Over the last half century, if there has been a constant in the automotive world, it is unarguably the Porsche 911. The now classic shape of the 911 was first introduced to the world at the 1963 Frankfurt Automobile Show but had its genesis back in the mid-fifties as Ferdinand "Ferry" Porsche recognized that the development of the 356, with its Volkswagen origins, could go only so far. Internally, and up to its introduction at Frankfurt, the project was known as the 901 but 911 was adopted when Peugeot objected to the use of a model designation with zero as the second of three digits. As it now stands, Porsche owns the 911's visage and jealously guards its profile. More than a few Porsche-specific shops have been required to purge any reference to the 911 in word or shape.
The handsome body, penned primarily by son Ferdinand "Butzi" Porsche, was both a clean sheet design but one that owed clear lineage to the 356, itself derived from the original Volkswagen Beetle. It was designed around one of the primary tenants of the gospel according to Porsche; a horizontally opposed, air-cooled engine mounted behind the rear axle, just as it was on the 356. This dictated the basic proportions for the new 911, which included a practical 2+2 interior. And while the exterior evolution of the 911 is apparent, much the same holds true for the interior, which over the years has added all the expected comfort and convenience features, yet retains much of the layout and charm of the earliest 911s.
Looking back through back issues of magazines from the era, especially annual auto show coverage, you will see that a number of outside stylists and design houses took a stab at "improving" the already classic design. But even with the best of intentions, the results were unsuccessful, usually overwrought attempts that tried to improve upon evolving perfection. When you come to think about it, even as the silhouette of the 911 has changed over the years, which each version typically more muscular than the one before it, the changes Porsche instituted were almost always for the better.
The next important step in the 911's development came in 1975 with the introduction of the first production turbocharged 911, the original Bad Boy Porsche. Its distinctive body shape will always be remembered for its wide wheel-arches to accommodate the wide tires for that era as well as for its "whale tail" spoiler on the early cars, and later, the "tea tray" spoiler on the last 911 Turbos.
By 1979, more than 20 years into its life cycle, Porsche attempted to replace the 911 with the modern, front-engined, water-cooled, V8-powered 928. While it was a reasonable success for Porsche, expanding the marquee's appeal to a different audience, it was never really embraced by the Porsche purists and traditionalists and production ended in 1995.
Throughout the eighties and early nineties the 911's shape continued to evolve in subtle ways as the model range expanded with a variety of drivetrains, including all-wheel-drive. It was at the start of this period, 1982 to be exact, that a full convertible was introduced.
The biggest change in the 911's evolution came in 1998 with the introduction of the 996. To the Porsche faithful its styling seemed to be a step back from the beloved 993 but what really upset Porsche purists was the transition from an air- to water-cooled flat-6, necessary in an era of ever tightening emission standards. On the styling side, the front headlamp assemblies were oft-criticized, but through it all, even though the body was all-new and shared little in common with previous 911s, it was still unmistakably a 911
A few months back, at the US launch of the current 911 Turbo, I took full stock of the 911's enduring status as the automotive icon of the past half century, parked as it was in the pits at Watkins Glen. If ever a car was "right" this latest 911 filled the bill, a continual and it seems never ending evolution towards the goal of absolute perfection. While sharing little with its 1963 predecessor, its clean look harkened back to that first 911. Few (if any) many manufacturers can claim the same thing.