Best Porsche cars ever: Porsche 959

The Porsche 959 almost bankrupted the company, but its technical innovations are still impressive, even today

Key specs
EngineTwin-turbocharged, 6cyl boxer
Capacity2.85 litres
Power450bhp
Top speed197mph

Porsche’s super-911 in the eighties would bring ground-breaking technological innovations to create a machine with race-car levels of performance mixed with road-car civility and usability. The company’s relentless pursuit of that goal would mean the project overran dramatically, with the 959 not being delivered to customers until 1987, and at a cost of 420,000 Deutsch Marks (around £140,000 at the time). With each 959 reputedly costing over 1 million Deutsch Marks to develop, Porsche’s then-research and development board member Helmuth Bott is said to have described the car as “the most expensive promotional giveaway in Porsche history”. 

What made the 959 so costly to develop was the complexity of the technology it championed. The sequentially twin-turbocharged, 2.85-litre, fuel-injected, flat-six engine had a water-cooled head with four valves per cylinder and an output rated at 450bhp. That was enough to enable the 959 to reach a top speed just shy of 200mph, with the 0-62mph sprint achieved in just 3.7 seconds. 

Aiding to that was a sophisticated, electronically controlled, four-wheel drive system that directed drive to the wheels best equipped to exploit it, while the suspension had adjustable ride height and damping, again computer controlled. Tyre-pressure monitoring, hollow-spoked lightweight magnesium wheels, and ABS brakes were also firsts in the sports car sector. The 959 proved its technical superiority in the way Porsche knows best, in competition, winning (and taking second place) on the gruelling Paris-Dakar Rally in 1986. 

While the wind-tunnel-honed 959 shared its basic structure, roofline and glass with the 911, its body was constructed from a mix of aluminium, polyurethane plastic and fibreglass-reinforced Kevlar. Porsche would offer the car in either Komfort or Sport trims, with the latter doing away with some of the former’s luxury cabin equipment and adopting sports suspension. 

The interior is, as with so many other elements of the 959, quite obviously related to the 911, although when you look around it and spot some of the controls that manage the car’s numerous systems, it becomes obvious that this is something very special. 

And so it proves when it’s being driven, because when you consider its performance the 959 has impressive civility; in fact, it feels almost limousine-like in comparison with its contemporary supercar rivals. Don’t be fooled, though, because when the second turbo kicks in, the 959 is brutally efficient at gaining pace. At that point it feels hugely rapid even today, nearly 40 years later – so how it must have felt when it was new is genuinely difficult to comprehend. 

A poster car for those of us of a certain age, the 959 is a technical tour de force that demonstrated Porsche’s incredible engineering talent and capability back when many were criticising the brand for its long-in-the-tooth 911. This model nearly brought the company to its knees financially – yet it also delineated Porsche’s future, because the 959’s influence is still apparent in every model made today. Few cars can genuinely be described as ground-breaking or revolutionary, but these adjectives are applicable to the 959, due to its significance and its influence – not only to Porsche, but also to the entire automobile industry.

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