This year, 2018, Porsche will celebrate its 70th anniversary. Although the official date for the registration of the first car, 356-001, is on 8 June, Porsche Road & Race will be bringing you a snapshot into the timeline along the road of these seven decades. Starting in 1998, six milestones covering seven decades will bring us back to when it all started, on 8 June 1948.
Track back with us as we look at what was happening on the race track with Porsche’s race cars. The Le Mans 24 Hour race is the highlight of the endurance racing calendar, and there are even those Porsche enthusiasts who would argue that it is the highlight of the global motorsport calendar period.
In 1996, Porsche introduced the GT1, a GT racer that bore some resemblance to the 911 from which its production roots could be traced. The race car performed well enough but in motor racing, winning is everything, and the factory’s two entries finished second and third at Le Mans, which was clearly not good enough for Porsche.
The following year was a bit of a disaster as one of the factory cars retired with gearbox failure while the #26 factory car was also out of the running two hours from the end due to an engine fire. With two DNFs in 1997, the GT1 project was at risk of being shelved, but fortunately Norbert Singer was given the green light to give it one more go, but only if the new model he was to develop stood an excellent chance of overall victory. Of course, at stake in 1998 was the small matter of the company’s 50th anniversary, and all of the Porsche top brass would be present at the race to see their car come across the line in first place!
After qualifying in fifth place, the #26 factory GT1-98 driven by Laurent Aiello/Allan McNish/Stéphane Ortelli took the chequered flag on Sunday 7 June having completed 352 laps. Having qualified in fourth place, the #25 sister car of Jörg Müller/Uwe Alzen/Bob Wollek finished in second place, one lap down. This victory took Porsche’s tally of Le Mans wins to sixteen, by far the highest number at the time.
When asked about the pre-race pressure, Allan McNish told the author, “Oh yeah, no question, the Board were there and everybody expected a victory. Against the opinion of a lot of people, the boss Herbert Ampferer, put his trust in three young guys who had nothing in terms of a record at Le Mans. He stood up to the Board and said that these are the three drivers we want in the car, so his neck was probably on the line for that, but he felt that was the right way to go. Monday morning [after the race] was the 50th anniversary, so we basically celebrated on the Sunday night right into the Monday morning.”
Professor Ferry Porsche
Sadly, Professor Dr. Ing. h.c. Ferdinand Anton Ernst “Ferry” Porsche passed away on 27 March 1998, less than three months before the above-mentioned victory at Le Mans, and the company’s golden anniversary. He died in Zell am See, Austria, aged 88 years.
1998 was also a very significant year for Porsche in that it bore witness to the last air-cooled 911 to come off the production line. The company had made the ground-breaking decision to move on from the old air-cooled engine technology on which all Porsches to date had been based, and to embrace a water-cooled future. This was a watershed moment for the Stuttgart company, and the move certainly caused a few ripples on the pond surface as far as the purists were concerned. Abandoning the pillar of air-cooled engine technology that had served the company so well, was even more controversial than the moment when the early purists learned that the 356 was to be replaced by a more modern 6-cylinder model.
However, the sceptics were soon proved wrong when the new Type 996 broke cover at the IAA Frankfurt Motor Show in October 1997 (1998 model year), as the thoroughly modern-looking 911 was a completely new car, developed entirely from scratch. A new approach was needed to spearhead the company into the future which at that time was shaking off the effects of a difficult financial period. Launching a completely new model was an extremely expensive proposition, but it was made easier by the sharing of components between the 996 and the Type 986 Boxster, launched just a year before. The 996 shared the same bonnet lid with the Boxster, front headlamps with integral low and high beam lights, indicators, fog lamps, front wings and doors. The two models also shared the same floor pan forward of the B-pillar. Another significant cost-saving factor was that the 996 could be built up in either left- or right-hand drive form, using the same basic body shell.
Importantly, the 3.4-litre water-cooled engine allowed the use of 4-valve technology, and the water cooling also served to dampen engine noise which was becoming an issue at that time. The 996 also ushered in the age of more sophisticated driver comforts, including in-car GSM hands-free telephone connectivity, GPS satellite navigation system, and an on-board computer. The 996 was bristling with new technology under the skin too, with traction control, ABS brakes, acceleration slip regulation, and much more. In April 1998, the 911 Carrera Cabriolet was added to the range and in October the same year (although this was a 1999 model year) saw the introduction of the Carrera 4 model at the Paris Motor Show.
Porsche started out as a small company seventy years ago, but through their commitment to delivering quality products, they were able to offer models that competed with the best in terms of performance. The company continued to grow thanks to a very active and successful international motorsport programme. It is this fundamental policy that Ferry Porsche instilled in the early close-nit pool of engineers and workers, that Porsche’s success as a company would benefit from race victories, and how right he was.
We will bring you more insights into the fascinating history of Porsche as we walk back through each successive decade, so stay tuned for our next episode…
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Porsche Archive