The 959 that Porsche would have built
Bruce Canepa eased his white Porsche onto a highway on-ramp and stabbed the throttle with his foot. The tyres hooked up, our heads snapped back and the scenery blurred, evoking the moment in Star Wars when the Millennium Falcon leaps into hyperspace. “This is the ultimate Porsche 959,” Canepa declares through a Cheshire Cat grin.
He would know: the former pro racer may be the United States’ foremost expert on the 959, Porsche’s first supercar. The company built only 292 examples of the production model from 1986 through to 1988 (and up to eight more in 1992 and ’93), and with it introduced such innovative features as sequential twin turbochargers, a suspension system (for the Komfort variant) that automatically adjusted the car’s ride height to enhance stability, and an all-wheel-drive system that adjusted the torque distribution between the front and rear wheels under hard acceleration or in accordance with the road conditions. The Sport variant of the 959 – which featured a lighter coil-over-shocks suspension – could rocket from zero to 100km/h in 3.6 seconds and achieve a top speed upwards of 317km/h, making it the fastest production vehicle of its time.
Canepa’s eponymous car sales, customisation and restoration business, located near Santa Cruz, California, offers an overhauled version of the 959 like the one he was driving. He believes the Canepa Generation III 959 realises Porsche’s ultimate vision for its groundbreaking machine. The Gen III begins as an original and preferably low-kilometre 959 sourced by Canepa or provided by the client. The Canepa team then performs a nearly complete rebuild that includes modifying the car’s original 335kW flat-six with screaming twin turbochargers from Borg Warner, rendering the engine capable of producing 570kW and 860Nm torque. “The car started with 335kW, but Porsche’s engineers were building a racecar that could handle up to 560, so in many ways the car is now finally what it could have been,” says Canepa.
Porsche developed the 959 as a Group B rally car and put it into production to satisfy FIA homologation rules. It also built a racing variant, the 961, which debuted at the 1986 24 Hours of Le Mans, finishing seventh. In addition to boosting the 959’s engine, Canepa updates the suspension so that the car rides more smoothly.
The price of a Gen III upgrade varies depending on the condition of the original car and how much refurbishment it requires, but it will cost in the same range as a high-end European exotic. On top of that is the price of the Porsche 959, which can range from roughly $1.3 million to close to $2.6 million.
When it was in production, the Porsche 959 was not certified as street legal in the United States, and so it was not available on US soil. In the late 1990s, Canepa helped Microsoft cofounders Bill Gates and Paul Allen – both fans of the 959 – successfully lobby the US Congress for the passage of the Show or Display legislation, which established guidelines for legally importing cars to the United States that do not meet federal safety standards. Because the 959 is now more than 25 years old, the regulations no longer apply, and the car can be driven on US roads as long as it meets state emissions standards.
Once 959s started arriving in the United States – it’s believed that about 50 made it there – Canepa began modernising examples of the once state-of-the-art coupé. Initially he swapped out the turbos and improved the fuel-injection components. For the Gen II 959, he also tweaked the engine-management system. “Gen II really woke the car up,” says Canepa. “That one was 2.9 seconds, zero to 100km/h. It squats, and it’s gone.”
During our Californian highway romp, he used his manual-shifting prowess to show how the Gen III can reach 100km/h in 2.5 seconds. “I love the new hybrid supercars,” said Canepa, who also owns a McLaren P1 and a Porsche 918 Spyder, “but they require total focus and can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Besides, it’s hard to do this in them.” With that, he ripped through a mind-warping 100-to-200-to-100km/h run, smiled, and said, “I could do this all day.”