The 3.8 RSR version of Porsche's 964-era 911 was meant for the racetrack, not the road, but a few escaped. We do our best to capture the fractious beast.
The idea that this 911 RSR 3.8 is a road car is undermined from the off. It’s been unloaded from a transporter, its bonnet is up and I’ve added a splash of fuel to the 120-litre long-distance fuel cell. Now, having threaded myself through the bars and spars of the welded-in rollcage and fallen into the Recaro race seat’s embrace, I take stock.
No carpets, no rooflining, no frills. I twist the key. No sound-deadening either. The heavy, loping, flat-six beat is classic air-cooled 911, but richer in detail because there’s just painted metal separating us. It feels like there’s no power steering as we roll away from the pumps and, as we cross the seam between two sections of concrete, no suspension either. Can’t say I’m surprised; the deep-dish alloys look jammed into the arches, as if the car has been captured on full compression after a humpback bridge.
It takes a while to warm up, its owner had said, but I’m still surprised by how it bogs down if you ask for anything more than a breath of throttle, chugging and stumbling like it’s being fed by oversized carbs. And the ride... let’s just say the faithfulness with which it tracks the lumps and bumps of this B-road is eye-opening. ‘That looked stiff!’ photographer Alex Tapley, following in our camera car, would say later.
Gradually, the engine delivery cleans up. I’m still not using full throttle or more than 4000rpm but the level of noise is incredible, a gravelly cacophony that resonates around the bare cockpit and jangles your senses, like being too close to the speakers at a concert. It’s as if the 3.8-litre flat-six is in the cockpit with me, though a glance in the back confirms that there are only a couple of lengths of wiring loom and the Bosch Motronic ECU sitting in one of the rear seat wells.
The driver, of course, is meant to provide the sound deadening in the form of a crash helmet and ear plugs. That’s because, as the period specification sheet states, the RSR 3.8 is ‘not for street use, for racing only’. Yet this example and a few others built by Porsche’s Customer Racing department at Weissach never wore race numbers, only numberplates.
There’s little reason why it couldn’t be registered, though it all seems rather unnecessary because there was a road version of the RSR. The RS 3.8 was the homologation special that allowed the RSR to be raced in GT championships and Blue Riband events around the globe. So why not just have an RS 3.8 instead?
Contemporary reports describe the RS 3.8 as a very basic car, lacking rear seats, electric windows and power steering, but it’s all relative. The two cars weigh about the same; the RSR is a fraction heavier at 1215kg despite being yet more stripped-out, its lack of trim offset by the installation of the ’cage. In compensation, it offers a bit
more power: 325bhp versus 300 for the RS although, as we will discover, 325 seems a conservative figure.
These two owe their existence to the collapse of the World Sportscar Championship at the end of 1992, which gave road-car-based GT racers the opportunity to star. The RSR was conceived and developed by a couple of Porsche legends to exploit that opportunity: Jürgen Barth, then director of Customer Racing, and Roland Kussmaul, the project manager.
There was already a 964-generation RS but the RS 3.8 took things to another level. The naturally aspirated flat- six was enlarged from 3600 to 3746cc, upping power to that 300bhp from 260, and this was installed in the wide- arched body of the Turbo S, topped off with an even bigger, twin-deck whale-tail spoiler. Weight-saving measures included aluminium doors and bonnet plus thinner glass for the side windows and rear screen.
To promote some interest in the RS 3.8, and to help shift the 50 built for homologation, in early 1993 Porsche brought an RS to Donington Park to demonstrate to the UK press. It was a mighty thing but I was even more impressed by it after lunch. There had been a downpour and I asked Barth if he could show me how to drive a powerful, fat-tyred 911 in the wet. Still wearing his suit jacket, he obliged, flicking his cigarette out of the driver’s window as we splashed down the pitlane.
It was a revelation. The understeer that felt possible at each corner in the dry was neutralised simply by tipping
the RS into oversteer at every opportunity – even down the edge-of-the-world swoops of the Craner Curves. It’s still one of the finest displays of driving I’ve witnessed. When we pulled back in after a couple of laps, there was a queue of journalists waiting for a turn.
A couple of months later, Barth drove an RSR to class victory (and 15th overall) at Le Mans, sharing with Dominique Dupoy and Joel Gouhier. It was slightly lucky, with the faster Jaguar XJ220 denied the GT win on a technicality, but before the year was out the RSR had proved itself a remarkable ‘turnkey’ race car. It won the Spa 24 hours outright, along with the 1000km of Suzuka and the Mil Milhas Brazilia (1000 miles of Brazil).
A steady stream of orders from around the world caused Porsche to build a total of 51 RSRs over two years, very nearly matching the number of RS 3.8s made (55). In 1993, an RS 3.8 would have cost you DM225,000 (about £93,750), which made it around £20k more expensive than a 911 Turbo. An RSR cost DM234,783 (about £98,000), plus whatever taxes applied in the territory it was shipped to. The car here was one of the last, delivered in Autumn ’94 to the Porsche dealer in Pforzheim just a few miles up the autobahn from Weissach. The current owner bought it about four years ago from a Japanese collector.
