When the slogan says there is no substitute, it means there is no substitute outside the family
You can't understand the Porsche gestalt without driving the cars. Looking at pictures and reading stories is a great way to prepare yourself, but true enlightenment only comes to those who drink the Kool-Aid.
As my way of celebrating SCM's 20th anniversary, here's my list of 20 cars that will speak to you when you drive them and whisper (or, in some cases, shout) the inside story of a marque built around exceptional performance.
Prices can vary widely, and should be adjusted for condition, provenance, and numerous other factors.
Here they are, in chronological order:
1. 1950-53 Pre-A 356 Coupe
Price range: $125,000-$160,000
Number made: 1,700 approx.
The first production Porsches will surprise you by how old and fragile they feel. Most Porsches, even 40-year-old ones, have a modern feel about them. But not these, many of which had crash gearboxes, VW steering gearboxes, narrow tires, and lightly modified VW engines with modest power. These set the stage for how far Germany had to come post-WWII, and without this starting point the gains are hard to appreciate.
2. 1954-55 550RS Spyder
Price range: $900,000-$1.7 million
Number made: 90
Porsche was Lotus before Colin Chapman figured out the game is won by removing weight. The 550 is an aluminum can, the closest thing to a modern superbike you'll find on four skinny tires. The people who drove these had to have fearsome courage because a crash of any nature was going to be bad. Driving this car will teach you that racing back then was equal measures of skill and nerve.
3. 1954-1959 356/356A Speedster
Price range: $125,000-$220,000
Number made: 4,243
Drive the legend just to see the great fun of pure simplicity. Still recognized as one of the ultimate statements of a thoughtful collector with refined taste.
4. 1957-63 356A/356B 1600 Normal Coupe
Price range: $35,000-$75,000
Number made: 18,000 approx.
These were the cars that built the legend, with the much improved 1600 engine, full synchro gearboxes, and Porsche-designed steering gearboxes. The newer the better, but 60 hp (DIN) never felt so good, due to both the tremendous flexibility and the way the engine joyfully reaches for the redline at every shift.
5. 1964 904 GTS
Price range: $700,000-$1.1 million
Number made: 122
Dramatic, dynamic race car, the last that could be driven on the street and the last use of the 550RS-derived 4-cam race engine. The whole car is an anomaly for Porsche, being a plastic/steel composite and using an old rather than new engine, but it's an important, fascinating, and beautiful diversion.
6. 1963-65 356SC
Price range: $40,000-$75,000
Number made: 7,000 approx.
The last of the original series and a fully developed, tremendously flexible and enjoyable car to drive anywhere, anytime. Progress from the first 356s is simply astounding.
7. 1965-68 911 Coupe
Price range: $25,000-$50,000
Number made: 9,737
The first fully new street car designed by Porsche, with no leftover VW parts to be found. A shocking step up from the 356, but with much development remaining.
8. 1967-68 911S
Price range: $45,000-$85,000
Number made: 3,000 approx.
A tremendously competent car, the first 911 that really has it all. Feels worlds better than any 356, a surprising improvement over the standard 911, and with excellent durability. If you have room for only one vintage 911, this model should be high on your list.
9. 1969-71 917
Price range: $1.7 million-$3 million
Number made: 70
World-beating, but positively frightening, as the engines were faster than the rest of the car. Built just as highly useful applications of aerodynamics arrived in motor sports, these cars had that 550RS quality in that you had to be brave to drive one.
10. 1970-71 911S
Price range: $45,000-$85,000
Number made: 4,500 approx.
Ultimate statement of the mechanical fuel injection early 911, with race car power right to redline. Later models have more horsepower but are not as sporting as this iteration.
11. 1973 Carrera RS
Price range: $200,000-$300,000
Number made: 1,580
Race car for the street, this one stands atop the 911 hierarchy, and for good reason, being great fun to drive with tons of mid-range torque, yet the 911S cams still rev to redline. Feels heavier than the earliest 911S cars, but goes faster with less fuss.
12. 1973-76 914 2.0
Price range: $10,000-$16,000
Number made: 12,000 approx.
Surprisingly good bargain-basement mid-engine offering that will shock you with its humble origins yet large fun-to-drive quotient.
13. 1976-77 930 Turbo
Price range: $28,000-$38,000
Number made: 2,596
The first street Turbos, these are highly unusual cars for what they aren't, which is anything like previous Porsches. Tedious to drive at legal speeds, they compromised everything to go shockingly fast on open roads.
14. 1992-95 968 Cabrio
Price range: $18,000-$30,000
Number made: 3,959
Ultimate derivation of the 924/944 mass market models, this is one heck of a good car, with superb performance and great styling. Proves, along with the 928 GTS, that Porsche can engineer a great car that isn't rear-engined.
15. 1993-95 928 GTS
Price range: $38,000-$52,000
Number made: 2,831
These continue to confuse traditional Porsche buyers, but when we measure performance, they scream with gobs of horizon-streaking power and prodigious road-holding capabilities. Different is good.
16. 1982-94 956/962
Price range: $600,000-$2 million
Number made: 180
The modern, all-conquering, techo-laden sports prototypes. These brutishly beautiful cars show what Porsche is able to do against the best the world has to offer, seemingly without breathing hard.
17. 1987-89 959
Price range: $275,000-$400,000
Number made: 330 approx.
Porsche's ultimate statement confirming the rear-engined future of the marque. Loaded with forward-looking technology, this car set the stage for most of what was to follow, from all-wheel drive to twin turbos to electronic driving aids.
18. 1996-98 993
Price range: $30,000-$40,000
Number made: 47,099
Last iteration of the original chassis with big power and flashes of the future everywhere. Shows how much can be accomplished from humble beginnings.
19. 1997-present Boxster / S
Price range: $20,000-$35,000
Number made: 150,000 plus
Everything today's Porsche sports car should be and more. No one steps out of this thoroughly modern mid-engined treat without smiling, and that is the point, isn't it?
20. 2008 997 GT3 RS
Number made: 225 approx.
Fitting that a brand new variant makes our list, because in addition to being one of the most profitable auto companies on a per-unit basis, the folks running Porsche understand the essence of its brand is performance. This one delivers on that promise with a loud bang.
These 20 Porsches paint a detailed picture of what the brand represents. You won't go wrong spending time behind the wheel of any of them, although I might say that you will need a vastly different venue for the 917 than the 914, even if they are only three numbers apart. Decide on your budget, decide on your driving needs, and then happy hunting