The Porsche 959 was never meant to come to America. In fact, it wasn't even meant to be a car, really.
Built to showcase Porsche's stature as a world leader in automotive technology, the Porsche 959 utilized every ounce of brilliance within Porsche R&D when it appeared as the "Gruppe B" at the 1983 Frankfurt Auto Show. It left behind the traditional engineering of the Porsche 911 (which still showed evidence of the Volkswagen Beetle) and embraced the future: a turbocharged, liquid-cooled flat-6, six-speed transmission, all-wheel drive, double-wishbone suspension and even run-flat tires.
As Ferry Porsche himself later noted in his biography, "It is my personal opinion that an engineer should always try to solve a problem in the simplest way, but...technology is capable of extraordinary achievements if it is allowed the necessary freedom of maneuver. The Type 959 is a good example of this."
More technological masterpiece than practical automobile, the Porsche 959 was never meant to be a car. And certainly not a car you can drive on the street today with the full permission of a vast number of California government agencies that were, in fact, established to prevent such a thing from ever happening.
A Design Study Comes to Life
Two years after the Gruppe B appeared at Frankfurt, Porsche announced the introduction of the Porsche 959, a run of 200 cars to homologate the car for competition. Even at a price of $225,000, all the cars were quickly spoken for.
Though deposits had been accepted from expectant Porsche enthusiasts in America, when the U.S. Department of Transportation requested four cars to crash-test, Stuttgart cast a parental eye at its technological tour de force and said no. Without approval from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the car could not be sold or used in the USA.
Billionaire Bill Gates was one of the first Americans to put up his hand for a Porsche 959, so news that the car would not be allowed in the USA did not go down well in the Microsoft camp. Nevertheless, Bill and his associate Paul Allen shipped their cars to the West Coast, where their contraband was soon impounded and reportedly confined to a California warehouse for more than 10 years.
Change the Law, Not the Car
With no way to lawfully enjoy their 959s at home, wealthy U.S. owners set about changing the law for their benefit. Unsurprisingly where media-shy billionaires are concerned, how they did it is surrounded in subterfuge.
In 1990, a Seattle-based organization called Vehicle Technologies, Inc., launched an attempt to import the Porsche 959 and have it approved for the USA, an effort which came to naught. Several years later, a group calling itself the Special Vehicle Coalition (and communicating via a political lobbyist) engaged in discussions regarding proposed new legislation that would allow cars of note that were never sold new in the USA to be imported as individually owned show exhibits.
The lengthy (and no doubt expensive) campaign eventually paid off in 1998 with the arrival of the "Show and Display" (S&D) law. It permits significant cars like the Porsche 959 to be driven on U.S. roads for up to 2,500 miles a year.
S&D was a win, but it was not an exemption from emissions testing. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires all vehicles less than 21 years old used on U.S. roads to meet air emissions standards for the year of manufacture. Before it could be declared legal for road use, the 959 had to meet EPA standards. Converting the 959 to conform to emissions regulations was never going to be easy, especially in California. For starters, the 959 was never sold with catalytic converters, a requirement in California, nor was its Motronic brain programmed to recognize an oxygen sensor.
Actually the car was built with the wiring harness and an exhaust bung for a sensor, and the ECU was constructed with the circuit in mind. If you're thinking this suggests that Stuttgart left the option for owners to fit the missing bits themselves, you could be right. Factory kits were developed to fit the errant sensors and cats, as well as convert the sequential turbos to a twin-turbo setup. Rumor has it that these modifications are in place on a number of U.S.-based cars. But, say the 959 cognoscenti, try ordering the parts; it's not as simple as you might think.
The California Connection
G&K in Santa Ana, California, was one of the first companies to gain NHTSA and EPA approval for a Porsche 959 under the S&D legislation. In partnership with GIAC, a developer of vehicle software, G&K certified the first of its California-legal Porsche 959s in September 2001. It took $45,000 of work to do so.
Yet because the Porsche 959 had an engine derived from the Porsche 935/76 racecar that later powered the Porsche 956 and 962C to victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, there were those who hoped for more from the California-certified Porsche 959 than just clean-and-green performance.
