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Charge of the Light Brigade: Porsche 911 R meets Cayman R

5 months ago

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Writer:

Andrew Frankel | Ti co-founder

Date:

4 January 2024

Generally speaking, making light cars is a mug’s game. It’s expensive and hardly anyone thanks you for it. You and I know the advantages span all areas of dynamic endeavour, but really that counts for diddly when adding power is so fantastically cheap by comparison and, well, so damned effective. Up goes the bhp number, down comes the 0-60mph time and just don’t mention that the car will be heavier and worse at almost everything else as a result. Cars fly out the door; trebles all round.

But just occasionally, and because there are still a few lunatics left who are not quite so easily pleased, a manufacturer will do a small run of cars that are more focussed on the driver than the stat-hungry power grubber. Making them lighter is one part of it of course, but if you’re going down that road, there are a few other things you can do too.

Such an approach speaks to us not just because we know the result should be better to drive; there’s something more subliminal going on too. For where do the origins of these lightweight, driver-centric cars lie? Homologation specials, that’s where. And while neither of these cars was designed to make a competition version eligible for racing, that’s what the little letter at the end of their name alludes to. For Porsche that ‘R’ quite literally means racing, and long before an ‘S’ was appended to it, it was used for the first time in Porsche’s original homologation special. And it’s only been used twice since, on the cars you see before you. By comparison ‘RS’ Porsches are common as they come.

We’ll set aside the fact the first 911R failed utterly to deliver on the very reason for its creation – it cost almost twice as much as the top of the range 911S so only 19 production cars (and four prototypes) were built, laughably short of the 500 needed to homologate it for GT racing – leave further talk of it for the sidebar below, and focus ourselves instead on the two cars Porsche would like you to see as their spiritual successors.

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The only two production Porsches to carry 'R' badging

Which they are absolutely not. Yes, both the 2011 Cayman R and 2016 911 R are lighter than the cars upon which they are based, but by just 55kg and 50kg respectively, which is 4.2 and 3.6 per cent of their total mass, which pales somewhat against the 200kg/25 per cent weight loss of the original R I said I wasn’t going to mention again. And, as discussed, neither was designed with any form of homologation in mind.

As it turns out, that’s actually quite good news. Road cars make almost as rubbish race cars as race cars do road cars. Instead, what Porsche’s engineers were trying to do with both these cars was to communicate with that small but core constituency of punter for whom pure driving pleasure was all that they understood. That they felt the same way. That they knew who you were and, at slightly different times and dramatically different price points, had made these cars for you. And no one else.

The first point to understand about these two is that it’s not just their respective power outputs that sets them apart: they are completely different cars. Both the Cayman R and the 911 from which its R version was derived were launched in 2011, but while the latter was the very first of the 991-series, the Cayman R belongs to the earlier 987-series and is therefore derived from the second generation of 997-series 911s. Nice and clear?

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"We took them out again and drove harder. And faster. And the Cayman R was not one whit less brilliant than before. But the 911? Oh my goodness. At the point on the graph where the enjoyment to effort curve of the Cayman plateaus, the 911 is still skyrocketing"

The Cayman R was based on the 987-generation model

The point of mentioning it is that the cars changed – whether it is Caymans or 911s we’re talking about – and in the most fundamental way. The 991 represented only the second time the 911 had been completely replaced since the launch of the original in 1963 and it came with three fundamental changes, all of which would affect later Caymans: hybrid steel and aluminium construction, a sizeably extended wheelbase and electric power assisted steering. So the differences between the two Rs you see here are going to be rather more extensive than suggested by the respective power outputs and engine locations.

Let’s look at the Cayman first. Like the 911 R, it was a proper run out special, designed to maintain interest in its model line right up to the moment of replacement. But the Cayman was then and remains today Porsche’s slowest selling car, so anyone expecting big changes over the Cayman S was likely to be disappointed. It cost just £4124 more and what it bought were aluminium doors from the Boxster Spyder, a limited-slip differential, a new front and rear aero package, sports seats and the lightest wheels fitted to any Porsche to date.

