AMERICAN Want to see America via the windscreen of a Porsche? Of course you do, and so did Aussie travellers, Stewart and Ross Perry. To live the dream, they bought a Carrera 3.2, sight unseen, and set off for the trip of a lifetime. Not even an engine re
The short story: two Aussies – that's me, Stewart Perry and my mate, Ross Perry – buy a Porsche Carrera 3.2 unseen in America, for a very long driving adventure. Here's how it panned out!
Ross and I were greeted by a line snaking through the door of Long Beach DMV (Dept of Motor Vehicles). Our taxi driver commented “it’s always like this, recently took me five hours” – the last thing we needed after enduring an overnight economy flight from Melbourne to Los Angeles. Amere four hours later, I emerged triumphant with a permit allowing us to drive to Kingman, Arizona. Less stringent registration requirements, the offer of a permit for non-residents with no local address, and the chance to avoid hefty Californian sales tax made registering the car there the obvious choice.
Next stop was the CARS USA warehouse, where the 911 had been hibernating since purchase. It looked exactly like I expected: a neat original Iris Blue 1985 911 3.2 Carrera, with a few little chips and marks, and just over 103,000 miles on the clock. I bought the car sight-unseen via the well-known Porsche forum Pelican Parts. A pre-purchase inspection by a third party was reassuring, but nonetheless it was a relief to see it in the flesh.
I knew in advance the battery was dead, so we had one waiting at the auto parts store around the corner. Once installed, the Porsche fired straight away, sending a disturbing cloud of oil smoke wafting through the warehouse. But especially after sitting for months, old 911s have a reputation for blowing smoke on start-up and it seemed to vanish within a few miles.
Driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road after nearly 30-hours awake was always going to be a challenge, doubly so at rush hour while getting used to the insane merges and eight-lane interchanges LA freeways are famous for. I battled a little with shifting the baulky 915 gearbox with my unaccustomed right hand, but armed with basic directions and a dodgy map Ross directed us unscathed to our Airbnb accommodation in Venice Beach, a quirky little pool house a short stroll from the ocean.
Re-energised, next day we began our sightseeing by heading inland to the worldrenowned Nethercutt Collection – an assembly of more than 250 mainly pre-war luxury cars, including an abundance of former Pebble Beach winners, all restored in-house and in pristine order. The public are free to roam the museum, but the best of the collection is housed across the road, only viewed as part of a tour which requires prebooking. The centrepiece is the Grand Salon, a chandelier-lit sea of marble built to resemble the ultra-luxury car showrooms of the ’20s and ’30s and showcasing thirty of the best and rarest cars of the era.
As the tour winds its way up four levels, the focus isn’t only cars; amongst other collectibles is a vast array of mechanical music players, all still functional. Many are enthusiastically demonstrated for the audience, particularly impressive being a German-made Orchestrion from around 1900, a completely mechanised automatic orchestra housed in an ornate cabinet.
Back on the Venice foreshore we strolled amidst a vibrant mix of locals and tourists. Giving the tacky souvenir shops a wide berth, we found a cosy bar and sampled our first craft beers and burgers of the trip – set to become a recurring theme.
Day two in LA saw us take iconic Mulholland Drive for a roundabout journey to the Pomona swap meet to check out the vast array of cars and parts for sale, mostly American models from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Next stop was the Getty Center art museum, perched atop a hill and boasting architecture just as imposing as the accompanying superb view of the coastline below. Its varied and fascinating collection of artworks across the centuries could not quite dispel our unease at the intermittent puffs of oil smoke emanating from the 911’s exhaust as we idled in the queue to the car park. Disappointingly,
the cruise home on Sunset Boulevard cemented our concern. It became obvious the 911 was not happy, down on power, and running rough.
As a result, we found ourselves first thing the following morning in the car park of the local O’reilly Auto Parts, engine lid up and newly purchased spark plug spanner in hand. Immediately, we could see cylinders 3 and 6 were burning the bulk of the oil, and our power loss and uneven running had likely been caused by cylinder 6’s spark plug being bridged out with carbon build-up. With new plugs installed and a litre of extra oil in the dry sump tank, we crossed our fingers and set off, bound for Las Vegas.
The further we got into Nevada, the hotter it became – unsurprising of course, but all too noticeable in what proved to be the absence of a working air-conditioner. However, the car was running nicely on the highway, despite continuing to use oil, and we spent most of the 300-mile drive to Kingman cruising at 80mph while being overtaken by many locals with less regard for the speed limit than us. Our concerns about another horrific wait at the road transport authority were unfounded. The Arizona Department of Transport team had us out in only 15 minutes, with our 90-day non-resident registration allowing us to drive legally for the rest of the trip, and all for $15!
In fading sunlight, we finally cruised down the famous Las Vegas Strip to the Monte Carlo Hotel, our home away from home for the next couple of nights.
