Driving the Modern Interpretation of the Famed Yellowbird

Story by Johan Dillen • Photography by Dirk de Jager

In Pfaffenhausen, South Germany, you’ll find a church. On one side resides the local Storchen brewery, a place that has provided for many a pleasant evening in this small, picturesque town. But the most powerful tales come from the other side of the church, where Aloïs Ruf laid the foundation for Ruf Automobile.

This is the exact place where my father, 80 years ago, decided to open up a local repair workshop and a filling station,” explains Aloïs Ruf Jr. “I was born in the house behind the petrol station.

That was shortly before the war broke out,” he continues. “Real activities only started after the war, but at that time everything was scarce: money, raw materials. The whole economy was based on bartering: ‘If you can fix this for me, I’ll give you 15 eggs’ and so forth.”

Ruf’s ties to Porsche started with two simple iron bars set down in the garage. “Do you see these two bars, son?” the senior Ruf asked. “Next year, they will form the basis of a tour bus.” Right on schedule, one year later that bus had materialized, and Ruf Sr. began taking the locals on Sunday tours, on their only day o, work.

On one of those trips, our relationship with Porsche took form,” his son explains. “A bad form at first, because a red Porsche 356 crashed just in front of the bus. My father got out and suggested he take the wreck to the garage. He paid a small price for the wreck and set to work restoring it.

The result was beautiful. And so others thought as well, because one day we took the car on a trip to Munich and someone started chasing my father on foot in the streets, yelling, ‘Please, sell me this car now!’ So my father pulled over and they discussed. Afterwards, my father told us he had never made so much money in one day.”

The 911 Link

Aloïs Ruf is one of the finest raconteurs you will ever meet. Charming and mild, he’s actually the complete opposite of the products he turns out. Yet here is the man responsible for Ruf’s transition from local garage to maker of mythical 911s.

“I have devoted my life to the 911,” he says. “In 1964, I heard and saw a 911 for the first time. Ever since, I have felt a love for that car.”

That love hasn’t been a secret, though. When “Gran Turismo” launched for the PlayStation console in 1997, Porsche had already licensed its name exclusively to another game maker. But series creator Kazunori Yamauchi came up with a clever way to get some Porsches in the sim’s lineup: He used Ruf versions. The little-known manufacturer suddenly became a household name among millions of gamers.

But, of course, Ruf was already well known among car enthusiasts thanks to the brand’s original CTR. In 1987, Road & Track had organized a speed test at the 15.5-mile-long Volkswagen test track at Ehra Lessien in Germany. The magazine staff, linked two 7-mile straights with a pair of fast, banked corners.

The idea was to seek the highest top speed. The field included the Ferrari 288 GTO, Lamborghini Countach and Porsche 959. But the very yellow car from Ruf is the one that drew all the attention.

The CTR was based on a 911 Carrera, but twin-turbocharging upped power to 469 horsepower. Because of its color, the photographers quickly nicknamed it Yellow Bird.

The name stuck, and at the end of the day the Ruf CTR topped every other competitor. It comfortably broke the 200-mph barrier with a top speed of 211 mph in the hands of Phil Hill and Paul Frère. Later on, the Yellowbird went faster still: 213 mph.

The Yellowbird legend was sealed with some very sideways driving on the Nordschleife in the hands of Ruf test driver Stefan Roser; it’s still one of the most impressive Nordschleife videos on YouTube. Despite all of the attention, Ruf sold only 29 copies of the CTR.

Happy Birthday

In 2017, the 30th birthday of the CTR approached. “This was the right moment for us to take a new turn with the company,” Ruf recalls.

Not once does he utter a word of criticism concerning Porsche, but he knew that his longtime partner wouldn’t be able to supply the donor car: “When the 911 Turbo came out, we knew this would no longer be a suitable basis for our products. The car is just too heavy. On top of that, we don’t know, nor have any influence on, what Porsche will do enginewise in the future. We did not want to be dependent on that for our own future.”

What Ruf came up with involved building a new car from scratch–and remember, this is basically a small-town garage with just 68 employees restoring, maintaining and selling cars from Ruf and Porsche. This tiny constructor came up with a car that should draw praise from every sports car manufacturer in the world on one basis alone: power-to-weight ratio. The new CTR Yellowbird–officially the Anniversary Edition–hauls an astonishing 3.73 pounds per horsepower. The latest 911 Turbo carries about 7.5 pounds per horsepower.

The investment for Ruf was gigantic, somewhere in the region of $10 to $13 million. “I was thinking about my father showing me those two iron bars whilst we were thinking about the new CTR,” Ruf recalls. “If he could pull that off, I knew we would be able to bring this to a good end as well.”

