THE VOLKSWAGEN TYPE 1, better known to English-speakers as the Beetle, enjoyed the longest manufacturing run of any motor car. Conceived in the 1930s by Dr Ferdinand Porsche and unveiled in 1938, the Käfer, Kever, Coccinelle (it had almost as many nicknames as the countries it was sold in) went into full production after World War II, with more than 21 million being built in VW factories around the world before the last example rolled off the line at Puebla in Mexico in 2003.
That extraordinary longevity must surely be in the blood of the Beetle's descendent, the Porsche 911. For this most iconic of automobiles, which was designed by the Austrian engineer's grandson Ferdinand Alexander, and shares a similar rear-engine layout to the humble German people's car, is celebrating its own 50th birthday this year.
Introduced in 1963 as a successor to the Porsche 356 – itself developed from the VW – the 911 was conceived as a sports car so practical and non-temperamental that it could be driven with ease as daily in-town transport, yet also acquit itself with honour on weekend excursions to the race track. In both these objectives it succeeded beyond its creators' wildest dreams.
Although never exactly cheap, the 911 began life fairly modestly. Early production examples were equipped with an aircooled, 2-litre, horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine that produced just 128bhp and powered it to a maximum speed of 210km/h, figures that are matched and often bettered by many of today's family runabouts.
Since then, however, and by way of seven distinct generations and a programme of continual development, the neunelfer has evolved from its relatively simple origins into one of the fastest and most capable machines on the road today, a car that in spite of a layout and body shape that hark back more than half a century could hardly be more contemporary or desirable. The latest GT3 version, for example, qualifies as a bona fide supercar, hiding a normally aspirated, water-cooled 3.8-litre motor beneath its tail that propels it to 100km/h in just 3.5 seconds, and onwards to a maximum speed approaching 320. And if that isn't mental enough, there's an even more powerful new 911 Turbo on the way, launched just last month.
No wonder, then, that over the years this Porsche has achieved classic status – rare for a machine still in production – being widely acclaimed as one of the greatest automobiles ever made, as well as the yardstick by which other supercars are judged. It's been built in higher numbers than any other luxury sports car, with production now approaching 850,000 – and as there's no sign of its demise any time soon we can comfortably assume that the total should easily exceed 1 million.
Equally important, the 911 and its many derivatives have scored countless successes in racing and rallying, winning such blueribbon events as Le Mans (several times, using 935, 936 and 911 GT-1 variants), the Monte Carlo Rally (911) and the Paris-Algiers-Dakar raid (911 and 959). And if all that that weren't sufficient, it became one of the most visible symbols of success during the greed-is-good financial frenzy of the 1980s; almost 30 years on, its aspirational appeal to those on the make has diminished not one iota.
Naturally Porsche is doing more than simply lighting candles to mark the 911's remarkable milestone – indeed, the semi-centennial celebrations kicked off in February with a 3,000-square-foot retrospective at the Retromobile Salon in Paris, a highlight of which was a fourseat T7 prototype from 1961. Important or interesting examples are being dispatched to shows and events around the world – the flagship Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance is devoting an entire category to the model – while from this month until the end of September, the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart is staging a 50 Years of the Porsche 911 exhibition, featuring a host of cars from its copious collection. We can even expect the launch of a 50th-anniversary edition of the 911's current iteration – known to enthusiasts by its factory designation, 991 – at some point during 2013.
Porsche has also invited a stream of writers from around the world to travel to Germany to get to grips with all seven generations of the 911, both on the road and on the track. Which explains why I'm standing by the test circuit at its Leipzig assembly plant, home to the Panamera and Cayenne, in the teeth of a bitter wind that's blowing straight in from Siberia. At least it's stopped snowing – in fact, the sun is shining in a cloudless blue sky – but it's still cold enough to freeze the blood.
Not that I care, as I've just negotiated a short off-road assault course in a Cayenne, and now with a choice of choice of wheels lined up to take onto the test track – the aforementioned SUV, a pair of 911 Carreras, a Boxter and a Panamera – the adrenaline is pumping. For the first few laps I'm stuck with the Cayenne (which, as it's a Turbo S with a thumping 550bhp V8 beneath the bonnet, isn't half the liability that it sounds), but eventually – and via a couple of stints in an utterly delightful Boxter S – I'm buckling myself into the driver's seat of a Carrera coupe. It's the first time I've taken the wheel of a seventh-generation 911.
Although it looks little different from the 911 that preceded it (which to thoroughly confuse matters is also referred to as the 997), this latest version is actually an entirely new car, being slightly bigger and lower, yet also marginally lighter. The entry-level power unit has also been downsized to 3.4-litres, which nonetheless delivers a lusty 345bhp (the S model gets a 3.8-litre boxer with 50bhp more) that's as much power as any normal human being would need with a car like this.
I press the starter and the flat six bursts into raucous life – a sound so unique that Porsche ought to consider copyrighting it. Into gear and brake off, I gun it out of the slip road and onto the circuit, flipping up through the seven-speed, dual-clutch semiautobox (a full manual is also available), while trying to ascertain the correct line that will take me into the first series of corners – a sharp right-hander leading up a short, steep rise, followed by a tight left and a sweeping curve down to the right again.