What you lost were the cup holders, instrument shroud, 10 litres of fuel tank capacity, the air conditioning and infotainment, though these last three of these could all be optioned back in at no additional cost. But you gained a 22mm reduction in ride height, firmer springs, re-rated dampers, sundry badges and labels and an aerodynamics package that reduced lift at the front by 15 per cent thanks to a new lip spoiler and 40 per cent at the back courtesy of that fixed rear wing. And 10bhp from a re-chipped engine with a freer-flowing exhaust.

What perhaps people don’t appreciate about the Cayman R is just how rare it is. Figures vary depending on where you look, but the one quoted most often by reliable sources is 1421 units, which is only 110 more than the number of F40s made by Ferrari. As for the UK, the How Many Left website notes the highest number ever registered was 113, of which probably around 100 survive.

"Visually, the R lost all the aero addenda even of the GT3, let alone the RS. The lack of drag means it's the only naturally aspirated 911 with a top speed beginning with a ‘2’. And don’t be too sniffy about the fact it only lost 50kg; that’s compared to the GT3 RS which already came with a serious lightweighting programme"

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Climbing aboard is like meeting that bloke you used to go to the pub with until he moved away a dozen years back. To be honest you’ve not thought of him much in the interim because there have always been other interesting people to chat to, but the moment you reconnect you remember instantly why you got along so well in the first place. There’s no need to adapt your behaviour to the company you’re keeping: from the absolute outset, you can just relax and be yourself. You know this car and it appears to know you; or at least what you want.

It feels small and compact, light and accurate. A precision instrument. So after all these years apart you can just turn left out of the pub car park and go, hard, from the outset. There’s nothing to relearn here because it was never a remotely difficult car to drive and your muscles have somehow retained the memory, and nothing whatever to fear. It is a car in which you feel instantly at one, as if your most recent drive in it were last week, not before the London Olympics.

All of which is just fine, apart from the fact I want more; more from a Porsche, much more from one bearing the fabled ‘R’ badge. I don’t just want it to be easy, it must be engaging too, enthralling even. And so it proves. The foundation stones are that 325bhp, 3.4-litre engine and the six-speed gearbox to which it is attached. Neither is perfect: the former lacks low down torque, the latter the short ratios needed to make the most of what’s there. But once you’ve learned to keep the revs high and the gears low, it simply flies from place to place.

There are a few reasons for this, one of the less important ones being the amount of mechanical grip available. It’s more to do with your ability to place its easily judged extremities to the millimetre, to feel the road through the fabulously intuitive steering and know that, in the dry at least, traction is essentially unlimited. It rewards a driving style of similar precision and will tap you gently on the wrist if you try to lob it into a slow corner, but the most that will happen is a touch of probably diff-induced understeer, easily and instantly killed with a quick lift of the foot. Few cars have ever offered this combination of raw pace and such a rich vein of easily accessible fun.

And the 911 R is not one of them. There’ll be no flinging this up the road at the first time of asking. Compared to the Cayman, it feels bigger, more intimidating, less immediately welcome and harder to understand. All of which it is.

But first let us remind ourselves of what we have here. It’s a car made right at the end of the first generation of 991 production, and it’s no coincidence that just 991 were built. At the time its biggest USP, the thing we got most excited about was the fact that unlike the GT3 (whose standard width body it used), or the GT3 RS, (whose 4-litre engine it borrowed), it had manual gears. Not only that, it was Porsche’s fantastic six-speed transmission, not the then seriously sub-optimal seven-speed unit found in lesser 911s. But there was far more to it than that.

Visually, the R lost all the aero addenda even of the GT3, let alone the RS. The lack of drag meant it was and remains to this day the only naturally aspirated 911 with a top speed beginning with a ‘2’. And don’t be too sniffy about the fact it only lost 50kg, because remember that’s compared to the GT3 RS which already came with a serious lightweighting programme behind it, such as carbon front wings and bonnet and a magnesium roof, not to mention the usual smoke and mirrors game with the air conditioning and infotainment. The major weight savings therefore came from losing the wing pack, making ceramic brakes standard, reducing tyre and wheel size front and rear and, of course, fitting the far lighter manual six-speed gearbox.

The 991-based 911 R was limited to 991 examples

Other refinements exclusive to the 911 R included a bespoke tune for the dampers (with springs taken from the GT3), a new steering map and re-programmed rear-wheel steer. A single mass flywheel was an option, fitted to the car seen here.

