In more ways than one, the Carrera Panamerica has a special meaning for Porsche. Held between 1950 and 1954, this open road rally took in 3,400km of hair-raising back country along the newly built Pan-American Highway. Initially restricted to production saloons, the six-day event quickly opened its doors to European sports car entries from the likes of Ferrari and Porsche, both eager to make their mark on the international stage.
Porsche enjoyed remarkable success in this demanding and spectacularly dangerous cross-country dash, posting numerous class wins with its modestly powered but nimble and reliable 550 Spyder. In the final race in 1954, Porsche dominated its class, taking six of the top seven places.
These sorts of events helped established nascent sports car companies in a post-war period of rapid change and development. Success on the Carrera Panamericana brought Porsche to the attention of the United States in a way that earlier European victories with the 550 never could. And it would also bring the now iconic Carrera and Panamera names to the Zuffenhausen stable.
In the end the immense risks involved in this courageous charge through the mountains and plains of Mexico would prove too much for anyone to stomach. When eight people lost their lives in 1954, the organisers ensured that the fifth Carrera would also be the last.
But the fascination endures with this madcap drive through scenery as stunning as it is unforgiving, in part because the public roads on which it was run are still there for the taking. Escape the sprawl of Mexico City and you quickly find yourself immersed in a landscape almost as untouched now as it was half a century ago.
The Panamera 4S may just be the perfect device for tracing this unspoiled slice of racing history, its quiet 2.9-litre V6 engine unobtrusive when it needs to be, but the full force of that 440 hp (Fuel consumption combined 8.2 – 8.1 l/100 km; CO2 emissions 186 – 184 g/km) and 550 NM of torque there in an instant on the right stretch of empty asphalt.
There is an eerie quiet along much of the route today, with handfuls of locals occasionally visible, tending to horses or running small roadside stalls. This extraordinary feat of engineering – a road that ultimately unites the Americas from Alaska in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south – remains humbled by its surroundings; nature unchecked and cinematic in its grandeur.
The turbos earn their keep in the thin air over high alpine switchbacks before the 4S plunges eagerly into deep, dark pine forests below. In the valley of the Mariposa Monarca biosphere, a nature reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Panamera rolls gently to a halt. A 500 m section of the road ahead is engulfed in a brilliant tide of Mexico’s migratory Monarch butterflies. They weave across the road in a dense, dancing wall of brilliant amber, bathing the car in a golden glow before vanishing noiselessly into the shady trees overhead.
The Panamera pushes on steadily along the ‘Ruta Panamericana’ – the longest paved road in the world. Its serene and stately progress is a far cry from the death-defying heroics of its high-revving 1500 cc forebears, but its presence here today is necessarily one of reverence, as much for the remarkable landscape as the racers who once tore so fearlessly through it.