Porsche 911 Carrera RS

It inspired a generation of cars, proved extremely useful on track, road and stage – and is now worth a fortune

What’s in a name? Rather a lot as it happens. Automobile manufacturers blow millions on think tanks brimmed to the top with chin-stroking thesaurus-wielders, but to what end? All they usually do is raid the cliché cupboard or invent some spellcheck-bothering, typographically ‘witty’ name where random capitalisation and the substitution of numerals for letters are deemed perfectly valid. All of which is borderline tolerable on automotive white goods, but sports cars, supercars – the exalted stuff – deserve better. Excited about McLaren’s latest road car? Now try saying MP4-12C without nodding off. Having to utter the word ‘hyphen’ doesn’t help. Hmm, sexy.

But Carrera? Well that’s an entirely different ballgame. Before Porsche began applying the tag indiscriminately, it once served as seven-letter shorthand for ‘road-going competition tool’. But then ‘carrera’ is Spanish for ‘race’ after all, the mellifluous tag being borrowed from the Mexican Carrera Panamericana endurance thrash in which Porsche proved its mettle before the event was canned in 1954. The marque’s best result was Hans Herrmann’s incredible third overall and class win in the fifth and final running, the name being applied to the first of its quad-cam 356s a year later.

Fast-forward to the ’70s and the formula was followed, the recipe replicated and another pokey Porsche came to redefine the sports car ideal. The difference this time was that the 2.7 Carrera RS still stacked up as a toweringly capable point-to-point road car. Obviously it wasn’t the first Porsche 911. It wasn’t even the first competition variant, but this was the first truly great all-round sub-species. The bewildering iterations of GT2s and GT3s that seem to emerge on a weekly basis have umbilical connection with the original Renn Sport Carrera. This template-setting machine may lack for power and absolute grip by comparison, but for sheer poise, dexterity and entertainment value it remains king of the hill by some margin. It might be old, but it still has the moves.

Porsche annexed most of the endurance classics during the early ’70s, but rule changes effectively dammed the tide with the 917 seeing out its days in Can-Am/Interserie form. The firm needed a new car in its armoury for the World Sportscar Championship, the RS being essentially a lightweight version of the regular 911 2.4S. Head of development Dr Helmuth Bott recognised that the regular car was too heavy for competition use and was being out-muscled in the GT categories by the Ferrari Daytona ‘Competizione’ and the intermittently reliable De Tomaso Pantera on tracks where power trumped nimbleness. There was also the small matter of aerodynamics. A road-going 911S was – and remains – a fine car, but even with a small nose-mounted air dam it suffered from excessive lift at high speed. Combine this with the 40:60 front-to-rear weight bias thanks to the air-cooled six being slung way out back and it could be a snappy oversteerer.

Though not exactly a heifer, the 2.4S underwent a dieting regime for the RS makeover, with thinner gauge metal for the doors, roof, front bonnet and wings among other areas. Similarly, skinnier glass was used all round and the hefty sound-deadening material was deleted. As was the under-seal, just to keep welders entertained in the future. Inside it was more of the same. By definition Porsches were always on the stark side, but the Carrera’s cockpit was home to rubber mats, hip-hugging Recaro buckets and not much else, the rear ‘seats’ being bound for the skip.

And then there was the engine. The proven 2.4S unit now housed new cylinder barrels (15 rather than 11 cooling fins), but that wasn’t the big news. The bores received a layer of nickel-silicon carbide, deposited via electrolysis. This process, known as Nickasil, had first been tried out on the 917 and in this instance resulted in an engine displacement spike to 2687cc (from 2341cc) with an unchanged stroke of 70.4mm. These and umpteen detail-driven changes led to a useful 210bhp at 6300rpm and 188lb ft of torque at 5100rpm. Suspension mods amounted to Bilstein front struts in place of Konis, beefier anti-roll bars and extra bracing around the rear suspension arms.

Visually, changes were subtle but striking, the most obvious identifiers being the fatter rear arches, widened to accommodate 7in rims. Those and the ducktail – or rather Burzel – spoiler on the glassfibre engine lid which provided much-needed downforce. And then there was the range of colours. Porsche used to get the visuals oh so right, be it promotional material or its fab race posters. Initially offered only in Grand Prix White, there soon followed all manner of lurid hues (although no metallics) from Viper Green to Gulf Blue with the famous Carrera side-flashes becoming a marque constant in years to come. Ironically, they were once deemed a little too outré in certain circles and some customers in period plumped for the delete option. Try finding one now without them.