Turning in, I'm struck how the car handles just as precisely and predictably as the Boxter I've just climbed out of. It's so perfectly controlled and firmly planted on the road that I can hardly believe the engine is slung out over the rear axle, as it has been on all 911s since the outset. And thus it continues around the circuit and through corners inspired by many of the world's classic race tracks, the engine howling up and down the rev range as the 911 trips about with the astonishing agility of its younger, lighter mid-engine sibling.
The steering is now electromagnetic (in other words, power assistance is provided by an electric motor), and though that does mean some reduction in feel there's more than ample compensation in the car's superb chassis and exquisite balance. Add to that the brilliant power train that serves up vast helpings of urge and torque whenever I want it, and I really can't see how this thing can be bettered. I'm only able to put a few laps in, but I climb out convinced that this is unquestionably the most complete 911 ever.
While that short drive has brought the 911 story bang up to date, I still need to travel back to the car's beginnings. That journey takes me first to Geneva, where I'm attending the Swiss city's annual auto show, which this year is the venue for the launch of the fifth-generation, GT3. With its specially built, naturally aspirated engine that develops a remarkable 475bhp, this semi-race car represents yet another leap into the future for this evidently ageless Porsche.
But my final destination is the Swabian city of Stuttgart, which being home to Mercedes-Benz as well as Porsche can rightly claim to be one of the world's automotive powerhouses. The latter's base in the northern suburb of Zuffenhausen is also the location of the Porsche Museum, and it's there – or, to be more precise, the museum's workshop – that we've gathered for what must surely be the average car buff's wet dream. For outside in the car park sit two long lines of 911s, from the 1960s to the present, and we have the opportunity to experience at least some of them today.
Each of us is assigned a car and mine is the first in the line: a white, second-generation 3.2-litre 911 Carrera Clubsport, one of just 340 lightweight, race-ready specials, built in 1986. Shorn of 100kg compared with the standard car, this stripped-down Clubsport must be the 911 at its most elemental, and to be able to drive one at all is a rare privilege.
Although its engine produces just 231bhp the car weighs less than 1.2 tonnes, a power-to-weight ratio that promises livelier performance than the figures might suggest. There's little in the way of sound damping, so the rasp of the overhead-cam, air-cooled engine and the characteristic whirr of the cooling fan fill the cockpit. There's no aircon – just a simple heater – no electric windows and the steering wheel needs a hefty pull at low speeds. Likewise the clutch is heavy, the stick shifter for the five-speed box isn't always inclined to be cooperative and the suspension firm-to-bone-rattling.
But once we're underway the effect is electrifying, the steering is quick and direct, and the car appears almost to vibrate with pent-up energy. The roads outside Stuttgart sweep sinuously across lovely rolling green countryside, and as we pass from one gingerbread village to the next I'm revelling in the purity of the experience.
Of course there are downsides, not least being the propensity of older 911s to turn around and bite you on rain-slicked tarmac, and as these roads are damp after a cold March night I'm following the traditional Porsche driver's mantra: “slow in, fast out”. But not since I drove an open-wheeler at Brands Hatch have I felt as connected to a car as this.
Halfway to the Porsche facility at Weissach it's all change, and this time I'm seated in a silver 996 coupe. It's the first of the four-valve, water-cooled 911s – the first in the line, indeed, not to share a single major component with earlier models – and is thus the key link in the chain between old and new. With a 294bhp, 3.4-litre engine it's considerably more potent than the Clubsport, but also more luxurious and even relaxed – though mercifully never sedate.
We arrive at the legendary research and development centre, where we're promptly relieved of cameras and mobile phones. I look around in vain for something to spy on – the next-generation 911 perhaps, a new Le Mans car maybe or even a glimpse of the rumoured Formula 1 engine that may or may not be under development – but see nothing out of the ordinary. Instead we're led out to lunch beside the test track, and the chance to drive as many cars as we can.
So besotted am I with the Clubsport that I make a beeline for it – and now that it's dry and I can safely use all of the road, I'm not disappointed. Looking for an earlier set of wheels, I then grab an orange '75 Carrera 2.7, which proves so instantly beguiling that I greedily hang onto it for several sessions. There's a lovely 996 convertible that reveals the beating heart of a racer…but sadly my dream of driving the red '60s Targa are dashed. Unused to manual transmissions, a journalist from an unnamed emerging market has kept his foot on the pedal for the past 50km and fried its clutch.
And then there's the gorgeous red 3.2 Speedster, one of the last of the G-series 911s. And the pretty 993 Targa, the first 911 to boast a glass roof that elegantly retracts in front of the rear window – though I have to admit I'm less than enamoured of the fourspeed Tiptronic transmission, which could do with at least one extra ratio.
This could go on for ever and I'm fervently hoping it does, but then someone's called time: there's a plane to catch at 6.30pm, we have to get back to Zuffenhausen – and from there to the airport the roads are nose-to-tail. We pile back into the Porsches – I'm in the 993 Targa – and tear off back to town in an noisy and exuberant high-speed convoy.
And as I'm racing across the patchwork of fields and forests on this unexpectedly warm spring afternoon, the car responding immediately to the merest inputs to the wheel, throttle and brakes, I'm reminded why I love to drive, why the 911 is the sports car incarnate – and why this unlikely offspring of the Beetle-turned-supercar could legitimately claim to be the greatest ever.