Compared with heavy hitters like the Bugatti Veyron and the Ferrari F40, the understated Porsche 959 is easily overlooked. You might not have even heard of it, but it completely rocked the supercar world when it debuted at the Frankfurt show in 1985.
Sold to the public as a homologation car so that Porsche could take it racing, the 959 also served as a showcase of technologies that had never before been seen on more pedestrian 911s, including four-wheel drive, power steering, antilock brakes, four-valve heads, twin turbochargers, and a six-speed transmission. The cylinders of the 959’s 2.8-liter flat-six were still air-cooled, but its heads needed to be water-cooled because of the high temperatures generated by two sequential turbos that force-fed the engine to the tune of a positively shocking 444 hp.
The 959 exploded to 60 mph in only 3.6 seconds and continued on to a manufacturer-claimed 195 mph, but it did so in Porsche’s typical drive-all-day manner: quietly and smoothly. Variable dampers kept the ride supple, and where other ungodly powerful supercars at the time screeched and scrambled for traction, the 959 used a computer-controlled all-wheel-drive system that could send power front or rear as it saw fit.
The 959 sold for a whopping quarter of a million dollars but wasn’t imported by Porsche Cars North America. Even some twenty years later, there are few cars that can keep up with a 959 – but in grand irony, if you see one on the road today in the United States, it’s likely that an original 959 couldn’t keep up with it, either.
That’s because about thirty of the fifty or so 959s that have trickled into the States have been heavily modified by Canepa Design in California. Taking advantage of the 1999 show-and-display law (for which the company’s owner, Bruce Canepa, claims to have been the front man), the company spends about 1200 hours preparing 959s to meet EPA standards so that they can be legally titled here.
Canepa’s modifications – six pages of them – also bump the engine to a claimed 640 hp and 570 lb-ft of torque with the stock engine block and driveline. The shop’s impeccable work looks as though it were done by Porsche itself, and since Canepa addresses most of the 959’s shortcomings, the result is a classic supercar that benefits from twenty years of twenty-twenty hindsight. The enhanced 959 lays four black streaks at full throttle in first gear and pulls all the way to its higher 8000-rpm redline, gear after gear. Its completely revised suspension makes the car ride more softly than some modern luxury sedans, and the 959 is perfectly balanced through corners.
Canepa points out that it wasn’t just the 959’s speed that makes it such a legend – it’s how easy it is to drive. One of his customers, who also owns a McLaren F1, once said “every corner in the 959 would be three spins in that f—ing McLaren.”