911 on safari!
The 911 has carved a distinguished career on the circuit, but what’s it like as a rally car? Total 911 swaps track for terrain to find out
Total 911 goes off-roading in Makellos Classics’ brilliant safari SC. Is it the best 911 experience?
Did you know the Porsche 911’s first ever race was, in fact, a rally? The year was 1965, and Huschke von Hanstein, race director and Porsche PR officer, was keen to show off the dexterity of the company’s new sports car, which could be driven on the road and raced at weekends. Herbert Linge and Peter Falk were thrust into a 2.0-litre 911 for the legendary Monte Carlo rally, driving the car from Bad Homburg, Germany, to the Prince’s Palace in Monaco, finishing a creditable fifth overall. A 911 would win the notorious event outright in 1968 in the hands of ‘Quick Vic’ Elford, the first of many key rallying successes which forms an important part of the 911’s 30,000 overall race victories to date.
Meanwhile, alongside the sport kits which formed the basis of Porsche’s famous Sports Purpose manual in 1966, the company offered a rally kit – option 9552. Comprising of a pair of Recaro seats, roll bar, a 100-litre fuel tank with front hood filler, adjustable Koni shock absorbers plus subtle engine modifications, the kit was intended for customers who wished to participate in long-distance rallies.
Notable success on the rally stage has continued throughout the 911’s history. Who can forget the heroics of the factory-supported Prodrive SC RSS in the 1980s, a precursor to the 1984 Paris-dakar-winning 953 and, later, the 959, which was built for the very purpose of rallying before the demise of Group B just before its release. The air-cooled 911 remains a regular participant in global regulation and speed rallies, with most notable success courtesy of British Porsche specialists, Tuthills. They have campaigned all manner of classic 911s in various rallies of considerable magnitude right around the world, with the late, legendary rally maestro Björn Waldegård often found at the wheel right up until his death in 2014. Current works driver Romain Dumas, meanwhile, developed his own 997 GT3 RS R-GT which competed alongside a rival 997 – again from Tuthill – in the 2015 WRC, with Porsche itself testing a Cayman GT4 Clubsport R-GT in 2018 with a view to joining the WRC series. As you can see, rallying isn’t a mere offshoot of the Porsche 911 – it’s forever been part of its DNA.
Meanwhile, safari 911s have well and truly captured the imaginations of wider enthusiasts in the last two to three years, catapulted into the limelight by pro racing driver and Porsche enthusiast Leh Keen’s imaginative safari builds. Others have since joined the market with their own off-road expressions of the 911, but what are these cars really like to drive? Today we’re going to find out, thanks to an invite from Makellos Classics to test their most remarkable project to date. Matt Kenyon, owner of the San Diego-based company, explains: “Safari cars are popular right now so we wanted to try our interpretation of it. Some cars have the look, but we wanted to build a car that you could legitimately take off-road.”
The 911 in question is a 1978 European SC, which Makellos acquired in April 2018 with 125,000 kilometres on the clock. As Matt describes, its spec was perfect for the project at hand: “When we came across this 911 SC it had a pretty cool factory spec. It had sunroof delete, lower console delete and radio delete. It just screamed at us to build a rally spec
911.” Work started in May and was completed by mid-september, an incredible feat when you consider this was a passion project which Matt, manager Greg Bartley and the rest of the Makellos team had to fit around a busy stream of paying client jobs.
After a strip down the team began with crucial fabrication work to the 911’s chassis, which entailed custom bracing all over the car as well as reinforcement of the rear strut towers. The front strut towers were custom braced, and custom front and rear skid plates were added too. A comprehensive
“Sliding through the dunes, lock to lock, I honestly can’t recall having more fun in a Porsche 911”
rear roll cage was built in to the rear strut mounts for extra rigidity among the rigours of rough terrain.
