June 2020

Zero Series - The Purest 911

Words:
PHILIP BASIL
Sports Purpose Consultant

A good journalist friend of Sports Purpose paid us a visit recently in a new 992 Turbo S, fresh from the Porsche GB press fleet. While I have to admit to being somewhat of a Luddite when it comes to new cars, I couldn’t fail to be impressed by the technical wizardry of this remarkable machine. Insanely fast, yet accessible, practical and safe at the same time. It is truly astounding how far Porsche have developed a car that first entered the showrooms in 1964. Their approach of continually evolving a design rather than periodically starting with a blank sheet of paper has transformed a seemingly flawed concept and turned it into the benchmark by which all others are judged.

However our friend happened to park the 992 next to a 1965 911 we have in stock and you had to squint pretty hard to see much resemblance between the two. All cars have become bigger and heavier (for reasons outside manufacturers’ control, I know). But I was left pondering what exactly connected these two machines any more. The position of the engine in the chassis and the seating arrangement in the cabin maybe? I was struggling after that. How far can something evolve before it becomes a pastiche of its former self - something with flavours and notes of the original car but maybe not much more?

As far as the 911 is concerned it’s hard to put your finger on it. The end of the air-cooled era in 1997 is an obvious point when there was significant change but so was the advent of the 993 with its radically different styling and completely revised suspension. The G-series cars seem to have a more direct connection but they were significantly heavier and used more powerful engines and wider wheels to compensate. Even the pre-impact bumper cars of the early 70s were fundamentally different with their longer wheelbase that not only changed the weight distribution but also the look of the rear of the car. Picking a moment in time based on specification seems a little arbitrary.

Having read more than a little about the history of the 911, the thought has dawned on me that what is possibly even more exceptional than the car itself is the group of individuals who came together to design it. That group was probably around thirty people in total but it contained the three most influential scions of the Porsche family and two of the automotive industry’s most talented engineers. 

Butzi Porsche, eldest son of Ferry Porsche, is rightly credited with having come up with the 911’s beautiful shape. Before Butzi’s arrival at the company, Porsche had been struggling to develop a concept to replace the 356 despite commissioning studies from some the most famous designers of the day. Had Ferry not decided to trust his 26 year old son to come up with the solution, it is doubtful that Porsche would still exist today. Butzi’s design philosophy was true to the German modernist tradition and his genius was such that while working on the 911 project he also managed to design Porsche’s most beautiful race car, the 904. 

However Butzi was a stylist not an engineer and his ideas were translated into metal by Erwin Komenda. Komenda was one of Porsche’s longest standing employees, joining Ferdinand Porsche’s nascent consultancy in 1931. During a glittering career he was responsible for such landmark body designs as the VW Beetle, the Auto Union and Cisitalia GP cars and the Porsche 356.

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Of course form, is nothing without function and the 911’s new two litre flat six engine was the brainchild of brilliant engineer Hans Mezger. He would go on to develop that design to such a point that it achieved countless Le Mans victories and an evolution of it was still being used in Porsche’s road cars as recently as 2011. However the engine would not have retained many of its advanced features without the foresight and ambition of his boss, a young Ferdinand Piech, cousin of Butzi and future titan of the German car industry. 

This team certainly contained strong personalities and it took some key interventions from Ferry Porsche himself for the car to emerge in the form that it did. Sadly by 1967, Komenda had died and Porsche family rivalries would mean that the remaining group would not co-operate in the same way on a project again.  

Looking back there seems to have been a magical moment in Porsche history, between 1963 and 1967, when the most talented individuals from the company’s past and its future came together to create something of true genius. All the 911s from this period therefore have a unique connection and conveniently this corresponds exactly with what are known as the “Zero Series” cars. They include the 1965, 1966 and 1967 versions of the standard 911, the 1967 911S and the 1967 911 Targa.   

I am not claiming that these cars are “the best”, simply that they are pure to the concept devised by this exceptional group. What followed was a long succession of improvements made by others who were standing on the shoulders of those who had gone before them. To use an art world analogy I’d call the later cars “school of” rather than attribute them to the masters themselves.

To best access a sense of this special period of time, one really needs to experience an original Zero Series car in perfect condition. At Sports Purpose we were lucky enough to host two exceptional unrestored examples of this purest version of the 911, a Light Ivory car made in July 1965, and a Polo Red car produced in November 1965. We thought we’d share the moment with the beautiful set of photos above, shot by Nat Twiss.  

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