Olde School Porker
I drive an iconic, high-performance European luxury car. Well, let me modify that a bit. I drive an iconic, high-performance European luxury car made in 1983. And so could you, for the cost of a new Kia. It’s a Porsche 911SC coupe— a car that’s no longer rare, collectible, fast, luxurious or particularly desirable. But it is revealing. A hundred and eighty horsepower! A pair of 225/50-16 tires in the rear! A top speed of 135 mph! Look out Kia, here I come! My 25-year-old Porker highlights just how far automobiles have advanced since the time when Koreans were best known for their canine cuisine.
My SC’s 3.0-liter flat-six originally came with a fuel-injection kludge (before I converted it to carburetors, just to rub in the antiquity). It boasted an air intake system so convoluted the oxygen entered through the front door, walked upstairs to the guest bedroom, climbed out the window, crawled back in through the kitchen window and then went down to the basement to find the combustion chambers. The less said about the tangled exhaust and constricted catalytic converters the better. But hey, it had dual-zone climate control!
We’re talking two levers that resemble lawnmower throttles, one left and one right. The levers pull rusty cables that close trapdoors in the exhaust system. (It’s a favorite path for mice seeking to occupy occasionally-driven Porsches.) The movement forces air to circulate around the exhaust pipes before entering the cabin. Bonus! Any oil that leaks out of the lower cam covers (which seal about as well as a re-corked bottle of Argentinean Merlot) instantly vaporizes and blends with the hot air warming the cabin. And if the exhaust springs a leak, you die of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The rest of a vintage 911’s cooling/fan/defrost controls remain a mystery– even to people who have owned these cars for decades. Some levers go left, some right. I carry a six-inch length of dowel to jam into the fan lever at full displacement, which sometimes seems to bring the windshield defogger to life. The air conditioning never worked well, and you had to remove and bench-press the crappy compressor to do any minor engine work. The Germans apparently did their hot-weather testing in Provence.
And speaking of engine work, every 12,000 miles you had to gap the valves (Stuttgart had yet to discover hydraulic lifters). If you didn’t, bad things happened. My friend John Phillips III (Car and Driver scribe par excellence) admitted in a recent e-mail, “I had a 1974 911S whose valves I failed to adjust at the proper interval. This resulted in a catastrophic engine event in Maumee, Ohio. I had to leave the car at a gas station, call a cab, ride to the Toledo Airport, rent a car, drive to Columbus, rent a truck and trailer, go pick up the car, drop it at Midwestern Porsche-Audi, and leave it there for two months.” Amor vincit omnia.
[A Porsche dealer charged the equivalent of changing your Toyota’s timing belt every 12k miles for this trickery. These days, amid shrieked curses, slowly spreading pools of oil and dripping knuckle-blood, I perform the job myself. I use a feeler gauge that looks like a laparoscope tool for a prostatectomy. It beats working for a living.]
The 911 SC’s cruise control consisted of a soup can-size pneumatic cylinder and a Bourdon cable, most likely interchangeable with the one used for the “climate control.” I threw all that away along with the a/c, so I have no idea how it works. But I don’t think any electrons are involved. Did I mention the SC’s road manners? Probably not, since I spun the car so hard at Lime Rock last month I popped the windshield loose. People who are serious about making older 911s handle put rods, bars, tubes, straps and welds all over the place in an often vain attempt to make both sides of the car fly in formation.
Had I purchased my SC back in the fall of ’82, it would have set me back about $35k moderately optioned: sunroof, a/c, manual leather seats, lousy Bosch fog lights, an even worse AM/FM Blaupunkt and some other stuff (all of which I’ve sacrificed to the Great God of Lightness). That’s the equivalent of almost $73,500 in today’s money, or enough cash to buy a brand new, 325hp Porsche 911S (with no options whatsoever).
But what the hell. Old 911’s respond to tweaking as well as a ’36 Ford flathead. My heavily-breathed upon example puts out a dynoed 287 hp, and I love it when people ask me if it’s new. Of course, just about any new car you can name would be faster, safer, more comfortable, more reliable, handle with greater assurance and stop quicker than a stock '83 911SC. But it wouldn’t be better.
I'm the automotive editor of Conde Nast Traveler and a freelancer for a variety of other magazines as well. Go to amazon.com and read more about me than you ever wanted to know if you do a search for either of my current books, "The Gold-Plated Porsche" and "Man and Machine." Been a pilot since 1967 (single- and multi-engine land, single-engine sea, glider, instrument, Cessna Citation 500 type rating all on a commercial license) and I use the gold-plated Porsche, a much-modified and -lightened '83 911SC, as a track car.
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