Time is not kind to most car designs – the world moves on, tastes change, and today's It Machine is suddenly a rolling joke, slinking off to the boneyard in shame. But then we come to the Porsche 911, the Dorian Gray of sports cars. As I test drove the 2016 Targa 4 GTS, I suddenly imagined a painting of the 911 hung in a locked attic somewhere, cobwebs draped over the image of what a 53-year-old design should actually look like: sclerotic and bent, ready for the grave and what Edgar Allen Poe so aptly called "the conqueror worm."
Never mind. The Porsche 911 has still got it, and the new Targa 4 is a Teutonic masterpiece: high-tuned boxer motor, leather-lined cockpit and a body that shrink-wraps itself around fat tires.
It drives just as well as it looks. The 911's steering operates with the precision of a cardiac surgeon's scalpel. The seven-speed PDK transmission shifts like a computerized Lewis Hamilton. The brakes are superb, the suspension is sorted and the electronic stability control system is a digital lifeguard. Even an idiot could drive the 2016 911 down a twisting road.
This was not always the case. Once upon a time, the Porsche 911 was a hard car to drive well. The earliest 911s were known for front ends that got light at speed, and a tendency to spin if you mishandled the throttle on corners. This was a car that called for a master's touch. Unfortunately, many of those drawn to it had more money than skill – a conundrum that led to the car acquiring the nickname "The Doctor Killer."
I grew up loving Porsches, especially the 911. My father took me to the Porsche factory in Stuttgart when I was a little boy, and when I got hired as a mechanic in a Porsche-VW shop back in the 1970s, I felt like a cleric who had been called to a high religious order. Working on 911s gave me an appreciation of the car's beautiful engineering – and of the problems baked into its design.
Take the rear-mounted engine, for example. To Porsche buffs like myself, this was a sacred design feature, but it gave the 911 a pronounced rearward weight bias. If you went into a corner too fast and chopped the throttle in panic, you set yourself up for what's known as trailing throttle oversteer – the weight of the car shifted forward, and at the same time, the mass of the 911's rear-mounted engine acted like a brick on the end of a rope, spinning the car. None of this dimmed the car's appeal. Teenage boys hung pictures of the 911 Turbo on their bedroom walls alongside posters of German actress Nastassja Kinski (she became a world-wide sensation when Richard Avedon photographed her with a boa constrictor coiled around her naked body). As sex symbols went, the 911 was Kinski's mechanized rival. Steve McQueen had one. So did Paul Newman. When traders made it on Bay Street in the 1980s, their bonuses were often converted into a new 911.
On a twisting road, a 911 was wheeled nirvana. At least until you overcooked it into a corner and found yourself careering off the road backwards as a final thought flashed through your brain: You had used your bonus to kill yourself in expensive fashion. And so it went. The 911s of the 1960s, 70s and 80s may have killed more doctors and stockbrokers than coronary disease and cocaine combined (not really, but you get the point).
For the Porsche cognoscenti, the old 911's tail-happy nature isn't actually a problem. In the hands of a skilled driver, a classic 911 was like a slalom ski: quick, edgy and exhilarating. It was also part of a tradition that helped define the car's place in the automotive firmament – the 911 didn't suffer fools. And yet now it does. The 2016 Targa 4 GTS exemplifies the engineering that has made the 911 an easy car to drive.
The engine is still in the rear, but it has moved forward, reducing what's known as polar moment. The distance between the front and rear wheels has increased. The suspension geometry has been tweaked. The rear tires are comically wide, increasing their grip in relation to the front ones (thereby reducing the chances of a spin).
It's all good. Unless you're a Porsche purist. Some dyed-in-thewool Porsche buffs see the 911's path over the past decades as a long fall from grace. When it came out in 1963, the 911 was a light, relatively simple machine, with an air-cooled engine, manual steering and hand-cranked windows. The 911 is now in its sixth generation, and each revamp has added weight, complexity and comfort. The 1963 Porsche 911 weighed 1,060 kilograms. The 2016 I test drove weighs 1,655. But the weight gain comes with benefits – crash protection, improved luggage space, power windows, air conditioning, Bluetooth… the list goes on. There's also an ingenious folding top that, in operation, resembles a Transformer toy going through its paces (whether this is a good thing depends on your perspective).
To the purists, the 911 has been neutered and turned into a yuppie status symbol. Gone are the demanding handling dynamics that once discouraged the unworthy. The 911's journey from hair-trigger road weapon to boulevard pussycat has taken 50-plus years and millions of engineering hours, but the result is available to anyone who has access to a healthy bank balance or sizeable credit (my test car rang in at $172,000 before taxes).
Even though I admire old-school, air-cooled 911s, I love the 2016 car. It's useful, comfortable and easy to drive quickly. And it's still beautiful. I see it as a testament to the power of incremental improvement, a process that even the most revolutionary designs depend on to realize their potential. The iPhone came from the primordial ooze that was the Apple Newton PDA. The Boeing 787 is the Wright Flyer, several million improvements later. And so it is with the Porsche 911 – six generations on, you can still recognize the iconic shape that stunned the world in 1963. But the Doctor Killer is no more.
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