Early on a Sunday morning in the canyons above Los Angeles, the parking lot of Newcomb’s Ranch looks like a race track. A who’s-who of high-end hardware at the common coffee and breakfast stop usually has folks fawning over that newest, hottest ride in the lot. But one recent weekend, a bashed-up silver Porsche 911 was getting all the attention.

“Yeah, I had to swap on bigger tires after the second engine swap,” Al Mata, the 911's owner, said, “when we bored it out to 3.6.”

One week later, we met at the base of Angeles Crest Highway and I rode shotgun as Mata wove his way up the canyon. I’d never been in the car with him before, but there’s a certain deft touch a person gains when they are highly in-tune with their machine. Watching Mata’s steering inputs and gear shifts was like a car-guy sedative. We were flying, but everything was in harmony.

We parked up on an overlook with the sun sinking, light bouncing off the dents and scuffs and blisters on the body. Having given a proper demonstration of this vehicle’s potential, Mata gave me the rundown on his build.

The car has been a labor of love, evolving over time. He started on it in 1999 as just a base 911, it had a 2.7-liter engine. Mata sold the original engine and upgraded to a 3-liter from a later SC and also sourced a local manual transmission. But the 3-liter wasn’t enough. Mata continued to move up to an even bigger engine sourced from another local specialist, and immediately sent it to a local speed shop, rebuilt with a kit, bumping displacement up to the current 3.6 liters.

The curse of SoCal is it has perfect canyon roads and conditions for air-cooled cars, but it seems determined to make them overheat on scalding hot days. But Mata knows these cars, and they’re simple enough that he could work up a creative fix of his own, as he explained:

“It’s got two oil coolers in the front. Remote oil coolers that I’ve installed and I put a little switch to control both on the dash. It’s really nice, it keeps the temperatures cool, especially out here in Los Angeles when you’re stuck in traffic. You can still drive it around and not worry about overheating. I’ve been able to keep it under to 210 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Mata does as much of the regular maintenance and tuning he can on the car at home in his driveway. After the latest bore-out and rebuild, it took some intensive driveway break-in and valve-adjustment tinkering to nail the tune.

“My neighbors are really forgiving about the car being so loud,” he said. “That’s important when you’re breaking in the engine and revving to 4,000 rpm over and over for quite some time.”

Mata had his priorities in line from the beginning, and he bought at just the right moment.

“This is the budget build that I’ve envisioned for a long time. The goal was to try to come up with something that drives really well as well as giving it a nice vintage look. I picked it up in 1999 for $6,900.”

That $6,900, even calculating for inflation, is only roughly equivalent to $10,500 in 2019 dollars. That’s nothing for a classic 911. The market has absolutely exploded in the last fifteen years. So much so, that similar year 911s are now averaging around $30,000 just for a decent running car. Prices rapidly climb as you get into lower miles and special editions, as tracked by Hagerty.

Mata is one of the lucky ones. The classic sports car market has evolved in such a way that a new bargain enthusiast, one who tinkers on a car in the garage, who rigs up their own oil coolers and idly dreams of engine swaps, is priced out of the Porsche market. To find a solid platform for under $10,000, quite a bit under at that, is a pipe dream from the pre-aughts. In 2019, the only classic 911 you can get for 10k is a rolling chassis with no engine and no interior.

While I collected my jaw off the floor and tried not to be too depressed about how inflated the market has become, Mata ran down the chassis modifications:

“The suspension points have all new bushings. I’ve got the poly bronze bushing kit in there as well as the Elephant Racing bump steer kit. It’s got the hollow torsion bars, 22s and 28s in the front and rear respectively, and those are from Sway-A-Way Racing Technology. It also has the gas tank from an ‘81 SE, so it’s a slightly bigger gas tank which gives me a bit more range.”

A little peace of mind on those long canyons jaunts can go a long way, pun intended. Beyond the engine and chassis upgrades, Mata added quite a bit of lightness to his car as well. The interior was completely stripped save for a half-cage, which occupies the area behind both seats. Anything not essential to enhancing the driving experience was removed.

“The previous owner had a turbo tail on it. He tried to make it look like an ‘84 so he had the bigger heavier bumpers on it. I took all that off,” Mata said.

He said he pretty much gutted the rear. “There’s no engine padding or sound deadening and no interior panels,” he said, “I took out the power steering pump and just put a cap on it. When I removed the AC compressor I also sawed off the crossmember piece at back of the engine, that piece of aluminum holding the AC, that’s been chopped off for weight saving.”

No unnecessary weight remains. Mata said the car tips the scales a tad over 2,500 pounds with him in it. His stripped-out 911 is a bonafide featherweight in an age when a new “lightweight” 911T from Porsche still tops 3,100 pounds.

Going so far down the weight savings rabbit hole is usually territory inhabited by track-day and time-trial junkies looking to shave milliseconds and eke those last few miles-per-hour out of each lap.

But Mata hasn’t gotten there. Yet.

I took a moment to ask him about his favorite experience in the car. Mata’s voice dropped and he leaned in.

“No, I don’t think I can mention that,” he said. “It doesn’t have to do with driving.”

He swears this is his daily driver, and a good one at that. Luckily, he works from home, so he doesn’t need to use the car very often during the week, though he has taken it on a few roadtrips, most notable a trip to boiling Lake Havasu in summertime to test out the new oil coolers. “I came back with one arm really like three times darker than the other one just from the sun,” he said. “I have no AC in there, so yeah it was hot.”

Turns out he removed the part of the car that keeps him cool. And added another part to ensure healthy temps for the vehicle.

Mata had worked so hard to ensure healthy temps for the vehicle that he ended up removing the part of the car that kept him cool. But he still doesn’t think of this as a track car. If it were, it’d end up much more extreme.

“I would have to think about going to fiberglass fenders in the front and saying goodbye to those nice H1 headlights and getting something that I can I can afford to lose to rock chips,” he noted. “I’d swap out the precious parts and kind of hang those up. Make them into some nice garage ornaments and polish them up for the day I decide to swap those bits back on.”

Mata paused with a wistful look on his face, the kind that says he knows he will never swap anything out, let alone polish and hang it.

Jonathan “JBH” Harper is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Los Angeles. Follow JBH on Instagram, Facebook, and his website.

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