THE LONG GAME

33 years in the mak­ing, John Ben­tonʼs un­der­stated but gi­ant-killing 912 hot-rod is still find­ing new bound­aries to push

Classic Porsche - - Contents - Words: Alex Grant Pho­tos: Andy Tip­ping

This 912 was 33 years in the mak­ing, but it was worth the wait

ʻFor years and years, my pri­mary con­cern was how well a car could per­form,ʼ ex­plains John Ben­ton, smirk­ing as he re­lives the process that led him into Porsche own­er­ship. ʻAs a young man, I did­nʼt have a lot of money, so that was my pri­mary con­cern – go­ing fast, and brak­ing just as well.ʼ

Itʼs a fa­mil­iar story for young en­thu­si­asts, but thereʼs a twist in the tale here. While most us go through those early hot-rod­ding days in a string of never-quite-fin­ished project cars be­fore mov­ing onto a keeper, John found his al­most straight away. While itʼs fol­lowed him through 33 years of life changes and a num­ber of dif­fer­ent looks, the process thatʼs got this ʼ68 912 where it is to­day is­nʼt en­tirely un­fa­mil­iar – be­cause itʼs not fin­ished yet.

ʻThis was my daily driver – the only car I had – for many years,ʼ he re­calls. ʻI spent my wed­ding and hon­ey­moon in it, and it brought both of my kids home from hos­pi­tal. Fam­ily and work things hap­pened in the late Nineties, and it was kinda rest­ing in the back yard un­til the turn of the cen­tury. I got up one morn­ing and de­cided to bring her back to life as a street ma­chine for carv­ing canyons in Cal­i­for­nia.ʼ

That im­pul­sive de­ci­sion was a for­ma­tive one. An en­gi­neer by back­ground, those early mod­i­fi­ca­tions had been based

around a love of dis­cov­er­ing what made the 912 tick, and de­sign­ing ways to make it per­form bet­ter. In 2005, as ʻMein12ʼ was evolv­ing into what it is to­day, John turned his hobby into a ca­reer, open­ing his own shop – Ben­ton Per­for­mance – in Or­ange County, Cal­i­for­nia. Spe­cial­is­ing in 1949–1969 Porsches, but with an open door for any­thing air-cooled, itʼs meant oth­ers can ben­e­fit from his hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence with those ear­li­est cars.

Itʼs a style de­fined by that first build, he ex­plains: ʻOut­wardly thereʼs noth­ing ob­vi­ous or spe­cial about this car for the av­er­age per­son to spot, but take a few min­utes if youʼre a Porsche guy and youʼll see things that are dif­fer­ent. Itʼs a plat­form for test­ing ideas – we ded­i­cate our time to mak­ing these cars vi­able in the mod­ern world.ʼ

Start­ing with a 912 might sound like an un­der­dog, but the four-cylin­der 911 has plenty in its favour if you know how to build on it. What it lacked in power it made up for in weight – not only in terms of equip­ment and trim pieces, but by hav­ing two cylin­ders and less bulk hang­ing out be­yond the rear axle. Even so, as John lifts the deck­lid on the num­bers­match­ing 616 en­gine, itʼs pleas­ing to see the urge for a cou­ple more cylin­ders has­nʼt taken over at some point dur­ing the last three decades.

Heʼs quick to dis­miss the idea that he ever would: ʻFor ten years this was a stripped down light­weight roll-caged club racer. I was in­volved with the Porsche Own­ersʼ Club here in Cal­i­for­nia and suc­cess­fully cam­paigned this car for a few years. I had a re­ally good time mow­ing down cars with a lot more horse­power,ʼ he laughs.

Even so, thereʼs a lot here that a Porsche en­gi­neer of the

“JOHN TURNED HIS HOBBY INTO A CA­REER…”

late 1960s would­nʼt recog­nise. Shar­ing an en­gine with the of­ten-raced 356 helped, but much of what makes this car tick was de­signed in-house. Over­bored to 1.7 litres with larger 86mm pis­tons, itʼs run­ning light­weight con­rods and a knifeedged crank de­signed in-house to help it rev more freely, while a be­spoke Ecu-con­trolled twin-spark ig­ni­tion sys­tem and elec­tronic fuel-in­jec­tion of­fer mod­ern car re­li­a­bil­ity.

The per­fect car for those canyon roads, then? John nods: ʻItʼs got a race car feel – the power band starts at 3800rpm and peaks at 7200rpm. This was built to drive fast in slow places. The case has fol­lowed me through var­i­ous it­er­a­tions,

but the en­gine has al­ways been a work in progress, Iʼm con­stantly ex­plor­ing dif­fer­ent av­enues to in­crease per­for­mance and longevity.ʼ

Thereʼs no short­age of clues to its track-bred past else­where, and most are drawn from Porscheʼs own parts cat­a­logue. The short­throw gear shifter could be paired with one of three dif­fer­ent 901 trans­mis­sions, in­clud­ing a short-ra­tio ʼbox for week­end slaloms, and thereʼs a lim­ited-slip dif­fer­en­tial to help put the power down more ef­fec­tively.

