Forgotten legend: Porsche 959 rallying pioneer goes to auction
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We've already talked at length about why the 959 is one of the most special, sought after Porsches ever made. It was arguably one of the world's first 'hypercars' — an electronics-filled antithesis of sorts to Ferrari's low-slung and simple F40.
But, unlike the F40 and many other pin-up supercars through the period, the 959 also worked to justify its being by tackling the cut-throat world of rallying. And now, one of the relics from a unique rallying programme is up for sale — expected to land a hefty NZ$4.5million price tag at auction in October.
But before we get into that, let's talk history.
It was an interesting strategy on Porsche's behalf at the time; taking their purpose-built supercar racing on gravel instead of on Tarmac. This is a sport that's always traditionally attracted mainstream manufacturers rather than the likes of Porsche. Think about the World Rally Championship's most iconic brands — Lancia, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Ford, Citroen, Audi — the common thread is that they're all mainstream manufacturers.
No Ferrari or McLaren here, they've always been preoccupied by Formula 1.
In the early '80s, the WRC was getting into its stride. Undoubtedly it was helped along too by the advent of Group B — perhaps the most insane, unsafe, 'pure' form of top-tier motorsport that the world's ever seen. Porsche, watching from the sidelines, would've witnessed the hoards of fans clogging every stage.
They began development on the 959's rallying variant before the production car, and it was built to Group B specifications. And yet, after all of the development and effort, the 959 never raced on the Group B stage.
The story goes that Porsche realized that the 959 was going to struggle to be competitive in that setting, mainly because of its hefty weight compared to the likes of the featherweight (and mightily unsafe) Peugeot 205 T16 and Lancia Delta S4. The latter, for instance, tipped the scales at 890kg, ensuring that the Porsche would be at least 200kg in the red before even turning a wheel.
So instead of Group B, Porsche took on the Paris to Dakar Rally. Though it was a much more gruelling event on an individual level, the price versus a full season of Group B was favourable, and of course Porsche had better odds of success. And in 1986, in the 959's third attempt, it claimed victory with drivers René Metge and Dominique Lemonyne.
Was this Porsche's motivation? Paris to Dakar glory in a sports car? Probably not.
In the end, the simplest reasoning is probably the most accurate. The 959 was one of the world's supercar pioneers in the realm of all-wheel drive. It was a technology that Porsche saw as exploitable in the world of race tracks, and the 959's gravel circle-work helped develop a system that would eventually inspire many more all-wheel drive models in the Porsche line-up. From the 911 Turbo, to the Cayenne.
Though none of the off-shoots would share the 959's unique gear specifically for off-roading — marked as 'G', and placed above first gear on the car's gear lever. The G stood for 'Galande'; German for 'Terrain'.
The system that resulted from the rallying exercise was called Porsche-Steuer Kupplung, or 'PSK'. It could sent up to 80 per cent of power to the rear wheels, while adjusting itself on the run according to changes in surface and grip. It's relatively common stuff in modern all-wheel drive systems, but it started with cars like the 959.
This particular 959, displayed in a faithfully depicted sinner-stick Rothmans livery, isn't the glamorous 1986 Dakar winning car. Rather, it's chassis 010015 — one of three cars that competed a year before the victorious effort when Porsche were still finding their feet in the genre.
It failed to finish, but an oil-line failure was still a better fate than the other two cars in the line-up ... both of which crashed. In post-Dakar life, chassis 010015 has enjoyed a carefree life competing at vintage events like the Goodwood Festival of Speed, many of which would be undertaken in the hands of former owner Jacky Ickx.
“Just six of these impressive machines were ever built, with five examples surviving and perhaps a mere two or three, including this car, in private hands," said RM Sotheby's Alexander Weaver.
"There has been a considerable surge in the popularity of safari-style, rally-spec 911 builds, and the 959 Paris-Dakar is essentially what sparked all of these on/off-road Porsche models. For any die-hard Porsche collector and off-roader, this is an unheard-of opportunity.”
And yes, as mentioned earlier, that "unheard of opportunity" comes with an almighty price. When it goes up for sale at Porsche's 70th Anniversary Sale in Atlanta on October 27, the auction house expect the gavel to drop at between US$3–3.4million (NZ$4.5–5million).
Which most of us will agree is a giant heap of cash.
But, that's to be expected. This is the first (possibly only) factory 959 rally car to come up for public sale — part rally car, part supercar prototype, part pioneer.