Porsche made for tough competition on track, but the 1980s would see the sports car firm venture off-road. This is the story of the legendary 959 Dakar cars
The Group B era was a crazy time in motor sport, where the main limitations were a designer’s imagination and the depth of a manufacturer’s pockets. Porsche has always been well known for its performance on track, but in the 1980s the 959 took the brand off-road in the form of a rally car.
The legendary Porsche 959 was born out of a design study to explore the feasibility of a Group B racing car. In fact, this was the second such study; the first, failed, attempt used a 928.
This time Porsche put a lot of research and development time into exploring a design that was both powerful and aerodynamically efficient – and the manufacturer was on to something! However, Group B rules stated that all entrants must spawn a minimum of 200 road-legal cars for homologation. Porsche hesitated – not because it wasn’t capable, but because it feared not finding buyers for the extreme machines.
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Instead of wasting the valuable research already done, the German company turned its attention to creating the ultimate road car. The result was one of the most technologically competent supercars of its time, complete with advanced all-wheel drive, a twin-turbocharged flat-six and a top speed of 197mph. It was a mighty impressive machine, but some still felt it should go racing – that was what had started this project after all.
It was actually Jackie Ickx who convinced Porsche top brass that the 959 would lend itself well to rally events such as the Paris-Dakar. The rugged 959 was given the green light, or so it would seem…
Developing the 959 for rallying would have been a costly venture – and a PR nightmare had it gone wrong. A halfway house was reached, which involved modifying 911s with simplified all-wheel drive and upgrading them to basic 959 specification. A 232bhp rally car subsequently claimed victory in the 1984 African endurance event. Porsche was now happy to put more resources into properly developing the 959 for the 1985 event.
A trio of 959 cars, complete with modern gadgetry, raced across the Sahara with the aim of retaining the crown. Unfortunately that wasn’t to be the case, with 1985 far from reliving the events of the previous year. Two of the three cars were involved in accidents, and the third retired due to mechanical issues. This was a slap in the face for Porsche, as it had taken the time to create ‘real’ 959 rally cars only to have them scattered across the desert.
1986 was a different story, thanks to more development primarily concerning the 390bhp engine and its ability to run on Africa’s low-octane fuel. Three cars were entered once again, but this time the result was very different. Porsche won the event, with the other two cars taking second and sixth. Finally the 959 story had come full circle.
Porsche was very content with the 959’s rallying exploits, and soon turned its attention to Le Mans and the development of the 961. That’s a whole new story…