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The Weird Ones: A Look Back At Three Odd One-Off Porsches

Let's talk about some very interesting moments in Porsche's history

Image via Autoweek

Porsche, as we all know, is a name that is synonymous with clean, simple lines that highlight the peak of German engineering. Even from a mile away, you could pick out a 911 from a Cayman from a Taycan, each very similar in design language but completely different in shape and final product. However, if you look back to the 1970s through to the 1990s, this wasn’t always the case.

Specifically, there are three one-off design concepts from that period, when Porsche was having the same kind of midlife crisis that caused many of their cars to be sold. They had emerged from being a small company to a moderately sized sports car manufacturer but were unsure where their design language was going. From this period, we did get some absolutely stunning cars, such as the Type 930 911 Turbo, but more often than not, they made concepts that were… odd.

1970 Porsche Tapiro 914/6 Concept

Could you really get any more 70s than a wedge-shaped car, and a model in leopard print as part of the promotional material? Image via Supercars

During the late 60s, the 911 as a model line had just started and was wildly popular. However, not everyone could afford a 911, but still wanted some of that “Porsche magic” at their fingertips. The eventual solution was the 1969 Porsche 914/6, dubbed the “VW Porsche” as it was a collaboration between the Volkswagen company and Porsche to make an affordable, but still fun, mid-engine sports car for the entry level market.

Enter Giorgetto Giuigaro of Italdesign

However, while the final design of the 914 was penned many years before its debut, that didn’t stop the combined VW/Porsche team to bring in the famed Giorgetto Giuigaro of Italdesign to have a go at designing what the “914 of the future” could look like. Given pretty much free reign, Giuigaro came up with one of the most striking designs of the 1970s, one that would be copied by many companies throughout the following two decades, that was known, and still is, by its moniker: “The Wedge.”

The first use of “The Wedge,” a shape that would come to definite supercars for decades to come. Image via Porsche

The Porsche Tapiro concept was the first car to use a sharp, driving wedge shape to the front of the car, and lowered the roofline of the car by raking the windshield back to an at-the-time absurd angle. The car was a complete departure from the clean, flowing lines people were used to, instead presenting hard, sharp angles and lines, a “futuristic” vision of aerodynamics in a time when aerodynamics were understood mostly by aeronautical engineers and not so much in the automotive world.

While the Tapiro was the first car to truly embrace “The Wedge” as a design style, even Giuigaro was influenced by cars of the past, more specifically the 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL, borrowing its famous gull-wing doors to present a clean, “hingeless” hip line for the car. It was also moderately powerful, using a tuned up version on the 914/6’s flat-six engine, which worked as the concept was built on a 914/6 chassis. That tune-up gave the car 220 HP, and apparently it could go pretty quickly as well.

Not exactly what one would consider to be a high tech cockpit today, in the 1970s, the driving position and driver-centric dash was futuristic as could be. Image via Motor1

World Debut in Italy

It debuted at the 1970 Turin Motor Show, where an appreciative Italian crowd, including some designers from a few companies with names like Ferrari, Lamborghini, and the like saw the wedge shape and fell in love with the idea. After crossing the Atlantic and having a showing at the Los Angeles Sports Car Show, it was bought by a wealthy Spanish businessman that collected Porsches.

He actually used the Tapiro, a concept car built on a production car chassis and engine, as his daily driver, and reportedly was very enthusiastic with the loud pedal as well. Unfortunately, he had a moderately high speed crash, which he escaped from bruised and shaken, but the car caught fire and burned down. The remains of the car were claimed as salvage by Giuigaro, and they still sit, to this day, in the Italdesign vault, completely unrestored and untouched.

1983 to 1987 Porsche 961

The 1987 setup of the 961 Group B racing at Le Mans.

During the early part of the 1980s, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, known far better as the FIA, set about shaking up the rules and regulations of two very specific categories of racing: the sports car championship, also commonly called endurance racing, and rallying. Porsche, at that time the de facto kings of Le Mans and at the top tier of the sports car racing world, were naturally interested in both.

