Two weeks ago Friday, I kicked off what was planned to be a badass drive from Austin to Los Angeles, delivering my friend’s Porsche 964 to him. I’ve driven from Austin to LA a few times, even in another Porsche, back when I had a 997. I drive across Texas once a year, as I have a habit of buggering off to Marfa to do very little in a cool, artsy town. It should have been easy.
I didn’t get out of Texas before things went terribly wrong.
The 964 recently had a major service done, and I borrowed it a couple weeks earlier to make sure it was squared away. Other than needing an A/C recharge, the car ran perfectly. It has a few tasteful upgrades, making it quicker and grippier than your ‘90 911 C4. It also has a new Blaupunkt head unit with bluetooth and a USB line in, so I could jam out plenty of tunes for the next 1,400 miles.
As a recovering project management consultant, I threw together quick numbers for fuel stops based on a couple different MPG estimates. I made a quick Evernote to track how I was doing. Out in West Texas, you can’t just hit a fuel stop when your tank is low—you stop when you find a town, as they can be 50 or 60 miles apart. You have to plan accordingly.
I packed a bunch of RX Bars, trail mix, bottles of water and Gatorade, a couple cans of Red Bull Sugar Free. The car had spare fuses, relays, and several quarts of oil. I was well-prepared.
Driving out of Texas is no easy task. Interstate 10 is 877.5 miles long. To get from Austin to El Paso takes around nine hours, and that still isn’t halfway to Los Angeles. The stretch between Junction and El Paso is especially boring, as there’s very little between the few small towns. Mostly dirt, mountains in the distance, and a few wind farms. It is not the sort of place you want to break down in May, when temps easily hit triple digits, and your phone is not likely to have much signal.
I left Austin at 9 a.m. Friday morning, planning fuel stops in Ozona, Sierra Blanca (all in Texas), and then Las Cruces, New Mexico, where I’d take a long nap. This was to prepare for covering some miles quickly at night, when less cars were on the road, and would then stop in Tucson, Arizona and Blythe, California on my way to Venice.
I made good time getting out of Austin, and covered the first 228 miles to Ozona. The 80 mph posted speed limit on I-10 really helps too. I got way better fuel economy than expected, and was happy to see that the car was running great for those first few hours. This enthusiasm would quickly be squandered, about 200 miles down the road.
Less than 60 miles from my next stop in Sierra Blanca, I felt a funny jerk from the engine. Ever hit the rev limiter in a gear, forgetting to upshift? As if I lifted throttle, and in a split second floored it again. At first just once, but then about 20 seconds later it hit again. Blip. Not now. I’m in the middle of the desert. Blip. What seemed sporadic turned into every few seconds.
When you cross Texas along I-10, it’s hot, dry, and the elevation climbs. You’re also subject to lesser 91 octane fuel, which isn’t wonderful for any older car. I thought the engine may have a knock, and the elevation, heat, and fast miles are taking its toll on the 3.6-liter flat-six. Once those blips from the engine became frequent, I decided to pull over, check the oil level, pull the negative battery terminal, and let the car chill out.
I somehow had some phone signal, so I called the owner. Much like me, he knows his way around an air-cooled motor, as he just took a job at BBi Autosport after a good run at Cobb Tuning. We agreed to take it easy for a few more miles to see if the behavior adjusted favorably. We were wrong.
Van Horn, Texas is a very bad place for an older Porsche to misbehave. Got problems with your old 911 here? Good fucking luck. It also is home to one of the most disgusting truck stops ever. I thought the snake oil trick of adding octane booster may help with the knock from the engine. With the tank only halfway down, and still far from my planned next stop, I poured in a bottle of booster and topped of the tank. Then the car stalled as soon as I started it up. If I didn’t feed in the throttle, the engine would die.