Nearly all is carbon: not just the body, but there’s a carbon monocoque underneath as well. An integrated steel roll cage linking all the way to the rear subframe is hidden from view but significantly improves stiffness. The suspension is pure racing, with double wishbones all around and horizontally placed, inboard shocks.

The engine sounds familiar, but this biturbo 3.6-liter is completely Ruf’s own work. It was inspired by Porsche’s Mezger engine, the flat-six designed by Hans Mezger and found in countless air-cooled 911s as well as the company’s GT3 and GT1 race cars.

On Ruf’s dyno, it showed 649 lb.-ft. torque between 2750 and 4000 rpm, along with 645 horsepower at 6500 rpm. “For us, torque is most important to get a very drivable engine,” Ruf continues. “And a torquey engine will always be a powerful engine as well, but we never work with a horsepower target.” Even the seven-speed manual is not a Porsche gearbox, but built at the special request of Ruf by ZF.

A giant difference between this latest Ruf and the cars offered today by Porsche: weight. The new CTR weighs just 2645 pounds, nearly 600 pounds less than the 911 GT2 RS–the mightiest 911 variant offered lately, at 700 horsepower.

“In my view, you just can’t compensate weight, no matter how many horsepower you throw at it,” Ruf says, without mentioning Porsche. That GT2 RS, though, is quicker to 60 mph: 2.7 seconds versus less than 3.5. (Don’t forget, though: While the Ruf features a traditional six-speed manual, the GT2 RS receives a two-pedal PDK setup.)

The Ruf wins the top speed contest, however, as it can reach 224 mph. The factory Porsche hotrod tops out at 211 mph.

Purest of 911 Shapes

For the shape, Aloïs Ruf wanted to go back to what he sees as the purest 911 form: smaller and with the upright headlights. To realize his vision, he turned to Freeman Thomas, father of the first Audi TT and Volkswagen New Beetle–“and a friend of the house,” Ruf tells us.

Thomas managed to create a shape that is instantly recognizable, yet modernized. “We see the CTR as a car that could be a member of the modern 911 family,” Ruf explains.

The new CTR is only slightly bigger than the 1987 version, the longer wheelbase visually compensated by larger door openings toward the front. By avoiding overly pronounced rear wheel arches and featuring a discreet fixed rear spoiler (compared to the mounted dinner tables that you’ll currently find on Porsches), the new CTR exudes a finesse we somehow lost in the modern 911. This Ruf shows there is no need for sports cars to be as wide as we know them today.

Back in Time

The car for which Ruf throws us the keys is 001: the development prototype. “I wanted this car to be a discovery for its owners,” Ruf tells us, “easily accessible but you have to go through a learning process to fully exploit it.” Those words would be ringing loudly by the time we finished our test drive, heart beating wildly, eyes twice their usual size. What is this thing?

Getting in means stepping back in time. The familiar setup features only analog dials, with the big rev counter in the middle showing an extravagant 8500 rpm redline. The carbon seats are clad in leather and an oh-so-’70s patterned cloth. You sit upright behind the wheel, but very comfortably at the same time.

In a way, we’re lucky it’s raining when we get behind the wheel and fire up the familiar-sounding flat-six. It reins us in. Fortunately, Ruf is testing Dunlops instead of the semi-slick Michelin Pilot Sport Cups the car normally wears.

As long as we don’t do anything stupid, the car is easy to come to grips with. But with the skies clearing and the roads drying, it’s time to get to know the real CTR.

And, wow, is it mind-blowing. With full gas, the boost gauge goes off the clock. The engine howls diabolically as the car shoots toward the horizon. Speeds are ridiculous.

The in-gear acceleration is just silly. This feels more like a Group C prototype than a road car. Come off the throttle and you’ll hear the wastegate hiss.

As is often the case with carbon brakes, there is little feel in the pedal, but the stopping power is present. The lightness of the Yellowbird shows, and not just at speed: During corner work it turns out to be just as brilliant. We can trace razor-sharp lines through the turns, and the light nose responds instantly to the steering input. We find ourselves operating the wheel with just the slightest of movements.

There is a strange imbalance between the delicacy with which you steer the Yellowbird and the incredible level of performance it offers. It is a cross-country missile, but a friendly one. “A Ruf must feel like a glove for the owner,” Mr. Ruf says. This one comes straight from that book.

Now for the bad news: This kind of exclusivity sets you back close to $1 million. And the production is completely sold out.

Originally, the plan was to make just 29 copies, but they sold out so quickly that original CTR owners were left in the cold. To give them the chance to acquire a new Yellowbird as well, production was upped to 50 cars.

If you look at the value of older Ruf cars, it seems the new CTR will only become more valuable as time goes by. The good news: The chassis will also form the basis of the upcoming SCR, a less powerful but also less costly model. “We intend to produce 10 to 15 SCRs per year,” Ruf says, “for as long as the demand is there.” We’d say they can plan on that demand continuing.

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