Main | What to do with 1000 horsepower? »
Wednesday
May042011

Myth or magic? I finally drive a torsion bar Carrera.

I’m a long-time car nut. I didn’t play with G.I Joes or Play Doh as a kid, I was only interested in my toy car collaction. I could tell a Ford V-8 from a Chevy at 8 years old by sight and sound. I’ve lapped an Audi R8 at Infineon raceway. I can describe Formula 1 engine technology in detail. I’ve owned everything from fire-breathing muscle cars to turbocharged rally specials, and I can explain the function of every single thing under your car’s hood. Add it all up and I cannot believe it took me until age 42 to actually drive a torsion bar 911.

OK technically I’ve piloted one before. That was two decades ago in a euro Carrera 3.0 for about 3 miles. My college girlfriend’s dad owned it, and I spent the entire time ensuring no-one ran into me so I could impress him with my responsibility. The only thing I remember is that it had the world’s worst shifter – a 915 with bad bushings which delivered that ‘stick in a bucket of oatmeal’ feeling.

Today's experience is different. I have a well sorted one owner ’87 Carrera Targa at my disposal. The car is freshly detailed. It’s a sunny Saturday, and I will zing it down an epic backroad. Keys in hand, heart rate up, I am truly ready to experience one of these things.

Opening the door reveals high quality materials everywhere. Seats, gauges, door handles, this Porsche may be aged but it exudes quality. The doors close with that epic “ching” not heard anywhere else in the car universe…including later Porsches. I familiarize myself with the controls, bottom hinged pedals adding to the intensity. Even the start key is in a unique position; left of the steering column.

The ergonomics are combination of old school German function and “screw you”. I need to sit offset to the right to reach the pedals properly. The steering wheel and shifter require a reach. The ventilation controls are way down low on the console. This all harkens back to the original layout of the early 60’s and not a lot has changed. To sum up, if you want to drive this special car, you must adapt to it…it will not adapt to you.

I fire the engine and hear the classic, bassy whir of air-cooled 911. Everyone knows what it sounds like; that rumbly rash from the rear. In the cockpit it’s the same, albeit with the bass turned up a notch.

Moving off from rest imparts a true sense of occasion. It feels, sounds, even smells special. This car is a full 24 years old but passers-by still stare as I burble past. The floor mounted shifter requires a decided reach but snicks into gear with a surprisingly direct and positive motion. This is a later G50 gearbox car, so that part of it is up to snuff. The flywheel is the perfect weight for the engine, making smooth shifts the norm instead of the exception.

After building the Carrera up in my mind for so long I expected a lot more torque from the 3.2L six down low but that just isn’t the case. It has decent shove under 4,500 rpm, but that’s about it….decent. Once 4,500 arrives it gets on the cams and goes, but below that I’m reminded that this is an old-school engine. There’s no variable valve timing, no Varioram, none of the tricks currently used to help motors punch above their displacement weight. The compromises are felt here; it's a short stroke, big valve engine tuned to push out the power at higher revs instead of the low end and midrange. This puts more responsibility in my lap to extract performance from the car.

 

Once I’m in the twisties, the steering wiggles, worms, and and tugs in my hands like a live animal. This isn’t steering feel, it’s steering music. With no power assist it also requires two hands at all times unless you’re benching 4 plates on a regular basis. I soon understand that this car is a workout to drive. It’s not tiring per se, just physical. The brakes need a hard shove. The steering demands both arms and all muscles on deck. The shifter doesn’t fall to hand, I have to reach for it. Add it up and I can see what it was like to drive a race car in the old days….the design was to make the car fast, and driver comfort was definitely an afterthought.

As my pace increases, I decide not to push things too far. Kept under the limit of adhesion, there is no trace of that infamous tail happiness. The Carrera just corners flat and has great traction. I can be aggressive with my inputs and the car likes it. I feel the road through the steering, and every bump announces itself through the suspension into the body and then to my lower back and torso. After a while I get a really great flow going. Turning, shifting, on the throttle, off the throttle, it all starts to meld together into one continuous fluid motion. I move around in the seat, anticipating the car’s reactions, and that burly soundtrack from the rear encourages upping the pace. This is truly engaging stuff.

It’s such a connected experience driving this car, this icon. Taking the helm imparts a sense of specialness that some feel is lacking in cars like the Boxster or even the 996. It’s like piloting automotive royalty. Even the brilliant 968 comes off as clinical compared to this Carrera. I can easily say that I “get it” now. These cars aren’t about outright speed or tire smoking acceleration, they’re about feel; sensory perception, sensory overload. You absorb feedback through your entire body, and your entire body is then required to extract the most from the car. It’s a terrific mental and physical challenge. After all this time dreaming about 911s I could have easily been disappointed, but the reverse is true. I now have more reverence for the car than ever before. Consider my head dunked into the river and my baptism complete people, what a glorious day.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>