“We’re going to need more Super Clean.”
I pushed back the hood of my raincoat and flipped up my visor. Fast Eddie’s matching yellow rain gear was now a mottled brown, covered from head to toe in oil diluted with Castrol’s finest water-based degreaser. We were standing under the back end of a 1977 Porsche 911S – my 1977 911S – suspended on Eddie’s BendPak lift, staring into the black oily abyss of its engine compartment.
“More Super Clean, definitely. And more scrub brushes. And beer.”
If the experience with my star-crossed 944 (documented in Part 2) had been a drama-filled trial by fire, 911 ownership was more of a marathon: a conscience commitment to long periods of pain and hard work punctuated by moments of utter joy and euphoria that made it all worthwhile. But like running marathons, the repeated stress eventually became too much for me to handle.
I found my 911 on Craigslist, which at the time had a lock on the title of “Official Internet Home for Many Types of Bad Decisions.” It was advertised as an honest California car in good mechanical condition with no previous body work. Upon inspection, that description was more or less accurate. It was a good old car with nice Guards Red paint and a Buckskin leather interior, totally rust free, and a recent resident of Minnesota. Its owner was a very educated, but down on his luck young Indian guy. He had purchased the car while working in LA, and it had accompanied him and his last dollar home to Minnesota when whatever business he was in finally went bust. I handed him a surprisingly small envelope full of cash, and the car was mine. I was a 911 owner!
Did I mention that this was a December evening in Minnesota? Well it was, and the drive home through suburban Minneapolis/St. Paul was the first long hill of the marathon. The car badly needed tires, and the heater served only to fill the cabin with noxious blue oil smoke. I rolled down the windows to prevent the windows from freezing over, zipped up the neck of my Denali jacket, and pushed on with a gale of ice cold air blasting through the car. That little stunt earned me delightful case of walking pneumonia that I battled for the next full month while the car cooled its heels in the garage.
The records that came with the car were extensive, but painted a picture of inattentive maintenance and “fixing it when it broke”. And why not? To its previous owners it wasn’t a special car, it was just a used car, flashier than most to make maximum social impact. The receipts from “Guaranteed Pass!” smog test shops in the LA basin at least partially explained the bizarre stumbling and backfiring under all throttle conditions. There was also good news, like very recent invoices for new Bilsteins, new rotors and pads, and a full clutch job. As the weather warmed up, I pulled out the seats and all of the carpets and cleaned the car from top to bottom. In the smuggler’s box under a towel I found two boxes of .38 Special pistol ammunition; one full, the other with 6 rounds missing. Think of the stories of the “Glamour Profession” this car could tell!
All that inattentive maintenance from its used car days meant it was a rolling mechanical project, but I knew that going in. By this time my friend Fast Eddie and I had rebuilt two 930 engines together in addition to my 944, so we feared nothing and knew how to work together. What we found when we dropped the little 2.7 was something we hadn’t seen before – a running, driving oil spill. The engine leaked from almost every possible gasket, seal, and hose and the engine compartment was caked with a nasty, dried oil and road grit amalgam that was nearly half an inch thick in some spots. It took a day of spraying, scrubbing, and power washing to get it clean, and when we were done I threw away both my rain gear and the clothes I had on under them.
Once all the oil was cleaned off we found a 2.7 liter CIS engine in fairly good shape. It had been sensibly upgraded with later-style head bolts, Time-Serts, and Carrera chain tensioners. The CIS itself was in good working order, but the plastic airbox had been grenaded by a backfire. I replaced that with a part from a Porsche salvage operation, helpfully already equipped with the aftermarket pressure relief valve. We worked through the engine methodically, replacing every seal or oil-containing part that looked the least bit suspicious. While I was in there I upgraded the oil cooling use a one year only “brass cooler” from the early 911SCs and a trick in-line radiator from Pelican Parts. The ridiculous thermal reactor exhaust system and oil-soaked heater boxes were thrown out and replaced them with gorgeous, serpentine chrome headers and an eBay find muffler that looked more like a straight pipe. When all was said and done I ended up with a stout, leak-free 2.7 CIS engine that ran great and sounded like the paddock at Daytona.
What did I do with my new slot car? I dropped my fat ass in the seat, drove the wheels off of it, and found that elusive marathon runner’s high. First, I joined up with my local club and started learning about autocross. Then I took it up to Brainerd International and scared myself silly carrying what felt like way too much speed into the infamous Turn 1. I learned all about how a 911 feels close to the limit and like so many before me became utterly addicted to pulling more and more out of myself and my archaic old car. I was not fast, but I had fun, and was never once embarrassed about getting my ass handed to me by two dozen Miatas.
Everything they say about old 911s is true. They are tiny cars by today’s standards and the view out past the matchstick pillars is glorious. The ergonomics are crap and there is no place to put your left foot. The shifter feels like a stick in a bucket of thin concrete, but is surprisingly easy to use and can be shifted very fast if you know the car. They feel faster than they really are and are this odd combination of terrifying and confidence inspiring when pushed to their limit. They rarely break, and when they do are both easy to work on and easy to buy parts for. In other words, they are likely the best vintage sports car to just drive and have fun with.
But somehow I wanted more. Due to both its age and the way I built it, my 911 was not a 3-season, everyday driver. While I enjoyed its lowered stance and blatting exhaust, my wife thought it was a rolling advertisement for everything wrong with the idea of sports car ownership. To her it was obnoxious, stinky, and loud…a boy’s toy. I had to admit she was at least partially right. It was cramped, had no radio, and had no safety equipment save the original 3 point belts. The lack of climate control meant that I was either sweating through my shirt or frost-nipping my toes depending on the time of year. We would never consider taking it for a weekend away, let alone a cross country trip. It was a blast, but it wasn’t a whole car.
So my 911 passed along to a new owner in Wisconsin, a guy a few years younger than me who wanted all of the things it was and cared nothing about the things it wasn’t. I was sad to see it go, but I knew I needed something different. I needed a combination of unrestrained swagger and drive to work comfort. Something that could do smoky, full-lock drifts while I sat comfortably inside listening to “All Things Considered” with the air conditioning on. Basically, I needed the automotive equivalent of snakeskin cowboy boots with massaging gel insoles.
As you probably guessed, I found that perfect combination in my 1994 Camaro Z28…I’ll tell you all about it in part 4.