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The mid-engine Porsche backstory

Thu, 09 Oct 2014

As an automaker's identity evolves over years, its signature becomes defined by any number of factors – heritage (Mercedes-Benz), image (Lamborghini), or market share (Toyota). In the case of Porsche, it was an engineering quirk that forged the German company's most enduring character trait.

Porsche would not have survived – let alone, thrived – in today's saturated landscape had it not been for the 911, and that slope-tailed sports car wouldn't have sprung to life without its predecessor, the 356. While phenomenal success of those rear-engine icons built the company, forays into the mid-engine configuration have played a significant part in establishing the brand's identity.

The Mid-Engine Prototype Of Ferry Porsche's Dreams

Ferry Porsche couldn't find the sports car of his dreams, so he decided to build it himself.

Dr. Ferdinand "Ferry" Porsche once famously said that he couldn't find the sports car of his dreams, so he decided to build it himself. The product of that desire (and the first car he created) was the 356/1, a mid-engine, two-seat roadster prototype that exploited the obvious benefits of having the motor in the middle – mass centralization, a lower polar moment of inertia and balanced weight distribution.

One could say that the mid-engine layout was in Ferry's blood. His father was company founder Dr. Ing. Ferdinand Porsche, who collaborated on the fearsome mid-engine V12 and V16-powered Auto Union racecars. But following the 356/1, Ferry soon realized that his dream car's impractical layout might hamper its commercial success. Taking real world realities like rear seats, interior volume, and storage capacity into consideration, he moved the engine behind the rear axle with the 356/2 Gmünd coupe in 1948, which was followed by nearly two decades of 356s that culminated in 1965. The bubble-shaped 356 established the Porsche mystique and laid the groundwork for the car that would become the brand's calling card.

Five Decades Of Workarounds

The decision to keep the 911's engine behind the axle was actually driven by economics. Development of the 911 was limited by the Volkswagen parts bin, which incentivized the cost-cutting, rear-mounted setup. Surely there were internal battles over the 911's powerplant position – these were German engineers, after all – and while both the 356 and 911 started as mid-engine concepts before they were relegated to rear-engine platforms, plenty of future Porsches assumed the amidships engine configuration long before the Boxster's debut in 1996.

The Porsche 911 looked like nothing else when it debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1963, and its sloped tail underscored the engine's rearward position. But it wasn't just distinctive looks that ensured the 911's longevity in the face of countless contenders and enabled it to persist when so many others perished; the 911's rear engine configuration served both as boon and liability, for a number of reasons. More on that later...

Originally dubbed the 901 (before Porsche was challenged by Peugeot for using the French brand's signature "0" in the middle), the Porsche 911 later benefited from more than a half-century's worth of refinements that sought to overcome the dynamic limitations of its rear-engine configuration. To negate its inherently imbalanced underpinnings, the stubbornly ass-engined car honed its skillset with clever workarounds, suspension tweaks, and eventual electronic aids, molting from its early reputation as a widowmaker and an end-swapping guardrail kisser to the current, shockingly well-tempered 991-series.

The Mid-Engine Backstory

Despite the 356 and 911's seminal role in bolstering Porsche's rep as a serious sports car manufacturer, numerous mid-engined race models fueled the manufacturer's notoriety among enthusiasts. In 1955, the Porsche 550 represented an uncompromised adherence to design purity, with its compact footprint and spare aluminum construction. Ninety roadgoing 550 Spyders were sold that year, and serial number 550-0055, better known as "Little Bastard," earned infamy as the car in which James Dean met his maker on a lonely highway in Cholame, CA. The 718, a.k.a. RSK, succeeded the 550 and cleaned up at race circuits, famously winning the 1959 Targa Florio outright by beating bigger-engined Ferrari and Maserati entries. And though many a purist Porschephile found offense in the 914 (1970 - 1976) for its Volkswagen roots, the 914/6 earned respect for its speed, rarity, and race wins – some of which saw the scrappy six-cylinder beating the mighty 911. And, of course, the mind-boggling 917 earned Porsche its first, hard-fought overall win at Le Mans in 1970, with later Can-Am variants producing in excess of 1,000 horsepower, singlehandedly dominating that race series with podium sweeps. The mid-engine story continues with the 918 Spyder – the spiritual successor to the 917 – and the 919 Hybrid, which will return to the Le Mans prototype class in 2015 after it teethed its way through its debut this year.

