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Ten of the most beautiful Porsches ever

Monday, July 3, 2017

Article by Rob Sass and Damon Lowney
Photos by John Lamm, Damon Lowney, and Porsche

Form has generally followed function in the Porsche world. It’s not as though the cars haven’t been consistently beautiful over the years, but Porsches aren’t fashion accessories. Extroverted contrivance for the sake of style in the manner of, say, a Lamborghini Countach has never been part of Porsche’s competition-heavy DNA. Nevertheless, over the last 69 years, Porsche has produced its share of stunning and timeless designs. And while we love one-offs like Frua’s 914 show car from 1971 and Bertone’s late ’60s take on the 911 as well as numerous outlaw 356s, we’ll limit this list to factory competition and production cars. Remember, it’s just opinion, not gospel — if you disagree, tell us what your favorites are. Here are our ten: 

1. 1960-61 356 Abarth-Carrera GTL — Over the years, collaborations between Porsche and the great Italian coachbuilders, or carrozzeria, have been rare. The Abarth-Carrera GTL was one of the few and the result was one for the ages. Carlo Abarth, a Turin-based tuner and car builder who had been a key player in the Porsche-designed Cisitalia Grand Prix car (Type 360), was contracted by Porsche to make a lighter, more competitive version of the four-cam 356B Carrera. Abarth appointed Franco Scaglione to design the body, while both Abarth and Porsche initially agreed that Zagato would build it. The Zagato connection didn’t pan out and, unbeknownst to Porsche at the time, the work was instead given to other less-known Turin-based coachbuilders. In addition to being a seriously pretty car, the Abarth-Carrera GTL was lighter, lower, narrower, shorter, and more aerodynamic than a standard T5 356B and it raced successfully at Le Mans, Monza, and the Nürburgring. Either 20 or 21 were built — some believe chassis 1021 was a reconstruction of a previously wrecked GTL. It was the last metal-bodied factory competition Porsche. 

2. 1964 904 Carrera GTS — Occasionally, form and function balance out almost perfectly. Jaguar’s gorgeous E-type was the work of Malcolm Sayer, an aerodynamicist whose first priority was to design a slippery car. The fact that it was also achingly pretty was a happy coincidence. Such was the case with the 904 Carrera GTS, the last Porsche racer that could be used on the street by semi-reasonable individuals. By the early 1960s, metal, even light alloy, was getting too heavy for serious competition work. Enter the composite era, starting with fiberglass. The aircraft manufacturer Heinkel was tapped to supply the bodies to Porsche. While better known for the Luftwaffe’s He 111 and He 177 bombers, Heinkel had also designed the He 178, the first plane to fly under jet power, and the wooden He 162 fighter. They knew a thing or two about aerodynamics and composites. The Ferdinand “Butzi” Porsche-designed 904 GTS is lovely from any angle. Nearly as pretty as Ferrari’s Dino 206/246, the benchmark for early mid-engine sports cars, it was an extremely successful two-liter racer that put Porsche on the path that led to the all-conquering 917. 

3. 1966 Carrera 6 (906) — The Carrera 6 was a step further along the path away from competing for class wins in GT classes to overall wins in prototypes. Like the 904 before it, the car was drop dead gorgeous. Any kid who owned the white/red Corgi die-cast model of it probably spent an inordinate amount of time studying its beautifully curved front fenders and faired headlamps. The louvered plexi engine cover was icing on the cake. Porsche had access to a wind tunnel during the design of the car, yet the Carrera 6 had a slightly higher drag coefficient (.35) than the previous 904 (.33) because of its wider stance and tires. Powered by a 901-style flat-six (as was the case with the last of the 904s), the car was technically street-legal, but almost none were used that way. The 906’s tubular space frame mandated high sills and tiny gullwing doors, so unless you had the flexibility of a Romanian gymnast, ingress and egress were challenging. 

4. 1967 911S coupe — Any early 911 is a particularly lovely car. It isn’t as though Porsche didn’t do a masterful job of accommodating the silly American 5-mph bumper regulations in the 1974 model year, but there’s something special about Butzi Porsche’s original design, with its elegantly long hood, bright horn grilles and trim, and split rear bumper. The ’67 911S coupe is, in our opinion, the loveliest of all. We’re suckers for its covered headlights, short wheelbase, and elegant, almost imperceptible wheel-arch flares, not to mention the pretty and somewhat delicate-looking original 4.5-inch Fuchs alloy wheels. From Polo Red to Bahama Yellow, it looks stunning in any color.

5. 2008 Cayman S Porsche Design Edition 1 — Cynics dismiss the Cayman as simply a Boxster coupe. But a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing. Be dismissive of the Cayman and you miss the wonderful sense of proportion added by the lovely greenhouse and pretty rear quarter windows. Design professionals could quibble with some of the details like the busy front fascia’s air inlets, but it’s an undeniably beautiful car and perhaps the most Porsche-like car in the 2008 lineup. On a purely subjective note, we think that the Porsche Design Edition 1, with its gloss black paint and matte black accents, was an especially attractive car.

