By on February 13, 2013

Remember Nikki Catsouras? Possibly not. The young lady borrowed her father’s 911 Cabriolet, made a mistake at speeds reported to be in excess of 100 miles per hour, and was killed in a remarkably bloody and graphic fashion by the blunt end of a tollbooth.

Remember Chris Brown? The singer and occasional girlfriend-beater mildly crinkled the nose of his 911 Turbo S Cabriolet while ostensibly avoiding a squad of photographers.

Ever think those two incidents might be related?

This week, the Wall Street Journal opined that Porsches might, you know, just be too dangerous and/or difficult for unskilled operators to take to the proverbial eleventh tenth.

“Porsche’s (sic) are known for this quality that driving experts call “oversteer.” It has been a contributing factor in some crashes, though Porsche said it has tamed the tendency through numerous design and engineering changes over the 50 years the model has been on the market. However, the car’s handling makes it especially nimble and extremely fast in skilled hands… In fast corners, the relatively heavy rear-mounted engine can act a bit like the head of a hammer. It seems to want to swing around toward the outside of the turn. Well-trained drivers know it’s vital to continue applying power, making subtle adjustments to keep the car balanced and under control.”

I’m not sure that any “well-trained” 911 driver in history has ever considered the car to be particularly nimble, unless one’s standard of comparison is a Ninety-Eight Regency Brougham. Nor would it necessarily be a good idea to just KEEP THE POWER ON! at all times if one’s 911 is out of control. In the modern cars, the best thing to do is to press strongly on the brake and let the PSM sort things out.

In truth, the current 911 is almost impossible to get out of shape, something I confirmed for myself during some recent track time in the 991 Carrera S PDK. The car’s default behavior is stability, and that’s exacerbated by the massive discrepancy between front and rear tire size. If anything, it’s considerably safer to drive than the high-power AMG Benzes and over-turbocharged current crop of BMW M cars, all of which are capable of swapping ends pretty quickly if the traction control is disabled. Even the current Corvette can be considerably more vicious than any water-pumper 911.

Porsche spokesperson Nick Twork responded to the WSJ’s questions regarding Porsche safety in remarkably ambiguous terms:

Porsche spokesman Nick Twork said while the cars require “slightly different driving techniques,” they are “as safe as any other cars on the road…. You have to think about what you are doing when you drive them… You have to be careful.”

In Mr. Twork’s shoes, I might have been considerably more emphatic about the remarkable safety and docility of Porsche’s current products, but I can understand why he wasn’t. Fifty years ago, the company took half-measures like bolting lead weights on the 911’s front bumper and cheerfully looked the other way as the new rich of the Western world backed their products into trees at high speed with depressing regularity. The 911’s resulting reputation as a challenging car to drive probably sold a lot more buyers than it discouraged, particularly as the cars became more and more docile in real-world use. The legend of the unstable 911 became an essential part of the car’s appeal, so much so that outstanding products like the 944 Turbo and 928 were often the subject of frank criticism for being “easy to drive”.

In 2013, the 911 Carrera is easy as pie to drive fast, but nobody at Porsche is eager to trumpet that fact from the mountaintops, any more than they are in a hurry to explain to their customers why the 911 costs more than the Cayman and the Cayman costs more than the Boxster. The WSJ article is, effectively, a sales tool. It allows the investment bankers of suburban Chicago to intone, “Well, this is the car Chris Brown crashed… it was too much for him. They aren’t for everyone. Of course, I’ve never had any problem with mine.”

The WSJ does note that

“Road accidents tend to happen to drivers who lack the skills needed to drive some Porsche models smoothly and safely at high speed.”

The same thing is true for Civics, of course. Why isn’t Chris Brown crashing Civics? Perhaps when his money runs out, he’ll get the chance.

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55 Comments on “WSJ: Porsches Are Too Difficult For Celebrities To Drive...”

  • avatar

    Just out of curiosity, is that pic of a full size “real” car….for some reason, to me, it looks to be of a scale model Porsche.

    • 0 avatar

      Looks like a diecast model taken with really strong bokeh to blur out the background–so it doesn’t look teensy.

    • 0 avatar

      Ah you’re right the wipers look funky.

    • 0 avatar

      Since the alt text credits for the photo, I’d say you’re probably onto something.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, my first impression is that it is a model. The totally chrome wiper arms and blades, and the ‘TYP 901″ tag, when there are plenty of much more current photos(901 was the initial model name before 911 and 912 became better known) are easier to find.

