“Turbo” has become a household word in 2013, but it represented black magic in 1973.
Since the early 1960s, turbocharged cars had seemed to promise rocketship-style thrust with scooter-style fuel economy, and finally as the decade ended, turbos had become the latest technology at the Indy 500. Then as the 1970s began, a turbocharged Porsche 911 concept car appeared.
And ever since that memorable 1973 Frankfurt auto show, “Turbo” has been just another way of saying “Porsche 911 Turbo.”
Signs of the times
When you park the 1975 Porsche 911 Turbo (identified technically by its model type, 930), next to the 2014 Porsche 911 Turbo S (identified technically by its model type, 991), it’s amazing how little the basic DNA has changed. The round headlamps still sit proud in the front fenders and the rear spoiler shouts “downforce!” The wheels are big and the tires are wide for their eras, though the 930 carries 185/70R-15 front and 215/60R-15 rear tires, while the latest 991 Turbo S features 245/35R-20 front and 305/35R-20 rear tires. If you’re clever, you’ll also notice that the 930’s nose is clean, while the 991 incorporates two large intakes the front-mounted radiators of its water-cooled engine.
The 930’s air-cooled, turbocharged, horizontally opposed, 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine made 260 horsepower and 253 pound-feet of torque, which seems pitifully small by today’s standards. But because the car weighs just 2513 pounds, it could reach 100 km/hr (62 mph) in just 5.5 seconds. Four decades later, the 991 Turbo’s water-cooled, turbocharged, horizontally opposed 3.8-liter six-cylinder needs 560 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque to eclipse its great-grandfather’s performance by 2.3 seconds, since it weighs 3483 lbs by comparison.
The first Porsche 930 will always be remembered as a challenging cannonball of a car to drive, leading many drivers to a heightened awareness of their own mortality. The new Porsche 911 Turbo S is capable of equally shattering speed, as it will lap the Nurburgring Nordschleife well under 7 min 30 sec (so Porsche engineers tell us), yet the experience isn’t quite so shattering thanks to all-wheel drive, rear-wheel steering and the latest, greatest aerodynamics.
The new 991 Turbo averages 29 mpg on the European driving cycle, which seems very impressive, since this represents a 16 percent improvement over the previous 997 Turbo. But when you go back and look up the fuel consumption of the original 930, you will find a barely less sensational 28.2 mpg. That air-cooled, single- turbo 12-valve engine might not have been particularly fuel-efficient in itself, yet a featherweight car with which to carry it makes a big difference. In the end.
Playing the numbers game
Over the last 40 years, Porsche has created about 20 different variations of the 911 Turbo, some radical, some in small numbers and some that expressed the zeitgeist of their times perhaps too well, like the special-order slant-nose car of 1982 — 1988.
My favorite 911 Turbo in the early, largely unmodified 911 body is the 1989 Porsche 930. It came in three styles; coupe (nice, though a little plain); cabriolet (a bit too much wind in the hair of this six-foot-seven driver); and the Targa (sweet, only 104 units made). What makes this variant special is the famous Getrag-built G50 five-speed gearbox, which superseded the slow, notchy Porsche-built, 915 five-speed gearbox. And after 15 years of turbo production, Porsche had also sorted out most of the more frightening eccentricities of this buzz-saw in a winged box, although the lift-off oversteer could still turn your face gray and a 130-mph run down the autobahn took three hands and four eyes to keep the wayward Batmobile from veering into the ditch.
The 964 Turbo that followed is perhaps the most underrated classic 911. Out of the five different examples of the 964 Turbo that saw the light between 1990 and1993, the lightweight 1992 Porsche 911 Turbo S was the rarest, purest and most frightening of its kind. I remember sampling this limited-edition (only 86 made) beast on the bumpy roller-coaster motorway between Stuttgart and Karlsruhe, which was a famous test of courage at the time. The air-cooled 3.3-liter engine developed a screaming 381 hp, sufficient to take the 2844-lb car to 100 km/hr (62 mph) in 4.6 seconds on the way to a 181 mph.
Fortunately this did not occur with yours truly at wheel, as I briefly saw an indicated 175 mph and then gave up with weak knees and moist palms. The aerodynamics were so troublesome that the front end would lift significantly at such speeds and the steering became so slow and lazy that it threatened the driver with cardiac arrest.
The last of the rear-wheel-drive Porsche 911 Turbos was the 993 Turbo Cabriolet, of which a mere 14 examples were built in 1995. A few months later, Porsche introduced the coupe version of the 993 Turbo, which matched its air-cooled 408-hp engine with a six-speed manual transmission and all-wheel drive. From then on, the high-performance Turbo family split into two clans. First, the civilized 911 Turbo, which offered all the modern conveniences, and then second, the bad-boy, racing-style GT2 and GT3.
Then as now?
Compare the modern Porsche 991 Turbo with its active, three-element front splitter and three-position rear wing to the Porsche 930 with its simple front air dam and whale-tail-style rear spoiler and it’s a bit like comparing an Airbus A380 to a Lockheed Super Constellation. At the end of the day, you expect the sixth-generation Porsche 911 Turbo to fly rings around its iconic ancestor, the 1975 Porsche 911 Turbo.
And yet there is a surprisingly similar soundtrack played by these two cars. When you drive them, you can hear the whine of spinning turbocharger, the intermittent whistle of a wastegate, the occasional burble from the intercooler, and an angry hiss from a ventilator. Then and now, it’s the stuff of which legends are made.