“Porsche is the safest car in the world,” intones the interpreter, dutifully translating what the Korean-speaking instructor is saying while he is driving beside her.
Except that “tearing” is a more appropriate description. Yes, Mr Lee, as we call him, is “tearing” and he is doing it downhill.
But it’s no ordinary road — this is South Korea’s windiest road and goes by the name of 99 Bends. The most exciting part? The weather is horrible. Rain falls in sheets and the run-off visibly flows down the asphalt; a thick fog obscures the view of the countryside.
I am in the car immediately behind him, at the wheel of a dark grey Porsche 911 Carrera 4S, struggling to keep up. Four more cars filled with regional journalists and a sweeper trail me, a constant reminder that I have to stay on Mr Lee’s tail. We’ve all been invited to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 911 by going on a road trip in it around the country, selected for being the biggest market in terms of unit sales for Porsche in Asia Pacific, excluding Japan and China.
Thrown in for good measure are also the new Panamera models that debuted at Auto Shanghai in April earlier this year. I already had my hand at the GTS and Diesel models the day before, racing it from Incheon Airport to the Gangwon Province three hours away and then around the countryside. Driving them and feeling their power had given me a good preview of what to expect with the 911.
In my reluctance to test if Porsche is indeed the safest car in the world, I feel bad for the 911 that’s in my hands. Its low, throaty baritone is laden with the potential of speed, like a cheetah straining on a leash. But safety comes first, I resolutely decide; showing off will have to come on the straight roads.
Still, the car is a dream. It hugs those 99 bends like lycra tights on a lady’s limbs and I have the impression of being completely in control in spite of the road conditions — no wonder the car has lasted 50 years, making it one of the rare few automobiles that can claim this honour. To date, more than 820,000 units of the 911 have rolled off the factory line, earning it the title of most successful sports car in the world.
Its origins can be traced back to the Volkswagen Beetle, upon which Porsche’s first production car — the 356 — was modelled. In 1956, the company decided a new version was needed. The task fell upon Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, the grandson of the founder, who created a model with a long bonnet, sloping roofline and six-cylinder engine.
“Design must be functional and functionality must be translated into visual aesthetics without any reliance on gimmicks that have to be explained,” he said. Launched at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1963, the 911 was such a hit it got “mobbed”, according to the Associated Press.
Seven generations later, the car remains one of the most iconic to date. In fact, it still retains the exterior silhouette of the original 911, but that’s about it. With technological advancements, everything else about it has evolved, all for good reason of course.
Particularly significant is the first Porsche 911 Turbo, unveiled in 1974, with a three-litre 260hp engine and an enormous rear spoiler. Another major leap for the car was when it installed a water-cooled (as opposed to air-cooled) engine in 1998. But it is the latest generation of the 911 that represents the greatest technical advancement. In 2011, the company pushed out a car that raised performance and efficiency to new levels with lower fuel consumption and a lighter curb weight, thanks to its hybrid steel-and-aluminium body.
To celebrate its golden jubilee, Porsche has also rolled out a 50th anniversary edition with only 1,963 units available (the number harking back to the launch year of the car). Available in light grey metallic and a dark graphite colour, it will be distinctive for a two-tone three-dimensional effect badge on its rear saying “911 50”.
Back in the car, I heave a sigh of relief as we round the last of the 99 bends and the road opens up ahead long and, more importantly, straight. It is still raining and the roads are visibly slippery. Regardless, I floor the accelerator and with a satisfied growl, the Porsche 911 Carrera 4S tears off. To hell with safety.
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the writer’s road trip in South Korea