Photos by Chris Smart
There have been plenty of misconceptions about Porsche over the years.
There’s a perceived dedication to order, a blunt straightforwardness, and a non-existent sense of humour – all German stereotypes that have been somewhat unfairly applied. Make no mistake: Porsche is, indeed, a very serious automaker. It’s known for building world-class sports cars with surgical precision, breaking world records with them, and paying obsessive attention to detail to every step in the process. In true German fashion, Porsche takes its job extremely seriously and has become a global success because of that. Still, it’s not exactly known for being fun or indulging in silliness.
But we all know stereotypes are meant to be broken. That’s why the 2024 Porsche 911 Dakar exists in the first place, and it’s the most fun thing the brand has done in recent memory. If nothing else, it proves Porsche has a sense of humour and delivers joy in slightly twisted ways.
A Bit of Backstory
The Dakar Rally is one of the most gruelling off-road endurance races in the world. Spanning multiple continents and facing unpredictable weather and changing landscapes that can include sand dunes, deserts, mountain passes, mud, rocks, and more, the event has a reputation for being severe. It’s not unheard of for only about half the vehicles that participate in any given year actually finish. The lowest completion rate was about 20 per cent in 1986, according to race results – a shockingly low number that drives home just how gruelling this rally raid can be. The highest was only 77 per cent in 2017.
In 1984, Porsche did something crazy and entered the race for the first time. With a 911. Of course, Porsche didn’t have all-wheel drive vehicles back then, let alone SUVs, which was enough to look like the brand was setting itself up for failure. The critics and the killjoys had a field day.
Porsche competed in the race with well established rivals that had much more experience with proper all-terrain vehicles. Among the jacked-up and utilitarian SUVs like Mitsubishi Pajeros and Land Rovers, the Porsche 911 (953 was its internal name) must have looked ridiculous. It turned out to be a stroke of genius.
In racing, weight is the enemy of performance, and the 953 was much lighter than its SUV rivals, and faster and more agile as a result. Its famous rear-engine layout also proved hugely beneficial for providing traction in the race’s sloppy conditions. With added all-wheel drive, a jacked-up suspension and more ground clearance as a result, and all-terrain tires, the original 953 that ran in the 1984 race combined the capability of an SUV with the agility of a sports car. With talented and experienced drivers behind the wheel, it turned out to be unstoppable.
After 20 days and nearly 11,000 kilometres of punishing conditions, Porsche did what it does best and proved everyone wrong by winning the race. It won again in 1986 with the 959. Four years after that initial victory, the first production all-wheel drive Porsche 911 Carrera 4 debuted, a legacy that continues today.
This Thing is Ridiculous
Today’s Porsche 911 Dakar is an homage to that groundbreaking victory. Back then, the 953 was sponsored by the tobacco company Rothmans. Today’s version wears the same livery as the iconic 953, but since cigarettes aren’t as cool as they once were thought to be, Porsche replaced the Rothmans name with “Roughroads” instead. What’s this? Is Porsche being cute?
This whole car looks like a toy. Its stance is positively cartoonish, and it looks like some wacky idea from a child’s wild imagination. It’s absurd in the most inspiring way possible. Kids – and kids at heart – make the best car designers because they have limitless imaginations. It’s obvious that Porsche tapped into its collective inner child to develop the 911 Dakar.
You feel that sense of joy when you look at it. Driving it around with its light bar shining bright, roof rack filled with off-road accessories, and bright red tow hooks poking out, passersby can barely comprehend what they’re seeing. But they smile and try to sneak photos anyway.
When you drive it, that joy permeates every touchpoint and infuses you with more swagger than you thought possible. Suddenly, you become the architect of your own racing fantasy. Driving on a quiet unpaved backroad in the early autumn with the trees glowing in the low sunlight and fallen leaves swirling around as you swoosh by, it’s easy to slide around a corner and feel like you’re a celebrated rally driver. In this setting, the 911 Dakar comes alive and exhibits a playfulness that is oddly rare in the Porsche lineup, but even driving it around in more mundane places makes it feel like a special occasion. That’s a side effect of driving one of just 2,500 units worldwide.
The Best Revenge is Massive Success
Porsche proves people wrong a lot. When the Boxster debuted in 1996, purists claimed a new “entry-level” model would dilute the brand’s prestige. Today, Porsche is the global leader in overall luxury brand value rankings, topping Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Gucci.
When the Cayenne first came out in 2002 as the automaker’s first SUV, and the first Porsche with four doors, naysayers claimed it would be a flop, but it went on to become the brand’s most popular model globally. The Cayenne Turbo GT also holds the world record for being the fastest production SUV around Germany’s infamous Nürburgring. There are plenty of other examples, and the 911 Dakar is just one in Porsche’s long history of disproving haters.
When the 2024 Porsche 911 Dakar debuted, I didn’t think I’d ever get to see one in person, let alone drive one. I’ve written before about how the 911 has been my dream car since I was a kid and that every time I’m fortunate enough to drive one, I feel like I’m flipping the bird to everyone who insinuated that I’d never be here. This 911 Dakar holds a special place in my hypothetical dream garage because it proves that Porsche and I have something in common: we both know that living joyfully and proving people wrong is truly the best revenge.