911 Porsche World
BUYERS’ GUIDE: PORSCHE 959
Initially devised and homologated for Group B rallying, the Porsche 959 became a showcase for Porsche’s technical ambitions and was by some some margin the most advanced car on sale, when launched in 1987. Values have ebbed and flowed, but the 959 is now
Porsche’s ’80s car of the future
Experts warn us that investments can go down as well as up, and few classic cars have demonstrated this more clearly than the 959, Porsche’s first road-going supercar, launched in 1987. Its new price was a not inconsiderable £145,000 (about £370,000 today), but that had underestimated the market for the 292 cars to be built, and as soon as deliveries began speculators were asking – and getting – £500,000 and more.
You saw their advertisments in The Sunday Times and Autocar, but the profiteering ended when the UK collector car market dramatically crashed in 1990 as the economy entered recession. You could then almost not give a 959 away, and even a decade later in 959 features 911 & Porsche World was estimating that the top value was around £95,000, comparable with a new 911 Turbo.
Now though, 959s are once again white hot property. In its Paris auction in February 2017 RM Sotheby’s sold one of the rare Sport models for €1.96m (about £1.75m), and despite the cooling of classic values shifted a Komfort model for $1.16m (£880,000) in Arizona in January 2018. Much of that price growth has occurred in the last five years.
Most are locked up in secure collections, having covered minimal mileage and still in near new condition (although cars do deteriorate in these conditions unless properly maintained). So for investors, estate inheritors and anyone else with six figures of spare cash, here’s what you need to know about this most charismatic Porsche.
Porsche built the 959 to go rallying in, but it came to be a showcase for the company’s engineering prowess rather than fulfilling its motorsport ambitions. Design work began in 1981 and the finished product appeared
six years later. It was based on the 911 platform, but almost every part of it was bespoke, making it easily the most technically sophisticated car among its Group B contemporaries. For homologation purposes Porsche had to make available a minimum of 200 road cars for sale, but of course the sudden axing of this extreme World Rally Champion class on safety grounds robbed it of purpose. Two hundred customers lodged their DM50,000 deposits.
Its 2.85-litre engine (a capacity to comply with motorsport regulations of the time) was based on that from Porsche’s 956 endurance racer, and very different to the regular 3.2-litre 911 Carrera 3.2 unit. It featured twin, sequential turbochargers and water-cooled cylinder-heads with four valves. Five radiators cooled the oil, cylinder head water and the turbo air.
Output in road trim was 450bhp (almost double that of the Carrera 3.2), but an optional factory upgrade of larger turbos and remapped ECU saw that rise to 550bhp. Power was transmitted through a six-speed gearbox and permanent four-wheel drive transmission (to be used in simplified form in 1989’s 964 911 Carrera 4).
The right-hand side of the steering- column housed an extra stalk, taking the transmission through four modes: “Ice”, “Wet Road”, Dry Road” and “Traction”, hence the driver could examine the road ahead, pick the setting and accelerate, comfortable in the knowledge that the most suitable front/rear torque split had been selected. And a dial to the far right of the instrument panel showed the percentage front/rear torque split currently deployed, and also the percentage locking of the rear differential.
Front and rear suspension were a double wishbone set-up, with dashboard adjustable damper firmness and ride height, while the brakes were from Porsche’s motorsport parts bins (among the few components not specifically designed for the 959). Other examples of the exotic, cost-no-object nature of the car are the tyre pressure sensors built into the valve caps, and the unique, hollow-spoked, 17-inch alloy wheels, wearing 235/45 front and 255/40 rear tyres.
The 959’s body was made in a combination of alloy (bonnet and doors), lightweight Aramid and Kevlar composites (wings, rear spoiler, engine cover and undertray), giving a 0.31 drag factor, slippery compared to the Carrera 3.2’s 0.38. But it was, and perhaps still is, a love-it-orloathe-it shape. With faired in headlamps and full, smooth nose treatment, it can look stunning from the front three-quarter angle, but at the back it’s harder to call the 959 a treat. The massive rear overhang, plus the huge engine cover give it a tail heavy appearance, the vast appendage seeming almost to be tacked on to the slender 911 body. That the words, ‘Is it a kit car’ were often uttered says a lot about the mix of styles.
Inside, the 959 is a different character. Without using the mirrors, you can’t see any of the bulbous, mainly Kevlar add-ons from the driver’s seat, and the initial impression is of sitting in an extremely well appointed, but normal Carrera 3.2. There are however detail differences, for example the clock gave way to what could be called the 4WD information centre, and was displaced to the centre console. Weirdly for a 1980s rear-engined Porsche, the far left dial includes a water temperature gauge, for the cylinder-heads. On the transmission tunnel, ahead of the gear lever, are positioned the switches for the variable damper stiffness and ride height.
The majority of 959s were finished in Komfort trim, including leather and airconditioning, but a reported 29 came in Sport form, stripped of the a/c and sound system, and with cloth trim and a roll-cage. They also lacked the Komfort’s driveradjustable suspension, and were lighter.
All 959s were left-hand drive, an estimated dozen sold in the UK by Porsche Cars Great Britain. In the absence of a catalyst engine option the car was not offered in the US, but a buyer there, Bruce Canepa, engineered a suitable system enabling personally imported 959s (including, of course, the one belonging to Bill Gates) to be used there.
