The first Porsche was built in 1948 in a collection of sheds on the site of a former sawmill in a place called Gmund, in Austria. Its designer had recently been released from prison where he had been interned by the Allies. The car had more than a passing resemblance to the Volkswagen Beetle – and with good reason, for the same man had designed both.
He was called Ferdinand Porsche. All its moving parts – engine, brakes, suspension and steering – were either lifted directly or derived from Beetle running gear and despite the engine being given a fairly monumental tuning upgrade, the 1.1-litre flat four still only generated, wait for it, 40bhp.
It is fair to say Porsche has come some distance in the past 70 years. During that time the car maker has become the most profitable on earth, and its sphere of operation is now so wide that it makes everything from hypercars to SUVs. It has won in Formula 1 and amassed an unrivalled 19 victories at Le Mans. Today those SUVs are the most coveted cars of their kind, yet Porsche has not forgotten its roots: it still makes a flat four open two-seater with its engine located behind the driver, just like that first 356 all those years ago.
So to celebrate we thought we’d look at some of the very greatest (and just a few of the not so great) cars that brought Porsche from some huts in Austria to becoming the most successful manufacturer of sporting cars the world has yet known.
1954 356 Speedster
Six years into the story of Porsche and the little company was growing fast. Its success was built on the reputation of Ferdinand Porsche as one of Europe’s pre-eminent automotive engineers, and the vision of his son, Ferry, who saw a clear gap in the market for a super-high-quality sporting car that could be used not merely as recreation but as daily transport, too. The essential rightness of that idea can be seen in the fact that much the same thing can be said about a 2018 911.
But it wasn’t Porsche who spotted the need for something more affordable that would also add some spice to the Porsche proposition, and it wasn’t Porsche that came up with the solution. It was a chap called Max Hoffman, who imported Porsches into the US (he also persuaded Mercedes-Benz to create the 300SL ‘Gullwing’ and inadvertently invented the supercar). Hoffman convinced Porsche that a stripped-out, lightweight, more affordable 356 would not only sell in its own right but also, by taking advantage of the burgeoning club racing scene, sprinkle some much-needed stardust on Porsche as a whole The fact that a certain James Dean owned and raced one probably helped, too.
So the 356 Speedster, with its steeply raked and detachable windscreen, was born. It was Porsche’s fastest road car to date and the best to drive. But it also looked incredible and Hoffman had to beg Stuttgart to send him more. A flame had been lit, and in cars like the 911 GT3 RS, it burns to this day
It has to be a 911, but which one? The 1963 original, the car that was meant to be called the 901 until Peugeot got shirty and asserted its rights to triple-digit car names with a zero in the middle? Or maybe the 1967 911R, the first factory-built racing 911, to date still the lightest 911 and the car that won the 84-hour 1967 Marathon de la Route at the Nurbürgring?
Yes, it could be tricky if you didn’t apply the old ‘slow in, fast out’ rule, but everything about this car, from its hyperactive steering to its one-of-a-kind gearbox, is designed to keep you busy. To me, it’s what a 911 should be all about.
1974 911 Turbo
I’m going to get into trouble for this. Firstly, because I didn’t choose the iconic 911 2.7 Carrera RS of 1973, and second, because while the early 911 Turbo was a great car, it wasn’t necessarily that good. And you’ll never know how close I came to choosing the 928 (which would have been an act of the purest heresy among the rear-engined, aircooled Porsche-bore aficionados).
And the early Turbo could be properly tricky. It had enormous turbo lag and so much rear grip it understeered everywhere until you did something desperate with the brakes, at which point the back would go in an instant and usually stay gone. It made a worse noise than a 911 and had fewer gears because, said Porsche, it didn’t need five, although the fact that the internals needed such strengthening that there wasn’t room for more than four probably had rather more to do with it.
1987 Porsche 959
I would argue that the 959 was the first hypercar. It was a car not only faster than anything else to wear a number plate but also one whose speed was achieved through technology so sophisticated that it made the next-best effort look like something cobbled together by Hagar the Horrible. The fastest Ferraris and Lamborghinis subjected to independent testing ran out of puff in the mid-180s bracket. The 959 did 197mph.
The result was not just a great Porsche but also one of the greatest and most important high-performance road cars in history. Within that stunning shape lie lessons that continue to inform the industry to this day.
1994 968 Clubsport
Got to have something with an engine in its nose? Then what better than this? Actually its philosophy was similar to that of the 356 Speedster from 40 years earlier: in short, to save a little money by losing some equipment. The result is not just cheaper but also lighter and better to drive.
Now this really is sacrilegious. I only have seven Porsches and I go and choose this hideous SUV with no more in common with the svelte grace of the cars on which Porsche built its reputation than do I with Audrey Hepburn. Allow me to explain myself.
2010 911 GT3 RS
I wasn’t going to miss a GT car out but the choice is hard. Many are excluded on grounds of age, but why not a modern one? I think the 2017 GT2 RS is one of the most incredible devices of any kind I have driven. Or what about the Cayman GT4, perhaps the sweetest natured of all its brethren? But I can choose but one, and the second generation 997 GT3 RS is it.