In a sim­i­lar vein, it has three sets of steel wheels, with rub­ber to suit dif­fer­ent road and track use, and none give the game away. Fac­tory-spec 912 steel wheels with wider rims

“THE PER­FECT CAR FOR THOSE CANYON ROADS, THEN?”

meant John could fine-tune the off­set to get them po­si­tioned per­fectly flush with the body­work, with the added bonus of more choice in race or sports tyres to wrap them in. Be­hind them, a 911SC has do­nated its ven­ti­lated brake discs and larger-bore mas­ter cylin­der. As youʼd ex­pect, ev­ery part of the puz­zle was care­fully se­lected.

ʻItʼs all stuff Porsche has done, or could have done. Iʼve changed the stance a bit on Koni ad­justa­bles and ad­justable spring plates, but I left the tor­sion bars alone as it suited my driv­ing style. Itʼs also run­ning a strut bar in the front with 19mm sway bars – they are a bit big for this kerb weight, but I like the way it works.ʼ

Given the sim­plic­ity of what you can see, itʼs hardly sur­pris­ing that whatʼs un­der­neath catches peo­ple out. A com­bi­na­tion of Cal­i­for­nian cli­mate and a life­time un­der one owner kept rot and dam­age at bay, and in turn all bar one of the pan­els and ev­ery piece of ex­te­rior trim – even down to the badge – are what it left the fac­tory with.

Johnʼs eye for tiny de­tails is such that youʼd need to be an ex­pert to spot whatʼs changed here, such as the wipers which now park on the pas­sen­ger side in­stead of in front of the driver, and the thicker 911S trim on the sills.

Even this has a pur­pose, he ex­plains: ʻSome might think itʼs blas­phe­mous, but I like the way the S trim pro­tects the

“EV­ERY PART WAS CARE­FULLY SE­LECTED…”

side of the car and dresses it up – putting it all around would have looked thick and bul­bous so Iʼve left the front and rear stan­dard. A cou­ple of times Iʼve mashed things, but Iʼve been able to re­move the trim and fit a new piece, and itʼs been as good as new.ʼ

Built mainly for road use, and al­ready light­weight, there was­nʼt much need to strip the in­te­rior down to bare metal. In­stead, itʼs a pe­ri­od­cor­rect mix of parts done with a hint of Sports Pur­pose – wool velour car­pet from the early 911S, with seats mim­ick­ing the buck­ets fit­ted to the RS. As a nod to the ʻEle­phant Hideʼ wrin­kled vinyl fit­ted in 1968, the seats and door pan­els are trimmed in a heav­ier-grain vinyl than the 912 would have had – both are right for the year this was built, and donʼt add un­nec­es­sary weight.

Iʼm quickly get­ting a sense that John likes ev­ery de­tail to be per­fect, even if it means swap­ping parts be­fore go­ing for a drive: ʻI have a few dif­fer­ent steer­ing wheels,ʼ he laughs. ʻThis Pro­totipo is a driver ʼs wheel, Iʼve got a Nardi but thatʼs more of a gloved wheel – I like that a lot, but itʼs del­i­cate, a skinny band of wood de­serves a glove. Bare handed is­nʼt proper.ʼ

Which might mean this 33year pur­suit of per­fec­tion never quite gets to the point where itʼs fin­ished. But by dis­cov­er­ing new so­lu­tions to old prob­lems, then in­vest­ing that knowl­edge in cus­tomer cars, Johnʼs love of push­ing the bound­aries can only be a good thing for Cal­i­for­ni­aʼs al­ready di­verse Porsche scene. Long may it con­tinue. CP

“JOHN LIKES EV­ERY DE­TAIL TO BE PER­FECT…”

Above: Out­side his Or­ange County work­shop, John’s 912 sits slightly lower than stock, run­ning Koni sus­pen­sion and ad­justable spring-plates

Be­low left: Pe­riod bucket seats and Pro­totipo wheel give the 912 a touch of the fac­tory Sports Pur­pose look

Be­low right: Tacho red-lined at 7000–8000rpm, and with ro­tated dial hints that all is not stock in the en­gine bay…

Above: Ex­cept to the trained eye, there are few hints as to the 912’s true char­ac­ter. The ‘MEIN 12’ li­cence plate is a nice touch

Top: Widened steel wheels run cus­tom off­set to al­low them to squeeze un­der the stock nar­row-body

Above: It’s just a stock 912, right? 911 driv­ers be­lieve that at your peril…

Above: Busy en­gine bay is home to a fuel-in­jected 1.7litre ‘four’ run­ning twin-spark ig­ni­tion with crank-trig­ger and coil packs

Be­low left: John Ben­ton has owned his 912 for 33 years and has no plans to let it go. It’s what you might call a work in progress…

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