By on November 26, 2012

The 2.7-liter 911S was so problematic that I named it as one of Porsche’s Deadly Sins a couple years ago. Its engine failed with monotonous regularity, often between the expiration of the 12,000-mile warranty and the 50,000-mile mark on the odometer. The 1974 models usually lived a bit longer because they didn’t have thermal reactors, and the 1977 models had improved Dilavar head studs, but none of the “S” cars were reliable in any modern, or even contemporaneous, sense of the world. In the thirty-five years since the model was replaced with the “Super Carrera” three-liter, however, the aftermarket has managed to address the core issues and build reliable replacement engines for these otherwise charming classic coupes.

As the snow started to fall in Central Ohio this past weekend, I fired up my own aircooled 911 and took it downtown to meet a restored example of its ancestors.

Picture courtesy the author.

The “Coke-bottle” shape often associated with the aircooled 911 has become so pervasive in the popular imagination that it’s both a shock and a pleasure when I pull up to meet the owner of this car in downtown Columbus, Ohio and see that it not only has smooth flanks, it doesn’t even have a passenger-side mirror! This is the shape of the body as Butzi Himself imagined it. Even if you don’t like the impact bumpers which adorned Nine Elevens from 1974 to 1989, you have to admit that they’ve become as much a part of the classic shape as the original chrome bolt-ons were. Although the car’s previous owner made the decision to “update” the car from its original chrome trim when he restored it, this is still very much the street-going, no-pretenses Porsche. Narrow fenders cover narrow tires mounted on narrow Fuchs alloys. No ducktail, no sneering front airdam, no Turbo-Look. None of that. There’s simply no aggression to the car. It looks like what it is: a faster, more sophisticated descendant of the Type 1.

A modern Porsche, jam-packed from stem to stern with self-conscious tributes to the Almighty Racing Brand DNA Of Our Brand, looks ridiculous next to this simple, elegant statement of civilized sporting intent. Even my 993 looks cartoonish and distended in its presence, playing the role of the buffed-out, tatted-up, bald-by-choice Jason Bonham while its ancestor channels the powerful but artless Bonzo who hammered out “When The Levee Breaks” at the bottom of an English mansion’s stairs. There was an era, apparently, when the men of Stuttgart didn’t have to slather Heritage and Prestige and Upscaleness all over the cars with a fifty-five-gallon drum.

It’s soon apparent why that was so. The driver’s door latch clicks open with the precision of a Sig P210′s hammer mechanism and I take my seat. Immediately I’m surrounded by the noise, the insistent Beetle-blat waterless thrum, resonating in the space between my lungs and vibrating the upright windscreen, tingling the control surfaces. The clutch is featherlight but all three pedals feel wrong somehow. My feet don’t quite fit under the dashboard. I realize that Porsche must have worked a little bit of magic between 1976 and 1995 to fix the ergonomics a bit. Most likely they just shortened the radius of the pedal arms.

The old “915″ gearbox has a reputation somewhere between legendary and infamous among PCA types but in fact it’s quite easy to use. The throws are long compared to any modern car but never did I slot the wrong gear. Once I rather lazily tried to toss it from fourth to sixth, as I do in my 993, and was rewarded with a brief bite of synchromesh. There’s no lockout for reverse, unless you count the lockout that the car’s designers expected you to maintain in your disciplined mind. I’m fairly positive that most people could easily commute in this; sure, there’s no power steering but you don’t really miss it.

Picture courtesy the author.

From the light I roll away in first to spare the clutch but then full-throttle to the top of third, watching my own 911 recede in the mirror as this car’s owner shakes his head at my behavior. Of course the sound is lovely, although it never manages to equal the big-bore snarl of the later cars. There’s about 170 horsepower to push slightly under 2,500 pounds. I imagine it would run fairly evenly with a Scion FR-S at least through the eighth-mile. Not surprisingly, the old Porsche corkscrews a bit down the road under full power, sniffing out the crown in the downtown six-lane with unerring precision and requiring a touch of correction across the steering’s dead spot at center.

