Earlier this year, I drove up to Boise, Idaho, to check out a rare Porsche 959. Conceived as the ultimate 911 during a time when the 911 model line was thought to be on its last leg, the 959 was decades ahead of its time when it debuted in 1986. But the vehicle’s significance goes well beyond its technology. Only 300 road-going examples were built, none of which were intended to make it to the U.S. And yet they did — and they opened the door for many other historically significant automobiles to follow.
Designed to look into the future of the 911, the 959 was hand built, not at the Porsche factory, but at Baur, a German coachbuilder. The first customer deliveries took place in 1987, with each example selling for $225,000, or the equivalent of $500,000 by today’s standards. It’s estimated that this figure accounts for less than half of what it cost Porsche to build each one. Powering the 959 was a 444-horsepower twin-turbocharged flat 6-cylinder engine with air-cooled cylinders, traditional for Porsche up until then, but featuring water-cooled heads out of necessity. The engine displaced 2.85 liters, and was mated to a 6-speed manual transmission, unique for the time, featuring five forward gears, plus a "gelände" off-road gear and reverse.
With a 0-to-60 time of 3.6 seconds and a top speed of 197 miles per hour, the 959 was the world’s fastest street-legal production car when it was introduced. It was also one of the first supercars to employ all-wheel drive — and with a body made from aluminum and Kevlar instead of steel, which was the industry standard, the 959 had a curb weight of only 3,200 pounds.
The 959 was also packed with technology that was unheard of in its era. While its racing counterpart, the 961, had a traditional suspension setup, the 959 featured adaptive dampening with automatic ride height adjustment, with the option for manual adjustment through a dial mounted on the console. Its dashboard featured gauges that showed the amount of power being transmitted to the front axle by the AWD system, as well as the amount of differential slip occurring at the rear. The 959’s specially cast magnesium alloy wheels featured hollow spokes and housed a tire pressure monitoring system, and were wrapped in run-flat tires. The 959 also featured a leather interior with power-adjustable seats, air conditioning and a radio, features that were omitted from many performance cars at the time.
This ultimate 911 was partially born out of Porsche’s desire to compete in the new-at-the-time Group B rally series, and its homologation requirement that at least 200 road going versions of a vehicle be built in order to qualify. In addition to the 959, Group B inspired the development of some of the most historically significant and unique vehicles to date, such as the Audi Quattro and the Ford RS200.
Sitting down behind the wheel of the 959 was surreal. The interior color combinations were impeccable, with its wine red carpeting, leather and dashboard that were accented by light and dark gray stripes in the front and rear seats. Knowing how valuable these vehicles are, I had assumed it would be challenging and stressful to drive, but this was nowhere near the case. The clutch pedal was extremely heavy, but in a way that inspired confidence rather than bringing about annoyance. The shifter was smooth, and the turbochargers strong — albeit with a bit of turbo lag. Overall, the 959 felt extremely flat and planted.
While an incredible performance vehicle on its own, the 959 is also historically significant to the American automotive landscape as a whole. Word is that Porsche refused to surrender the four examples required by the U.S. Department of Transportation for crash testing, and therefore the 959 was never federalized for sales in the U.S. This didn’t stop Bill Gates from purchasing an early example, although he was unable to take delivery of the vehicle, as it was intercepted upon arrival in the US and held in purgatory at the Port of Los Angeles by U.S. customs for over 13 years. In 1999, leveraging the influence he had earned by then, Gates led an initiative to establish what became known as the Show or Display clause with the Department of Transportation.
According to the new legislation, any party wanting to import a non-federalized vehicle that’s less than 25 years old into the U.S. is required to "establish that the vehicle is of such historical or technological significance that it is in the public interest to show or display it in the United States even though it would be difficult or impossible to bring the vehicle into compliance with the federal motor vehicle safety standards. This provision is intended to facilitate the importation of a make or model of a vehicle who’s manufacturer never certified for sale in the United States."
In order to qualify for importation under the Show or Display clause, a vehicle must be
Historically or technologically significant.
Less than 25 years old (the path is much easier for vehicles 25 years and older).
Of low production volume (the benchmark is fewer than 500 built).
Currently out of production.
Once imported under the clause, the only additional requirement is that the vehicle is not to be driven over 2,500 miles per year. Once the vehicle is 25 years of age, it is treated like a standard gray market import, and the requirements of the clause no longer apply. While the 959 was the first vehicle on the list of Show or Display approved vehicles, others include the Jaguar XJ220, the Bugatti EB110, the McLaren F1, three Aston Martin Zagato models, a few motorcycles and even such modern vehicles as the Aston Martin Lagonda Taraf, the Rimac Concept One, and the Mercedes-AMG G63 6×6 — none of which we would get to see on American roads (or, more accurately, in climate-controlled showrooms and parked on the fairways once a year at Pebble Beach) without the futuristic allure of the Porsche 959.
Chris O’Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for a while, helping Germans design cars for Americans. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.