I Drove 4 Iconic Porsche RS Cars. Here’s Why They Still Hold Up Today

Driving a 1972 911 Carrera RS 2.7, a 1991 911 Carrera RS, and a 2004 911 GT3 RS was an eye-opening experience.

byRonan GlonJun 24, 2022 12:15 PM
I Drove 4 Iconic Porsche RS Cars. Here’s Why They Still Hold Up Today
Ronan Glon
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With a handful of exceptions, the Porsche 911 has been characterized by evolutionary design updates that can only be described as subtle since it made its debut as the 901 in 1964. It’s unique in this sense: the eighth-generation Volkswagen Golf does not look anything like the first, but the eighth-generation 992 911, like all of its predecessors, clearly and intentionally channels the original’s lines. But while Porsche’s design team is playing hopscotch, its engineering team is pole-vaulting. Each iteration of the familiar shape hides significant engine, chassis, and suspension updates that allow the 911 to keep up with the times—and with a growing field of competitors. This progress is most obvious in the RS line, which Porsche has been developing for the past 50 years.

Although it looks reasonably humble compared to the current crop of RS models, the 911 Carrera RS 2.7, released in 1972, stands proud as the intersection in the Porsche cosmos where road cars and race cars first met. They’ve been traveling together since, and the Rennsport name has always represented the same values. Its character has evolved over time but, to the company’s credit, it hasn’t been bastardized into a watered-down trim level to score a marketing home run.

Porsche rummaged through its archives, fired up some classics from its vast collection, and temporarily lured some of its former employees out of retirement to celebrate the Carrera RS 2.7’s 50th birthday, and I received an invitation to the party—which included four sets of keys.

Spending a morning driving the Sport and Touring variants of the 1972 911 Carrera RS 2.7, a 1991 911 Carrera RS, and a 2004 911 GT3 RS was an eye-opening (and, at times, jaw-dropping) experience that revealed how the 911 has evolved and the ways in which it’s stayed the same.

1972 911 Carrera RS 2.7

Specs

  • Powertrain: 2.7-liter flat-six | 5-speed manual | rear-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 210
  • Torque: 188 lb-ft

Porsche took two examples of the 911 Carrera RS 2.7 out of its warehouse: a white Sport model (number 1,299 of 1,580 built) and a yellow Touring model (number 1,548; one of the final 50 examples that stands out from earlier cars thanks to a stronger aluminum crankcase as opposed to a magnesium crankcase). Both are powered by a 2.7-liter air-cooled flat-six, which sends 210 horsepower and 188 pound-feet of torque to the rear wheels via a five-speed manual transaxle.

Before you type “LOL my mom’s Pacifica outguns the RS,” keep in mind that 210 hp was a lot in the early 1970s, especially for Europe. For context, I have a 1972 Volkswagen 1302 (essentially a Super Beetle) whose 1.2-liter flat-four wheezes out 34 horses, a number that was common and acceptable at the time. Hell, the V6-powered not-a-Ferrari Dino 246 GT was rated at 192 hp, and the base 911 didn’t cross the 200-hp mark until the 1984 model year. Cast in this light, the Carrera RS 2.7 could credibly claim a seat at the supercar table, yet it’s unintimidating to drive.

You sit low in both variants of the RS and face a row of analog gauges that continues to influence Porsche’s interior designs well into 2022. In true race car style, the tachometer is placed front and center. There is a clock in the Touring while the Sport is fitted with a black plastic plate where the clock should be, a small concession made to shed every last ounce in the name of faster lap times. The air-cooled flat-six comes to life with its inimitable rumble (this melody plays a crucial role in the constitution of a 911’s character) and it settles into a nice, even idle.

One of my first impressions is that, like nearly every 911 to date, the RS 2.7 was designed to be driven. Some sports cars from the 1970s were a capricious pain in the ass to drive; not this one. The RS treatment doesn’t mute the 911’s touring genes. The cabin is reasonably spacious, visibility is excellent, and the controls are easy to operate. Another early impression is how modern it is to drive in terms of performance: there’s no need to make an appointment to merge onto the autobahn, or look at least three cars ahead to avoid overwhelming brake parts that feel like they’re made of soggy bread, which is how you stay alive in many less powerful cars from this era. (To my consternation, I once accidentally ended up on a French highway in a 1978 Citroën 2CV because of this very “quirk.”) In this sense, the RS 2.7 drives like a modern car.

