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Porsche 911, through the years and gears

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The Porsche 911 is 50 years old, but against the industry’s backdrop of relentless reinvention, it seems virtually unchanged.

Even today, we are effectively only on the third major model generation, making the jump from a contemporary 911 to a vintage model feel strangely seamless. Nearly all the major ingredients have been retained since 1963, even in the latest generation, known internally by its codename 991. You face five big round dials. You have superb visibility and surprising comfort. Everything feels a bit less intimidating than in other  sports cars.

And when you turn the ignition key, positioned often to the left of the steering column, the engine whirrs into life from far, far behind you. Engineers may say the flat six-cylinder engine is in the wrong place, hanging out behind the rear axle, but according to the brand historians at Porsche’s glittering museum, adjacent  to its factory in Zuffenhausen, Germany, it is always going to be right for 911.

Journalists had convened for a drive event  at Porsche’s test facility in Weissach, and would move across 911 generations throughout the day. First, a red 1974 Carrera, the one with the US-prescribed “crush can” bumpers.

Move from a modern car, and a period 911’s offset, floor-hinged pedals, recalcitrant gearbox and  rear-set weight bias could cause some unease. But the feeling is fleeting. Ferdinand Porsche’s design priority of the 911 was to create space, flexibility, comfort and ease over long distances. Such approachability settles a neophyte enough to enjoy the positives – that howling rear engine among them.

As our group was late arriving in Weissach, our German guide, in a 400-horsepower 2013 991 Carrera S, pressed on at unprintable speeds. We kept up. There was a lot more to mind in our car, certainly, but a flood of extra sensations meant we had confidence doing so. We knew that the writhing, chattering steering wheel was involving us in ways that are lost on the driver of a showroom-fresh 991.

By the 1970s, 911s were making grudging accommodation for new technologies. But during a brief bit of wheel time in the original car from the mid-1960s, we experienced the uncorrupted feel and feedback enthusiasts love.

Maybe too much feedback? These early 911s did have handling quirks because of where the engine was located. Porsche had not quite sorted the suspension; spindly tires and tippy-toe springs did not help. Controlling a highly coveted vintage sports car via a huge, thin-rimmed steering wheel was certainly one way to test one’s depth of enthusiasm for the breed.

Later, a switch into a silver 1995 Targa model, codenamed 993, reinforced what a 911 is all about. There was leather, climate controls, an automatic transmission and electric everything, sure, but all the fundamentals felt the same as the blue car over three decades its senior.

That this lineage feels slightly broken after the late 1990s is for a good reason. The engine began to be cooled by water and not air, making the older engines sound much clearer and more mechanical. The view through the upright windscreen is also more panoramic in the older cars, and their sheer compactness makes for confident, press-on motoring even on narrow roads.

Earlier this month, driving the new 991 Carrera 4 from England to Wales and back, the latest 911 had less steering feel, more comfort, less noise, more space, fewer quirks and greater speed. However, it was still a 911. You still sensed where the engine was, still felt the nose bobble over undulations in the tarmac. It could still go wickedly fast without producing the anxiety prevalent in other sports cars.

Little has fundamentally changed because there has been fundamentally little need. The 911 really is like no other sports car.