6. Carrera GT — The Carrera GT wasn’t Porsche’s first real supercar — the 959 arguably holds that title. But while technically astonishing, the 959 wasn’t pretty in the conventional sense. The Carrera GT, on the other hand, was. Perhaps reflecting the analog nature of the car, the lines of the Carrera GT were relatively simple and taut, with perfectly radiused wheel openings and a smooth, unfussy front fascia and few visible ground effects. In a world of comically extroverted, massively winged supercars, it remained the thinking man’s supercar, even if much of that thinking behind the wheel was necessarily dedicated to how to stay out of serious trouble.

7. 2015 911 Targa 4/4S — Throwback, homage, or retro design is generally contrived and therefore often results in a car that has the staying power of one of those brightly colored French cookies called macarons — they’re pleasing to look at briefly, but then ... that’s it. We suspect that the 911 Targa 4/4S will be different. The original 901-based Targa was far from universally loved. Plenty of people carped over the loss of the purity of the original Butzi Porsche design, particularly in the rear quarter window. But in the 991, the Targa design language might have found its natural match. Even the brushed stainless Targa bar that some found disruptive in the old car looks lovely in the 991. It’s the newest car on the list, and perhaps a bit of a stretch at this point, but we think it’s going to hold up well.

8. 917K — The 917’s heyday coincided with the end of the golden age of gorgeous Group 5 prototype racers. Widespread use of the wind tunnel and the resultant “downforce at all costs” ethos hadn’t yet taken hold, so consequently prototype racers were still achingly pretty. Everything — from Ferrari to Matra to Lola — that raced in the class was gorgeous, including, of course, the 917K. The “K” stands for Kurzheck, or “short tail,” identified by rear bodywork that slopes upward from the cockpit and ends abruptly with a nearly vertical fin on each side. The kurzheck was the result of a hasty pit modification by John Wyer Engineering Chief Engineer John Horsman, who noticed a pattern of bug splatter that indicated airflow over the car. The modification improved both high-speed handling and the 917’s look, and it didn’t hurt that the car campaigned in some of the most iconic Porsche racing liveries of all time — Martini & Rossi and Gulf. A surprising number of the design cues found their way into street cars (although oddly enough, not Porsches). The stacked, faired headlamps were gorgeous but impractical and illegal in some places; the curved, wrap-around windshield found its way onto the Lancia Stratos; while the general profile consisting of a curvy front wing dipping dramatically at the cowl then rising and transitioning into a wedge-like line was almost certainly an influence on Leonardo Fioravanti at Pininfarina when he designed the Ferrari 308.

9. 911 GT1 Straßenversion — When Porsche stepped up to the plate in the mid-’90s to compete in GT racing once again, its competition machines for the past 25 years had visually adhered to the form follows function mantra. The increasingly unrecognizable versions of the 911 (934, 935, etc.); flat-sided, wedge-shaped ground-effects cars (956 and 962); and the open-cockpit Porsche WSC95 were designed to slip through the air and make tons of downforce. They were not beautiful. Then came the 911 GT1 in 1996, a top-level GT racer with a striking resemblance to one of the best-looking 911s, the 993. In fact, the front of the car was based on the 993, only diverging into a tube frame aft of the doors to support the mid-engine layout, a first for a 911. The one pictured here is a 1998 model with headlights resembling the 996-gen 911 instead of the earlier cars' 993 units — but we think no less beautiful. The GT1 spent 33 days in the wind tunnel during initial development, according to Karl Ludvigsen in Excellence was Expected, resulting in an attractive profile with a more gradual roofline than the standard car, which tapered off into a spoiler lip and endowed it with both a beautiful form and refined aerodynamics. Porsche produced a number of street versions (Straßenversion), the first of which was painted white and equipped with a naturally aspirated Carrera engine with about 300 horsepower. Later Straßenversion cars had a slightly detuned turbocharged engine based on the race car's, good for 544 hp.

10. 718 RSK Spyder — In 1956, Porsche made strides in race-car development when it ditched the ladder frame of the 550 Spyder and replaced it with a more advanced tubular space frame chassis for the 550A. A year later, the four-cam flat-four-powered 718 RSK Spyder hit the track sporting a similar chassis, yet the body was pulled even more tightly over the mechanicals. The pointier nose rose to meet the pronounced front wheel arches before dipping down again towards the middle of the car. Continuing back, the body rose again over the rear wheels, giving the RSK sensuous yet muscular lines front to back. Air vents behind the doors lent the relatively simple design a bit of visual stimulation. The development of the RSK’s body was aided by scale-model wind tunnel testing and was one of the earliest Porsches to undergo such aerodynamic development. An interesting feature of the RSK contributing to its purposeful look was a thin sheet-steel hood plated in cadmium. The hood was part of the cooling system, acting as a heat sink for the oil lines soldered to it, and unlike paint, cadmium prevented rust without inhibiting cooling. Later versions of the 718 RSK, such as the coupe, lost some of the ocular magic of the original.

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