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Fast, scary, fun...and seriously undervalued - Porsche 911 Turbo

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Once an expensive must-have for the '70s Jet Set, the whale-tail 911 Turbo is now half the price of an early 911 - and it's a much better car than legend suggests.

The awesome prototype Porsche 911 Turbo was first seen at the Paris Motor Show in 1973. It was an almost unbelievable monster of a car, with hugely flared wheelarches, deep front spoiler and massive ‘whale-tail’ rear wing. It was bred out of the pure racing 2.1-litre Martini RSR Turbo which was launched at the same time. With lurid ’70s Turbo script written down its fat rear haunches, the Turbo instantly captured the attention of every sports car driver with its naked intent: speed.

At the time the world was in the depths of the oil crisis, which effectively killed the BMW 2002 Turbo and delayed the launch of the Mercedes-Benz 6.9 by a few years. In Germany a blanket 60mph speed limit was imposed everywhere, including the Nürburgring and Porsche’s own test track. But Porsche was run by engineer Ernst Fuhrmann and the Turbo was his idea, developed from Porsche’s almost total dominance of the CanAm racing series, with its outrageous 1100bhp blown 917/30 sports racers. Fuhrmann was supported by his finance director Heinz Branditzki (unusual for a bean counter!) who stated flatly: ‘If we are not in a position to sell such a superb product, then it’s time for us to get out of the sports car business.’ Amen.

There had been a good deal of infighting at Porsche about where to position the 911 Turbo. The marketing department wanted a stripped-out, bare bones and therefore cheap Turbo that would sell on price. But Fuhrmann’s idea of a fully loaded, top-flight flagship for the entire Porsche range won over.

At the 1974 Paris Motor Show Porsche unveiled its first supercar, the production 911 Turbo – known as the Type 930 in-house, and sold in some export markets as the 930 Turbo. The outrageous Turbo, with a promise of 260bhp and a 180mph speedometer, was an immediate hit and demand outstripped supply. Fitted with lurid plaid and leather interior, deep cut-pile carpeting, electric windows and optional air conditioning, as well as that wild-sounding KKK turbocharger bolted to the engine, this latest supercar was snapped up by the likes of Steve McQueen and Princess Antoinette zu  Furstenberg, who was so excited at the prospect of her Turbo she flew directly to the factory in her private helicopter to pick it up. The supercar for the Jet Set had arrived.
 
The 911 Turbo was extremely expensive when launched, costing twice the price of a regular 911. Fuhrmann’s desire to sell about 500 was trounced when 1000 were sold in short order. When the British press finally got behind the fat three-spoke steering wheel of the Turbo they were, quite literally, blown away. Autocar wrote: ‘An outstandingly exciting motor car…’ and Motor added that it was ‘the finest driving machine you can buy’. When the Turbo was launched in America in 1975, Car and Driver called it: ‘A Panzer among Porsches, a street racer that will guarantee you a place at the top of the pecking order in a way that not even a Ferrari or Lamborghini can.’

So why is it, up until now, that Porsche’s amazing 911 Turbo has been disregarded by classic 911 fanatics? Today you cannot find a half-decent pre-impact 911 for less than £50k, whereas a superb Turbo commands less than half of that – the car in our photos, a Porsche Club (GB) concours winner with a full service history and 69,000 miles from new, is on offer from specialist Cridfords at £20,000.

Basically it comes down to fashion, mis-information and ignorance.

Armchair Porsche racers now all clamour for the early short-wheelbase 911 and 911S models because they are eligible for historic racing. True, specialists have figured out how to sort out their near-lethal handling – these cars were originally shod with skinny 165/15 tyres and Porsche had to fit lead weights in the bumpers in an attempt to quell the snap oversteer – and real historic racers know how to pedal them. But the fashionisti still believe that the only classic Porsche worth having is a pre-1973 example of the lightweight variety.

Certainly, if you are going historic racing or rallying then, yes, a 2-litre or 2.4S is a fabulous, lithe, lightweight driving machine (we’ll leave the stratospherically priced 2.7RS out of this discussion). But to insist these classics are a better proposition than a Turbo as a fast and effective road car is ill advised.

A recent drive from London to Devon and back in an early Turbo was a revelation. In town the car felt heavy and slightly numb, due to its fat low-profile tyres and lazy off-boost engine. But on the motorway it instantly spooled up to the speed limit and loafed along in the most relaxed manner. The firm ride smoothed out and the most impressive aspect was how quiet the Turbo is at speed. Most elderly 911s induce earache on the motorway. The turbocharger, as well as adding a good deal of wham, also effectively quietens the normally loud air-cooled engine.