The moment you’re aboard you know this is no mere plaything, and that’s before you’ve dwelt too much upon the fact it is today worth between seven and eight times as much as the Cayman. It may not have a ‘GT’ badge, but you know this is a pure Porsche Motorsport product with a pure Porsche Motorsport engine. With barely more than half a litre’s extra displacement, it manages to conjure up an astonishing 168 additional horses, raising the Cayman’s already impressive 94.5bhp per litre specific output to 123.3bhp per litre.

It’s a longer, wider car too, with a lengthier wheelbase and greater front and rear track too. Given there’s room for four in here (if not the seats), it’s remarkable it weighs only 75kg more than the Cayman. Worth remembering too that it has a better power-to-weight ratio than both the current GT3 and GT3 RS. It may not look like such a serious machine, but looks can be extremely deceptive.

If you didn’t know better, upon first acquaintance (reacquaintance in my case) you might be left wondering what all the fuss was about. Yes, the engine sounds lovely and the gearbox is even sweeter than the Cayman’s, but driving it seems a more deliberate process, requiring you to spot braking and turn-in points, think harder about where and when to reapply the power: in place of the sweeping brushstrokes that feel so natural in the Cayman, this is more join-the-dots motoring.

"The 911 R will take you to a place the Cayman cannot reach, a place where the fun and games are left behind and serious driving begins. Your senses sharpen, your focus narrows, your brain starts shutting out all extraneous data not directly relating to the job in hand. The sound of the tyres, that painful tooth… all irrelevant"

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Why might this be? Well, I have to concede that the roads we chose for this comparison were of a size and shape more suited to the Cayman’s dimensions. But it felt far more agile too and not just because it was lighter. Its major mass is concentrated within the wheelbase yet, despite that, its wheelbase is some 60mm shorter than that of the 911. And then there’s the steering: no question, the Cayman’s hydraulically assisted helm puts you in closer touch with conditions underfoot, providing you with the confidence to push on that bit harder, that bit sooner. After a while I found myself wondering if I was not looking at the biggest upset to the form book since I placed a Ferrari 348 bog last in a four-car comparison test more than 30 years ago.

But so too did a part of me know there was a whole side to this story that had not yet been told. So we took them out again and drove harder. And faster. And the Cayman R was not one whit less brilliant than before. But the 911? Oh my goodness. At the point on the graph where the enjoyment to effort curve of the Cayman plateaus, the 911 is still skyrocketing, accelerating and getting steeper all the time. You have to work it: get the motor beyond 8000rpm, put some heat into those Michelin Cup 2 boots, lean on those ceramic discs and suddenly it all comes together, like the various and disparate instruments of an orchestra coming into tune at the same time.

Then it will take you to a place the Cayman cannot reach, a place where the fun and games are left behind and serious driving begins. Your senses sharpen, your focus narrows, your brain starts shutting out all extraneous data not directly relating to the job in hand. The sound of the tyres, that painful tooth, the fact your fragile computer is being thrown around in a bag in the boot… all irrelevant. What’s left is you, a Porsche and the road. Nothing else matters.

Reach the end of it in the Cayman and you hop out, wreathed in smiles eager to chat about how much fun you’ve had. In the 911 R you roll to a halt, switch off and don’t move. You sit there, alone, replaying the experience in your head, hoping that by so doing you’ll convert those flighty electrical memories whizzing around your brain into something more based in chemistry and therefore enduring. Days later, screengrabs from that day will still be appearing in your mind, the most welcome pop ups you’ll ever see. And they’ll all be of the 911.

There seems little point in trying to decide between them, given the disparity in their pricing. No one is ever going to be weighing buying one against the other though some might feel the need to have both… But the Cayman R is exquisite, offering arguably the best blend of lightness and power of any Cayman. It’s worth bearing in mind that the closest thing there is to a modern equivalent, the Cayman GTS, is 110kg heavier and therefore, despite an additional 70bhp, has a power-to-weight ratio just 20bhp per tonne stronger.

