16 April 2013

5,661 Miles in a Porsche 911: The Search

Editor’s Note: Yoav Gilad is Editor in Chief at [keep it] Wide Open, a website dedicated to bringing the thrill and romance of cars to the enthusiast. Yoav recently undertook a cross-country journey in a Porsche 911 to celebrate the model’s 50th year. This is the first story in a three-part series documenting the adventure.

After much consideration and discussion Wide Open concluded that the only appropriate car for our forthcoming Amelia Island Concours cross-country run was a Porsche 911. The only concerns were the car’s mechanical condition and the ability to do roughly 6,000 miles in a week and a half.

After several false starts and severely inadequate contenders, I ran into my friend, car-guy Nicolai Iuul of Ammo Films, who recommended we speak with local Porsche mechanic, William Benoit. “William’s a lovely guy. If anyone can find you a car, it’s him.” Wide Open visited William’s small, two-stall shop in a Venice, Calif., alley the following day and he reluctantly agreed to help, in spite of the fact that he thought the compromises between budget and mechanical requirements were too great.

The next morning, at approximately 8:30 a.m. the phone rang, and Mr. Benoit was on the other end: “I think I may have found you a car, but it won’t be around till next Saturday.” He went on to give some specifics and we agreed to meet.

Finally, the day of our meeting arrived and as I rounded the corner to the alley I saw William speaking to a youngish brown-haired guy. More importantly, I saw the silver tail of a 911 peeking out from behind William’s Cadillac. Introductions were made and the owner, Rob, spent some time highlighting certain merits and describing his experiences with the old Porsche. We opened the engine cover and it was clean (for a 35-year-old car). I glanced quickly underneath the car and was relieved to see no puddle of oil.

It was finally time for the drive and Rob took the first turn. He handled the car gently and told me he’d owned it for about 10 years. He was the ideal former owner, and I wished all the previous owners had been this easy on the car. I don’t think he revved the engine over 3500 RPM once. Regardless, his shifting seemed labored and deliberate; I hoped that was lack of experience.

When it was finally my turn, I discovered that it wasn’t Rob’s fault. The shifter was incredibly notchy. You had to be simultaneously gentle and forceful — gentle to move the shifter deftly and forceful to engage the gear. But the 911 was compliant and made the right sounds. We drove around neighborhoods for about five minutes and the brakes were solid. I decided to push a bit and I swung it right through an uncontrolled intersection. It held the turn and the unassisted steering was direct and communicative.

The power, while certainly not excessive, was sufficient and it was clear that this little Porsche was meant to be pushed. It bogged a bit under 2000 RPM and seemed to find its rhythm above 3000RPM. I asked Rob if we could take it on the highway and he could probably tell that I was enjoying myself. What car enthusiast wouldn’t be enjoying themselves? Here was a car with Go Kart-like steering, great brakes and good throttle response.

We got on the 90 and I pushed the 911 over the speed limit. It was solid and felt like it could continue easily to some very illegal top speeds. Toward the end of the 90, I lifted off the gas pedal slightly to see if the rear would get squirrely but it stayed planted through the turn. I was sold. Reliability was an issue, but at the end of the day, “even a new car can break down,” William, the mechanic, lectured me, his blue eyes unblinking, “there are no guarantees.”

I’d have to put my faith in the fact that this car was powered by 1930s technology and that the German engineers had refined it over the preceding 40 years. The compression numbers were consistent and acceptable and all that was left was to negotiate and sign. After a very brief negotiation Rob and I shook hands. Then I drove it home.

I wanted to get a feel for the Porsche and get it used to moving again over large distances since it had been parked for the majority of the last four years. The following day we fired up the flat-six engine, let her warm up and headed for Topanga. The sky was clear and so were the freeways.

I arrived  in near-record time and quickly headed for coffee to break the cold of the morning, met up with friends and showed off the new/old Porsche. Someone offered to buy it on the spot, but we were set on Amelia Island.

The following day we drove out to Anaheim for dinner with my parents. I was very surprised that my dad was really taken by the 911. He’s not a car guy and usually responds with a sarcastic, “that’s delightful,” when I share some tidbit of car trivia. But he genuinely seemed to enjoy some of the Porsche’s eccentricities and the overall presence of the car. Cool!

The final shakedown was a run to Palm Springs a couple of days later. The car arrived in the oasis without a whimper and the oil temperature never topped 190 degrees. It ran like a champ! When power was needed to pass on the freeway, there were always ample reserves. When the brakes were suddenly checked, they slowed the car without drama. I’d still have to drive back to Los Angeles, but we were “go for launch.”

Everything was ready for the journey: the car was checked out, running well and my co-driver, Anthony Cioffi a friend who I went to Art Center College of Design with,  was all set. I couldn’t wait to execute this plan, which had been hatched a couple of months earlier.

We’d already received our press passes for the Amelia Island Concours, which was honoring both the Porsche 911 and the Ford GT40. We love the GT40 and would do just about anything to drive one cross-country. Unfortunately, our insurance (and our budget) wouldn’t quite allow it. So, we decided to seek out a decent 911, to honor the marque as well. So Happy 50th, 911!

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