The Sunday supplement: lightning conductor
Revisiting the unique 911 Turbo that scaled mountains with a maverick musician
Herbert von Karajan was a man impossible to pigeonhole. Small in stature, the Berlin Philharmonic’s conductor of 35 years was nevertheless an outsized character. One of the best-selling classical recording artists of all time, he was also a practicing Buddhist and lifelong devotee of all things Porsche.
Balancing precision and passion on a knife edge of whim and temper, Karajan was known to close his piercing blue eyes when conducting because he knew the scores of his enormous repertoire by heart. He expected comparable commitment from his orchestra, and would make them listen back to their own performances time and again, solely to synchronize the movements of their instruments.
Karajan put the same meticulous attention to detail into every walk of his life, nowhere more so than with his cars. So when he contacted the Porsche special order department in 1974 about buying a new 911 Turbo, things were never going to be simple. Karajan made it absolutely clear that he wanted a lighter and more performance-oriented version of the already wildly fast and powerful ‘standard’ 930.
He insisted that the car should weigh less than 1,000 kilograms and its power-to-weight ratio should be well under four kilos per hp—no easy task, given that the standard version was already at 1,140 kilos and 260hp.
Undeterred, the Porsche CEO at the time, Ernst Fuhrmann, carried out the special wishes of his prominent customer himself. Karajan’s Turbo was given the racing chassis of an RSR and the body of a Carrera RS, along with full racing suspension and rollover bars.
The interior was rigorously stripped down to help achieve Karajan’s demanding weight limit. The backseat was replaced by a steel roll cage, door handles with leather straps while the radio and any symphonies it might have played gave way to the harmonies of that blown flat-six, now making another 100hp thanks to a larger turbocharger and revised cam. To complete this extraordinary order, Porsche requested permission from Rossi, the vermouth producer, to replicate the Martini Racing paint job from the 911 Carrera RSR Turbo 2.1 that finished second in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1974.
In the end the car was successfully delivered the following year, resplendent in its one-off livery and adorned with bespoke rear badging that read, simply, ‘von Karajan’.
Despite his eccentricities, Karajan was a valuable customer to Porsche, whose garage included a 356 Speedster, 550 A Spyder, two 959 and several 911 models over the years. But his unique and extraordinary Turbo is perhaps the car that best reflects the exacting demands and relentless pursuit of perfection that characterised this enigmatic figure.
Known to rise early to study scores and practice yoga, Karajan would also take his Turbo ‘RS’ up through the high switchback roads above his estate to catch the first rays of sun over the Austrian alps.
When he sold the car in 1980, it had covered a mere 1,864 miles (3,000km).