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.
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.
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.
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…
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.