Where The Rubber Meets The Track

To drive home a point, Porsche set up a track day at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with every variant of their mid-engined offerings – base, S, and GTS versions of their Boxster and Cayman, as well as the staggering, 887 horsepower 918 Spyder. On display were Jerry Seinfeld's mouth-wateringly pristine 914/6-GT and RSK, as well as Bruce Canepa's 917, Chassis No. 4. The 917's heart-wrenching desirability is such that one individual offered $30 million for the recently restored car, a sum Canepa turned down.

Though the 914/6-GT and the RSK were not to be driven – and believe me, I asked – the current lineup offered some insight into Porsche's current mid-engined mindset. Having previously attended the overseas press launch of the Boxster and Cayman GTS, the Circuit Mallorca Rennarena at the international event was tight enough to inspire an electronics-off, drift-tastic free-for-all in the small, tossable cars. Here at the higher speed, 2.238-mile Monterey, California course, the vehicles – particularly the base models – felt tame and modestly powered. However, their quick-turning, easy-to-rotate tendencies lent them a confidence-inspiring air in the more permissive Sport+ setting. I didn't feel compelled to switch all the nannies off, because Laguna's large-scale layout didn't necessitate right pedal steering; on the track's longer stretches, the base Boxster and Cayman required an extra dose of patience as they wound up their 265 and 275 horsepower flat sixes, while the S and GTS model's gruntier engines (which produce between 315 and 340 horsepower) delivered more satisfying thrust.

But the highlight of this particular track excursion – at least in the Boxster and Cayman – wasn't retina-detaching acceleration, but rather the curiously satisfying sensation of how a mid-engine layout coupled with delicately tuned suspension yields a progressive, intuitive, and ultimately reassuring at-limit experience. With their short wheelbases and talkative chassis, these models were surprisingly easy to drive reasonably fast, delivering an uncanny ability to charm despite their rather approachable engine outputs.

For something completely different, the day was topped off with the $845,000 918 Spyder, a car that manages to successfully warp everything you thought you knew about hybrids. Beneath its understated skin, the 918 is loaded to the gills with 55 computers, four cooling circuits, an electric motor, and – oh yes, a mid-mounted 4.6-liter V8. Fuel and electrons join forces to deliver 887 horsepower, which are managed by computer-controlled torque vectoring. Proper weight distribution and suspension geometry don't hurt, either.

While chasing racing legend Hurley Haywood in a Porsche 911 Turbo S, the 918 feels planted, imperturbable, effortless. As the lead car slips and yaws through corners, grasping for every last inch of tarmac while apex clipping, the 918 glides forward. The sensation is eerie; the 918's capabilities are so otherworldly, so exceptional, that even at these warp speeds, the two-seat hypercar barely feels like it's breaking a sweat. My previous experience with the Spyder at the epically-scaled Circuit of the Americas made Laguna Seca feel like a glorified go-kart track, and just as my brain caught up to the fact that I was barely using a fraction of the 918's skill set, my two laps came to an end.

Final Analysis: Which End is Right?

In many ways, what gave the Porsche 911 its uniquely magnetic personality is also the same thing that threatened to kill it.

Former Porsche CEO Peter Shutz was credited with saving the 911, and in the foreword to the book Porsche 911 3.2 Carrera: The Last of the Evolution, he describes the mood at Porsche before he reversed the board's decision to discontinue the model: "A deep sense of loss, a grieving that was almost heartbreaking, was gathering like a storm. The new Porsche offerings could not replace the revered 911. To me, a newcomer, the feeling of impending catastrophe was overpowering."

The 911's rear-mounted engine may not have been the optimal arrangement for handling, but it enabled the car to maintain two small but kid-friendly rear seats which distinguished it from mid-engined counterparts and front-engine, two-seater sports cars like the Corvette. "The back seats are the key to the 911's longevity," Schutz revealed to me at last year's Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance. "They are the most important thing about the Porsche 911. Young kids want to ride in an exciting sports car," he explained, "but if you're alone in a car, it's just another car. Men don't have to justify anything to their wives. If the kids are excited about the car, it's a done deal."

For all the mechanical idealism of the mid-engine car and the romance of race legends like the 550 Spyder, RSK, and 917, the 911 still manages to steal more sales – and arguably, more hearts – than its more affordable mid-engine stablemates. And while hypercar status would never be achieved if the 918 Spyder's engine wasn't planted firmly in the middle, it's safe to say that Porsche would not be Porsche if it wasn't for the curious decision to hang an engine off the wrong end of a rear axle.

By Basem Wasef

See also: 2015 Porsche 911 GTS starts at $114,200*, Porsche 918 Spyder burns to ground in gas station conflagration, Porsche 911 Turbo and Nissan GT-R Nismo star in World's Greatest Drag Race 4.