Anthony ffrench-Constant on the GTS's place in 911 history

Published: 04 March 2011

With sales up 27% in the UK last year, the nice man from Porsche who introduced me to the new Carrera GTS was clearly feeling understandably bullish about all things 911. ‘The engineers got it right first time’ he crooned. Erm, sorry, but I think you’ll find it was actually someone else who did that…

Anthony on the history of the Porsche 911

In 1930's Czechoslovakia, a technical genius and all round egg-head named Hans Ledwinka created Tatra cars; so christened in celebration of their ability to tackle, with alacrity, the worst road and weather excesses an eponymous local mountain range could throw at them. So superior, in fact, were they to the competition that Tatras rapidly became amongst the best known and most sought after cars in Europe.

Indeed, a certain Adolf Hitler was invariably to be found on the Tatra stand at motor shows telling anyone who would listen that any new, German popular car should be built along similar lines.

And the 1936 launch of Ledwinka's favourite creation; the rear engined, air-cooled, V8 powered Tatra 78, which boasted aerodynamic styling to put Thunderbird 2 to shame, proved altogether too much for Adolf: "This is the car for my roads" he bellowed, immediately instructing a certain Mr. F. Porsche to go away and build him a car using (nudge, nudge) any source of inspiration he liked.

From KdF Wagen to 911

Porsche duly produced the first rear engined, air-cooled, erm, not entirely aerodynamically styled Volkswagen; Hitler's KdF Wagen, the 'Strength through Joy' car. Tatra, in turn, produced a huge lower lip and a claim for the infringement of numerous patents. By this time, however, Hitler was preparing -with the aid of artillery, Stukas and an encouragingly daft marching style- to infringe considerably more than the odd patent...

Seems a trifle extreme; invading another country simply to get around patent law. Still, it worked, and in 1945, with the post-war dust settling, the unfortunate Ledwinka was held responsible for Tatra's involvement in arms manufacture and jailed for 6 years. So, whilst the Porsche family went from strength to strength through joy, Ledwinka lost several hundred patents and died, penniless, in 1967.

Scant recompense albeit, the apple of Ledwinka’s eye did extract some small revenge on his behalf: The T 78 proved so thoroughly ballistic by existing standards that the German officers who ruthlessly ‘commandeered’ every available specimen took to wiping themselves out with such monotonous regularity that they were actually banned from driving Tatras. The car for his roads, then, but perhaps not his armed forces…

And along came the Porsche 356

For Mr. Porsche, things worked out really rather well: The first car of 911 format, project 356; an, ahem... rear engined, air-cooled, aerodynamically styled sportster, was launched in 1948, and its descendants are still going strong today... Porsche now preferring to focus on the 775,000 specimens sold since September 1964.

There is, however, just one teensy thing that Mr. Porsche did differently to the hapless Ledwinka: Whereas Tatras had the engine mounted directly over the rear axle (engine inside the wheelbase, gearbox out, a la F1 car), the 911 has, of course, always worn it slung way out over the tarmac at the very back. Indeed, to this day, someone somewhere continues to believe the 911 should be a +2, so the engine still lurks way astern behind decidedly vestigial rear seats to which even the most heartless could not subject so much as Douglas Bader.

The Porsche 911: a labour of love

Which is why some of the world’s finest engineers have laboured for half a century to overcome a fundamental law of physics which dictates that, if you replace the Louis Vuitton with a dirty great lump of metal, an unsolicited visit to the shrubbery is surely, at some point, inevitable.

And which is also why (with memories of a PCOTY drive GT2 so stiff it would regularly pick a front tyre clean off the ground, and which bit me very hard indeed one afternoon) the ffrench-Constant bottle, a miniature, has never quite fully embraced the 911 in the wet.

That having been said, and despite the fact that recent models have never quite replicated the control-through-thought-alone hooning abilities of smaller, air-cooled 993 predecessors which shrank around the driver like cling film on a hot sausage, the 911 remains an outstanding drive.

The new Porsche 911 GTS

And, with Porsche quick to aver that this is no Parts Bin Special, the GTS is no exception. Clad in the wider, stiffer body of a 4, with commensurately wider track, the GTS is hallmarked by active suspension with a 10mm lower ride, and bespoke hooter, side skirts, 19” alloys, exhaust assemblage and the side graphics essential for instant identification by all but the cognoscenti.

Engine room frolics yield 23hp more than a Carrera S, with a maximum 310lb ft of torque generated at a lower, 4200rpm. So that’s, um, 0.1 seconds quicker to 62mph than an S, 0.3 seconds faster from 50-75mph in 5th and an extra 3mph at the sharp end.

The road test bit

Sadly, enjoyment of the much anticipated driving experience was curtailed by a route that entailed sludging through Bournemouth morning rush hour traffic which spilled all over the surrounding countryside, and proved dense enough to curtail the carving capabilities of even a 911. Brief flurries confirmed, however, that the thing remains ludicrously easy to drive and does, indeed, go like a stabbed rat.

A GTS Cabriolet was also made available for brief trips round the bay, the most remarkable thing about this specimen being that, assuming it’s much like the last open 911 I drove, a Turbo, it boasts less than 30% of its coupe sibling’s torsional stiffness.

Surprisingly, Porsche made no bones about admitting to this staggering 70% shortfall, perhaps recognising that the creaking, permatanned boulevardiers in the market for such a machine are far more likely to fret about high-velocity syrup disruption than any absence of bodyshell Viagra.

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By Anthony ffrench-Constant

Contributing editor, architect, sentence constructor, amuse bouche