It’s been nearly 43 years since the Porsche 930, better known as the 911 Turbo, arrived in the U.S. It wasn’t the first production turbocharged car – GM got there with the 1962 Chevy Corvair Monza Spyder and Oldsmobile Jetfire – but the boosted 911 has arguably had the greatest impact of any turbocharged car on the enthusiast psyche.
Even those who could not afford to own a 911 Turbo could see it as a harbinger of hope for better things during the automotive malaise of the 1970s.
The first U.S.-spec 911 Turbo’s 234 horsepower and 246 lb-ft torque figures don’t sound all that impressive today, and are in fact matched by workaday sedans. But in 1976, this output was enough to vault the 2,800-pound 911 Turbo from 0-60 in 4.9 seconds, according to Car & Driver. By comparison, a 911S had 160 horsepower and took about 7 seconds.
The 911 Turbo’s performance was like warp speed. Its 13.5 sec. quarter-mile at 102 mph and 156-mph top speed seemed otherworldly in 1976. So did the price: $26,000 was about 11 grand more than a 911S and about $2,000 less than the Ferrari 308 GTB. It equates to about $117,000 in 2018 dollars.
For some modern perspective, the base 2018 Porsche 911 Carrera, with a 370-hp turbocharged flat six, does 0-60 in under four seconds, can reach 183 mph and starts at $91,100. And the 911 models only get faster from there.
How It Worked
Porsche initially intended the 911 Turbo as a limited-production racing homologation model, but the market’s embrace convinced Stuttgart that it had a new performance flagship on its hands. The first 911 Turbo’s 3.0-liter flat six used an almost comically low 6.5:1 compression ratio as a first line of defense against detonation. Another was the waste gate that limited turbo boost to 11.5 psi. There was no intercooler (yet), and turbo lag could be wicked.
Where the 911S used a 5-speed transmission (no automatics), the 911 Turbo used a 4-speed that was really more like a 3-speed plus a fairly deep overdrive top gear. With all that torque and the car’s low weight, it worked. The vintage 911 shape morphed into what Porsche would later brand the “Turbo look” with bulging rear fenders to cover wider rear tires and a “whale tail” rear spoiler, all intended to add much needed stability.
If there was a downside, it was a big one. The tail-heavy 911’s propensity for snap-oversteer was exacerbated by all the added power in the Turbo. In the hands of a driver unskilled with correcting, a 911 Turbo could be frightful, earning it the nickname “widowmaker.”
With the front-engine V8 Porsche 928 still about two years away from U.S. customers, the 911 Turbo was also the luxury leader. Of course, in the a 1970s Porsche, luxury meant leather upholstery, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo, power windows, tinted glass, headlight washers, rear-window wiper and a power antenna.
Today’s Porsche buyers, accustomed to a miles-long option list to personalize the car, would be shocked at the few choices available for the early Turbo: a power sunroof, limited-slip differential and big, gaudy “Turbo” side graphics.
Faster, and Then Gone
A boost in displacement to 3.3 liters and the addition of an intercooler (located in the whale tail) pushed 911 Turbo’s output to 265 hp in the 1978 U.S. model, but then the curtain closed. Meeting U.S. emissions standards using thermal reactors would no longer work, and Porsche chose to pull the 911 Turbo from the U.S. market after 1979.
Porsche dealers and customers wanted the Turbo back, though, and it finally returned for 1986 with a half-point boost in compression, catalytic converters and 282 hp. From there, horsepower, torque, performance and price have continued escalating to this day.
Every current Porsche model except one, the 911 GT3, is powered by a turbocharged engine, but only the three models in the 911 Turbo series wear that vaunted badge. If another brand did such a thing, it might seem confusing. But when talking about Porsche, the “Turbo” badge can only mean the alpha dog.
Long live the king.
Why you’d want an early Porsche 911 Turbo:
It’s not just a piece of Porsche history, but a historic automobile.
Raw, edgy performance with no electronic nannies.
Steve McQueen owned one; it sold for $1.95 million in 2015.