I recently had the chance to drive a Porsche 959, which is one of the most famous Porsche models, one of the most famous supercars and one of the most famous overall vehicles in existence. These things are currently worth well in excess of $1 million, and the 959 is the grandfather of the modern Porsche supercars like the Carrera GT and the 918 Spyder.
I borrowed this car from a viewer in Orange County, California, and I spent the day with it, driving in it, riding in it and poking around it to find its quirks and features. This isn’t something you get the chance to do very often — and, indeed, this is the only time I’ve ever spent up close with a 959. In fact, there were several items on this car I had never personally seen before, even though I’ve read about this car and seen photos of it for my entire life.
To start, here’s a little 959 overview. The Porsche 959 was originally conceived to compete in Group B rally racing — the same race series that gave us the Audi Quattro, the Lancia 037 Stradale, the Ford RS200 and other famous cars. Unfortunately, Porsche being Porsche took years to develop the car — and by the time it finally came out, Group B rally racing no longer existed. As a result, Porsche campaigned the 959 in some varied race series, including Le Mans (where Porsche raced a version of the 959 called the 961) and the Paris to Dakar off-road rally.
The road car was a marvel of technology. Porsche made 345 units — 337 originally, then eight more later using spare parts — and offered two specifications: “Komfort,” which was the vast majority of 959 models, and “Sport,” which deleted a few things to save weight and increase the top speed. I drove a 959 Komfort, and it was an amazing experience.
Part of the reason why it’s an amazing experience is that the 959 is just such a technological marvel. This car was the first to introduce a lot of features, like tire pressure monitoring, and it’s an amazing technological feat in other areas, too. For instance: the Porsche 959 can raise up for added ground clearance, in case you want to off-road it. It also has an off-roading gear — remember, it was developed to be a rally car. And yet, you can dial in suspension firmness for high-performance driving on the track, too. This has to be the only near-200-miles per hour supercar designed for off-roading.
And it was, indeed, a near-200-mph supercar. That can’t be overstated, because the 959 was the fastest production car on earth when it first went on sale: the Sport version could reach 198 mph, which was a massive feat for the time. It was faster, indeed, than the Ferrari F40 — the 959’s chief “rival” and the other famed, ultra-high performance late 1980s exotic car.
So how does the 959 drive? Like a Porsche, actually. The entire driving experience surprised me for just how “not special” it was, which, in itself, is actually pretty special. I drove the Ferrari F40 a year and a half ago, and it completely beats you up, requiring you to make many compromises — horrible ride quality, terrible visibility, no climate control, hard seats — for what is, admittedly, a fantastic driving experience. But the 959 gives you a wonderful driving experience with basically no compromises: you feel like you’re driving any old Porsche until you floor it, and then you’re doing 0-to-60 in 3.7 seconds. Which is really, really fast even by today’s standards.
Indeed, the acceleration is brutal, and the 959 feels amazingly fast — and while it was the first road car with a “sequential turbo” setup, meaning the turbochargers come on in sequence for more linear power delivery rather than all at once for a power explosion, it still feels a lot like a power explosion. There’s not much power below 4,000 rpm, and then you hit that number and you start to take off. It remains one of the fastest cars on the road, both in terms of top speed and acceleration.
Handling, however, is a little off the pace of the F40 and others. The 959 is a bit bigger, and it also has more suspension travel on account of its off-roadiness. Body roll is highly composed, but it’s not as sharp as the purposeful F40, and there’s some on-center vagueness and old-school steering play that you don’t get in a modern car. It’s not quite as precise of a track weapon as a GT2RS — or basically anything from this era.
But the 959 is truly special, in large part because it paved the way for most of the amazing Porsche models we have now. It was Porsche’s test bed for a lot of technology, including all-wheel drive, which quickly trickled to the 911 Turbo and has remained a mainstay ever since. I’ve never felt the 959 was beautiful, but I walked away from driving it thinking that it’s an amazing feat of technology — and an amazing grandfather to the Porsche lineup we now know and love.
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