The 959 was built in 1987 and 1988, but
in 1992 and 1993 Porsche built eight more from leftover parts. These were all Komfort models, four in red and four in silver, and with evolved suspension including a speed sensitive damper adjustment system.
The 959 market is global, and at any one time you might see half a dozen for sale, most labelled “Price on application”. However, it seems that the going rate in the UK is £800,000 to £900,000 for “average” examples, but when pristine cars from collections come up for sale, invariably at international auctions, they can fetch well into seven figures.
Looking back at what international auctioneer RM Sotheby’s has sold over the years shows how the 959 has re-emerged as a top collectable. In 2006 at Amelia Island in Florida it sold a Komfort for $286,000 (£150,500, based on a then extraordinary £1.90 per dollar exchange!), and in 2010 a 25,800km (16,125 miles) car in Monaco for €210,000 (then £141,900). August of the same year saw a 1900-mile example go for $412,500 (£257,800) at Monterey in California.
In September 2012 in London a 959 with just 651km made just £308,000, but in 2013 two cars in the US fetched $770,000 (£513,300) and $737,000 (£491,000). Arizona in 2015 saw RM’S first million dollar 959 (£700,000), a 21,600km (13,500 miles) car, and that’s now a guide price for 959s. In early August 2018 Coys offered a 22,000km (13,750 miles) 959 with an €800,000–€900,000 (£713,600–£802,800) estimate, which did not sell on the day but in a post-auction deal moved at around €850,000.
Clearly, this is not one of our usual Buyers’ Guides, because most if not all cars are either in collections or effectively on display. None will have covered sufficient mileage for there to be significant mechanical or body deterioration, and any problems that do occur will be because of long periods of being unused. For example the battery, under the carpet trim in the front boot compartment and not readily accessible, is likely to be in a poor state by now, and hydraulic pipes may leak. Many of the engine components are bespoke and unique to the 959 and therefore now unavailable; indeed it’s reckoned that it cost Porsche more to develop the 959 than was recouped in sales revenue, but that of course is often the way with exotic, low volume sports cars.
The 959, despite its complexity, is a car that Porsche Centres could work on, provided they still have technicians with experience of it – but Porsche Cars Great Britain forbids it, insisting that, as is the case with its two other 21st century supercars, the Carrera GT and 918 Spyder, PCS refer all 959s to the dealership within Porsche’s Reading headquarters. ‘We could inspect it up on the ramp and we could work on it no problem, but it has to go to Porsche, that’s a contractual thing,’
one PC service technician told us.
A handful of independent Porsche specialists will have the knowledge and experience to maintain 959s. For example Charles Ivey in Surbiton in Surrey says it look after several of them for customers, and indeed owns one, a car the business bought new in 1988 with the intention of racing it (though never did).
CANEPA: 959 SPECIALIST
Due to its rarity and the infrequent use of most examples, there is only limited 959 expertise in any country. Hence all owners, particularly these in northern California, should be aware of the name Canepa, which can justifiably claim to be the world’s leading 959 specialist.
Before establishing his present company in 1993, founder Bruce Canepa had raced Porsches both as a driver and team owner, and in 1988 purchased a 959. With the model not “federalised” and therefore not legally driveable in the US, he set about developing his own catalyst system to enable the engine to comply with US emissions standards.
His company, Canepa, in northern California, is now unquestionably the most knowlegeable 959 specialist anywhere, and the “Canepa 959” it now offers is updated and modified in almost almost every respect. Beside the addition of a catalyst, the car’s engine was tuned to “gen 1” spec 15 years ago, to produce 569bhp, a 26 per cent increase over the standard output, and subsequently increased to 631bhp. Now in “gen 3” form, with new Borg-warner turbos, integrated wastegates, and titanium heat shields, blueprinted exhaust valve springs, high output ignition and many more modifications, the four-wheel-drive supercar can boast 752bhp and 468lb ft. A coilover suspension pack is offered, as is a wheel upgrade to allow the most modern tyres to be used, and headlamps suitable for a modern supercar can be installed. There’s also an interior re-trim service.
Canepa also periodically sells 959s, and is presently offering the 125th car produced (price on application), in red with a black interior, imported to the US in 1999 and its engine upgraded in power and emissions in 1993. It also features the “959S” suspension upgrade. Canepa is based in Scotts Valley, in the Santa Cruz mountains near San Jose.
The 959 is an extraordinary sportscar, not just for the then unprecedented level of technology that Porsche developed for it in the early 1980s, but because of the way it has been perceived since then. At first there was a stampede, then the market fell out of love with it, leaving it out in the wilderness for probably two decades, after which it became one of the most coveted Porsche road cars, perhaps even challenging the super iconic 911 2.7RS on value.
For most of us, the 959 would be worth more than our house, perhaps twice as much, hence it is another Porsche mostly condemned to vaulted collections (the example Porsche brought to 2018’s Goodwood Festival of Speed provided a rare viewing opportunity), and it seems highly likely that in the long term values will rise significantly, further persuading owners not to bring them out to play. But if you have got a spare £800,000, buying a 959 just to look at would still be money well spent, such is its wondrous nature. PW