And this being a homologation special, it wasn’t meant to be a volume seller. Its main purpose was to pave the way for the fabulous RSR and 3.0RS models; returning a profit was secondary. The firm’s sales department certainly wasn’t convinced it could shift the requisite 500 cars that needed to be built for Group 4 (Special Grand Touring Cars) eligibility. So much so, some were given to senior personnel as company cars – and this wasn’t seen as a perk. However, the hoopla that greeted the Carrera’s launch at the 1972 Paris Motor Show, during which 500 orders were taken in a week, prompted a rethink: some 1580 were built in 1972-73 in batches of around 500 units, which meant it became eligible for Group 3 (Production Grand Touring Cars) competition, too. Double bubble.

Of these, just 111 came to Great Britain in right-hand-drive configuration, with 17 being proper lightweights. Predictably, not everyone wanted austere efficiency, Porsche responding with the Touring version which featured some sound deadening, a rear seat-cum-foldable luggage shelf and lots of other weight- adding stuff. And predictably there were deviations between Tourings, with UK cars tending to have more lavish specifications than their Continental counterparts, many receiving electric windows and a sunroof. In total, some 1308 Tourings emerged from Weissach, the extra heft resulting in a kerb weight of a still not exactly lardy 1075kg compared to 960kg for the stripped edition.

Almost inevitably, a smitten motoring media poured forth a torrent of purple gush, Autocar breathlessly trumpeting the RS Touring as being ‘sensational even by Porsche standards’. And that was just in the article heading. No stranger to Porsche ownership himself, with many a 356 mile under his tyres, Motor Sport’s own Denis Jenkinson was rather more measured; he found the suspension a bit on the hard side, and the gear change a little notchy, but judged the RS to be ‘an incredibly honest motor car.’

And it was just that, with umpteen racing drivers being among early adopters. James Hunt had one, his road car being subsequently campaigned with great success by the late Bill Taylor (including overall honours in the 1984 Willhire 24 Hours). John Watson landed one in a roundabout deal with Hexagon boss Paul Michaels on joining the squad for his first full Formula 1 season in ’74. And he still has it. “Paul unwittingly provided me with my pension,” laughs the five-time Grand Prix victor.

This was a proper road-going racer, one that was as happy being spat out of the Karussell as popping down to the supermarket. Though naturally overshadowed by the RSR evolution, which unexpectedly won outright on its debut in the 1973 Daytona 24 Hours, the RS wasn’t without kudos of its own. The heroically flamboyant Nick Faure oversteered his way to 1973 STP Production Championship honours with 16 wins aboard his AFN car (see I Raced One) before stepping up to a full-house, slick-shod 3.0RS for the following season. Off piste, works drivers Björn Waldegård and Sobieslaw Zasada were quick on the ’73 Safari Rally even if they didn’t make the finish. Waldegård made amends with second place a year on.

Closer to home, David ‘Piggy’ Thompson, father of future BTCC star James Thompson, drove his privateer car with real verve in British forest rallying during the ’70s, culminating in 14th place on the 1975 RAC Rally behind Ronnie McCartney’s similar car. The Carrera also finished first and second on the 1974 Circuit of Ireland, with Cahal Curley besting McCartney, the former then following through and taking the Manx Trophy Rally and the Donegal International en route to the Irish Rally Championship crown.

User-friendly with familiarity, and not prone to fits of pique, the 2.7RS was perfect for owner/drivers. And still is. Except these days most of the racers are replicas, original road cars being deemed too valuable to use in competition. “In today’s market you’re looking at £150,000 to as much as £180,000 for a Touring version,” says serial 911 restorer, racer and dealer Josh Sadler of Autofarm. “A lightweight car will be 20 to 30 per cent more. People get seduced by the engineering and the Carrera really was a big step ahead of everything else that was available at the time. It was the high-performance car and can still out-run most things [149mph top end, 0-60mph in less than six seconds]. A lot of it is still the same as the base 2.4S so it’s not that exotic. It just works.”

Which is why the 2.7-litre RS was such a hit first time around and, more pertinently, why demand now outstrips supply. The Carrera was the jumping off point for the many rear-engined blunt instruments that so enlivened sports car racing in the 1970s and ’80s right up to the insane 935 and its many spin-offs. They merely built on the RS’s foundations. As a road car, it reinvigorated and advanced the brand at a time before Porsche was obliged to limply defend whatever it releases (the Cayenne and misshapen Panamera for starters…). More than anything it serves as a reminder of everything Porsche once was, and isn’t any more.