The RS and the RSR look pretty much the same from a distance, except maybe for the RSR’s lower stance. Only when you get closer do you notice the bonnet pins and
flat towing eyes front and rear, and the (optional) centre- lock Speedline alloys. The rears are 11in wide and look like washing machine drums. Although the body is from the Turbo, the rear suspension is regular 911 because it allows rear wheels up to 12in wide.
As well as centre-lock wheels, options included air jacks. This car doesn’t have them but in the corner of each footwell is the tube for them, topped by a plastic cap like a hockey puck. The welded-in rollcage cuts off the dashboard’s ends and a fire extinguisher feed pipe runs along its lower edge, where it would foul the ashtray. So the ashtray is ditched. Ahead of the gearlever is an extra fuel gauge for the long-distance fuel cell.
I’ve been trundling around for a while before I realise that the needle of the oil temperature gauge is not going to climb any higher. This means that the raucous motor behind must be ready to show what it can do. With a decent straight in front, I pin the throttle from about 2000rpm. The pick-up is strong, clean and ever louder, gear whine joining the soup of noise. The period of boom that reverberated around the naked cockpit is now a fleeting moment, so rapidly are the revs climbing. Nowthis feels like a quick car. Correction: a quick, light car.
When the revs hit 5000rpm the note and delivery shift up a gear, like a Honda VTEC cam switch, and the howl
from behind becomes momentarily hard-edged and metallic, as if the exhaust tailpipes are blatting against plates of steel. There’s a momentary softening of note before the motor hits another sweet spot at about 6500rpm, sending the RSR surging forwards even harder. The flat-six seems inertia-free and unburstable as the tacho needle sweeps past the last marking at 7600rpm, finding the limiter soon after. The first time you experience it, it’s stunning. Pretty soon, you can’t get enough of it.
The RSR makes better sense now. I’ve driven enough quick 911s to know that the declared ‘325bhp at 6900rpm’ is a spectacular understatement. In 1994, Car and Drivermagazine got in a box-fresh RSR that had been delivered to Champion Porsche-Audi in Florida. They tested it on an airfield, the weekend before its owner raced it, and ran some figures. It hit 60mph in just 3.7sec (faster than an F40), 100mph in an astonishing 8.9sec and the quarter- mile in 12.1sec, 116mph at the end. They reckoned the RSR had about 375bhp. This car has at least that, I’d say.
Combine this urgency with stiff, fully ball-jointed suspension and a British B-road and things can get a bit lively. Ridges and pock-marks that jolted the car at low speed pass easily now and it’s the bigger bumps and crests you have to watch for. These have the nose bobbing sharply and can trigger the anti-lock when you’re
hard on the brakes. But what brakes they are: borrowed from the Turbo and, while modestly sized by modern standards – they don’t even fill out the space inside the 18in diameter wheels – they are equipped with racing pads. Their feel and strength are sensational, with easily modulated no-slack response right from the top of the pedal and astonishing stopping power.
The bumpiest stretch of asphalt the RSR was expected to deal with as a race car was probably the Nürburgring’s Nordschleife. I’m sure the chassis could be set-up to cope better with our backroads as it is extensively adjustable. Peer under the back and you can see adjustment bolts for the geometry of the semi-trailing arms, while up-front the strut tops have adjustment slots. There are six settings for the front anti-roll bar, three for the rear.
The lack of power steering is not an issue, despite the fat 245/35-section front tyres. It’s heavy when you’re manoeuvring but the efforts are fine once you’re rolling. There’s a bit of slack around the straight-ahead, a bit of wiggle room to allow the front end to be slightly distracted without making the car feel nervous. Typical 911, then.
Same goes for the handling. The nose is a bit slow to turn in, so it feels like you should go right to the apex on the brakes to get the car turned before bringing the power in early to exploit the weight transfer and nail the rear tyres to the road. Here, in a generous owner’s car, this will remain a theory. A racetrack would be the place to try it. With the right driver it has the potential to be amazing.
At the start of the day I did wonder why someone would choose to drive the stiffly suspended and shatteringly loud RSR 3.8 rather than the more habitable
‘Jürgen Barth showed me how to drive this powerful 911 in the wet, flicking his cigarette out of the window as we splashed down the pitlane’
RS 3.8. Now I know. That engine alone justifies it. Twelve hundred kilos doesn’t feel like much when getting on for 400bhp of angry flat-six puts its shoulder behind it, and the way the delivery escalates so loopily at high revs is thrilling. Later RS flat-sixes produce even more power, rev out beyond 8000rpm and ramp up with this same inertia- free, super-smooth precision. This RSR engine is where that started.
More than that, there’s something special about driving around on public roads in a Porsche race car, versions of which scored some great victories. Check out reports of the 1994 Daytona 24 Hours and you can find a pre-race car-and-drivers shot of the Heico Motorsport RSR 3.8 that went on to finish first in class and third overall. It’s in Speed Yellow, sits on the same centre-lock wheels and looks identical to this car, apart from race numbers and a smattering of sponsors’ stickers. Now that’s cool.