Halting progress – why Porsche was late with ABS

Kieron Fennelly investigates why Porsche was late to adopt ABS

A couple of issues ago, Total 911 featured the Carrera 3.2, describing it as the last 911 to boast that classic 911 appeal that could be traced back to 1963 and adding that, nowadays, it was one of the easiest 911s to own. But if the Carrera 3.2 is deservedly popular today, a conversation with some of Porsche’s development engineers 25 years ago would have painted a rather different picture. For in several ways, this was a 911 they were happy to be rid of. The trouble was that development of the 911 was very limited after 1974 and ten years later, it was looking distinctly old-fashioned, not just against cars like Audi’s benchmark 100, which could cruise at 130mph even before Piëch’s men started turbocharging it, but even the Carrera’s 944 and 928 sisters.

Performance cars in the 911’s segment could in the consumerist eighties no longer be raw as they had been a decade earlier. In particular, Porsche engineers and salesmen had to deal with pointed questions about the 911’s lack of ABS. If the absence of power steering, “the 911 doesn’t need it,” or automatic transmission, “out of character for the 911,” could be parried, the ABS question was altogether harder to deflect. It was also frustrating because Porsche had already thoroughly investigated a technology which could trace its roots back to the postwar years.

In 1966, the Jenson FF combined a Ferguson four-wheel drive transmission with Maxaret antilock brakes. This was essentially a system developed by Dunlop for aviation, but its application in the automotive field was slow because of the limitations of the electro-mechanical technology. The Jenson FF was much admired for its potential contribution to road safety, but barely 300 were made before it and its pioneering brakes were quietly dropped.

However during the 1970s, Bosch was buying up a number of electronics patents and began producing, not just electronic fuel injection systems, but also a more successful application of antilock brakes, its Antiblockiersystem (ABS) which first appeared on the 1978 Mercedes S class.

In fact, Porsche itself had begun research into anti-lock brakes in the late 1960s. A 908 was equipped with a system, as was a 917 running under the Martini colours. But driver Helmut Marko could not come to terms with it in practice sessions and it was disconnected for racing. The problem with this system, devised by Telefunken and Bendix, was that the electro-mechanics simply could not react fast enough. Porsche persevered though with the 911 and Norbert Singer recalls a graphic demonstration of the set up’s shortcomings: Ernst Fuhrmann whose penchant for fast driving was notorious, slammed on his brakes for a red light and had a colossal fright as the car sailed straight over the line. Combined with Fuhrmann’s block on further 911 development, this moved the ABS issue on to the furthest of the backburners.

In 1981, Dr Fuhrmann was replaced by the ambitious Peter Schutz and engineering capacity was soon taken up with projects as diverse as the TAG Formula One engine, the 3.2-based aviation engine and Porsche’s riposte to Ferrari’s F40; the 959.

It was Porsche’s eighties supercar which finally opened the way to a production version of ABS. Unlike the F40, the 959 would, like the Audi Quattro that Ferry Porsche admired so much, be four-wheel drive. The central microprocessor which would control the torque distribution between the axles relied on sensors which could also relay wheel locking information. These second-generation electronics were the result of collaboration with Bosch and eliminated the hazardous delay in relaying information of the original technology.

Porsche quietly applied ABS to the 928 in 1984 (embarrassed that such a heavy sports car had not been so provided in the first place) and extended ABS to the 944 Turbo (but not the 944 where it remained an option) in 1987. The model that really mattered though was the 911. An entirely new 911 (the 964) was signed off in April 1984 and should have been launched in 1987 ahead of the brilliant Honda NSX which Zuffenhausen feared even more than the other big potential Japanese competitor, the more conventional, but lavishly equipped Nissan 300ZX. But gallingly it took almost a year of increasingly desperate trial and error before the revised flat six was producing enough horsepower to endow the new 911 with a tangible performance improvement over the out going (and 200kg lighter) 3.2 Carrera. Now Porsche faced a much greater problem as the slump in sales began to threaten its independent existence, but the 911 at least (and at last) had ABS.

When it came to new technology, Porsche as Peter Schutz discovered, was no early adopter and a certain “not invented here” attitude prevailed. This stance changed under the iron rule of Wendeling Wiedeking who rescued Porsche from the ashes.

Today Porsche uses the full panoply of sophisticated electronic control of suspension, torque delivery and braking, the various components of the system working in conjunction. No one could accuse the company of being slow off the mark any more and it remains the master of turbocharging as its recent Variable Vane Technology shows. If the company seems slow to start using particular technologies, such as double clutch gearboxes (another system that Zuffenhausen also tried extensively on the race track) when it does introduce them it does so astutely, in the case of its PDK generating maximum publicity not just for the performance improvement, but (once again) class-winning fuel consumption.

If you judge it by the number of books written on the subject, no manufacturer has ever succeeded in being quite as enduringly fascinating as Porsche.

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