Retro review: 1991 Porsche 911 Turbo

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I’ve driven quite a lot of Porsche 911 Turbos over the years, but I’m almost ashamed to admit that, until this weekend, I’d never driven an old-school Turbo – one with rear-wheel drive and only your right foot as traction control. From 1996 onwards, the 911 Turbo has been Porsche’s all-seasons, all-conditions, all-conquering range-topper, with its huge power harnessed by the security of all-wheel drive and the best technology of the time. Before that, Turbos were still luxurious, but also had a reputation for turbo lag and hairy handling – cars you had to concentrate in if you were to drive them hard, lest they spit you off the road backwards into the nearest hedge.

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This 1991 911 Turbo, painted in the stunning special-order shade of Zermatt Silver Metallic, is in some ways a bridge between the old-school 930 Turbos and the twin-charged 993 Turbo that ushered in the all-wheel drive Turbo era. Based on the 964 generation of 911 (and technically, by Porsche’s definition, designated a 965), this turbo went through two iterations, in 3.3 and 3.6-litre form; this car is the earlier one, distinguishable by its one-piece Cup alloys instead of the 3.6’s three-piece Speedlines.
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Producing 315 horsepower, this 965 is not that powerful by today’s standards, and is indeed outmuscled not just by the latest base 911 Carrera, but also the four-cylinder 718 Boxster S. But packed into a tiny, if not that lightweight body, the single-turbo flat-six is still a force to be reckoned with: lay into the stiff, floor-hinged throttle pedal and it blurs the scenery with a drama that the new cars can’t match. There is indeed some turbo lag before the digital boost gauge in the tachometer starts to tick off past about 2,000 rpm, but the boost comes on smoothly and progressively, with none of the scare factor you might be expecting.
3.3-litre 965s were fitted with a five-speed manual transmission, and as Porsche was fond of reminding people, each of those gears was a real driving gear, with no sissy fuel-saving overdrive ratio. Because of this, and the engine’s power delivery characteristics, your driving style needs to be recalibrate a bit if you’re used to driving naturally-aspirated air-cooled 911s. You hold low gears for longer, letting the boost build and build, and make sure you’re in the meat of the torque curve for when you come up on corners; in town situations where you might normally be in third, you’re in second, and you make a lot more use of first. Short-shift in the city or on faster, more flowing roads, and the 965 feels heavy and a little bit lifeless; keep it on the boil, though, and it’s addictive and thrilling to drive.
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The 965’s handling combines characteristics of both the earlier torsion-bar 911s and the later, Weissach-axle 993, and it’s friendly and engaging if you treat it with respect. The ride, while settled at higher speeds, is quite stiff, and the car moves around quite a bit when you’re putting the chassis under pressure. The narrow front tires mean you can’t just chuck the car into corners the way you might do with a later 911; set it up properly, though, and the nose will lock onto your line, and the fat rears give you terrific traction on the exit. There’s very little hint of the rear ever wanting to come around, but the throttle responds far more sharply when you let off than when you open the taps, meaning that you can induce a twitch if you’re being brutal or inattentive.
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One of the joys of this particular Turbo is its fascinating specification. Clearly, its first owner was a snappy dresser, as its spectacular special-order paint is complemented by a stunning custom ivory-and-purple interior slathered in additional leather trim, including on the storage compartment, dashboard, and even the cassette holders. The hand-crafted quality of the trim is pretty unbelievable, and the colour combination is unique, and not something you’re ever likely to see anywhere else. As such, it’s a perfect expression of what the Turbo was supposed to be from the start, and what it has continued to be, even in the later, all-drive, tech-packed versions: a supremely comfortable, bespoke gentleman’s express that could do supercar things on the road and track when you wanted.
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