The sports car championship gave rise to the incredibly fast, but ultimately extremely dangerous, 956 Group C car that dominated the first half of the 80s. For the new rallying regulations, known as Group B (Gruppe B in German), Porsche began designing a car that would, if it had been allowed to race, have been a proper, ridiculously powerful challenge to the kings of rally at the time, Audi with their Sport Quattro S1 Group B all-wheel-drive monster.

The 959 Gruppe B concept car, which was the inspiration that made the 961 happen.

This is where things can get a little confused, because while the WRC Group B was the focus of Porsche project, there was also an sports car endurance version of Group B regulations, which sat one rung below the full prototype Group C class, but above the production-car-based Group A. The car that met both of those series of regulations, but was designed first and foremost for rallying, was the legendary Porsche 959.

Modified 959

What sets the 961 apart from the 959 are the three major modifications made to it for endurance racing. Using original 959 chassis 10016, the first big modification was that it was bulked out slightly to allow for the gigantic brakes taken from the 956 Group C car, hiding behind 19 inch wheels. The second major modification came via the very same 956 Group C, namely that the 961 used a modified version of ground effects to produce downforce as well as cool the engine.

The hilariously powerful 961/70 engine, in the 961 Group B endurance car during testing for 1987. Note the monstrously huge turbos and the massive air intake plenums that feed them. This “little” engine could push out 700 HP, but was detuned to 640 to 680 HP so it would last 24 hours at full power.

That engine, however, is the true piece that sets the cars apart. Instead of being based on the 935/76, the engine, coded the 961/70, was based instead on a completed 959 engine. It was worked over to run at 9.5:1 compression, and had a pair of whacking great turbochargers fitted to it, producing 19 PSI of boost. On the dyno, the 961/70 was throwing out figures near the 700 HP mark, but for safety’s sake, it was dialed back to 680 HP when fitted to the 961.

Podium Finishes

After three repurposed 959 Group B’s won, came second, and came sixth at the 1986 Paris-Dakar rally, Porsche unveiled the single 961 Group B, with a finalized racing body shell made out of resin impregnated fiberglass, an engine dialed back to 640 HP, and featuring all-wheel-drive. It also featured the first on-circuit debut of a Porsche torque management system, which was based on the PSK system from the 959. Many considered the car to look “odd,” as the world had become used to the raised up, off-roading 959, and a few even dismissed it outright.

A family photo. The 959 Group B Rally on the left, a roadgoing 959 Komfort in the middle, and the 961 in its 1986 Le Mans white livery on the right. All three came from the same Porsche project.

However, at the 1986 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Porsche 961 absolutely monstered the rest of the Group B field, and because it was the only one of its kind, it also was the only car running in the Grand Touring Experimental, or GTX, class. The 961 was so dominant, in fact, that it was capable of reaching 212 MPH down the Mulsanne straight, and the only cars that finished ahead of it were full Group C-level prototypes, including the last appearance of a 956B Group C at Le Mans, and multiple 962 Group C’s.

Porsche flew the 961 Group B to America to participate in the GTX class at Daytona during the last round of the IMSA 1986 championship series, but placed only 24th after multiple tire issues and a few gremlins caused it to need to pit often. The 961 is remembered most, however, for appearing in the classic Rothman’s livery for the 1987 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The most classic of all liveries, worn by many Porsches over many years, including in 1987 by the 961 Group B.

Near Tragedy

During this race, the engine was dialed back up to its full 680 HP, but did not qualify well. During the race proper, while being literally driven out of its tires to catch and pass as many cars as possible, the stresses proved so great that several driveshafts were literally twisted or shattered because of the immense grunt the 961/70 flat-six was chucking out when its massive turbos spooled up. The 961 Group B met an untimely end, however, when in the morning, it crashed heavily rearward into the barriers, causing a fire to start and burning the back end of the car as the driver, Kees Nierop, escaped.

The remains of the 1987 961 Group B after its crash and fire at the 1987 24 Hours of Le Mans.

