To dream the impossible dream – a Porsche 911

| 23 May 2012

Just back from 10 days in Australia to attend my brother Andrew’s wedding and – perhaps the jetlag has muddled my brain – but I’m still not sure which was the more special moment: seeing my eternal bachelor sibling finally tie the knot to the girl of his dreams in a perfect beach setting, or the day either side of the wedding.

During that time I had the keys to his 1970 911T - before and after its role as a seriously cool set of wheels to whisk the new Mr & Mrs Hurst off for their honeymoon!

Those couple of days seriously turned up the wick on my seemingly un-extinguishable desire to own an example of the late Butzi Porsche’s rear-engined marvel.My brother’s black 2.2 (a UK-delivered car that found its way Down Under in the late ‘70s) may only be a humble T (the carb-fed Touring spec) but it packs plenty of punch for Australia’s speed-restricted tarmac.

And the slightly damped engine (125bhp compared to the 180bhp of the full-fat S variant) still boasts all the character of a true 911, with the famous chainsaw-like growl and cammy persona thrilling in equal measure as the tacho needle winds across the dial.

Fantastic weather and traffic-free, winding roads on a 150km cross country run from New South Wales’ Byron Bay to Mount Tamborine in neighbouring Queensland made for an intoxicating experience that quickly had me addicted to the Porsche’s sling-shot traction out of corners while fuelling my desire to own one of these air-cooled gems.

It’s an urge that developed as a result of a life-long flirt with 911s, thanks to frequent stints behind the wheel of various examples – most recently thanks to a feature pitting a trio of uprated examples (prepared by model specialists Autofarm and Paul Stephens) against one of the most desirable 911 models for C&SC's March 2012 issue.

After sampling three of the finest up-rated ‘retro’ variants in the market I was lucky enough to get behind the ‘wheel of a pukka 1972 2.4S. An unexpected burst of sunshine and a series of roundabouts along the westbound run from the shoot location near Wheathampstead to Weston-on-the-Green in Oxfordshire was sheer motoring nirvana.

That hour behind the wheel left such an impression that, a week on, I found myself engineering a trip to Somerset so I could put myself within arm’s length (if you can call an additional 220 mile round trip arm’s length) of a 1988 911 Targa for sale at a specialist in Plymouth.

A spirited test drive along local B roads (again in perfect weather) very nearly sated my appetite for good, but 15 minutes under the car on a four-post lift – along with some gaps in its service history and illuminating documentation for an insurance claim over flood damage – meant the banker’s draft I’d turned up with stayed in my pocket.

Driving home to London, the frustration at not having the keys to one of Stuttgart’s most famous products was almost overwhelming.

Truth is I’ve been skirting around the prospect ever since acquiring a passion for 911s when my late Dad’s best mate Syd bought one out of the box in 1983.

I was only 13 years old at the time but the sight and sound of his Guards Red 911 being floored down our road whenever he came to hang out with my Dad meant it quickly usurped Magnum PI’s Rosso Corsa Ferrari 308 GTS as my wallpaper car.

I can still recall the trips I made with Syd to his factory across town (where I had a part time job on a Saturday) as he let the flat-six sing on the early morning blasts along Johannesburg’s ring road motorway.

Sun just rising, both windows down, sunroof open… and Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing blaring at near full volume from the cassette player.

Those weekly ‘fixes’ made me an out-and-out fan of the famous Stuttgart shield from then on and Butzi’s shape was only replaced on my cerebra when Porsche created the gorgeous 959, a car I genuinely had as a poster on my bedroom wall when the twin-turbo variant was launched n 1986.

Fast forward 10 years and my first 911 drive, in a mate’s Anniversary model, only cemented my desire as I experienced the colossal traction and sharp steering first hand – with the scream of the flat-six cajoling me to extract ever more speed from my right foot.

Sure a 911 isn’t without its failings: these rear-engined sports cars are known to be tail happy on the limit and punish a driver who backs off out of fear. Paul Frère (surely one of the model’s greatest fans?) once told me that the design of the rear suspension was always a compromise but one that both flawed and sharpened the driving experience.

The 911’s bipolar personality (which became more noticeable as the power got hiked up) is what drove Porsche to develop the front-engined 924 and 928 models.

Both are superb handlers but it’s the 911’s tail-happy character that makes the model such a live wire, one that occasionally drives you and not vice versa.

I never really noticed quite how much until I spent a day driving Chris Sherwood’s awesome 1975 3.0 Turbo. (C&SC, February 2010).

Being an early, 3-litre model it boasts less rear weight bias (thanks to a narrower clutch housing and lower engine mass) and has the bonus of a relatively light body (compared to the beefier looking 3.2-litre cars).

All that – and 260bhp – made it a weapon of note, although the damp roads around the Brecon Beacons (were the shoot took place) made for an illuminating experience on the need to mindful of Turbo lag and the ability of the rear end to ‘bite’.

I guess the development and subsequent evolution of the 911 Turbo is why Porsche had to iron out the 911’s wayward handling as the factory extracted ever more power from the air-cooled icon.

I recall Walter Röhrl remarking, during an interview on the model, that Porsche’s board insisted on the rear suspension being revised for the 993 as they ‘couldn’t afford to have customers going off backwards into the Black Forest anymore’.

But, in the last couple of years, Turbos have become ever further out of my grasp (sub £15k examples being a fast track to motoring bankruptcy) and my sights were lowered back on to the naturally aspirated variant.

And it wasn’t long before I got teased yet again: a former neighbour’s son (a city banker who recently transferred from London to Houston) got in touch late last year for advice on buying a 911.

Roughly the same age as me, Peter had survived the GFC with his job intact but – in the face of global financial uncertainty – thought he’d better fulfil his petrolhead dream sooner than later.

The string of high res shots of a G50 (the desirable post-1987 Getrag gearbox’d version) that turned up in my email inbox only served to whet my appetite further. Especially as his was in Guards Red, sans spoiler or red piping to the upholstery – the latter two seemed de rigueur with any Guards Red example delivered in the UK during the height of the decade of conspicuous consumption.

And a few weeks on the teasing continued during a trip back to my native Cape Town when a best mate of mine handed me the keys to his recently acquired 1983 Convertible.

A two-owner car with just 125,000km (nothing considering the average distances covered in sprawling South Africa) it is a delight to drive with an engine seeming to pack every one of the 231 horses its had from new and sharp controls.

Even the notoriously recalcitrant 915 gearbox isn’t bad, although negotiating second required a degree of precision.

A blast to visit a family friend in nearby Franschhoek (30km from where the 911 is garaged in Stellenbosch) quickly evolved into a 200km round trip over a series of scenic mountain passes with their sweeping bends and sound-reflecting rock faces ramping up the urge to own one of these rear-engined gems all over again…

And the recent couple of days with Andrew’s 2.2T may just push me over the edge soon. What a pity that he truly has met the girl of his dreams, or I might have had the prospect of another nuptial-driven 911 experience Down Under to look forward to!