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Power without the price - Porsche 911 Turbo

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Porsche's first roadgoing turbo was thrilling - and something of a bargain...

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 wheel arches, deep front spoiler and massive whale tail rear wing. It was bred out of the pure racing 2.1-liter Martini RSR Turbo which was launched at the same time. With lurid Seventies 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 including the Nurburgring and Porsche’s own test track. But Porsche was run by engineer Ernst Fuhrmann and the Turbo was his idea, developed from Porsches 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. 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 a thousand 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 it was, “the finest driving machine you can buy. When 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 decent Turbo commands less than half of that. Basically it comes down to fashion, miss-information and ignorance.

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

Certainly, if you really are going historic racing or rallying then, yes, a 2-liter or 2.4S is a fabulous, lithe, lightweight driving machine (we’ll leave the stratospherically priced 2.7 RS 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 tires and lazy off-boost engine. But it was taught and remained calm threading through the busy London traffic. Onto the real-world 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. Power up to a bend, the wonderful force of acceleration accelerating in an intoxicating manner, the car was then easily reeled in by the powerful disc brakes (yes, they are plenty powerful enough on public roads!) cornered quickly then whooshed along to the next corner with consummate and rapid ease. What a great Grand Tourismo the Turbo turned out to be. Of course, you do have to drive the car 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.

To reiterate the point Roger Bell was the first British journalist to drive 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 or 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 three-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 4,000) 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 456 lbs some 70 pounds more than the normally aspirated 2.7-liter six. Pistons were strengthened and the cylinder head walls were thickened and exhaust valves sodium filled to aid cooling. 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 engine power and ventilated discs were 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,” says Sadler. “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 Donnington and won the race against a coupe of 935s! So don’t believe anyone who tells you Turbos are no good.”

The immaculate Guards Red 911 Turbo you see photographed here is a 1985 3.3 liter example, offered for sale by Cridfords at £19,995. Introduced in 1977 the 3.3 liter Turbo was a marked improvement over the 3-liter. 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 does mean there is a 30mm greater overhang at the rear of this car but suspension revisions and the fitment of Pirelli P7 16in tires on 7 and 8inch 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) are also up to the task of shedding the Turbos prodigious speed. Development continued and by 1989 the Turbo had received a 5-speed gearbox and a 0-60mph time of 4.9 seconds.

The 911 Turbo is a car of the Seventies, even though it remained in production until 1990. For a long while all things Seventies were regarded as naff, from the decade that style forgot. But the decade is now very much in vogue again, and that includes automotive hardware. Steve McQueen’s drop deal cool slate grey 930 Turbo (as they are known in America, and which sold last year for 7,500) is now as desirable as an earlier classic 911 of the late Sixties. 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 is a fine grand tourismo that is devastatingly fast in the real world of public roads and motorways. It evolved out of Porsches all dominating turbocharged racing cars and was a usable supercar in an era when many other supercars over promised and under delivered. Most certainly it is a hairy beast (what wasn’t hairy in the Seventies?) and it has to 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.

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