If you’ve been reading my columns on Hagerty’s website, you know that I’m a technical guy. If you have a car problem and want to fix it yourself, it’s my job to (hopefully) teach you how to do it.
This week, I’m taking a different route. I’m going to tell you a story about what you shouldn’t do. It’s a sad tale that often sends me into a darkened room, inconsolable. Even on gorgeous days, I sigh for the depth of my loss.
I am mainly a vintage BMW guy, but about 15 years ago I scratched a lifelong itch and bought a 1982 Porsche 911SC. What I really wanted was an older, small-bumpered “long-hood” 911, but in terms of price, that ship sailed long before that. In contrast, 911SCs were commodities. With 57,972 produced from 1978–82 and 25,606 sent to North American dealerships, they were hardly rare. But they had a great reputation as “the” air-cooled 911 to buy.
The bodies were galvanized, so they didn’t rot like those early small-bumpered models. The 3.0-liter engines, with their CIS injection systems, were largely bulletproof, provided that they’d been updated with the Carrera oil-fed timing chain tensioners and the “pop valve” that prevented the airbox from exploding if they backfired. And you could find them in driver-quality condition for 10 grand—more like 15 grand if they were pretty, shiny, and well-maintained.
So I looked. And when, in the dead of winter in 2003, I found a 1982 911SC with Rosewood paint, Targa top, and whale tail, I melted as soon as the seller pulled off the cover. I said to myself, “If you don’t buy this one right now, you need to shut up and stop telling everyone how you’ve always wanted an air-cooled 911.” So I went for it. I paid just under $10,000 and was as happy as … well, I was as happy as a car guy with his first Porsche.
The SC was great. I loved its simple and direct driving experience, with no power steering or ABS. I loved its frog-like countenance. I loved the perfect seating position. I loved the flawless spacing of the gears. I loved the way you could hear the car’s 11 quarts of oil gurgle. The Targas had a bad reputation because of how the top, the integrated roll bar, and glass rear window destroyed both the lines of the car and the chassis rigidity. But I loved how the Targa top was almost as good as a convertible, in terms of making you feel like you were driving a fully-open car. And, while over time whale tails came to connote the cocaine-fueled excesses of the 1980s, I loved the lines of the Targa with the tail.
The single most surprising thing about the car was its handling. I’d read for years about the 911’s legendary problem with trailing throttle oversteer, the back end’s tendency to come around if you lifted off the gas in a corner due to the weight transfer off the rear tires and the resulting loss of grip. That was something to be aware of, to be sure, but when you drove the car, trailing throttle oversteer wasn’t the dominant sensation.
Instead, what you felt was that, when you began to push the car around an entrance ramp, the steering wheel would fight you. The harder you drove it, the more it fought, and the harder you needed to grip the wheel. At first I wondered if something was wrong with my car, but I learned that they all do that. The front wheels of a 911 have a lot of caster (like rake on a motorcycle), and as you corner, it creates a force that tries to return the steering wheel to the center. With no power steering to assist you, you need to put a fair amount of arm and upper body strength into keeping the steering wheel positioned properly when you corner. Coming from a BMW-centric world, the sensation was completely foreign, but I soon began craving it and wanted to experience it again and again and again.
With the bugs worked out the SC totally lived up to its reputation as a 911. I did have to drop the engine to squelch the oil leaks from shrunken seals around the oil cooler, but other than a fuel pump and starter motor, plus the standard maintenance stuff, very little went wrong with it. I drove it daily whenever the weather was good, until it turned 25 years old and (in my state, Massachusetts) was eligible to go on my Hagerty policy along with my BMW 3.0CSi.
At some point, the SC began leaking oil again. I traced the motherlode to the seals at the ends of the oil return tubes that connect the heads to the case. These tubes were originally installed with the heads off the engine, but I learned that the trick is to remove the old tubes by destroying them, and replace them with new-style telescoping tubes that can be expanded into place without needing to remove the heads.
I ordered a set of six telescoping tubes but found that, unless I first removed the heater boxes and the exhaust manifolds, I couldn’t access and replace all of them. I looked at the nuts and studs holding the manifolds to the heads, and I saw that heat and time had shrunk the diameter of the studs to that of pencil lead. All of the advice about using heat and wax in my recent series on removing stuck fasteners notwithstanding, it was pretty obvious that if I put any torque whatsoever on the exhaust studs, they’d go tang and snap off, and I’d be in a world of pain. I changed the oil return tubes that I could reach, which squelched most of the oil leakage, and called it good enough.
About six years ago, the stability of my long-time engineering job became rocky. My employer abruptly closed the 12,000-square-foot warehouse in which I not only worked, but also stored several cars—one of my BMW 2002s, a 635CSi, and the 911SC. At the time, I also owned two daily drivers, a Suburban, and three other enthusiast BMWs—the 1973 3.0CSi I’ve had forever, a 2002tii, and a Z3 M Coupe (a.k.a. “the clown shoe”) that I’d bought a few years prior. With kids in college, something had to give—in fact, the several somethings that were in the warehouse.
Although I loved the 911SC, I thought about it rationally. I hadn’t put a lot of money into it. It wasn’t appreciating. It was worth about four mortgage payments. The “clown shoe” I’d recently bought was newer, smoother, had that great planted-looking rear end, and was much quicker than the Porsche, if go-fast jollies were what I wanted.
