Origin of the species: driving the first turbocharged Porsche 911


How legendary 1974 RSR Turbo 2.1 racer feels to someone whose 911 experience comes entirely from modern turbos

Remember the outcry back in 2016 when Porsche decided to forego normally aspirated power in favour of turbocharging for entry-level 911s?

I certainly do. I had just joined Autocar and What Car? as a junior road tester when the news came through that the era of the atmospherically fed 911 Carrera would be coming to an end. The mood in the office was a mix of disappointment and scepticism. 

The feeling among the team was that Porsche was taking a pragmatic rather than a purist approach; that the sole objective behind moving to downsized turbocharged engines was to improve on-paper emissions and fuel economy figures, rather than to enhance performance. A very un-Porsche approach. 

And yet when the 991.2-generation 911 Carrera arrived, those concerns proved overblown (excuse the pun). Yes, you could tell that the downsized 3.0-litre flat six was turbocharged, on account of its muted soundtrack, but the throttle response wasn’t far off its 3.4-litre predecessor’s, and its new-found mid-range grunt gave you the opportunity to play with and manipulate the chassis in a way that was simply not possible in the old car. 

Now, with me having no preconceived notions of what a 911 should feel like, it’s perhaps unsurprising that I was enthusiastic about the first Porsche I had spent any real time with. But since then, I’ve been lucky enough to drive every subsequent road-going 911, including the high-revving naturally aspirated GT cars. And if I were to have just one 911 in my garage, it would have to be a forced-induction car – either a 991.2 T or a GT2. First impressions count. 

So you can imagine my surprise (and unbridled excitement) when I got a last-minute phone call from Porsche GB’s PR team to ask if I would like to drive the very first turbocharged 911 at that weekend’s Goodwood Members’ Meeting, as part of a ‘high-speed demonstration’ to celebrate the 911’s 60th anniversary. With the car in question being the iconic 1974 RSR Turbo 2.1 (a racer designed to help Porsche market its new 930 Turbo road car by proving the abilities of a turbocharged 911 in competition), I didn’t need to be asked twice.

Designed to the FIA’s Group 5 rules, the RSR Turbo 2.1 was designed to race against bespoke sports prototypes from the likes of Matra and Ferrari, so Porsche really went to town, developing a radical new glassfibre body that incorporated huge rear wheel arches to accommodate the 917’s centre-lock wheels, as well as a pair of aggressive front air dams to reduce front-end float and a giant whale tail to increase high-speed stability. 

Meanwhile, Porsche Motorsport’s legendary chief, Norbert Singer, was assigned to oversee the development of a diminutive 2.14-litre engine, and by the time he was finished, it was putting out a scarcely believable 500bhp, courtesy of some clever internals (we’re talking polished titanium rods and sodium-cooled valves) and a gargantuan KKK turbocharger slung out below the rear wing. 

The result was an intimidating but mightily effective package that Herbert Müller and Gijs van Lennep managed to pedal to second overall at the 1974 Le Mans 24 Hours, and another second at the 6 Hours of Watkins Glen – beaten only by a factory-entered Matra.

Setting eyes on the RSR in the Goodwood paddock gave me my first bout of trepidation, the second being brought on by the news that no warm-up laps had been factored into the schedule. But before I could lose myself in worry, the remarkably laid-back team from the Porsche Museum were on hand to calmly talk me around the cabin. An experience that I’ve always found to be both fascinating and oddly calming.  

Better yet, there were no wagged fingers and no warnings about me having to return their priceless artefact in one piece, just simple instructions: “The car starts with a traditional key; the clutch is smooth; if you want more boost, turn this gauge; oh, and if it catches fire, get out. Have fun.”

Oh boy did I have fun. Well, once I got the first couple of laps out of the way. Warming up behind the safety car, the engine felt recalcitrant, bogging then singing, bogging then singing, while the Avon cut slicks needed plenty of energy put into them before they switched on. But once the pace increased and I was able to summon the courage to keep the thing on boost, I was given a flash of its potential. 

Unlike modern turbocharged 911s, which are more tractable than a JCB, I quickly found that the RSR’s carburetted engine responded best to a wide-open throttle and plenty of revs. That’s not an unfavourable attribute for a track like Goodwood or La Sarthe, but it forces you to be rather committed. Get it singing and it simply demolishes straights, depositing you in the next braking zone before you’ve had time to breathe. 

That in itself is somewhat problematic, because as soon as you hit the middle pedal, it becomes apparent that the brakes aren’t quite up to modern standards and that those narrow front tyres like to push rather than grip. As a result, I defaulted to a low-risk slow-in-fast-out technique, but I suspect any driver would struggle to really get the best out of an RSR until they’ve spent a significant amount of time in the driver’s seat, getting a feel for its sweet spot. 

And that was that. Before I knew it, the chequered flag was out and my time behind the wheel of the RSR was at an end. Still, it gave me a new-found respect both for Müller and van Lennep, who had to wrestle an unproven package around some of the world’s most dangerous circuits, as well as the genius engineers who managed to prove the effectiveness of turbocharging right out the gate.

Their combined efforts changed the future prospects of the road-going 911 forever.

Source: Autocar

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