Time really does fly when you’re having fun. It’s been 22 years since the very first GT3 turned heads, from under the spotlights of the 1999 Geneva Motor Show. Since then, this machine has become more than a car. For some, it’s like the North Star, a reassuring constant in a rapidly shifting automotive universe and a guiding light illuminating the path forward for all sports cars — which, as a species, are having an existential crisis.
The occasion for such a retrospective is that there’s an all-new 2022 Porsche 911 GT3 on the street. We’ve driven it, and it’s everything you’d hope. But were it not for a stroke of luck in the 1990s, the GT3 might not have existed at all.
Back then, Porsche wasn’t the highly profitable juggernaut it is today. It was a small German car company on the brink of disaster. The brand’s modest portfolio of aging two-door sports cars wasn’t selling well and the firm was haunted by a series of less-than-brilliant management decisions. There was little money to spend on what the company’s bosses figured was a niche product: a slightly faster and more focused version of the 911 aimed at serious gearheads who had fond memories of the classic 911 2.7 RS homologation special from the 1970s. And yet, somehow, a pair of Porsche employees convinced their penny-pinching bosses to let them stick a reworked racing engine into the Porsche 911. As a result, in 1999, the GT3 was born.
It did not save the company, at least not on paper. The Cayenne (Porsche’s first SUV) and the Boxster (its then-new affordable sports car) are usually credited with turning the firm’s financial fortunes, but the GT3 saved the brand’s soul. It carried the torch for Porsche’s racing pedigree all through those dark years until, eventually, car critics and keen drivers woke up to the fact that Porsche had made something rather special. The GT3 eschewed the latest tech, preferring rear-wheel drive for its light weight and handling benefits and the linear response of a naturally aspirated engine over all-wheel drive and turbocharger power. It prioritized uncensored communication with its driver above all else.
Since then, sales have been trending up with each successive generation of the GT3, proving it may not be such a niche vehicle after all. At a time when the auto industry seems to think that all drivers want is more — larger in-car screens, more electronic assistants, or gargantuan 600-horsepower SUVs — Porsche has tapped into a yearning for the opposite: a raw, unfiltered sports car experience that never lets you forget you’re driving a machine.
Perhaps the most telling statistic about the GT3 is that 40 per cent of buyers worldwide choose a manual gearbox over the automatic. (In Canada, we’re happy to report, that percentage is even higher.) Choosing the manual, which is available on the new GT3 as well, is like choosing a 35 mm film camera instead of your iPhone — an acquired taste and a slower process, but one that can feel more rewarding.
Today, Porsche is among the most profitable automakers in the world (it’s rumoured to be considering an IPO) and the GT3 is more popular than ever. The brand spent more money developing this new model than on any one before it, says Frank-Steffen Walliser, the vice president in charge of Porsche’s sports cars. Making that enormous rear wing wasn’t easy, you know.
The new 4.0-litre flat-six engine is built on the same production line as Porsche’s racing engines and features trick pieces like six individual throttle bodies so it spins that much faster. It takes real concentration to hold the throttle down and not shift up as the revs pass 7,000 rpm, then 8,000 rpm; the sound inside the cabin becomes a deafening scream, but you can hold on all the way to nine grand before finally shifting. With 502 horsepower, it isn’t much more powerful than the outgoing GT3, but if you’re upset about that, then you’re missing the point. You can’t use more power on the road. This is the engine of the gods. Nothing this side of a Ferrari V12, which is roughly double the price, comes close to delivering such a brain-tingling thrill.
For the first time, the new car uses a double-wishbone front suspension set-up — just like the race cars — which makes the car turn with more confidence than any other road-going Porsche 911. The feel through the steering, brakes, throttle, and carbon-fibre racing seat allows you to commune with the machine; it says it wants to go faster.
There’s a depth to this car’s talent and an honesty to its design that mean you will never get bored of driving it. And that — rather than straight-line speed, horsepower numbers, gawky styling, or anything else — is what a sports car should be about. It’s why the GT3 is still the benchmark. It sizzles even when it’s standing still.
This new version will, predictably, be showered with praise and awards just as with every GT3. All other sports cars will be judged against it, and nearly all of them will be found lacking. But more importantly, the continued existence and increasing notoriety of the Porsche 911 GT3 means there are still people out there, like us, who love the thrill of driving.
All images courtesy of Porsche.