      As far as Porsches being a handful, didn’t we just see photos of a crashed C7 Corvette, a front-engine car? Some people just need to have the keys taken away from them. I’m glad economic news is so unimportant to WSJ that they have space for automotive discussions from the 1960’s.

      Face it, owners of 911’s, 993’s, etc didn’t buy them to haul lumber back from Home Depot. Maybe buyers using cars with ABS or rear-mounted engines for the first time should take some sort of instruction to show them, or let them feel, how their new car behaves differently from the old ride they no longer use.

      And WSJ, remember Wall Street? Isn’t there enough going on in your titular neighborhood that warrants your scrutiny and makes publishing retro news about Porsche handling a poor use of your resources?

  • avatar

    Remember, James Dean was a trained racing driver, and had a Porsche factory mechanic with him, and that wasn’t enough.

    • 0 avatar

      We had a presentation on this in high school. Some engineering firm reconstructed the crash based on the photos of the scene, skid-marks, etc. They concluded that Dean was going at most a couple miles per hour over the speed limit, and that the accident’s primary cause was that the kid driving the oncoming car made a bad left turn right in front of him.

      That kid was the son of some local bigwig (politician or something) and was promptly rushed off for military service.

      So I don’t know if Dean or the car can really be to blame. Perhaps a larger car would have protected him better, but I can’t imagine that any 1950s car’s handling/braking characteristics would have offered him a better chance at survival.

    • 0 avatar

      He was T-boned.

    • 0 avatar

      Yep, there’s not much you can do when somebody suddenly decides to drive their vehicle right into you at highway speeds. I’ve been a recipient of that myself!

  • avatar

    But did they ever really say exactly what happened to James Dean? The only witness never did and he’s dead now. So, either Jimbo and Elvis are hiding out in a trailer park somewhere and there’s a chance the truth will come out, or, we’ll have to stand in line at the Pearly Gates to ask. At any rate – name a car from that era that was safe!

  • avatar

    Jack–maybe I missed it, but I recall you saying in one of your articles that you’d do a piece on why production cars are designed to understeer. While it makes sense to me, I realize such things are not always intuitive, so I was looking forward to reading it. Did you ever write that article, or is it still on the to-do list?

    • 0 avatar
      A Caving Ape

      This might be what you’re looking for!

    • 0 avatar

      Simply put, understeer is much easier to correct since drivers tend to let up on the gas then brake when they sense a loss of control. Correcting oversteer is difficult and even counter intuitive.

      The reason rear and mid-engine sports cars are the most neutral under hard braking and cornering, is because their weight shifts forward.

      • 0 avatar

        Cornering behavior is a product of many different things. There isn’t much weight transfer in a mid-rear engined formula car. The center of gravity is too low. Even a mid-rear street sports car would have far less weight transfer than something tall, like a truck or SUV.

      • 0 avatar

        “Even a mid-rear street sports car would have far less weight transfer than something tall, like a truck or SUV.”

        OK, stand a 50 lbs bag of dry dog food in the passenger seat of your Porsche 911, get it up 60 mph and stand on the brakes.. Then tell me if there’s minimal weight transfer…

        Even if there’s no massive brake dive in a sports cars (from excellent damping) at the braking limit (of grip), the weight transfer is still there. Sports cars exert far greater braking G forces than trucks or SUVs.

      • 0 avatar

        The momentum of an unrestrained object is irrelevant to the physics of this situation. A modern sport bike cannot brake as well as a modern Porsche 911, yet it’s capable of transferring 100% of the weight onto the front tire if the rider is sitting high enough. A bicycle can easily do that. A 911 cannot. A front-heavy SUV jacked up high enough and with sticky tires could.

        Weight transfer under braking and cornering is proportional to center of gravity height. A vehicle with a CG height of 10″ will have half as much weight transfer as a vehicle with a CG height of 20″, regardless of weight distribution. An SUV that brakes at 0.75g with a CG height of 30″ will experience 12% more weight transfer under braking than a sports car with a CG height of 20″ that brakes at 1.00g. Unfortunately, I cannot find any CG height data so I can’t confirm anything for specific vehicles. I suppose a 911 will have more weight transfer than some taller vehicles that cannot brake or corner as well, but it will not have more weight transfer than a front-heavy vehicle with the same CG height that can match its grip, such as a Corvette.