It's not, though. It’s a 50-year-old 911.

It’s anything but balanced and the back end tends to interpret swift changes in direction as an invitation to tango. It’s ultimately easy to control, however, and the RS is the kind of car that lets you use all of its engine’s available power in the lower gears. Sprinkle a dose of common sense and it’s a recipe for fun. It’s one of those “drive it and you’ll get it” cars. It’s the essence of Porsche, undiluted and unfiltered.

Many of the differences between the Sport and the Touring models are comfort-related: the former is fitted with a pair of racing seats, less sound-deadening material, flat door panels, and a thin strap to open the door. The latter features more comfortable front seats, rear seats, additional sound-deadening material for a quieter cabin, and standard door panels with armrests and actual door handles. The Sport undoubtedly has a performance advantage on a track, but it’s not perceptible on a winding road.

1991 911 Carrera RS

Specs

  • Powertrain: 3.6-liter flat-six | 5-speed manual | rear-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 260
  • Torque: 232 lb-ft

Porsche’s Rennsport nameplate returned to the 911 range in 1991 on an evolution of the 964-generation model developed for production car-based racing.

Never sold in the United States, the Carrera RS stood out from other members of the line-up with an aluminum hood, thinner windows, forged magnesium wheels, and a single-mass flywheel. Porsche also removed the power steering and air conditioning systems, the power windows, and the radio to achieve a relatively light 2,733-pound weight, though a Touring-branded model with more creature comforts was again made available.

Regardless of specification, power came from a 3.6-liter flat-six tuned to develop 260 hp and 232 lb-ft of torque. It spun the rear wheels via a five-speed manual transaxle. Front brakes from the 911 Turbo and rear brakes from Porsche’s track-only Cup cars ensured that the RS didn’t pirouette into the scenery on or off the track. Unlike the Carrera RS 2.7, however, it didn’t have a ducktail. It was equipped with a power-operated spoiler that deployed automatically.

“The movable spoiler was an effort to keep the 911 silhouette as close as possible to the original’s,” former Porsche head of design Harm Lagaaij explained. That’s why every version of the 964-generation car was fitted with a retractable spoiler.

From the driver’s seat, the Carrera RS gives the impression of being a race car that’s just civilized enough to pass as a road car—and I mean that in the best possible way. Look at it: the seats may as well have been taken off of the racing department’s parts shelf. My stick figure-like frame was a schnitzel away from not fitting in the driver’s seat, and some of my bigger colleagues admitted they were sitting on it rather than in it. Opening the doors requires pulling on a little fabric strap that pokes out from the door panels.

It’s a fascinating car to drive: It’s amazingly quick (especially after around 3,000 rpm), its steering is direct and beautifully weighted, and its suspension system is tuned noticeably tighter than the 2.7’s, resulting in less lean around a bend but a more jarring ride around town. I wouldn’t call it easy to drive, though. Like absinthe, it gives the impression of being predictable if you learn to master it but utterly and viciously unforgiving if you make a mistake. Porsche told me it has about 700 of these cars in its collection, and I sure as hell don’t want to be the reason why that number drops to 699, so I kept it at 7/10ths.

About two decades separate the Carrera RS and the Carrera RS 2.7, which partially explains why the former feels more like a race car. They offer a very similar degree of RS-ness but the 964-generation 911 was far more comfort-oriented and road-friendly than the original, so the gap appears to be wider. It’s still pegged on the old-school side of the spectrum, however, with floor-mounted pedals and thin windshield pillars.

2004 911 GT3 RS

Specs

  • Powertrain: 3.6-liter flat-six | 6-speed manual | rear-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 375
  • Torque: 284 lb-ft

Released in 2003 and not sold in the United States, the 911 GT3 RS narrowed the rift separating race cars and road cars. At about 3,000 pounds, it weighed roughly 44 pounds less than the standard GT3 by adopting weight-saving measures like carbon fiber door mirror caps and a single-mass flywheel. It was equipped with Recaro racing seats, a race-derived suspension system, and a huge carbon fiber wing that raised more than a few eyebrows. Shouldn’t it have a ducktail? Couldn’t it have a retractable spoiler?