Come fast country roads, the Turbo proved immense. Powering up to a bend, the car was then easily reeled in by the vented disc brakes (yes, they are plenty powerful enough on public roads!), cornered quickly, then whooshed along to the next corner with consummate ease. What a great Gran Turismo the Turbo turned out to be.

Of course, you do have to drive the car while bearing in mind its turbocharged characteristics. Be in the right gear and allow the boost to build, don’t get the boost on in the middle of a corner and stick religiously to the slow-in-fast-out maxim, and the Turbo behaves. (See Tony Dron’s piece on pages  64-65 for a discussion on how to drive the Turbo at 10/10ths on a circuit, whereas here we are talking 7/10ths on the road.)

Roger Bell was the first British journalist to try out the 911 Turbo and he too enjoyed the combination of ‘peace and power’. ‘To be shoved so hard in the back that you need high back seats to keep your head on, yet neither to feel nor hear anything more than a muffled hum, is a very odd sensation indeed in a car.’

The first-series 911 Turbos from 1974 to 1978 were of 3.0-litre capacity (up from the prototype’s 2.7 litres to increase off-boost torque) and the horsepower was capped at 260bhp at a lowly 5500rpm (with 253lb ft of torque at 4000) by reducing the boost pressure and running a modest 6.5:1 compression ratio. Ernst Fuhrmann insisted the Kuhnle, Kopp & Kausch-supplied turbocharger be made to work with the well-proven Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection.

The compact, turbocharged engine weighed in at 456lb, some 70lb more than the normally aspirated 2.7-litre six. Pistons were strengthened and the cylinder head walls thickened, and exhaust valves sodium filled to help cool them. The standard forged steel rods and rugged crankshaft were well up to the job. A very strong four-speed gearbox with widely spaced ratios was developed to handle the power and ventilated discs fitted all round.

Porsche 911 Turbo racer and specialist Josh Sadler of Autofarm is a Turbo enthusiast. ‘The 911 Turbo is a real sleeper. They are just as reliable as any other Porsches of the period but some of the components like brakes are more expensive. If well maintained and looked after they are no problem.

‘Driven really hard, they will wear out a bit faster but that’s what you would expect with all the additional power from the turbo. Porsche continued to develop and improve the 930-series Turbo up until 1990, so my advice is to buy as late an example as possible.

‘I raced one in the Porsche Club Modified Series in 1978. Sure, you need to get on top of the car and you have to adapt your style to the power delivery. Tony Dron raced my car – it was effectively a tweaked road car – at Donington and won the race against a couple of 935s! So don’t believe anyone who tells you Turbos are no good.’
 
The immaculate Guards Red 911 Turbo you see here is a 1985 3.3-litre example. Introduced in 1977, the 3.3-litre Turbo was a marked improvement over the 3-litre. With added capacity and an effective intercooler, the engine develops 300bhp and 303lb ft at the same modest revs, allowing a 0-60mph dash in 5.3 seconds and an honest 160mph top speed.
 
The bigger engine capacity and revised clutch mean there is a 30mm greater overhang at the rear of this car but suspension revisions and the fitment of Pirelli P7 16in tyres on 7- and 8-inch Fuchs alloys keep the 3.3 well planted. Larger cross-drilled and vented disc brakes with four-pot calipers and servo assistance (developed from the 917 racer) deal with the task of shedding the Turbo’s speed. Development continued and by 1989 the Turbo had received a five-speed gearbox and boasted a 0-60mph time of 4.9 seconds.
 
The 911 Turbo is a car of the ’70s, even though it remained in production until 1990. For a long while the ’70s were regarded as the decade that style forgot. But they are now very much in vogue again, and that includes automotive hardware. Steve McQueen’s slate-grey 930 Turbo (as the model is known in America), which sold last year for 7,500, now looks as desirable as a late-’60s 911.
 
Look at the photographs of this muscular, bewinged, Pirelli P7-shod Turbo and you cannot fail to be captivated. It must be one of the best-looking 911 derivatives, a car just waiting to ease down to the south of France, the long way around via the German autobahns, where you know you can run it at 150mph for as long as the open road allows.
 
The 911 Turbo evolved out of Porsche’s all-conquering turbocharged racing cars and was a usable supercar in an era when many other supercars over-promised and under-delivered. Most certainly, it has to be driven with respect and within the driver’s limits. But hey, take things gently through the bends and catch up on the straights.
 
As Josh Sadler points out, ‘The 911 Turbo is a huge amount of supercar for ordinary money.’ The sleeper is now wide-awake.

Thanks to Cridfords, Porsche specialists since 1987, for the loan of this 911 Turbo. See www.cridfords.co.uk.

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