        From Car and Driver:

        “Every vehicle has a center of gravity (CG), a hypothetical point that sums up its constituent masses—engine, body, chassis, and cup holders—in one handy location. When we report weight distribution, you can infer the CG’s location in the fore-and-aft direction—in other words, the weight share borne by each axle. The problem is that those wheel loadings, interesting as they may be, are variable. As soon as the car moves, the forces of inertia inflict dramatic changes. Enter CG height: The lower it is, the less wheel loading shifts to the front during braking, to the rear during acceleration, and to the outside wheels during cornering. Racing engineers strive for the lowest-possible CG height because a set of tires delivers maximum traction—and therefore optimal perform­ance—when each tire carries its fair share of the total dynamic load.”

      • 0 avatar

        Bob Bondurant explains it like this:

        “John Blakemore and I worked out away to show you the actual effects of weight transfer on the tire patch of a car. This may vary slightly with the size and kind of tire as well as the car, but in concept it can be used for a base of reference. These examples are from a Formula Ford; the rear tires are larger than the front tires. Here is the car at rest.”

        I tired to find his illustrations on line again, but they show the FF’s static contact patches. The rear patches are slightly larger than the front. ref, “Bob Bondurant on High Performance Driving”, 2nd ed, page 80.

        Bob continues: “And when you hit the brakes, the car’s weight dramatically shifts forward.” (shows next illustration)

        I did find a similar illustration to his here:

        I hope this helps.

      • 0 avatar

        Maybe I was just misinterpreting you. I thought you were claiming that there was simply greater weight transfer because of the rear weight bias, but that wasn’t necessarily implied as I had assumed.

        I did some basic static calculations and determined that:

        Weight Transfer = (Vehicle weight)x(Braking force in g’s)x(Center of gravity height)/Wheelbase

        So, for a 15 foot long 3000 lb car, with a center of gravity height of 18″, braking at 1.0g, the weight transfer is 300 lb, regardless of weight distribution. A front heavy 60/40 (1800lb/1200lb) vehicle ends up at 70/30 (2100lb/900lb) while braking, while a rear heavy 40/60 (1200lb/1800lb) vehicle ends up at 50/50 (1500/1500).

        So while the amount of weight transferred is identical, the rear heavy vehicle certainly does end up with a more favorable distribution under braking, making it less likely to overload the front tires and induce excessive understeer. That agrees with what you originally stated. Even a vehicle with 50/50 weight distribution can get very front heavy under hard braking.

  • avatar

    I wonder if they call him “Twork it” around the office.

  • avatar
    Byron Hurd

    As Jack attested to, the 991 is a forgiving driving companion. It takes a concerted effort to get the PSM to intervene. I got the rear end light in the “Hook” at Summit Point’s Shenandoah circuit multiple times with the S and the PSM never intervened.

    The darker side of the 911 DNA only revealed itself a few times when landing the “ski jump” on the bridge straight. The rear end liked to wiggle in a rather unpleasant manner whenever it came down on anything but perfectly flat pavement.

  • avatar

    “Press strongly on the break”…..then what do you do after it’s broken????

  • avatar

    I thought the hayseed, appleseed dude that pulled out in front of him survived as well as his mechanic. Conspiracies aside wasn’t it pretty well proven he was hauling ass out of the sun and the station wagon looking into the sun didn’t see the small car and BAM! I better check the Wikipedia file.

  • avatar

    I have only driven a 911 several times, a 1970 911S a friend has. I only drove it once with my foot in it on a twisty road. On one particular corner that tightened up more than I anticipated I felt I was very close to the moment when the back in wanted to cut out. My safety-nanny side said lift to slow , my track side said stay in it, I did and it was all ok, but scary. After that I drove it normal, not wanting to wreck the car.

  • avatar

    My ’84 911 really likes to go fast in the corners, but I don’t dare lift off my foot from the gas pedal. If it’s wet, I don’t go fast. I had a few scares here and there, but that’s when I was new to the car. I do have a lot of respect for it though.

  • avatar

    What about all those wrecked Ferraris, Bugattis, Lambos and all the other expensive over-powered crap? Feels like the writer was unhappy about not getting a free test drive in Porsche and off he went.

  • avatar

    The real squirrly 911s were the early 930 Turbos. Owners would drive them into clover leafs and the turbo lag would kick in mid-corner, they would back off the throttle and trailing throttle oversteer would strike hard. Had a business associate get injured bad with this in his 1976 930 back in the day.

  • avatar

    The WSJ really is going to hell in a handbasket.