After the fire was put out and the car recovered, it was restored to racing condition, but instead of putting it back on the track, as by then Porsche was working on the next rules and regulations set that would see the emergence of the 911 Cup and 911 GT3 R cars, it was put in the Museum at Stuttgart, where it is still on display today.

1991 Porsche 989

The 1991 Porsche 989 Concept, when it was displayed at the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, you can buy one of several four-door Porsche models, from the all-electric Taycan sedan to the Panamera, the Macan, and the car that started the entire Super-SUV segment, the Cayenne. In 1991, however, the idea of a four-door Porsche was… odd. Not just “oh, that’s interesting” kinds of odd, more of the “What the hell are you thinking?!” levels of odd.

Yet, one cannot fault Porsche for seeing the possibilities. Sales of the rather large 928 model throughout the 1980s made the executives ponder if there was a chance that, like their German sports car rivals BMW and Audi, they could have an executive sports saloon (sedan) car in their lineup. The vision was a properly Porsche sport tourer, that could cross Germany, fuel up in France, and arrive looking sexy and suave outside Casino Monte Carlo that evening. That vision eventually came to be called the Porsche 989 concept.

BMW and Mercedes Benz in the Crosshairs

To design the car, Stuttgart hired Dr. Ulrich Bez, who by then had dabbled for years in design departments attached to BMW, Daewoo, and VW. He was given the task of designing a sports-car oriented, powerful, but luxurious four-door car that was an exciting alternative to the 928. In essence, they directed him to make it as exciting to drive as a Porsche should be, more comfortable than a Mercedes-Benz, more upmarket and desirable than a BMW, and do all of that within the design language of the company’s models.

The first iteration of the rear end, especially the wiring and tail lights, that would later be co-opted by the Type 996 911. If you ever wondered where they got that taillight shape from, now you know. Image via Wikimedia Commons

While that may seem a near impossible task, somehow Bez was able to make it work. A front-engine, rear-drive chassis, with a wheelbase of 2,825mm made it spacious in both the front and rear seats. Power came from an 80-degree, water-cooled V8 that put out about 300 HP, although the final displacement of the engine is not known as it has been reported as low as 3.6L or as high as 4.2L.

With assistance from Porsche designer Harm Lagaay, the concept car took on a long, almost stretched look from the 911 model, but with the engine in the front, the hood was higher and therefore the classic “headlight humps” of the late 80s and early 90s 911’s were flattened out. Underneath, technical advancements in suspension included the first use of control-arm suspension components in a Porsche, which would later be used on the Type 993 911, and a new rear wiring setup and tail lights that would become integrated into the Type 996 911.

If you squint, you can see an elongated Type 993 911. The design lines were so clean and aligned with Porsche’s aesthetic that it was felt they had to use them somewhere, and four years after the prototype was made, the Type 993 was released. Image via Wikimedia Commons

However, while there was still interest in the car from the board, the real driving force behind it had become Bez himself. It was his project and his direction that was pushing the car more and more towards actual prototyping and possible release. Dr. Bez left the company in 1991, and ever since the release of the Type 964 911, 928 sales had slumped severely. These two factors combined to make the board rethink the viability of a four-door sports touring saloon car, and after the slump in recent profits, it was deemed too risky to pursue any longer.

Program Cancelled

The pin was pulled in January 1992, and although Porsche claimed they had scrapped the prototype, it was instead quietly wheeled into the non-public archives. Some pictures of the prototype had made it into car magazine pages at the time, which led to the initial “what the hell is that?!” reaction from people, but one has to remember that some of those same people were iffy on the Cayenne.

The 989 was put on display at the Porsche Museum for many years, and after the success of the Cayenne, the idea was pitched to revisit a luxury four-door sports saloon, which became the Panamera. As of 2019, the 989 is on display at the Petersen Auto Museum in Los Angeles, and many of Dr. Bez’s innovations, as well as Lagaay’s design influences, were adapted for the mainstream 911 model series. Today, the car looks like it would fit right in with all the other models, but back in 1991, it was the weird one of the bunch.