“To achieve the full efficiency of a rear decklid spoiler you need to use a fixed unit. With a movable spoiler, you can’t achieve the same amount of aerodynamic efficiency,” Lagaaij clarified.

Blue or red decals inspired by the Carrera RS 2.7’s graphics added a touch of contrast to the Carrara White paint (please don’t write me an angry email; that’s not a typo). Porsche drove the “street-legal race car” point home to the pits by making flame-retardant upholstery and a fire extinguisher standard. 

Pop open the decklid and you’ll see—yes, you can still see the engine in a 996!—a 3.6-liter water-cooled flat-six rated at 375 hp and 284 lb-ft of torque, which is enough to send the GT3 RS from zero to 62 mph in 4.4 seconds. That’s quicker than the standard GT3, which you’d of course expect, but grok this: the RS is two-tenths of a second behind the base version of the current-generation 911 in a straight line. That’s significant. Power reaches the rear wheels via a six-speed manual transaxle.

While the 964-generation Carrera RS straddles the line between a car that you can enjoy on a public road and one that needs to be taken to a track, the 911 GT3 proudly plants its flag in “for fuck’s sake, race me!” territory. It’s mechanically a much more modern species of 911, one whose performance eclipses the 964’s by a wide margin, and this is an intriguing paradox because it’s also far more comfortable to travel in. Hot? Don’t be, push a button to open the windows or turn on the air conditioning system. Tired of the flat-six’s song? Find a catchy German pop tune on the radio. Its seats are wider, though they’re still supportive.

Even in hardcore GT3 RS trim, the 996-generation 911 unmistakably remains the bridge between the old-school 911s and the last few generations of the car. Comfort is only one part of this equation; it’s easier to drive, too. The steering is much lighter (at the expense of feedback, unfortunately), it’s not as twitchy, and the pedals are top-hinged. It was seemingly created to be accessible to a wider audience, which makes sense: that’s what Porsche needed in the 1990s, and it’s what customers were asking for.

That’s not to say it’s missing a ration of Porsche-ness; it remains true to the 911 ethos. Folks who view the 996 as a hate totem tend to forget this. Okay, it’s water-cooled. Sure, its headlights aren’t round. At the end of the day, it’s still a 911, even if it’s a different flavor of 911. The GT3 RS takes off like a cheetah on cocaine and Red Bull after 3,000 rpm, like the Carrera RS, though you have about 1,000 additional engine revolutions to explore before you reach the redline and an extra gear to play with. The shift lever is shorter than the 964’s (and much shorter than the 2.7’s), more direct, but a bit plastic-ish to operate.

Porsche’s Unexpected Symbol

The level of the RS models’ success was unexpected. Even the folks involved in the 2.7’s development didn’t predict that the model would have such an important and lasting effect on the 911 range.

“These guys came into the design studio and said, ‘We now know how to improve the 911!’ When we saw the models, we were quite concerned that we would possibly lose the beautiful shape of the 911 because we knew what spoilers were. We had seen them on racing cars, but to do it on a 911 was a different story,” Lagaaij said. “If we look back, we have to say that we didn’t realize that the ducktail was the start of a whole program of rear spoilers.”

Porsche has channeled the spirit of the 911 Carrera RS 2.7 several times in the past 50 years. The 911 Sport Classic, released as a limited-edition model in 2009, featured a modern take on the ducktail, and the second-generation Sport Classic unveiled in 2022 wears one as well. The car’s influence goes beyond a few distinctive, heritage-soaked styling cues: It proved that linking the 911’s evolution to Porsche’s racing program was an effective way of keeping buyers in the fold, generation after generation. It’s a philosophy that’s revered with near-biblical awe in Stuttgart and in enthusiast circles around the globe. And for good reason.

An American automotive journalist and historian, Ronan Glon is based in France. His work has appeared in Autoblog and Digital Trends.

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