Next morning, prior to heading out for a spectacular scenic flight over the Grand Canyon and Hoover dam, I dropped the 911 off to Las Vegas Porsche specialists ‘Carl’s Place’ to have the oil swapped over to a Brad Penn 20W50 – apparently successful in stemming oil consumption according to the experiences of other 911 owners whose cars had been sitting for some time. Naturally, during the day and a half it was at the shop the car didn’t blow any smoke at all, but as soon as I fired it up to leave we were again in a blue haze.
Having picked up yet more oil and a number-plate frame to mount our permit more unobtrusively, we hit the road again, setting a course for Mammoth Lakes via the Death Valley National Park. Descending into the Valley, the temperature rose, and rose, and rose again. Stopping for a sandwich at the aptly named Furnace Creek General Store, the roadside thermometer showed 116 degrees F (46.5 deg C) and the adjacent sign informed us we were 190 feet below sea level.
It was a journey that offered stark contrasts, passing from the sea of arid sand broken up by little green shrubs of the Nevada Desert to the total desolation of Death Valley, emerging into green valleys surrounded by tall hills near Lone Pine and finally some serious mountains. In all, we climbed almost 8000 feet that afternoon.
Continuing the following day via Yosemite National Park (more stunning scenery that really deserved a longer look) and Oakdale (lunch and a further critical oil top up) we drove through a glorious afternoon to arrive at Pebble Beach. Here we set up camp at Laguna Seca raceway, to experience Monterey’s ‘Ultimate Car Week’.
The Week offers something for everyone, and for all budgets. The highlight for us was ‘The Quail – Amotorsports Gathering’, an intimate 200-car show centred on ’50s and ’60s sports and racing cars (including a class for pre-’65 Porsches, though these features vary each year). With very limited tickets sold, inclusive of amazing food and drinks, it was far from crowded. On the same day, two miles down the road, we also dropped in on the ‘Werks Reunion’, a free event with 1500 Porsches on show.
Laguna Seca Motorsports reunion provided yet another great day out. A feature race celebrating 50 years of the Shelby GT350 saw almost 40 ’65 and ’66 Shelbys hit the track, including one all the way from back home in Australia! This was followed by a race of Le Mans and GT cars from the ’80s and ’90s, backed up by a sports car race with
Porsche 935s against big block, wide body C3 Corvettes… You get the idea.
Car Week festivities culminate on Sunday with the Pebble Beach Concours d’elegance. Ross and I left our Porsche in the back-blocks and jumped on the shuttle bus. As we descended the steps, the vista of the bay spread before us, with a light fog hiding a couple of mega-yachts; a few steps further on, the cars appeared, a sea of beautiful prewar machines, encircled by a line of coachbuilt Ferraris and a smattering of other exotica. But all good things must come to an end, and it was time for us to revert to more general sightseeing around San Francisco Bay.
With oil consumption unabated, or rather worsening, we were fearful for the health of the 911’s engine, so first stop was to deliver it to Don Wise’s Autowerks in San Jose for a compression and leak down test to diagnose the root cause.
Jumping into a hired Toyota Yaris, we headed off to catch a pre-booked ferry for Alcatraz Island. A short walk up the hill from the dock is the infamous cell block. Audio guides with commentary recorded by former guards and prisoners steer visitors around the site and recount intriguing true stories of daring escape attempts. It was also fascinating to learn about the Native American occupation of the island for 19 months from 1969–1971, part of an ultimately successful land rights protest.
Back on the mainland we ascended the Coit Tower for 360 degree views of the area, before walking across town for a closer look at the famous Lombard Street, which boasts eight hairpin bends in only one block. Then on to Fisherman’s Wharf for a freshly caught dinner before crossing the massive span of the Golden Gate, north to San Rafael, our base for the duration of this leg of our holiday.
The next day began with a quick stop at the renowned Cable Car Museum, which also houses the maintenance workshop and cable powerhouse. The museum explains the importance of this iconic mode of transport to the development of San Francisco, as well as the dramatic story behind its survival in the face of a number of government shut down attempts.
Continuing the historical theme, we checked out the Computer History Museum in Mountain View – admittedly chosen mainly for its convenient location for reclaiming the Porsche, but unexpectedly fascinating and worthy of a longer visit. This amazing collection contains everything from a Babbage Difference Engine to a working IBM 1401 – an early mainframe launched in 1959 – which volunteers have spent 20,000 hours restoring to running condition.
About 3:30pm the call came in. “Not good news I’m afraid,” Don told me. The valve guides in my engine were completely worn out, with significant leak down on cylinder no 3; the only course of action would be a top end rebuild. Noting that he couldn’t do it for at least a month, Don suggested names of good Porsche technicians in Portland – our next destination.
Nothing for it in the meantime but to continue with our itinerary as best we could. Next morning we drove out to the Napa Valley, nursing the sickly Porsche. We were taken aback at how many wineries wanted hefty fees for tastings, but a quick Google