But the 911 R is something else and it’s no wonder so much of its spirit went on to be encapsulated in the 911 GT3 Touring that followed with the second generation of 991. To me the 911 R is one of the two greatest 911s, at least among those cooled by what you drink rather than breathe. The other? The the 997-generation GT3 RS 4.0. It too is a 4-litre, 493bhp, manual, limited numbers machine and I’d need to drive the two together to decide between them. Which, now I think about it, is probably something we should do…

Driving the original 911R

From a distance it looks like any early 911. Small, pretty, purposeful. But as you draw nearer your eyes start to pick up the odd strange detail here and there.

There are holes where the sidelights should be and the fuel filler is not only in the middle of the bonnet, its handle is perforated. Leather straps clamp the bonnet to the car. At the side there is an external oil filler and those rear wheel arches look slightly but significantly flared. The cap that usually concealed the access slot to the rear semi-trailing arms is missing. There are no wheel centres either.

And then, as you move around the back all becomes clear: the giveaway is not so much its fat twin exhausts as the badge on the engine cover: ‘911R’. Except, it’s not a badge at all, it’s a sticker. What you are looking at is Porsche’s first concerted effort to produce a racing version of the 911 and such was the attention to detail lavished upon it that some bright spark at Porsche realised a few grams could be saved even in its name. That’s a level of fastidiousness than in other worlds might call for medical attention.

Inside, two of the five instruments are missing, as is the cigarette lighter, ashtray and passenger sun visor. The window winders have gone, replaced by plain leather straps. The windscreen glass is 4mm thick, the side and rear windows 2mm Perspex. Ventilation is provided by two shaped apertures in the front quarterlights to let fresh air in and two in the rears to let stale air out.

Distant relations, separated by almost half a century

The engine was essentially straight from the 906 prototype race car with its twin-plug cylinder heads, big valves, chrome liners, huge 46mm Weber carburettors, high compression pistons and a power output of 210bhp. Race suspension, a limited-slip diff and wider wheels and tyres completed the picture.

In commercial terms the car was a complete failure. At 45,000 Deutschmarks it was essentially double the price of the then range-topping 911S, and instead of selling the 500 required to homologate it for GT racing, just 19 production cars were completed with steel bodies, plus three glassfibre prototypes and one with aluminium panels, the one I drove at Brands Hatch many years ago. It is also the car that won the 84-hour Marathon de la Route at the Nürburgring in 1967, though with a standard engine and the clutchless ‘Sportomatic’ gearbox whose reliability Porsche was keen to demonstrate.

It was not a nice car to get to know. The engine didn’t want to work below 4000rpm and the 901 gearbox rewarded my attempts to guide its lever with spiteful obstinacy. Even changing gear at 7000rpm could not keep the motor on the boil. And it was twitchy. Very, very twitchy.

After a few laps of a lot less fun than I’d been expecting, I consulted the owner who told me he could see and hear I was driving it all wrong. Not enough revs, not enough commitment. ‘It’s a racing car,’ he patiently explained, ‘and that’s how it needs to be driven.’

So I took him at his word, used at least 8000rpm in every gear, banged each shift through as if I was on a qualifier and rode the slides instead of trying to catch them. I’d like to say it was easy, but it wasn’t. Yes, I figured out what to do but I never really trusted it, never thought it was not looking for a way to throw me into the Kentish countryside. And that was just a few laps of a bone dry, deserted Brands Hatch. What it must have been like at the ’Ring, in all weathers, surrounded by dozens of other lunatics, day and night for 84 hours defies my understanding.

Photography by Malcolm Griffiths

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Porsche Cayman R (987)

Engine: 3436cc, 6-cyl, naturally aspirated
Transmission: 6-speed manual, RWD
Power: 325bhp @ 7400rpm
Torque: 273lb ft @ 4750rpm
Weight: 1295kg
Power-to-weight: 251bhp/tonne
0-62mph: 5.0 seconds
Top speed: 185mph
Price new: £51,731
Price now: from £42,000

Ti RATING n/a

Porsche 911 R (991)

Engine: 3996cc, 6-cyl, naturally aspirated
Transmission: 6-speed manual, RWD
Power: 493bhp @ 8250rpm
Torque: 339lb ft @ 6250rpm
Weight: 1370kg
Power-to-weight: 360bhp/tonne
0-62mph: 3.8 seconds
Top speed: 200mph
Price new: £136,901
Price now: from £350,000

Ti RATING n/a