If I was going to sell the SC, I thought, I should sell it now before the oil leak became worse and I needed to deal with pulling the heater boxes and manifolds to change the remaining three oil distribution tubes. And besides, I thought, there was no reason to think that this would be my only chance at owning an air-cooled 911. I could sell this one and, when my job situation stabilized, spend more like $15,000–$20,000 and buy a late ’80s Carrera with the silkier G50 transmission and hydraulic clutch. All pretty rational, right? Isn’t this exactly what a car guy is supposed to do to balance passion and reality, stay on the correct side of fiscal responsibility, and stave off financial ruin?
So I put the 911SC on eBay with the kind of crushingly-detailed description I traditionally pen when selling a car. I described the minor oil leak, explained that the Rosewood paint was showing its age, and photographed the quarter-sized rust blister that was forming on the driver’s door. I also had it on Craigslist. Local Porsche guys came and looked at it. In the end, it sold on eBay for about what I paid for it. A multi-level car carrier arrived and took it away. I was sad, but I thought, hey, I paid $10,000 for the car, I drove it for 10 years, it didn’t need much, and I sold it for $10,000. I did great. At some point I’ll buy a newer, nicer 911. I do this with BMWs all the time. Why should this be any different?
This was six years ago. My timing could not have been worse. Not even three months later, the 911 craze began engulfing not just the small-bumpered longhoods, but anything and everything air-cooled. I watched with horror as 911SC values steadily climbed. Today, even with its condition issues, I couldn’t buy that SC back for 30 grand.
We all have our tales of the one that got away. I recently met a guy who appeared to have the granddaddy of all such regret stories. He told me that in the 1970s, he was offered one of the six original Shelby Daytona coupes for $5,000. He said that he was in college and begged his father to loan him the money. His dad reportedly said, “Now, what are you going to do with a car like that?” Dad did, of course, have a point. Despite the whole woulda-coulda-shoulda thing that we all engage in, even if you have a crystal ball that accurately projects a car’s value decades into the future, few people have the wherewithal to pounce like this.
If you think about it, in order to buy the one that got away, you’d need to pay three times—first to purchase the car, second to store the car (every month, for decades), and third to buy another car since you wouldn’t be driving this one. And then, you’d need to keep making the decision not to cash out and sell it. I mourn for all the BMW E30 M3s and E28 M5s that could be had for $8,500 in the 1990s, but truth be told, had I bought them, I wouldn’t still own them anyway—they would’ve been used as daily drivers and sold off as part of the normal cycle of ownership.
But here’s what stings so badly about the 911SC. Certain things in this life are about buy-in. I used to rent a place for two weeks every summer on the island of Nantucket (I could never afford to buy), and I remember feeling red with jealousy when I went to the hardware store and overheard a guy talking about needing to replace the screened door on his house. His house. It didn’t matter to me whether his house was big or small or inland or on the water or in great condition or falling down. He had a house. He had bought in. I didn’t. And I never would, because the more time elapsed, the more prices escalated out of sight. It’s like watching a ship sail away.
It’s the same way with cars. We watch the objects of our passion recede from the reasonable expectation of ownership. What’s especially painful about the SC is that, when I purchased it, I had bought in. To me, 10 grand isn’t chump change. The car had even made it past the point where I was no longer using it as a daily driver. It was a garaged, lightly-used enthusiast vehicle. It was on my Hagerty policy. It was already outside the normal cycle of ownership. It was safe from the needs of selling one aging daily driver to get a newer more reliable one, but not from the vicissitudes of fortune. A lightly-used enthusiast car is low-hanging fruit when we need money, or at least think we do.
As it turned out, when all this happened six years ago, I didn’t actually lose my job. Obviously I was happy about that, but I was pissed that I had let the Porsche slip away. Ibought in, and then I’d cashed out. Even though all of the reasons why I’d cashed out made sense (and still make sense when I read them), it still hurts.
Don’t feel too badly for me. I don’t really sit in darkened rooms brooding about it. It’s one car. One error in judgement. One example of bad timing. Plus, since selling the SC, I’ve bought other interesting cars. I currently own the ’73 3.0CSi, two ’72 2002tiis, a ’73 Bavaria, a ’79 Euro 635CSi, a ratty little Z3 roadster, the Z3 M Coupe, a 2003 530i stick sport (my daily), a 2013 Honda Fit Sport (my wife’s daily), a dead ’74 Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special (long story), and a ’96 Winnebago Rialta. I am blessed with the appreciating values of the 3.0CSi, the tiis, and the M Coupe. In fact, during another employment hiccup last year, I seriously considered selling the M Coupe, but l’affair 911SC loomed large in my memory and stayed my hand.
If you ever see me looking longingly at some air-cooled 911 Targa with a tail, please put your arm around my shoulder, buy me a beer, and tell me about the BMW 3.0CSi you sold at exactly the wrong time. That would set the automotive universe back on an even keel.
Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel Magazine for 30 years. His new book, Ran When Parked: How I Road-Tripped a Decade-Dead BMW 2002tii a Thousand Miles Back Home, and How You Can, Too, is available here on Amazon. In addition, he is the author of Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic and The Hack Mechanic™ Guide to European Automotive Electrical Systems. Both are available from Bentley Publishers and Amazon. Or you can order personally inscribed copies through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com.