A Tarret Engineering/erp 935-spec suspension setup has been lavished on the build along with KW Clubsport coilovers with rally-spec valving. The wheels are lightweight 7x15-inch Fifteen52 Outlaw
003 wheels all round, including the spare residing on the roof rack on top, with Pirelli K gravel rally tires. The 935-spec suspension demands a hefty payout, but it’s an investment Matt says is absolutely necessary. “We want this and any future rally cars we build to be used over and over, so it was important to have a proven setup,” he confirms.
The team have the SC on the ramps at Makellos’ workshop to give it one last check-through ahead of our shakedown test, which also gives us a chance to have a thorough poke around underneath. The fabrication work is sensational. Well thought out in its design and clinical in its execution, it’s almost a shame nobody will really get to see it when this safari 911 is in action. Beneath, a host of shiny new suspension parts make up the comprehensive 935 kit. It’s all bolt-on stuff and allows for conversion to a modern coilover suspension system, the plethora of Tarret parts a mark of the car’s quality of build. Absolutely no corners have been cut here. A custom centre-exit exhaust system finishes things off nicely.
The engine is a matching-numbers ’78 SC flat six, stock save for 964 cams, which many fit to offer a tad more top-end grunt. The transmission is the standard 915 with shorter gears from second through fourth. This is assisted by a Wevo short-shifter, with a 917-style custom wood shift knob providing a competition-inspired touchpoint for the driver. A Wavetrac differential maintains drive to both wheels.
It’s clear Makellos has had some fun with the styling of the safari SC too. Its original Guards red paintwork was deemed to be in an acceptable state, a respray to bring the car back to pristine condition immediately shunned – this was to be a rally car, after all! Underneath it’s a solid base though, with the original body including arches with SC flares all in fine fettle, and so it was used as a base for Makellos’ own take on the iconic Belga livery of Robert Droogman and his 1984 Belgian Rally Championshipwinning exploits. A ducktail resides over the flat six, while the rear reflector bar has been modified to incorporate some more subtle company branding. In recognising the importance of forward vision when on safari, Makellos’ army of lights comes in the form of classic rally hood lights and beautiful LED headlights from 9Eleven, which incorporates modern technology within the 911’s classic lens frame.
Checks over, it’s time to get the car down from the ramps and on to the nearest and greatest dusty terrain we can find. Firing the car up, I’m expecting a deafening, lumpy assault on my ears akin to that of Porsche’s Paris Dakar-winning 953, but am pleasantly surprised by what appears to be a throaty SC note emitting palatable levels of resonance. Don’t get me wrong, it’s loud inside the safari car, exactly as it should be, but it’s not to the point of being overwhelming to my senses.
Speaking of which, the interior is a glorious place to be. Stripped out to remove the SC of any unnecessary weight, black Porsche vinyl is then offset by a mini-pasha custom interior, offering a brilliant contemporary take of a retro design. It’s found on the Rs-style door cards and on the inserts of the Recaro buckets, and even around the ignition. Four-point harnesses will hold me and my passenger Matt in place for our off-road antics, the dished, two-spoke Sparco steering wheel a pertinent finishing touch to this safari-spec Neunelfer. Exploits of Elford, Metge, Waldegård et al firmly in mind, we buckle up and head for the dirt in our safari 911.
The year-round heat that San Diego is exposed to means the land is incredibly dried out and, given the vastness of California, means a good selection of dusty trails aren’t too hard to find. Matt knows the perfect spot about 30 minutes outside of town, which gives me a little time to acclimatise to the car.
On the road it’s comfortable to drive, and I like how close the raised shifter and dished steering wheel are to each other. Their setup invites quick shifts, which will surely be needed on the dirt, though an uncomfortable crunch when blip-shifting from third back into second reminds me that a degree of care still needs to be taken with any 915. The engine pulls well without being absurdly quick, though I’m adamant that on the terrain we’re headed for the SC’S 180hp will suffice to get over uneven ground quickly.
Tarmac is soon swapped for dusty, rocky terrain as we venture inland and far away from any other signs of civilisation. A couple of miles later Matt gives the thumbs up, so we roll to a stop. “This is it,” he says.
