The Grandfather of Modern Supercars – Porsche 959

Sequential turbocharging, torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive and ride height/damping adjustment at the touch of a button. These technologies are all commonplace on high-performance modern supercars, but in 1987 they were considered otherworldly. Only one car could boast all of that technology… and then some. The Porsche 959.

To say the 959 was a car ahead of its time is a massive understatement. Sure, its straight-line performance was blistering at the time (and even by 2019 standards), but the top speed and acceleration were only half the story with the 959. It was how this supercar attacked corners – and adapted its driving – which set it apart from ALL the rivals.

Looks aren’t the 959s strongest point. It’s not an ugly car but compared to its most notable rival – the Ferrari F40 – it’s safe to say the 959 follows a more ‘functional’ approach. But all that is irrelevant when you peel away the bodywork and delve under the skin. These two machines couldn’t be more different…

First up is the 959’s engine. A flat-six turbo wasn’t new for Porsche at the time, but this particular engine – aside from being de-stroked to 2.85 litres to meet FIA regulations – featured twin sequential turbos producing 450bhp instead of typical single or twin turbos.

The advantage? Sequential turbos use one smaller and one larger turbo working in line with one another. At low rpm, the smaller turbo is utilised to give good low-down torque. At higher rpm, the larger turbo is then used to deliver blistering top end performance. This means power delivery is much more linear… something earlier ‘widowmaker’ Porsches weren’t exactly famed for.

Next was the drivetrain and transmission. Back in the 80s if you thought of all-wheel-drive it was Audi’s Quattro system which reigned supreme. But the Porsche 959 brought a whole new technology into the mix – the Porsche-Steuer Kupplung (PSK) system.

This system allowed torque to be distributed between the front and rear axles depending on grip levels and driving conditions. Up to 80% could be sent to the rear wheels (in optimum conditions) changing to a 50:50 distribution when additional traction was required. The best bit? An onboard dial which not only showed the percentage of power being sent to the axles but also allowed four grip settings to be chosen: Dry, wet, snow and permanent 50:50!

But the 959’s real party piece was its suspension, and there was only one manufacturer who could develop the technology required for Porsche’s super-high expectations – BILSTEIN.

The most obvious difference in the 959 was the use of dual dampers on each corner, giving it a total of eight BILSTEIN dampers. You’d typically expect to find this within the off-road market, but the 959’s system was utilised with maximum versatility in mind.

For a start, all of these dampers were hydraulically linked eliminating the need for typical anti-roll bars. When needed, hydraulic pressure would be increased or decreased to compensate for load during cornering or hard driving.

Secondly, this system didn’t just allow damper adjustment… it also allowed ride height adjustment while on the move! How exactly? Within the two BILSTEIN dampers at each corner, one unit incorporated electric motors which allowed the damping characteristics to be changed by adjusting the damping valve between a soft/road use and a hard/track use.

Within the second damper lurked a hydraulic system which – in addition to the load compensation – allowed the height to be adjusted using a switch within the cockpit. The first setting raised the 959 by 1.2-inches allowing it to navigate tricky road conditions, whereas the second setting lowered it 1.2-inches (from stock height) to lower the 959 for fast road and track driving.

The suspension system was so advanced for its time Porsche’s chief R&D expert Helmuth Bott described it as making ‘driver errors are impossible.’ Praise doesn’t get much higher than that…

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