    The article makes a classic error — it confuses anecdotes with data. Individual examples don’t provide a data pool that can be used to support a broader argument re: cause and effect.

    The article also notes that Porsche claims that it is a non-issue with the later model cars. But then the article continues with the same line of argument as if that point was never raised.

    This would be akin to using Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” as a basis for critiquing the 2013 Mustang. It’s just lazy writing.

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    If I remember correctly, I believe Ms Catsouras left the house in an emotionally compromised state, may have been medicated heavily with psychotropics, and took her father’s car without his permission or knowledge. These factors, probably more than the type of car she was driving, contributed to her untimely and tragic death.

    As far as 911s going the wrong way into hedges, Jeremy Clarkson has probably been the loudest and most consistent in propagating this automotive legacy. He may, based on your theory that Porsche doesn’t mind the “911s are hard” storyline, be on Porsche’s payroll, and has been for the last 20 years or so.

    My old oil and air cooled 911 lacks all the refinements and safety features of the more recent 911s…no PSM, ABS, Traction Control. And I love it just like it is, in all its terribleness. WIll it kill me at its first opportunity? Oh yes. Do I drive it anywhere near 11/10ths? Never. Will I let you drive it at 11/10ths on a track? I’ll ride shotgun.

    • 0 avatar
      Piston Slap Yo Momma

      Hmmmm, don’t know who this “Nikki Catsouras” character is, think I’ll Google for images. (tappity tappity …)

    • 0 avatar

      Does anyone know which model Porsche Girl was driving? From what I can gather, it was a black 2006 Carrera Cabriolet, but the value was stated as $148k, which seems more in line with a Turbo (and would make the accident even more likely since the 18 year old had never driven her father’s car before and was blasting along at over 100mph when she clipped a Honda and plowed into a concrete toll booth). There aren’t even any skidmarks so she must have been, literally, flying in midair prior to impact.

      And the CHP leaked photos of the accident scene (for which the family recently got a $2.37m judgement) make those severed toe photos posted on TTAC look positively Disney.

      • 0 avatar

        The CHP magazine was the goriest thing before the internet came along. I had a subscription just for shock value.

        If you do google Nikki Catsouras, you’ll see her gruesome crash pictures. Just trust, she was beautiful.

    • 0 avatar

      Interesting how the “serve and protect” folks in the California Highway Patrol violated the Catsouras family’s privacy by circulating and leaking the photos of the crash scene.

      • 0 avatar

        I don’t think the CHP realized how out of line they were. When you hang out with individual officers, you’ll find out they see humor in grotesque scenes like Ms. Catsouras’, unfortunately.

        I can’t judge CHP officer’s insensitivity as they do what the rest of us could never stomach. No way! Though, I do see it as a coping mechanism for CHP officers. At some point, you have decide whether to laugh or cry..

      • 0 avatar

        Oh yes, the CHP magazine. It was called ‘Zenith’ and you can find plenty of old copies of it on Ebay…

        Going back to the topic, I remember an issue of Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson was driving a recent Turbo 911 (or some top performance one- I know squat about these cars) and the entire time he is yelling at the top of his lungs, even as he parks it. He stops as soon as he gets out and switches over to- if memory serves me, a Lamborghini Gallardo. I found it amusing (though the part where the elderly lady, a small child and a dog were driving the Gallardo was funny as hell) but Clarkson never was a fan of the 911. He intentionally destroyed an 80’s 911, crashed a 911 in one of his specials in Spain and always makes derisive comments whenever James May or Richard Hammond drives one or even mentions one.

        Dunno, honestly I’ve never really been a fan of them myself, never really captured my interest… there’s just too many other cars I’d rather have then a 911, chief among them is the Nissan Skyline GT-R, much rather have that. However in the Japanese manga/anime Wangan Midnight, the 2 main cars are a S30 Nissan Fairlady Z (Datsun 240Z) with a twin turbo carburated L28 bored out to 3.1 liters, that one is known the ‘Devil Z’ and his rival, a late 80’s 911 Turbo known as the ‘Blackbird’. In the course of the story, the Z got it’s nickname because the car crashes quite a bit whenever it changes hands, as if it’s rejecting the driver, though in reality because it has over 600+ horsepower and it’s difficult to control, whereas the 911 only crashes once, only because the driver (a surgeon) swerves to avoid some drunk guys who wandered in front of him only to find himself in the path of an on-coming bus and he swerves again to avoid that, only to smash into a pole and badly damage the Porsche. He rebuilds it with carbon fiber later on.

