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Happy 50th, Porsche! You barely look a day over 1963

Visitors view a classic Porsche 911 sportscar at the Porsche Fest in the Autotron in Rosmalen, The Netherlands, 07 September 2013. The eve...
Visitors view a classic Porsche 911 sportscar at the Porsche Fest in the Netherlands. The 911 is the best known car of the German manufacturer Porsche.SANDER KONING / EPA

The timeless Porsche turns 50 this week – ancient in car years – but the iconic sports car barely shows its age.

The German maker’s 911 is marking the occasion at the Frankfurt Motor Show with a special anniversary edition – a limited run of the 1963 version to honor the year it made its debut.

What’s unusual about the sports car’s longevity is that despite the changes made under the skin and to the interior, today’s Porsche 911 maintains the same basic exterior profile of the original.

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When given the challenge of designing the latest, seventh-generation model, designer Michael Mauer recognized there were serious limits confronting him. While he was asked to come up with something distinctive for the seventh-generation, he knew that a radical redesign simply “wouldn’t be a 911.” That meant maintaining the car’s distinctive silhouette, starting with the long hood, bulging headlamps, “flyline” roof, and, of course, its rear-engine layout.

That didn’t mean standing still. The Gen-7 model, introduced in 2012, was a wee bit lower, wider and longer than the previous model, more aerodynamic and – defying conventional wisdom – both more powerful and about 16 percent more fuel-efficient.

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FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 11: . Visitors look Porsche 911 cars at the IAA international automobile show on September 11, 2013 in Frankfu...
Visitors look Porsche 911 cars at the IAA international automobile show in Frankfurt, Germany.Thomas Lohnes / Getty Images

Not all changes have gone without controversy. Porsche fanatics raised a fuss when the maker abandoned the time-tested air-cooled 911 engine in 1998 for a more modern water-cooled powertrain. But the 911’s distinctive rear-mounted engine layout remains.

Since its introduction in 1963, Porsche reports that it has sold 820,000 911s. The design for the iconic automobile was sketched out by Ferdinand “Butzi” Porsche in 1959, intended to serve as the replacement for the company’s original 356 model. 

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Delivered to showrooms in early 1964, the car was going to be called the Porsche 901, but the German manufacturer had to make a quick change when French automaker Peugeot raised a fuss because it claimed a monopoly on using “0” in the middle of three numbers.

A year after the European launch, the first 911 reached the U.S., incidentally, going for a then-pricey $6,500. The base Porsche 911 Carrera model today carries an MSRP of $83,050. However, few motorists get out of the showroom for that price: Porsche makes almost every feature an option, which rapidly drives up the price.

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And the 911 is really a family of variants, including models such as the all-wheel-drive Carrera 4S and the top-line turbo, with a base price of $138,450.

The 911 50th Anniversary Edition will be offered in two unique colors, a light grey metallic and a dark graphite. It will also feature a “two-tone 3D-effect” badge on the rear marking it a “911 50” edition. The front-drive model meanwhile shares the wider body Porsche otherwise reserves for all-wheel-drive 911 models. The anniversary edition will be available in the U.S. for $124,100.

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Will the Porsche 911 reach 75 and, or perhaps 100? Considering the tough new regulations facing the auto industry – especially those covering emissions and mileage – it will certainly be a challenge. But the maker has shown uncanny at adapting to technical hurdles.

Indeed, alongside the 911 50th anniversary model, Porsche is showing off the new 918 Spyder at the Frankfurt Motor Show. It’s an $845,000 plug-in hybrid supercar that can launch from 0 to 60 in just 3.1 seconds but which is rated at 78 mpg.

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There was a time, incidentally, when the 911 was pretty much it for Porsche, but today, the maker offers many models, including several that caused a kerfuffle among traditionalists – the sport-utility Cayenne and the four-door Panamera.

While the 911 is no longer the brand’s best-seller, it is the company’s icon and rated among the most popular of the German maker’s offerings. In the 1999 international balloting for the Car of the Century, the Porsche 911 came in fifth – behind the Model T and the Volkswagen Beetle which just happens to trace its own roots to the Porsche family.