally] or at Le Mans, to the theatre or through New York City traffic."

By the late 1950s, Porsche's first post-war sports car, the simple and spartan 356, was showing its age in terms of performance and lacking in the increasing civility being demanded by sports car buyers. A more powerful two-door, four-seater was envisioned initially, and a design created by Ferdinand (known as Butzi) Porsche, son of Ferry, who headed the styling department.

But it was eventually decided in 1962 to stick to a 2+2 design (with minimal rear seating capability) that was to be called the 901. Butzi – aided by long-time Porsche employee Erwin Komenda (who had worked with his father on the 356) – borrowed some of the design features of his four-seater prototype for what was to be the 901, but connected its distinctive sloping nose and tail treatments with a graceful fastback coupe roofline, creating the classic profile that still defines 911s today.

Bigger and heavier than the 356, it needed a more powerful engine. And an air-cooled, horizontally opposed, single-overhead-cam design was created, displacing 2.0 litres, and producing 130 hp at 6,100 rpm and 129 lb-ft of torque at 4,200 rpm. With its four- or five-speed gearbox, the engine remained – still bucking convention – tucked in the tail.

After a Peugeot pointed out it had rights to any car-designating number with a zero in the middle sold in France, the 901 became the 911 for its debut, in prototype form, at the Frankfurt auto show in 1963.

It went into production in 1964, alongside the soon-to-disappear 356, with the first boatload heading for North America early in 1965, where the 911 would sell for about $6,500.

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The light – at 1,080 kg – 911 proved quick, agile and mechanically tough, and was also roomier, more comfortable and better equipped, which made using its performance on Alpine passes or Germany's autobahns more pleasant.

But tricky handling, that it would take time to tame, meant it took a sensitive driver with quick hands to keep early versions out of trouble if driven too aggressively. German car magazine Auto Motor und Sport reported an early test car reached 100 km/h in 8.7 seconds and hit a top speed of 210 km/h.

A cheaper and slower four-cylinder look-alike, the 912, appeared in 1965, but didn't last long, and what has so far been half a century of development, was already under way on the 911. The first results were the 160-hp 911 S and the 911 Targa with its unique integral roll-bar open roof. Legendary models such as the 210-hp Carrera RS 2.7 of 1972 with its "ducktail" spoiler and others followed, as did succeeding generations.

The latest, and seventh, arrived in 2011 and, as was the case with its forebears, Porsche says, "It's the best 911 of all time – until the next generation."

Back in 1963
In the year the 911 is unveiled, U.S. President John F. Kennedy gives his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in Berlin, to confirm American support for freedom, after the Berlin Wall was created to separate east from west. He is assassinated later in the year.
American speedster Craig Breedlove sets a new land speed record in his jet-powered three-wheeler Spirit of America, hitting 655.722 km/h on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The FIA (car guys) say three-wheels and jet power – no way. The FIM (bike guys) give it a thumbs up.
The First NHL draft of amateur players is held in Montreal. It remains a private affair until 1980, and has been televised since 1984.

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