The way people talk about the Porsche 911 approaches cult status, which always put me off towards the car. But a few months back I got to drive one for the first time - a 1969 911T - and I get it now.
I get why people obsess over these little cars. I get why they've been making them in some form or another for over half a century. I finally, wonderfully get it.
[Full Disclosure: this particular 911 is from the fleet of the Classic Car Club of Manhattan (find it here), graciously loaned for a day in New York State's twisting, crumbling backroads.]
According to the original brochure, this car comes with independent suspension and disc brakes all around, rack-and-pinion steering, two Weber carburetors, and a five-speed manual. The dry weight is 2,250 pounds, and the engine is a two-liter, air-cooled, eight main bearing, flat, six-cylinder. It makes 110 horsepower and the firing order is 1-6-2-4-3-5, if you're curious.
What I first notice about the car is all the things that don't seem right. The carbs flood easy. The gearshift is impossibly long and slow. The body feels stout, but impossibly dinky at the same time. The doors clunk like everyone says, but they seem dangerously thin. I get the same feeling looking at the a-pillars around the windshield, and the little struts that make up the suspension. The pedals are strong but their bottom-mounted stalks look so very narrow. The only thing in front of my legs is the gas tank. I do not like the prospect of crashing. The car makes that possibility abundantly clear.
There's always a right way to drive a car and a wrong way.
There isn't any car that tells you about the wrong way as clearly as an old 911.
I tiptoe down the road for the first few miles. All I'm thinking about is snap oversteer. The weight in the back weighs on me. I don't know if it's all the stories that I've read, or if I really can feel the pendulum waiting to swing around. I mean, you think 'oh yeah, the car has the engine in the back.' You don't understand. It's all the way out there, with the entirety of the motor mounted behind the rear axle. It's like Porsche designed a whole car, and then stuck an engine onto the back of it.
After a couple runs, I start to press the car a bit. The engine has this alluring, inorganic sound to it. It's not a roar, so much as an increasing thrum that fills your ears. The tach doesn't scream up, but the engine feel eager and happy to rev to the redline. The speeds I find myself doing on straight beats between turns with just 110 horsepower are a little disconcerting. And then I look up, and I see a corner rushing up at me.
I try to slow the car as much as I can, but the pavement starts to break away approaching the sharp right and immediate left. I turn in and the whole car rears up on its soft suspension. It scrabbles, squeals, starts to push wide. It feels like a giant hand lifts the front wheels off the ground, that's how little grip there is from the skinny tires.
I'm sure the back end is about to swing around, and put me (and my boss in the passenger seat) into a guardrail.
But that doesn't happen. The Porsche scares me, scolds me, but doesn't kill me. The speed scrubs off, and we motor away. It's almost stern how this 911 tells you about its limits.
It's like every aspect of the car requires a measured, thought-through approach.
The suspension, for instance, is almost unbelievably soft, so you're comfortable and never displaced by bumps. It also means that you want to set the car up into a corner, get the weight of the car and that rear engine working for you. Scream in too fast, and everything starts to fight against you. Only when you settle down and settle in, do you feel like you're back in the groove.
The steering wheel itself, changes how you approach a road. You look at it, huge, and see just two double spokes running straight across the middle of the wheel. It's made out of some kind of Bakelite plastic. There are some grooves for your fingers around the back, but on a summer day like on my drive, sweat makes it dangerously slippery. You feel a need to get yourself driving gloves not for fashion, but as a necessity for operation.
The thing about a Porsche 911 is that it doesn't even feel like a car. It feels like an instrument. A tool for extracting speed out of a road. Not so much something you drive as it is something you operate.
And it's clearly an obsolete device. A 2014 Corolla could probably hustle down a road as fast as this '69, but the 911 makes demands, requires a particular set of motions from you.
Let me tell you about one corner and you'll see what's sort of backwards about how this car leaves an impression on you.
It's the 'dead man's curve' of this stretch. You come around a left and it looms ahead of you. A sharp right into an opening left. You can't really see the turn, because on both side it's lined right by the road with stacked stone walls. The surface is cracked like a dry lake bed, and it drops away as you enter the first bit of the right. You sense the rocks' sharp arms reaching out at your fenders when you squeal past.
In the 911, though the curves, it's like there isn't any car at all. No steering wheel, no tires. You yourself go down the road. You don't hear the engine; you're the one shouting up the revs.
It's strange, because the Porsche doesn't seem like a car that would disappear around you. The controls are deliberate. The proper method of driving is obtuse.
But it's exactly this level of distance that makes the 911 what it is. This old Porsche isn't the fastest car out there, but it is one of the most involved. You lose yourself in the practice of driving the car.
So I finally get why people obsess over these spindly German sports cars. They're far from perfect, and that's just what I like about them.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove