The numbers 9,1, and 1 in succession may have some unsettling connotations for most people, but for car enthusiasts, they represent something great. The Porsche 911 is one of those rare cars that defines a brand, in this case one of the most respected and enduring makers of sports cars.
But the 911 wasn’t always the 911. Porsche’s flagship was originally called the 901, and debuted under that name at the 1963 Frankfurt Motor Show. The car was a hit at Porsche’s home show, and the company promised to start production the following year. Around 80 preproduction 901s were built, before Porsche received a letter from Peugeot.
The French automaker argued that it had exclusive rights to car names consisting of three numbers with a zero in the middle. Indeed, Peugeot still uses that naming scheme to this day. Porsche had already ordered a mess of metal 9s, 0s, and 1s for the cars’ badges, and didn’t want them to go to waste. So it changed “901” to “911,” and the rest is history.
As for how Porsche ended up with a three-digit name in the 900-range, that part of the story is a bit more complicated. It’s been said that Porsche chose the name 901 because the car was the 901st project of the Porsche company since it was founded in 1930. But the true answer may be a bit more prosaic.
A recent article in the Porsche-centric magazine Excellence claims it was actually because Porsche needed to make its parts-numbering system compatible with Volkswagen’s. Porsche and VW are joined at the hip today, but that process was just beginning in the early 1960s. As it worked to integrate its operations with Volkswagen, Porsche needed to start assigning part numbers that fit into VW’s inventory system. The only numbers available were in the 900 series, according to the article.
At any rate, Porsche kept the handful of 901-badged cars it had already built as demonstrators, and some eventually made their way into customers’ hands. Porsche recently completed a three-year restoration of the 57th car, which was unearthed by a German television show in 2014. Now displayed in the Porsche museum, Number 57 is the oldest 901/911 in the company’s possession.