With that, Matt jumps out and joins photographer Dan Pullen on a mound at the side of our dusty trail alongside Makellos’ Greg Bartley, media guru James Jackson and Lee del Rosario, proprietor of 9Eleven Headlights, who’d all followed the SC behind in a support vehicle. A selection of lenses, cameras and gazing eyes are now fixed in my direction, with Dan beckoning me off with a wave. No pressure, then!
With first engaged and plenty of revs, I drop the clutch and the SC skids off the mark, a large cloud of dust billowing from the back of the car. Snatching second, another firm press of the right pedal really gets us moving, a bizarre but captivating soundtrack supplied by the booming exhaust and thumping of rocks bouncing up on the underside of the car.
For those not in the know, the dynamics of driving a 911 on safari aren’t too dissimilar to driving on the road. Managing the 911’s unique weight bias is key, only here the slide is invited – no, celebrated – rather than feared. The rear weight bias of the 911 means provoking the car is easy, a dose of throttle and a
wander off line all that’s needed to bring the back end swinging out. A mixture of throttle and opposite lock, both of which are constantly mitigated, keeps the SC sideways on the dirt, the focal point of my vision now far, far ahead. Leaving the turn, the rear realigns and, just before the redline, I change up to third and press on once more. Wow! Over the crunching of the gravel below, I finally attune to the sound of my own hysterical laughter. This is absolutely brilliant!
The steering is much lighter over such loose ground, which is just as well considering the constant inputs required. The extremity of the inputs is far greater too, but braking is never as aggressive as a result.
It’s certainly no problem though, the 911 happy to move around over the dusty gravel, but it’s far from the chaos I’d expected. I can thank the chunky Pirelli gravel tyres for that; they’re doing a fantastic job of mitigating grip, allowing the car to break traction progressively… if only Pirelli’s road tyres were anywhere near as good with their feedback!
Save for a bout of ice driving some five years previously, my only experience of driving 911s has been on proper terra firma but, slowly, my confidence grows and my commitment increases, though in the midst of this constant managing of grip I’m mindful of the gnarly rockface hugging most of this route up to a remote ranch. Granted, my application very likely isn’t the fastest way to negotiate this dusty trail, but to hell with that anyway – I’m having too much fun to care. In fact, sliding through the dunes, lock to lock, catching the tail as it swings to and fro behind, I honestly can’t recall having more fun in a Porsche 911. This really is such a cracking machine.
The SC’S 180hp is absolutely enough for our environment, inviting a good, hard drive, and the gearing is spot on – the SC’S traditional, leggy ratios would be wasted here. The suspension is good, its long travel soaking up the majority of lumps and bumps, though I find it’s still a little too harsh in places, Matt promising to tweak this post-shakedown.
Regardless, it’ll go down as one of my most memorable drives in a 911 – and by far the most fun. But what’s the financial outlay for such enjoyment? Matt says it’ll cost around $120,000 to build another car for a customer on top of a donor car, though Makellos can also supply that if need be.
I deem it great value. For the cost of a welloptioned 992 C4S you can have a car which will undoubtedly trump it for raw driver appeal, and will give you much more fun at far more attainable limits. The specific purpose of the safari car means it could be viewed by some as an expensive toy, but in our ever-more-stringent world of regulation and scrutiny on our roads, there’s something to be said for the freedom of off-road. Besides, the buzz of piloting a 911 on safari is an addictive one unlike anything else you’ll experience and, if you do decide to enter the world of competition, the 911’s credentials on the rally stage are of course assured. From
Stuttgart to San Diego, the 911 is clearly as at home on safari as it is on the circuit.
For more information about Makellos Classics’ safari builds, call +1 760-300-4037 or visit makellosclassics.com.
ABOVE Well built and neatly finished, Makellos’ safari SC is the epitome of 911 fun – without a race track in sight
BELOW Makellos’ safari brings a new meaning to the term ‘impact bumper’
BELOW Comprehensive chassis revision makes up the largest part of the safari’s spend