The Goodwood Festival of Speed celebrated its 20th birthday this year. For those of us who've become regulars, it's hard to believe that two decades have passed since Lord March first turned his private driveway into a competitive hill climb.
What began as a modest gathering of well-to-do enthusiasts has morphed into one of the most significant events on the motorsport calendar. This year, a sellout crowd of 150,000 showed up to watch a cast that included contemporary F1 cars, a 1936 Auto Union Type C and Clint Bowyer's 2012 Sprint Cup car.
Every year has a theme (or a main sponsor, depending on your level of cynicism) and this year celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Porsche 911. This was proclaimed by a 112-foot-high sculpture that featured a 1965 911 coupe, a 1972 2.7 RS and a current Porsche 991. Back on earth, there were all manner of Porsche displays and a special class dedicated to some of the most iconic 911s ever built.
To commemorate these two impressive milestones, we were offered the chance to drive two of the most significant 911s up the 1.12-mile hill climb. The 993 series of the 911 is regarded by many as the definitive Porsche road car, while the "953" Paris-Dakar car is surely one of the strangest cars ever to wear the Porsche badge. This is how we got on.
For a manufacturer renowned for its conservatism, the 953 is an uncharacteristic act of madness. As the 1980s kicked off, someone in Stuttgart decided it would be a good idea to turn a 911 into a rally car and enter the infamous Paris-Dakar race. Moreover, they would convince ex-F1 racer and six-time Le Mans winner Jacky Ickx to drive it.
The car we're driving is the very car in which Ickx contested the 1984 Paris-Dakar. Dressed in a naughty but nice Rothman's livery it looks like a 911 on stilts. The car served as a test bed for Porsche's nascent four-wheel-drive technology, which at this stage relied on simple, mechanical controls.
Ickx didn't win the rally (he came in 4th) but the sister 953 of René Metge was the first to reach the Senegalese capital. Moreover, Paris-Dakar success convinced Porsche that four-wheel drive and the 911 were happy bedfellows and paved the way for both the limited-run 959 supercar and the first Carrera 4.
One Small Problem
The 953 has two fuel tanks (one in the front and one in the back) and two fuel pumps to cope with the demands of the giant African dunes. It's a complex system and somewhat temperamental, as we were about to find out. Traversing the paddock on the way to the Goodwood start line, the 953 cried enough, leaving us stranded. Not even an army of Porsche Museum mechanics could bring it back to life. Rubbish.
The problem was eventually traced to a fuel feed problem and fixed. Two days later, we were back on the start line for another go. Pinned to the seat by a six-point harness we're confronted by a simple road car dash and an evocative Momo steering wheel. Simple, businesslike and very 911.
The car starts (this time) on the turn of a key, then it's simply a case of selecting one of five forward gears and releasing the surprisingly light clutch. That much is road car simple. Less easy to master is the throttle. To keep the driver's foot from accidentally kicking the throttle every time they hit a bump, Porsche designed a bespoke pedal that's initially resistant to input. Then, when you push harder, it suddenly gives. Maybe you get used to it eventually, but for a 953 virgin, it's quite a struggle.
Up the Hill We Go
We're away and the 3.0-liter engine delivers an angry bark as 300 horses take the whip. It sounds like a 911, but it doesn't feel like one. Nor does it feel like any other car we've ever driven. The suspension is set up for desert running and it rides on tires that last did battle during the Cold War. It doesn't want to track true, even in a straight line.
Through corners it's even worse. You turn in, wait in vain for it to settle, then gingerly feed in the power. We've all laughed at people who crash at the Festival of Speed, but right now, there's a danger we might be joining them. This is not really a 911 on stilts; it's a different beast entirely. The only constants are the aesthetics and the engine.
We have no doubt that on the Goodwood rally stage everything would make sense and it probably feels magnificent in the desert, but on the paved hill climb, the 953 borders on the scary. Crazy idea, crazy car.
The Purist's 911
For the more anal of Porsche purists, the 911 died with the 993. This was the final iteration of an air-cooled car that could trace its genealogy all the way back to 1963. The model that followed, code-named 996, was all-new, cooled by water and boasted a clip-on cupholder. The horror.
The 993 was sold from 1993-'98 and this model dates from 1994. It was designed by a Brit, Tony Hatter, and engineered under the stewardship of Dr. Ulrich Bez, now boss of Aston Martin.
Bez wanted to develop a new interior but Porsche was desperately short of cash, so the car retained a cockpit that had evolved only gently since the '60s. Ironically this is now a crucial part of the 993's enduring charm. The quintet of dials, with the rev counter at its heart, is one of the most iconic sights in motoring.
A Different Feel on This Run up the Hill
Lord March has long embraced the idea of road cars sprinting up his famous hill climb, but it still feels odd to be driving in shirt and jeans instead of a shiny jumpsuit.
Officially the 911 road car run is a "demonstration" and limited to 40 mph. We're all supposed to follow a 991 course car and behave. But it's a ridiculous idea. Demonstrating a 911 — any 911 — at 40 mph is a contradiction in terms. It's like asking Usain Bolt to tiptoe down the 100m.
Instead, we feign a bit of distraction at the start line to buy a bit of space. Then we nail the throttle, let the 272-horsepower, 3.6-liter flat-6 spin to 6,500 rpm and grab 2nd. Back in the day this car was good for zero to 60 mph in a smidgen over 5 seconds and 20 years on, it still feels fast. The gearchange also has a lovely mechanical feel that's been muted in modern Porsches.
The Sound Never Gets Old
Through the first corner and hard on the power for a sprint past the famous Goodwood House. This car has a naughty sports exhaust for the full fat 993 experience. If a car sounds this evocative, it's a shame to muzzle it. Approaching the 6,500-rpm redline, it produces a pure, cultured cry that Porsche has never quite been able to repeat. Little wonder that Porsche aficionados continue to talk about the air-cooled cars in hushed tones.
A right kink in front of the house leads to a blind left-hander at Molcombe corner where so many have crashed. Down to 3rd then power on up the hill, grab 4th before the famous flint wall and sprint to the finish.
It's not hard to understand why a 993 is worth so much more than the 996 that followed. This car is a bridging point between old and new; it retains all the charm of the original but adds a useful dose of modernity. There will never be anything else quite like it.