Family Resemblance: Tracing the Lineage of the Porsche 911
“We need some music. It’s too quiet in here.”
Andreas Preuninger, head of GT development for Porsche, is sitting shotgun in an Amethyst Metallic Porsche 911 Cabriolet (964 edition) somewhere south of San Francisco. He connects his iPhone to the cabrio’s retro navigation system and scrolls through his music library. “What sounds good to you? I have Green Day. Kid Rock. Metallica?”
And that’s how I found myself blasting “American Idiot” while slicing through coastal California’s winding roads en route to Monterey, California. But it does raise the question: Why on earth am I driving a purple Porsche with Andreas Preuninger in the first place?
It all begins—and ends—with the iconic Porsche 911. Since the 911’s introduction in 1963, Porsche has built more than 1 million of them. To commemorate this milestone, seven models spanning all generations have traveled from the Porsche museum in Stuttgart to California. The ultimate destination from here is Monterey Car Week, where the 911s will first be featured at Werks Reunion and then take to the track at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for some celebratory parade laps.
The plan seems simple and straightforward: A collection of automotive journalists and Porsche executives will caravan from our hotel in St. Helena to Monterey along a route that winds through some of the most scenic roadways along the coast before plunging inland. Along the way we’ll swap cars at designated points so that we can experience every generation of 911.
First up for me: a 1970 911S Targa furnished in a stunning Gemini Blue Metallic. A tiny surprise greets me when I open the frunk to deposit my modest baggage. The opening is a far cry from the commodious cargo areas of modern 911s: small, shallow, and nowhere near big enough for my duffel. Into the front seat it goes. With 180 hp on tap from a 2.2-liter flat-six, the 2,400-pound Targa has plenty of power to headline this group. I congratulate myself on my impressive lead until I realize the cars behind me are keeping their distance on purpose. She’s a dirty girl; when downshifted and floored, the Targa emits a dank puff of smoke from the tailpipe. Anyone behind the Targa finds his or her recirc button in a hurry. It’s easy to forget all cars used to be like this.
Of all the 911s, this one probably took the most getting used to. Pedals are narrowly spaced, and I adjust my feet to approximate a nimble heel-toe, with mixed results. The footwork shines in comparison to my shifting skills, however. Its five-speed manual is arranged in a dogleg position, meaning first is down and to the left, a fact that I keep repeating out loud so that I don’t forget. Although the shifter slides easily from gate to gate, the detents are vague. I concentrate on not conflating second gear for reverse. And as sleek as the enduring shape is, the seating position feels a lot higher than in a modern 911. Thank goodness for the removable roof.
My original plan was to rotate through the cars in chronological order, starting at the oldest and advancing to the next newer model at each stop until reaching the millionth. But this plan went out the window at the first waypoint. Everyone exited their cars and made a beeline for their favorite choice. It was like a game of Porsche musical chairs in the parking lot of a 76 station, and I found myself without a chair in the form of a water-cooled 2001 996 GT3.
Once upon a time, 380 horsepower was something special. Ditto a 0–60 time under 5 seconds. But in this era of four-door family sedans that can best those figures, this GT3 doesn’t feel immediately special in that all-important seat-of-the-pants way. Perhaps it’s because of the cockpit, which reminds me of how uninspiring the original 996 interior was, or maybe because Preuninger didn’t come onboard until halfway through development. The front end feels too light, exacerbated by steering that’s uncharacteristically vague yet somehow also darty. And although the engine is a priceless mechanical marvel, it’s not well-suited to the sedate pace of the group as we lope westward through the meandering hills near Tomales Bay. Given the GT3’s raw nature, this track-focused wunderkind of its time is surprisingly quieter at speed than the brand-new GT3.
As much as the 996 GT3 feels like a relic of its era, the next car I step into, a Polar Silver 993 Carrera 2, feels absolutely timeless. Maybe it’s because there are only 12,000 kilometers on the odometer, or maybe it’s because the 993 is heralded as the most resolved and sorted version of all air-cooled 911s. Only the Nokia handset in the console betrays its true age. Behind the wheel, the driving experience harks back to the Targa’s direct lightness while adding a welcome touch of solidity that doesn’t interfere with the steering wheel’s communication with my fingertips.
As I head out from Tomales in this silver time capsule, Highway 1 hugs the Pacific Ocean. The road follows the natural contour of the land, resulting in curves that mimic the ebb and flow of the tide. I’m midfield in our caravan, and on the next undulation all I can see is a weaving ribbon of 911s. As the Targa shoots forward at the head of the pack, we all downshift in unison and surge forward, charging the curves like the hand of a spirited conductor chasing the notes in front of a symphony.
If the 993 is the shining example of the air-cooled era, then the 997 is the model that addressed all the complaints about the 996 and then some. Decked out in Cream Beige over an interior color inspired by terra-cotta flooring, this 997 is either stealth or extroversion, depending on where you’re looking. With a route composed of traffic-choked streets, routine highway cruising, and the unfortunate arrival of a garbage truck up a windy mountain pass, the 997 was quiet and comfortable. Add in the air-cooled seats, and this was the perfect pairing for the most uninspiring segment of our drive.