But I still had plenty of fuel to make it to Las Cruces, for my planned break. For the next 180 or so miles, the car ran consistently, with the oil pressure and temps staying normal, but the blip persisted. The owner of the car and I talked again, and decided to keep going unless something dramatically changed. Catching rush hour traffic in El Paso was brutal. I had to hold throttle in stop and go traffic, and somehow kept it from stalling.
As I cleared El Paso, the car started running fine. The blip mostly went away, and the car was moving smoothly. I got this sense of optimism that would carry me to my next stop. As I pulled up to the pump at the Pilot Travel Center in Las Cruces, I was exhausted. Seven hundred miles covered, with two extra hour-long stops thrown in, and I was worn from being stuck out in the Texas desert heat.
But the car stalled as soon as I made it to the pump. Shit, not again.
I poured in the octane booster, topped off the tank, and limped the car over to a curbside space in the parking lot. I took a break, called the Porsche’s owner, and the troubleshooting began.
With the help of Rion at the Pilot Travel Center, we got to work. Battery cable disconnected, we pulled the O2 sensor cable, and then pulled the MFE relay to replace it with one of the spares. Maybe the fuel pump was going out, so we checked the fuse, which looked new. I checked my numbers from the last fill up, and the fuel economy jumped up to 23 MPG. It had to be running lean. I had been on the road nearly 10 hours, and decided to book a hotel in Tucson, hoping to have us both fresh for the last 700-plus miles. After hooking the battery back up, I tried to fire the engine. It couldn’t hold a start, as it would stall as soon as it would try to fire. I had to call it a night in Las Cruces.
A tow truck on the way, I changed my hotel reservation. Fortunately there was a Holiday Inn Express nearby, and they happily accommodated. The tow truck would drop off the car later that night. Much to my surprise, one of the few non-Texas Whataburger locations was next to my hotel, so I ate in peace, and headed to my room. I also made a reservation with Enterprise, in case I ended up needing another car to get to LA.
With a few hours of sleep and a good shower, I went down to the car. Sadly it still wouldn’t start. Accepting my fate, I called the 964’s owner, we made the call to ditch the car there, and arranged for it to be transported. I’d have to finish this trek in something much less fun.
Thankfully Enterprise had cars available, but nothing cool. A Kia Soul, nicely equipped with satellite radio and Apple CarPlay would be handy for the 750 miles I’d have to cover. Gear switched over from the 964 to the Kia, I headed west.
The Kia Soul is a great package for about $25,000, and was comfortable for that 11-hour drive. Pro tip: If you’re driving across the country along I-10, rest stops in Arizona are insanely clean. Buc-ee’s would be proud.
As I drove through Coachella, during the final stretch, I snapped a picture out of the side window. The mix of sunset, dusty winds, and palm trees made for something great. Forty-one hours and four minutes later, I made it. Four review drives and shoots in the week ahead, it was time to rest up.
So what happened? Well, it was worse than any of us anticipated.
The 964 was picked up by the transporter Tuesday, and made it to BBi Autosport in Huntington Beach Thursday morning. An initial diagnosis indicated that the fuel pump had indeed failed, but it went much worse as the techs dove in.
As they drained the tank, the smell of diesel fuel filled the air. It appears the station I hit in Ozona had diesel confused with premium unleaded, and the Porsche got half a tank of the wrong stuff.
Worried I made a terrible mistake, I checked my receipt. It shows that premium unleaded was paid for, and I know I was at a pump for unleaded. Texas towns usually have separate pumps which are often equipped with green handles. I know I hit the button for 91, and grabbed only the black handle.
It’s crazy that only half a tank of diesel went in there, and took about 200 miles to really take effect. When I topped off in Van Horn, and added the octane booster, it may have helped to an extent, but by then the diesel had done the damage.
The 964’s owner reached out to the station Friday evening, and the attendant said that the manager was out, but that they’d pass along the message. Let’s hope the station straightens this out, as the damage done to the 964’s engine may be fatal.
Thanks for getting me halfway there, little Porsche. I can’t wait to see you back on the road, and take you for a proper spin.