The True Story Behind Porsche's Safari 911

If someone told us they planned to send a Porsche 911 on a 3,000 mile blast through the mighty mountains, valleys, and forests of east Africa, we'd have said it sounded like playing hacky-sack with a Swiss watch: a silly game sure to destroy a masterpiece of engineering.

Of late, Porsche has been intent on proving us wrong. First, they tricked out a pair of 911s and sent them up a volcano in Chile. Then they introduced the 911 Dakar, a true rally monster that cleared Porsche test tracks, the dunes of the Sahara, and frozen lakes in Sweden with equal aplomb.

However, it turns out sending Porsche's poshest model to play games in the muck is a bit of a tradition for the Stuttgart-based automaker. The story starts all the way back in 1978, in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya, with a model called the Porsche 911 Safari.

Car for all seasons

As with the Porsches sent up Nevado Ojos del Salado in Chile, the "Porsche 911 Safari" was less of a bespoke rebuild of the classic sports car than a standard 911 given the basics of off-road functionality. Per RennList, the 1978 911 Safaris weren't built from the ground up for rallying like the upcoming Dakar. They were classic 911s. Barring a roll cage and a few extra racks of lights, the two 911 Safaris came to the East African Safari Rally straight-up stock.

The Safari Rally is something of a legend among rally enthusiasts. It makes extraordinary demands of its racers — pathfinding in tough, unclear conditions, rigs ready to handle dust, mud, forests, and storms, plus the occasional need to evade a herd of curious giraffe.

When Porsche came to Kenya in 1978, it was making a point. The company wanted to demonstrate that in the right hands, in this case, Vic Preston Junior and John Lyall in one car, and Björn Waldegård and Hans Thorszelius in the other,  the 911 could go anywhere and do anything. 

The luxury car that beat the world's toughest rally

In fairness, we have to admit the Porsches didn't win the race. The Porsches came in 2nd and 4th.

With nary a modification than brighter headlights and a cage to keep the passengers' heads from coming off, two Porsche 911s managed top five finishes in one of the most demanding off-road races on Earth. One of the two actually led the pack until it snapped its rear axle tiebar on an ill-placed boulder.

Point made, Porsche has only occasionally attempted serious rallying since 1978. That said, "occasional" includes Björn Waldegård bringing a 911 Carrera to the Safari Rally Classic in 2011 and winning alongside his son, and 911s sweeping the top five positions at the 2015 race (via eWRC).

Between the Dakar and their Chilean adventures, however, it seems Porsche is getting back into the rally business. We look forward to seeing what conventional wisdom they can shatter next.