It was after lunch when I got seat time in the purple 964, ameliorated by Preuninger being my co-pilot. In contrast to everything else I’d driven that day, the 964 felt ponderous and reluctant, further hampered by a four-speed automatic that suffocated the verve of the engine. Light and lithe it’s not, seemingly weighed down by all the financial burdens Porsche was experiencing at the time.
I’m in the midst of thinking about all this when Preuninger silences Green Day midscreed. He shakes his head. “We need something from the period! Too much punk.” Preuninger fiddles with his phone. The unmistakable cowbell from Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend” fills the open air around us. Preuninger ratchets up the volume. “That’s more like it!” I nudge the Tiptronic lever forward, the transmission finds third gear, and the engine finally finds its voice. The 964 soldiers ahead, dappled light washing over the purple interior, a rolling kaleidoscope straight out of 1992.
Preuninger’s musical shift isn’t by accident. It’s a choice that resets the tone of the drive, transforming the character of the 964 from Rebel Without a Car to Boulevardier in Charge. Perhaps that’s the key to enjoying this softened, purple lump. Even though Green Day is technically closer to this 964’s actual age, it’s the Loverboy song that brings out its true nature. Memory and nostalgia have a way of making a mush of the past.
The afternoon sun hangs low in the sky as we make our final swap for the day, and now I’m behind the wheel of a literal one-in-a-million car--the millionth 911 ever built. The Irish Green paint, houndstooth seats, and woodgrain trim announce that this is indeed a very special 911 S. It’s an absolute sweetheart on the highway and delivers its 430 horsepower (thanks, Power Pack option) in a swooning rush of torque. One surprising omission was cruise control—but if you think about it, a proper autobahn run is never dictated by a constant speed, and quite soon this car will live the rest of its life in a museum. As the traffic grows thick on approach to Monterey, it’s time to part ways and inch toward the hotel for dinner. One 911 remains, and it’ll have to wait until tomorrow.
One of the best things about Monterey Speed Week is that the entire town is one big car-spotting opportunity. In addition to the hundreds of cars that will be on display at various events during the week, a sizable number of interesting cars from all eras cruise the streets, chill out in public parking lots, and idle in a fast-food drive-thru. The crackle of unmuffled V-8s and raucous four-cylinders bounces like so many sonic pingpong balls up to my hotel balcony. I dream, unsurprisingly, of 911s.
The next morning I clambered into the driver’s seat of the remaining 911—a 1984 Clubsport prototype. Built as a study in producing a lightweight 911, this beauty in white has a hood, front fenders, and doors fabricated from aluminum, handmade fiberglass bumpers, and lightweight glass all around. Although the Clubsport finally made it into production for the 1987–’88 model years, this prototype is one of one. It is probably worth more than all the other models put together. Great. No pressure driving it through massively congested roads to the Werks Reunion.
Right before I set out, the priceless aluminum passenger door opens, and Preuninger looks into the cabin. “Thought you got rid of me?” he asks. He ducks into his seat (no worries about hitting his head on the visor because it’s been removed as part of the weight-saving program) and buckles up, and we’re off.
Once we’re underway, Preuninger looks around the interior of the Clubsport. He gestures to the filler plate on the front dash where the radio should be. “No Loverboy today, hmm?” Then he looks at the doors. “So … why are there speakers?”
Although each 911 I’ve driven from the collection is technically a museum piece, it doesn’t mean that they sit in stasis. The cars are fully maintained, ready to roll at a moment’s notice, and even this example, which is utterly irreplaceable, has just spent the past several days racking up hundreds of miles. And when the cars are shared with a ragtag bunch of passionate automotive journalists, you might intuit that many of those miles are unabashedly spirited. You’d be correct.
Preuninger seems to agree with this philosophy. With the road ahead blissfully clear, he encourages me to dig into it. “The power is so linear and smooth, all the way to redline,” he says by way of permission. And he’s right. As the tach needle shifts hemispheres, the 33-year-old flat-six feels strong and willing, showing no loss of power as we crest 6,000 rpm. The suspension, firm yet never brittle, tells me everything I need to know. I would drive this car for hours. If only I could.
After building a million 911s, Porsche shows no signs of slowing down with its most iconic model. At last count there were 22 varieties of 911 available on a dealer showroom. In light of this astonishing fact, driving the Clubsport is the perfect takeaway from this once-in-a-lifetime sampling. It reinforces my opinion that the best 911 is not necessarily the quickest, the most opulent, or even the most purple. It is as much of an evolution of the concept as it is a distillation of the original formula conceived 50-odd years ago: six cylinders and two drive wheels brought together by a manual transmission.
At dinner on the eve of our drive to Monterey, I had asked Preuninger if he thought the new GT2 RS represented the pinnacle of 911 development. This rear-wheel-drive turbocharged example blasts out more than five times the power of the original 1963 model. It’s hard to believe that the 911 has come this far. But then again, it’s hard to believe a model once slated for extinction in the 1980s now represents the most passionate buyer of the entire brand. So what’s next? Or is this the ultimate 911?
“There might be a day when the 911 platform reaches a limit,” Preuninger muses as he takes a sip of his wine and considers that possibility. The millionth 911 sits just outside the restaurant, the light of the sinking sun fondly caressing its iconic shape. He sets down his glass and looks out at the car. “But today is not that day.”
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September 30, 2017 at 04:08AM
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