  • avatar

    BEST line in the article….

    “The same thing is true for Civics, of course. Why isn’t Chris Brown crashing Civics? Perhaps when his money runs out, he’ll get the chance.”

    No kidding. I KNOW that even the Lincoln I drive with it’s twin turbos can kill me just because I am an idiot. I cannot drive fast and should never do so.

    Driving is a skill and the aster you go and in the more difficult environment, the more you need to know what you are doing.

    Ditto motorbikes. Humans with their stupid on never tire if killing themselves.

  • avatar

    Years ago when the turbocharged, whale-tailed 911s started showing up on these shores, there was a high profile fatal accident in Los Angeles involving a rich young woman and turbo Porsche, maybe on Rodeo Drive. Her family sued Porsche, claiming the car was dangerously fast and also allegedly had a manufacturing defect in the brake pedal. Never seemed to hurt Porsche sales in Cali.

  • avatar

    I once saw the complete set of Ms. Catsouras’ accident on a site called They were really gruesome. Catsouras WAS a very pretty young woman. However, after the accident what was left of her was barely recognizable as a human being. It was that bad.

    A backstory stated that she was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and the tumor was located in the area of the brain responsible for impulse control. Making matters worse was the fact that she had been experimenting with cocaine. Her medical condition and a powerful narcotic stimulant made for an explosive combination.

  • avatar

    I think if Porsche had it’s druthers they wouldn’t be making the 911. The 928 was supposed to be the future but that didn’t work out so well.

    The rear engine is just poor engineering and it’s remarkable that modern tech makes it stable – but when the end of the string is reached, the rear end is coming around and any peace you need to make better be done quickly.

    Anyway, It’s become a large cockroach of a car without charm. The best way to avoid the inevitable would be to buy a Cayman – it’s almost pretty, almost as fast and uses the same cupholder technology.

    If you need rear engine I think there’s a place in Canada that refurbs Tatra’s. If you’re going to go, go in style. Hmm a Tatra with modern traction control…yes.

  • avatar

    A lot of the old time “performance” cars were…….um, “interesting” to drive. I still get cold sweats every time I recall driving a certain big-block Mustang from back in the day.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Certainly, the first generation 911s were not kind to drivers who lost their nerve in a corner and lifted. But neither were VW Beetles. The only saving grace for the “untrained” Beetle driver was that the bad stuff happened at much lower speeds, somewhat reducing the severity of the resulting injuries. But the Beetle typically gave the driver no warning that its limits were being reached in a corner, even when the driver was not lifting or braking.

    Also, the first gen Corvair was not a car you would want to drive in the rain. The second generation car, which had a better rear suspension that controlled tire camber under varying loads much better, was less of a handful.

  • avatar

    It’s real simple.

    You have a bank account.

    It goes to 100

    The bank account is divided between three sub-accounts.


    Put the brake pedal to the floor – the sub-account is at 100, all others are at zero (well if you want to be pedantic maybe its at 90 or 95). You aren’t accelerating and steering is going to be, errr, interesting (modern technology aside that makes it less interesting)

    Put the gas pedal to the floor – the sub-account for acceleration is at 100. Cock the wheel to steer and you’ll see what the world looks like behind you fast, stomp on the brake pedal at the same time and you can pretend you’re in a runaway Toy…oh no, I’m not going there.

    Cock the steering wheel 3/4 of a turn going 50 MPH in a tight, non-banked hair pin and life is going to suck if you hit the gas or brake – that steering sub-account is at 100.

    It’s really, really simple – got to keep those bank accounts balanced.

  • avatar

    Yesterday, bigtruckseriesreviewatwhatever mentioned Nikki Catsouras and today she’s mentioned in Jack’s article. Interesting.

    Having done a GIS on the girl I can honestly say I’ll never look at a plate of spaghetti with marinara sauce the same way again.

  • avatar

    To paraphrase Mr. Nader, some people are dumbasses at any speed. Money and a fast car doesn’t change the dumbass to weight ratio.

  • avatar

    Images show Chris Brown’s Porsche did NOT “leave the road back-asswards.”

    Anecdotal evidence in WSJ equals fail. I’d assume a slow news day.

    Perhaps it’s modern tires or newer Bilsteins, but my old 74 911 has no more tendency to oversteer than my first car – a 73 Camaro. People should actually drive a car before believing in legend.

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