The Porsche 959 was the fastest car of its day – and is still so much better value than a Ferrari 288 GTO
Not everyone appreciates the Porsche 959. Some don’t like it at all: most memorably, perhaps, a former girlfriend of British golfer Nick Faldo, who took a nine iron to his 959. Thankfully, elsewhere the super-Porsche incites rather less powerful emotions. The problem is that, to lay folk, it kinda just looks like a butched-up 40-grand 911. It doesn’t scream money the way Ferraris do, even the cheap ones. Frankly, the 959 doesn’t beat its chest and proclaim you as a supreme Testarossa-fuelled hunter-gathererer alpha-male, provider for children first, then alimony later.
Come to think of it, that could be a good thing for, as with most great Porsches, there’s a knowing band of knowledgeable aficionados who appreciate it for what it is rather than the blustering statement other cars make.
Porsche’s first true supercar, conceived to homologate a road car for the aborted Group B motor sport category, was also a riposte to the rip-snorting Ferrari 288 GTO. Despite its 911-ish silhouette, onlookers were agape at its unveiling at the 1985 Frankfurt motor show, because the 959 was a genuine technical tour de force, even a game-changer, with computer-controlled four-wheel drive; electrically controlled ride height adjustment; ABS; tyre-pressure sensors; super-lightweight hollow-spoke magnesium wheels… I could go on.
The race-car derived 2850cc flat-six had water-cooled heads with an air-cooled block and was mated to twin sequential turbos designed to tame the fearsome lag that, in the 911 Turbo, would often cause the transfer of the engine to the correct end when it went through hedges backwards. On delivery in 1987 the super-lightweight 450bhp 959 was the fastest road car in the world – just – with a top speed of 197mph.
While other supercars were uncompromisingly raw, the 959 had electric windows and mirrors, climate control, heated seats and a superb stereo. The Komfort version had all the trimmings, while the much rarer Sport deleted the adjustable ride height, was stripped of comforts, lightened, fitted with race harnesses and a leather-clad rollcage. You get less for your money so it’s worth a lot more.
That’s all the good stuff. On the debit side it had one or two uncharacteristic but minor niggling flaws such as temperamental switches, while service costs are ferocious: Porsche couldn’t make money on the 959, and pretty much cut off development. Another related issue was that the 959 didn’t meet US federal DOT and emissions regs, so couldn’t be imported. Nevertheless US owners including Bill Gates lobbied for a change in the law, resulting in the Show and Display Law of 1999, which allowed US enthusiasts privately to import 959s but with limitations on use.
Production numbers are impenetrable, so let’s say somewhere between 263 and 300, making the 959 and Ferrari 288 GTO similarly rare. So here’s the quandary: how come the slightly slower 288 GTO, which cost a lot less new than the 959, is worth so much more? After all, the GTO resembles a 308GTB even more than the 959 resembles the 911.
UK LAUNCH In 1987 the Porsche 959 cost £155,000. The Ferrari 288 GTO was a relative snip at £73,499 when it debuted three years earlier in 1984. Back then a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow was a trifling £59,468. Yet even at £155,000, Porsche lost money on every 959.
BOTTOMING OUT Values languished throughout the 1990s, an effect of both the classic and supercar slump and new car depreciation that shaved off more than a third of the purchase price. One consequence was that the wealthy favoured customers who’d been allowed to buy 959s simply held on to them rather than take a hit. Others traded below £100,000. In 2002 nothing had changed when Nick Faldo’s 6246-mile 959, repaired after its golf club assault, sold at auction for £102,750.
GATHERING PACE After the global financial crisis of 2008/9, the 959 started to gain momentum. In 2012 one sold at auction for £308,000; in 2013 another made £450,000. Unlike the Jaguar XJ220, which has still to regain its original purchase price, the 959 had broken free from J-curve depreciation.
TODAY Progress in the last couple of years has been nothing short of dramatic. In January 2015 a Komfort model sold at auction in the US for £690,000 ($1,045,000). Also in January, and in the US again, a much rarer 959 Sport (one of 29) made £1,129,890 ($1,705,000) at auction. Yet in the same month a Ferrari 288 GTO made £1.65 million ($2.75 million). By comparison, you could argue that the 959 still represents value.
Words: Dave Selby/Octane Magazine