It’s a time-honored tradition at car magazines to announce that THIS YEAR’S 911 IS VERY EASY TO DRIVE BUT LAST YEAR’S WAS DEATH ON THE HOOF. It’s even being done with the 991, which we are assured has none of the quirks of the 997, which had none of the quirks of the 996, and so on unto the seventh generation. Well, this car has the quirks. The torsion-bar suspension reacts to the road in all the ways that the 993′s fiendishly complicated Weissach axle doesn’t. Of course there’s no stability control. There’s no ABS. In a quick 90-degree turn I’m easily able to get the tail to step out at the blinding speed of about 30mph. The one concession to safety was done seven years prior in 1969 when the wheelbase was extended two inches to prevent the worst sorts of mayhem. It probably caused the original car’s engineers actual physical pain in their hearts to make a concession like that to the no-talent-drivin’ Iguanadon-esque proto-yuppies who paid between fourteen and seventeen thousand dollars for 1976 Porsches. Remember, that kind of money would get you literally twice the car in those days from the domestic dealers. For half the money, you could have gotten a Corvette with almost fifty more horsepower and more rubber on the road. The more things change, and so on.

Picture courtesy the author.

Let’s review the salient features of the interior. There are five gauges. Three of them convey vital information about the pressure, temperature, and level of the oil supply. Don’t forget to look at them. This isn’t a Camry. Something could go wrong. To the driver’s right, we have the shift lever, which goes right into a rubber boot on the floor. Want a console? Get a Cutlass Salon. A pair of levers where the stereo probably should have been placed controls a random array of flaps throughout the car to create a new and completely undesired change in cabin temperature with every fresh manipulation. Or they might be connected to nothing at all. It’s hard to tell. In later cars, this worthless arrangement was replaced by an automatic climate control which didn’t work any better but which offered a higher possibility of failure. I don’t know if the climate control in my 993 works as intended and I’ve never been able to find anyone who knows how it’s supposed to work anyway. A series of circular indentations on the passenger side of the dash indicates to that passenger that you couldn’t afford all the options. This was so effective at humiliating buyers into spending more money that it continued all the way to the very last 993 Turbo S Weissach Sonderwunsch Otto von Bismarck Sturmvogel Fighter-Bomber Edition, which still had one empty spot for an option yet to be conceived.

It’s best to just ignore that stuff and drive the car. Here, at last, is the cure for texting while driving. The millions of deaths which occur every year due to the iPhone’s ability to stream the Kim K/Ray-J video in 4G could all be avoided, every last one of them, if the government issued everyone a Seventies 911 and made sure they always left the house five minutes later than they’d wanted to. It would help if it could be made to rain as well. Full attention on the road. Guaranteed. Nothing could go wrong, because in the era before texting and driving the highways of the American continent were a virtual paradise where children could chase errant soccer balls right onto the Chicago freeways at rush hour knowing that alert, aware drivers were standing ready to execute precise avoidance maneuvers with no advance warning whatsoever.

We can’t have those salad days of safe motoring back. But you could take delivery of this freshly resto-modded 1976 911S tomorrow. It’s for sale. I give it my official Seal Of Approval. (WARNING: Seal of Approval in no way indicates that the car will start, run, appreciate in value, help you pull tail on the street, or even fail to explode at the least convenient moment possible. Attempting to print out the Seal of Approval and apply it to a vehicle may result in injury.) I’d buy it myself, except for one little thing: my 911. You see, my 911 does everything this 911 does. Plus it has working A/C (kinda). Plus it has an Alpine Bio-Lite sound system. Plus it has 255-width rear tires and the power to break ‘em loose. Plus the spoiler goes up and down with the press of a button. It’s cool like that. If you want something else that’s not totally something else, however, this 911 is cool, too, and it’s… um… uh… hate to say it in 2012…

Authentic.

Yeah. That’s it. No, it’s not an “authentic” restoration. But it’s the real deal: an air-cooled Porsche blowing a symphony of frenzied joy through the vented decklid. It’s no longer a Deadly Sin: it’s a holy terror.

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35 Comments on “Capsule Review: 1976 Porsche 911S 2.7...”


  • avatar
    CJinSD

    Being a 1976, this 911 already had sprouted flared fenders and wide tires, provided your perspective started with the 1965 model’s unflared wheel openings and 165R15 tires on all four corners. I was at Symbolic Motorcars’ showroom a few years ago. They had a 2 liter 911R and a 1973 Carrera RS in the showroom along with a couple watercooled Porsche Cup cars or a GT3RS(the new ones aren’t that memorable, but I know they were track cars). The new cars looked like parade float parodies of the originals, such was the difference in size.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    Nice review, welcome back Jack.

  • avatar
    chuckrs

    Love the body-colored fan. Porsche Techequipment would charge about $10K (in today’s anemic dollars)to do that, if there still were a robust-sized fan and if you could see it under all the crap.
    I never bothered with the AC in my 964 version – turning it on felt like you left the non-ebrake parking brake on. Need cooling? Lower the windows, drive faster and rely on convection.