Bruce Canepa was one of those people. The son of a car dealer in Santa Cruz, California (known for surfing, not cars), Canepa grew up in car culture and ultimately raced everything from sprint cars to sports cars. Through racing, he became a Porsche enthusiast.
"I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to purchase a Porsche 959 in 1988," says Bruce. "I still believe the 959 may be one of the best — if not the best — all-around sports cars ever." Canepa also believed the 959 still had some development potential. "Our research said the drivetrain was good for 600 horsepower. Producing this sort of power while hitting the EPA targets and retaining the car's exceptional drivability was our goal from Day One."
Beyond Clean and Green
Based in Scotts Valley, just inland from Santa Cruz, Canepa Design does its work in a typical California light-industrial park. Next to a pair of disassembled 959s, there's a Porsche 935 in restoration, a brace of Bugatti EB110s, a Nissan Group C car and Jim Hall's famous Chaparral Camaro. Across the way is a Porsche 934 and next to that is a Porsche 917 — the list goes on. A lottery winner would run out of cash in a matter of seconds.
Up in the air with the wheels off, the true complexity of the Porsche 959 is exposed. The wheelwells reveal control equipment, a network of pipes and wiring connecting the car's assorted pumps and servos. When this car went on sale, only Apollo space capsules were more complicated.
The car seen here is chassis number 012, which dates from 1988. Bought in Frankfurt in 1990, serviced by the factory and stored at Porsche Hamburg for most of its life, this immaculate example has covered just under 6,000 miles. On arrival at Canepa Design, the car received Canepa's Phase 1 engine upgrade and a full cosmetic detail before being EPA- and California-certified by Northern California Diagnostic Laboratories.
This is a 959 Sport, the factory lightweight, built without the active suspension and with cloth seats and manual windows (and no air-conditioning). Some 29 examples of the 959S were built for the U.S. market in 1998, apparently intended to qualify for import as racing cars, but the loophole in U.S. regulations quickly closed and most of the cars were returned to Europe.
Canepa's conversion changes the car from a sequential-turbo setup to twin-turbo operation using current Garrett turbochargers. New engine management modules and associated components are fitted, with a new exhaust featuring Porsche catalytic converters. The electrical system is upgraded, with Californication achieved by the addition of an air pump and EGR system. The Phase 1 conversion makes 575 hp, while the Phase 2 makes more than 640 hp.
This 959S also has the Canepa suspension package of tuned dampers (a 959S has two struts per wheel) with titanium coil springs, plus a different clutch and pedal assembly to improve feel. Canepa also modifies the original wheels to accommodate 245/45R17 front and 275/40R17 rear Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires.
Drive, He Said
Canepa estimates he has done 100,000 miles in various examples of the 959. Though he won his reputation as an IMSA racer in the 1980s with the Porsche 935 and 962C, he is pretty quick on the loose stuff as well (like Pikes Peak) and his skills are just right for the old, narrow roads of the Santa Cruz Mountains, which were once logging roads.
Anyone imagining this machine as overweight and out of date had better think again. The exuberant supercar revels in a run among the redwoods. It charges through the gears like a drag bike, then brakes and corners with such heroic poise that it's hard to believe the speedometer needle.
The seamless power and excellent suspension are fabulous, so you can certainly see why some owners have modified their cars.
Just Another Old Car
Now that the 1987 and 1988 examples of the Porsche 959 (337 cars were ultimately built before production shut down in 1989) are over 21 years old, EPA requirements have expired and the car can be used in the USA with no certification other than its S&D certificate.
Porsche aficionado John Dixon, of the famous Taj Ma Garaj in Dayton, Ohio, was the first man to import a street-legal Porsche 959 into the USA (with the help of Bryan Milazzo) back in 2001, so it is appropriate that he get the last word on the long road that the car took to come to America.
"The process was an ordeal. The 959 will pass EPA without the catalytic converters, but that didn't suit the bureaucrats with their federal mandate, or the conversion labs who were given a license to print money, which many used to full effect. Now the 21-year rule has kicked in, I'm hoping to see some original 959s coming to America.
"It's true what they say; good things come to those who wait."
Portions of this content have appeared in foreign print media and are reproduced with permission.