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