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Classic Velocity Blog

Porsche Sportomatic: Visionary or Delusionary?

Classic Velocity

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Nobody asked for this. Not in a Porsche. Not in 1967. Some say that this was the emerging influence of Sales and Marketing. Some say it was just being responsive to US customers who had to deal with traffic, and who were lumbering along in high gears at low revs. Some say it was preparing for an inevitable full automatic (Porsche did call it an Automatic). Regardless, it was a relatively surprising option for the Porsche 911 in 1968.  The idea was pretty simple. Allow shifting without using a clutch. Eliminate that pesky third pedal. This was not born out of an avalanche of complaints about coordinating the clutch pedal. There was no such barrage, at least not from 911 owners. Porsche was not losing sales to Corvette because people did not want to change gears. Porsche was doing quite well.

From an engineering standpoint, this was interesting stuff. Developed by Fichtel and Sachs, the gear lever actuated a switch, which operated a vacuum servo, which operated the clutch. A torque converter prevented stalling (along with  the choke/throttle handle between the seats) and allowed the driver to start in any gear. There were 4 forward speeds labeled L, D, D3, and D4. There was also a "Park" setting which fixed a countershaft gear in position. Operation was often described as odd or quirky. The lever was sensitive to touch, and to drive in a sporting manner, you needed to keep your hand suspended above the lever. This gearbox would be fine in a VW beetle or a Karmann Ghia, but not efficient in a pure flagship sports car.  Period Porsche literature described the gears as follows :

 L (Low): For ascending and descending steep grades or for slush, mud and snow.

D (Drive): Normal driving from 0-60 miles per hour. For rapid acceleration, the transmission can be shifted through all ratios like a typical manual transmission.

D3 & D4: For highway cruising. D4 is essentially overdrive, while D3 can be used for passing and downshifting under braking.

P (Park): This is necessary since due to the torque converter there is no mechanical link between the engine and transmission.

R (Reverse): Acts as it would in an automatic. It can only be selected if the car is at a complete stop. Slight increase in engine speed may be necessary to actually move the car.

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The press was mixed. Car and Driver said "So we’re unhappy. And we’re unhappy be­cause the 911 is still something of a stan­dard for judging roadholding and ultimate cornering ability."   Road and Track liked the speed of shifting, but thought the car sounded like "A GM City Bus".  Sports Car Graphic said "Putting an automatic transmission in a Porsche is like artificial insemination: it's no fun anymore."  Motor Trend said "We'll agree with Porsche that the Sportomatic is easier to shift......But do Porschephiles resent shifting?" Motor was more positive, stating "...it doesn't detract at all from the pleasures of fast driving on twisty roads....easy to drive for those who spend a large time motoring in particularly dull conditions.." Autosport indicated that "It has proved unexpectedly popular in Europe...Only an idiot would attempt to compare the Sportomatic with the five-speed box.."

In 1972, the Sportomatic was strengthened by using the type 925 with a case similar to the 915. In 1975 it was reduced to 3 speeds and strengthened once again. It remained an offering until 1979 when full automatics were offered. Of course today, a semi-automatic transmission is common even in economy cars. Porsche went on to develop Tiptronic, and PDK, while paddle shifting is now acknowledged as the fastest means to get from one gear to the next for any marque, and in F1 at the pinnacle of Motorsport. When looked at in that light, the answer to the question that nobody asked, is now the best answer to the question of how to shift.