THE USUAL SUSPECTS
Making a welcome return, US columnist, Terry Thomas, ponders the lure of the aircooled 911 and how – as surely as night follows day – he keeps returning to the clattering, air-cooled flat six. This time it’s a Carrera 3.2 and it’s going to be a keeper
Terry Thomas has his say
DRIVING BACK INTO THE PAST
My Porsche ownership journey has been both long (35 years) and varied (13 cars over that span of time). Yet, after dabbling in all manner of Porsche formulations – 911s, transaxle cars, a 928, and three Caymans (Caymi?) – I continually find myself back where I started, with an air-cooled 911 in my garage. Despite the competency of the 944s, the majesty of the 928, and the all-around magnificence of the Cayman, it seems that all the roads I travel, circuitous though they may be, inevitably lead back to the luftkuhler.
Why, given the cornucopia of modern Porsche water-cooled wonderfulness, does the air-cooled car hold such mystique, not only to me, but to so many? I think it’s the sheer will and uncompromising personality of the thing, born with the first in 1965 and ending with the last in 1998, long after every other manufacturer had abandoned both air cooling and rear-mounted engines. No, Porsche remained stubborn, aided by the legions of fans who loudly proclaimed they would have nothing else. During my formative years, the ability to drive a 911 well was a badge of honour, for the early, swing arm cars (up through the 3.2 Carrera) required finesse and skill to avoid trouble. In this age of doeverything, nanny-aided, no-skill/no-thought-required transportation appliances, the air-cooled 911 stands out in stark, defiant relief.
One drive in an air-cooled car, especially one of the aforementioned swing arm cars, demonstrates not only how far we have come, but also how much we have lost. You do not bend the car to your will; you and the car jointly agree upon the course of action dictated by its designers all those years ago and enforced by the hundreds of pounds of engine lurking behind the rear axle. The car does not struggle to ascertain what it thinks you want it to do, it does exactly what you tell it to do. Choose your words carefully.
And speak to it gently. This is a fingertip car. Set upon it with fists of ham and it will deliver a memorable lesson in applied physics. Try to manhandle a cranky 915 gearbox and it becomes a balky, bitter malcontent (and, for an extra thrill, one can even choose a turbo version, which bestows yet another whole layer of operational challenge upon the proceedings). But drive the car with respect, gently but confidently, and it morphs into an extension of yourself, delivering elation that is unmatched to this day. Of course, the car is not for everyone. The air-cooled 911 is like liqourice. Not everyone likes liqourice, but those that do like it a lot.
A whole lot, it seems. Despite being two decades out of production, the cars retain a following verging on fanatical. Virtually any part is now available from a wide variety of sources, and a cottage industry full of vendors exists to provide a nearly non-stop flow of new, improved parts to serve the car’s legions of fans.
Thanks to the interchangeability of many components between the years of production, one can mix and match parts to create a car uniquely suited to its owner. It’s the equivalent of a completely customisable four-wheeled Barbie Doll for men. Or women.
Within the last year or so, I came to realise that the window of opportunity to own another example was slamming shut, given the rapid and seemingly unending rise in prices. It’s as though the whole automotive world, bored with the sameness and lack of personality of the current crop of automobiles, suddenly took a step back, regarded the hoary old 911 anew, pointed, and simply said: 'that.' The latest – and likely last – air-cooled example entrusted to my care is a 1985 coupe, accurately described as a “driver,” by the seller. The price was dear, and required the sale of my 2009 Cayman S, as I had neither the funds nor the space to keep both. A Seattle-based car since new, it has suffered none of the corrosion that ruins many examples from less mild climes, though it has certainly had a few adventures, judging from the body shop repair orders that accompanied the car. But it is both straight and mechanically sound...for the most part, making it the perfect canvas upon which to paint. I shall fix, fettle and fuss, updating this and backdating that, until it is exactly what I want it to be, heeding not the chorus of “keep it 100% original!” that inevitably creeps into discussions these days. Nor will I succumb to the tendency to stiffen, soup up and otherwise 'improve' the car to the point where it is happy on track but miserable everywhere else, a charge of which I have been guilty in the past. No, this one must remain civil, and comfortable enough for long trips with Mrs Thomas. To that end, I am even considering taking the plunge and installing electric air conditioning, the wretched original unit having been removed by the previous owner and packed away in a box, where perhaps someday in the future a restorer of 911 antiquities will be delighted to find it. Given the stubbornly analogue nature of the car, my first act as its new owner was to apply to the State of Washington for a personalised plate that said “ANALOG.” Alas, the state, in its wisdom, nixed that idea, on the grounds that this particular was “prohibited,” presumably because the first four letters spell a naughty word. Based on this surprising – and silly – bit of governmental prudery, I decided not to bother applying for a plate that read “FUCHS.”
Personalised plate notwithstanding, I plan to build exactly the car I want, then drive the wheels off the thing, urged along by the distinctly unique whirring and chuttering emanating from behind, simultaneously carrying me both forward into the future and back into the past. PW
Houndstooth seat insert re-trim carried out by local seamstress. Again look out for full story in a future issue