Here's a true story, proof that if you hang around long enough something bad is going to happen and you'll probably be the cause of it. Such is life. It also remembers a one-in-a-million car guy we lost recently. Read on.
There was a catch in John Dixon's voice. "I have really bad news," he said.
I pressed the cellphone closer to my ear. The photographer, Scott Dukes, and I were seated at one of those cheap, wood-edged tables in the bustling dining room of a Travelodge, or maybe a Super 8, somewhere between Columbus and Dayton. In my other hand, a plastic spoon dangled over a bowl of soggy Cheerios. The color was draining from my face. Dukes saw it happening from across the table.
"What's wrong?" he said.
I snapped the phone shut and took a breath. "The car's totaled."
Totaled. A Porsche 959. One of 337, including pre-production models and prototypes. A rare bit of open-wallet R&D that foresaw an entire automotive feature set — from four-channel ABS to speed-adjustable dampening to torque-splitting all-wheel-drive — that would become de rigueur in machines built two decades later. It's the kind of car you'd want aliens to find 10,000 years from now, just to prove we weren't complete dipshits.
John had wanted to stretch its legs a bit on that gorgeous October morning before Scott and I arrived in Dayton to drive and shoot it for 0-60 magazine. The car had been sitting in a garage for months, and John aimed to give it a thorough shakedown before we got there. He'd been on his way home when — holy hell — he really said it was totaled, didn't he?
That was five years ago. Earlier this month, John passed away at age 60 after a short illness. His passing sparked a vivid memory of the 959 incident, a tragedy whose impact I still hadn't fully processed. Of course — forgive me, John — he never would have wanted to be remembered just for that.
John lived to help others catch the same Porsche bug he got in 1970, when some hotshot in a 911 outgunned his big-block Camaro. He was the kind of guy who'd be not just willing, but also excited, to let some anonymous, shaggy bastard waving a glossy magazine drive one of the rarest, most important, and most irreplaceable cars in his garage. A car like the Porsche 959 is made to be driven, he'd say. So let's go drive it.
The accident itself wasn't my fault. I wasn't even there. I hadn't been the woman rushing in her Toyota to a second job, who blew a stop sign on a Saturday morning and condemned two moving objects — one of whose bodywork was constructed largely of Aramid Kevlar and fiberglass-reinforced epoxy resin — to occupy the same region of spacetime. But I'd been the butterfly whose flapping wings formed the hurricane.
It started as a magazine article idea. I was going to travel around driving other people's Porsches and talk to them about the Porsche allure. Simple enough. The 959 was the first car on my list. It was a car I mooned over as a teenager in 1987, memorizing the specs on a long train ride to freshman year in Albany, New York. The Group B rally roots; 2.8-liter flat six; twin, sequential turbochargers; all-wheel-drive; 450 hp, 369 lb-ft; 7600 RPM redline; 0-62 in 3.9 seconds, curb weight of 3,400 pounds (give or take); top speed: 195.
But John's Porsche 959 wasn't the sports car I knew in the abstract, of magazine spreads and shopping-mall posters and spec sheets and breathless lunchroom conversations. John's car was a real, physical thing. He dealt with it in actual dollars and cents and DMV headaches and maintenance schedules and other car-ownership whatnot. It was something he'd wanted and bought with his own money and drove with pleasure as often as he could. Whereas I just thought it would be cool to drive some idea called Porsche 959 and write about it for a magazine — living the dream. Then the dream collided with reality at an intersection in Dayton, Ohio.
John wasn't merely an owner of a Porsche 959. He was also a pioneer in getting 959s into the U.S. legally. Back in 2001, John and Bryan Milazzo, who convinced the DOT to approve the 959 for importation under the 1999 "Show and Display" law — which took the hail-mary pass out of bringing significant, non-conforming cars into the country — beat Bill Gates to a clean U.S. registration of a 959. Yes, John had the first street-legal Porsche 959 in the country.
John insisted Scott and I make the drive to Dayton anyway, that he'd find us something else to drive (he had a vast collection of Porsches and VWs) that would make our trip worthwhile. He was a gracious and attentive host, giving us a cheerful tour of his astounding "Taj Ma Garage" — a 23,000-square-foot industrial complex that housed his car collection, a dozen or so wall murals and a truly massive rec room — despite the emotions welling up. I couldn't imagine how he felt, though as we talked about it, he seemed to relish the challenge of getting the 959 rebuilt.
I settled on a green '79 Turbo, and drove it gingerly. Scott took some great photos of it on an industrial street around the corner from John's complex, and the article ran in 0-60 that winter. Last year, I checked in with John to see if he ever got the 959 fixed. I crossed my fingers and read his response. Here's his last e-mail to me:
After about over eighteen months after its demise my 959 has become somewhat of a display piece at the Taj Ma Garaj after declining its repair.
Although the factory did say that they would be willing to take the car back and return it as new. It made no financial sense to have twice the car's value in its reconstruction.
So now it sits in its custom built Porsche racing trailer complete with the "Bud Light Girl" in the Taj East Wing. Unfortunately I don't think that would make very good fodder in your magazine for the Porsche faithful.
As much as I wished he'd gotten the 959 fixed — even if just selfishly to assuage my own guilt — seeing John's sense of humor tackle fate and pin it to the ground made for an equally inspiring, if unexpected outcome. And that's how he'd want to be remembered.