    • 0 avatar
      vaujot

      As a 993 owner I can tell you that after some maintenance (refilling the fluid), the airconditioning works quite well. If I am not mistaken, 993s and 964s have the same a/c system.

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce

      Having owned an air-cooled rear engine car (Karman Ghia), I will say that they are, in fact, noticeably cooler to drive around in than an un-airconditioned front-engine car, especially in city traffic. It does help to have all of the engine heat behind you. By contrast, the worst offenders were the classic British sportscars, which had the footwells beside the rear of the engine, which also were unventilated. Not a fun drive in stop and go traffic in the summer.

      And the heating system in my car worked reasonably well, once the engine was spinning above idle to force warm air through the system.

      • 0 avatar
        fendertweed

        Having driven my ’73 911T around the DC area a fair amount (with its still working York AC) over the past 20 yrs., I agree with you only if you keep the air cooled 911 moving. As soon as you stop you are enveloped in the heat bath emanating from the engine compartment, kind of like being in a convection oven. That’s why I’m so glad my AC still works (top it off/recharge every 2-3 yrs. or so).

        Cheers…

    • 0 avatar
      typ901

      Still miss my 964…got to stop reading about the air-coolers!

  • avatar
    oldyak

    Go Buck`s!!!!!!

  • avatar
    Topher

    Best expressed retort to stupid nanny laws:

    “Nothing could go wrong, because in the era before texting and driving the highways of the American continent were a virtual paradise where children could chase errant soccer balls right onto the Chicago freeways at rush hour knowing that alert, aware drivers were standing ready to execute precise avoidance maneuvers with no advance warning whatsoever.”

    I’d be in favor of a generic law against distracted driving with heightened punishments for if something goes wrong. Speeding: $250. Speeding while messing with a phone/child in the back seat/self: $300.

    Hands-free laws are all reactionary anyway. Why is the legislature so stupid so as not to anticipate as-yet-unimagined devices?

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      I’d be in favor of a generic law where you only get punished for actually harming someone or their property. This would involve more than a $50 fine increase though.

  • avatar
    ruckover

    I’ve read many of your posts and enjoyed most of what you have written, but I am finally jealous. I want to know what it is like to shoot a Sig 210. Now that is an object of pure lust.

  • avatar
    Charlie84

    So what is the entry-level air-cooled 911 these days? What are market values like? I’d give up my M3 and an internal organ of the seller’s choosing for one.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      I would recommend a 911SC. Emissions controls were close to figured out, the bodies were effectively rust proofed, there is good parts support, and they were decent performers. 3.2 Carreras are likely to carry a price premium and anything earlier either has awful emissions controls or now costs a metric ton in decent condition.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    993 = favorite version! I think that was the best iteration of the design to date.

  • avatar
    gearhead77

    “There are five gauges. Three of them convey vital information about the pressure, temperature, and level of the oil supply. Don’t forget to look at them. This isn’t a Camry. Something could go wrong.”

    “The millions of deaths which occur every year could all be avoided, every last one of them, if the government issued everyone a Seventies 911 and made sure they always left the house five minutes later than they’d wanted to. It would help if it could be made to rain as well.”

    My favorite lines. Thanks for this write up. A friend of mine had a 67 912 Targa that I briefly got to drive. I’d never driven anything that pure (except for go-carts during my youth) and it was a blast. You couldn’t wipe the smile from my face.

    I don’t think the Camry has five gauges.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Yup I was missing Jack. Could have used this day brightener a week ago, but better late then never.

  • avatar
    philadlj

    Ah, that green. So nice.

    I grew up in the eighties, and I have fond memories of playing whiffle-ball in the middle of the southbound JFX between Exits 7 and 6, sharing the road with various B-bodies, J-bodies, and NUMMI products.

    The games never lasted long, as fly balls often ended up in the Jones Falls below us, where no one wanted to go because a troll lived down there and it smelled rather strongly of sewage.

  • avatar
    Darkhorse

    The 1974 – 1989 911s were the last “real” Porsches. Yes, the 74-77 2.7 liter engines were POSs thanks to their magnesium cases. The 84-89 Carrera was the best. The 89-94 964 was also a POS. Power steering? The 993 was a pretty car but had all the problems of the 964. The older the 911, the better it gets.

  • avatar
    Morea

    Someone with a keen eye for honest assessment needs to write a column entitled “The Historical Truth about Porsche Reliability.”

    Half the time I read (on the net, in the mags) that Porsche has bullet proof German engineering. Then I read somewhere else about major design flaws, i.e., engines lasting <50,000 miles as mentioned above, IMS failures, etc. Same is true when I talk to owners (at car shows, at HPDE events).

    I am not referring to candy-a** issues like fit and finish and interior hardware, I mean major mechanical systems: engine, transmission, suspension, and brakes.

    So, which is it, are Porsches historically tough or tender?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      The answer is “Yes”.

      I like to think that aircooled Porsches are generally durable. Not reliable. Durable. They shouldn’t wear out. After 1978, they shouldn’t rust. You should be able to keep one going indefinitely like a Land Cruiser.

      But yeah there are all sorts of problems with them, and a lot of times the factory didn’t provide much help.

      If you want a durable Porsche, buy a 911SC with Carrera chain tensioners and go drive a half million miles. :)

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        I think that ALL 30+ year old cars are now more reliable than they were new. This is simply because of 30 years of experience with them, and most have now been rebuilt at least once. Certainly my Spitfire is built to a FAR better standard than it was new, and many components have been replaced with upgraded parts that simply work better and last longer. It is 100% reliable for the fairly small amount that I drive it.

        Porsche does excel at the bone-headed “only the Germans could think this is a good idea” engineering decision though. My 924S has several of those, including the entire madness of the timing and balance belts and waterpump, and the rubber-centered clutch disk.

  • avatar
    lon888

    Back in the late 70′s I worked on mainly late 60′s “Porsh’s” to pay for engineering school. I disliked working on them, finding them to be over complicated and fragile pieces of crap. I especially hated adjusting the exhaust valves which had to be done while the engine was hot and it was done under the car. Being aircooled and a Porsche, they leaked oil like a sieve. Hot oil on the forehead hurt like hell. I once drove a customers car and found their handling to be rather diabolical. If you’re in a corner and suddenly lose your religion and decide to back off, you’ll find yourself in the weeds in the blink of an eye.

  • avatar
    mkirk

    I’m not sure if I’ll ever own one, but if I do it will be that color green and if I don’t my Miata will one day sport that color. I know the brown car love is strong among many posters here, but that is THE color for a 911.

    My father had a 66 912 when I was growing up and I always regretted it being gone by the time I came of age.

    And Jack, you are correct in your earlier post about Land Cruisers lasting indefinitely, however I am convinced there is not a single part on the damn things that costs less than 250 bucks. Are the old 911s similar in this respect?

  • avatar
    manbridge

    Owning a 74 I’ll weigh in here.

    These mid-years, as the 74-77s are known, have a good/bad rep that is hard to measure. On the one hand you have the 73 RS which can be yours for around $300K. Or a 74 for around a decimal point difference. Guess what, they both contain the exact same 7R mag case. Today, one car is holy, the other is damned.

    Later SC models have some improvements but they also have their own issues like broken head studs and rubber centered clutch discs.

    The 76 here, modified to suit the owner’s taste, has a few non OE touches. The green fan, silver (made-in-Brazil-will-leave-you-stranded-model) ignition coil, blacked out trim, some heater ducting eliminated, package tray speakers, earlier recaros with separate head rests, etc.

    And Jack, stop trying to redeem these 2.7 cars. The more negative press these receive will undoubtedly keep their values low. Translation: more driving enjoyment for me.

  • avatar
    MK

    Okay I’ll play the heretic in the church….I drive a 996 after all so the shoe fits.
    I’ve never liked the clattering racket of an air cooled flat six (or flat four for that matter), it’s just not a pleasant sound at all. The exhaust note can drown it out sometimes but it’s still there.

    The old cars can be enjoyed For what they are just like a spitfire or MG, no shame there but they’re not something I’d want to depend on as a daily driver.

    The 993 is definitely the best looking of the entire “911″ production but when push came to shove (and living in FL) I took the better AC and cheaper maintenance of the 996. No regrets and I haven’t even looked back.

    One thing you will learn with Porsche ownership is that there’s nothing particularly awe inspiring about Porsches mastery of plastics.

  • avatar
    manbridge

    Effective AC trumps all else in Florida.

    Here in twisty road Colorado the older car with no AC is a possible option.

    The older car offers someone with basic mechanical skills a lot of learning potential and just more involvement overall in its maintenance and operation.

    I wouldn’t compare the 911 to the MG or spitfire. They are more primitive and not as durable.

  • avatar
    tedward

    My buddy has an SC that I get to drive once in a while. You can go as fast as you damn well please in that car, faster than almost any new sports car on an actual back road. Two rules: 1. only if you know the road 2. if in doubt, more throttle.

  • avatar
    Apoc

    FYI – The car now lives in Seattle, where no AC isn’t a problem. Oh and no worries about it being “made to rain.” :-)


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