The List Car. Telford has a passion for Porsche but had never driven a ‘proper’ aircooled. Porsche 911. How does a day spent driving an early 2.0S measure up to his lifelong dream? 1968 Porsche 911S SWB 6000rpm on this coast road is simply addictive. ‘Everything about it is addictive’ Carl Telford is a dedicated Porsche fan but has never actually driven what he calls a ‘real 911’. Will a day behind the wheel of an early short-wheelbase 911S satisfy this air-cooled purist? Words Sam Dawson. Photography Neil Fraser.
I get the impression that today is one of many Porsche-themed days Carl Telford has enjoyed over the years. He has arrived early on this foggy morning to browse Paragon Porsche’s wares ahead of fulfilling a long-held ambition.
‘I’ve got a Mazda MX-5 now but had two Porsche 924s before that,’ he says. ‘I’ve just sold my second one, actually – a 924S – but I really wish I hadn’t now.
‘I’ve never driven a proper air-cooled 911 – a major omission for anyone who loves Porsche, I know. My wife’s birthday present to me this year was a factory tour at Stuttgart and the cars I found most fascinating at the Porsche museum were the 901 prototypes and the early 911s with the houndstooth seat trim. They seemed to me to have been created right on the cusp of the modern era when the wood-and-leather approach ended and motor sport began to direct the way in which cars were designed. It’s also the point where Porsche as we know it today emerged.’
Then one of Paragon’s drivers pulls up in front of the showroom’s glass frontage in a dazzling 1968 Porsche 911 2.0S fresh from a wash and polish. This is as pure as 911s get – a short-wheelbase car with none of the aerodynamic extensions that sullied later examples and four Weber carburettors feeding the earliest displacement of Porsche’s flat-six engine. As far as Porsche aficionados are concerned, this is Genesis.
Lifting off the throttle mid-corner elicits a palpable weight-shift that telegraphs exactly where the car’s limits are.
Paragon’s Jamie Lipman gives Carl a brief lesson in the 911’s rear-engined, short-wheelbase driving dynamics – get as much of your braking out of the way in a straight line before diving into a corner and only accelerate once the line out of it is clear – and then we head off in the direction of the Sussex Heritage Coast roads. Carl takes to the 911 with ease almost immediately. ‘It’s such a tractable engine,’ he says. ‘I like the way it encourages you to explore its limits without being too intimidating – it’s just as happy to potter along as it is to bounce off the redline, if you’re in to that sort of thing. There’s much more torque than I was expecting and I especially like fourth gear; I can cruise in it at 40mph, but when I put my foot down, hear that wonderful wail and feel the tail hunker down, it just takes off!
2.0-litre engine’s torque surprised Carl – ‘I especially like the way you can be cruising in fourth gear, put your foot down and it just takes off’
‘The gearchange takes some getting used to, though. Overall it’s a very easy car to drive but I reckon it would take me a couple of months of constant use before I could use the gearbox properly; its dogleg layout and recalcitrant action mean it’s the only aspect of the car that’s not completely slick and smooth. ‘That said, there’s so much torque that I don’t need to use it as much as I thought I would anyway, and the pedals are ideally positioned for heel-and-toe gearchanges.’
Gaining in confidence, Carl puts Jamie’s earlier physics lesson into action as the roads get more challenging, sweeping in and out of the mainland in parallel with the outline of the chalk cliffs to our right.
‘You don’t need to do much for it to really go,’ he says as the 911 hurtles out of another near-hairpin with the slightest prod of the throttle. ‘The only 911 I’ve driven before now was a new Targa, not a proper air-cooled 911. This one is much, much nicer. The feedback, the tactility, the noise – it’s all been lost in the new car.
Floor-hinged pedals are ideally placed for heel-and-toeing, but Carl found the dogleg gearbox uncooperative.
But this? Put it this way – I’m slowing down a bit too much before the corners just so I can put my foot down harder on the way out. ‘I can really feel the weight transfer when I lift off slightly mid-corner. I know I’ve got to be careful, but it’s good to know where the car’s limits are. Also, the steering feel – I don’t want to use the old go-kart cliché, but I really can feel every bump in the road.’
We pull over and I take the wheel. The first strong impression comes almost immediately through the steering wheel. Even pulling off sub-10mph parking manoeuvres in a bumpy, gravelly layby, the car reminds me of its intent, barging the wheel from side to side as it skirts potholes in a way that more comfort-orientated cars would smother with power-assistance or deliberately engineered vagueness.
The engine revs more smoothly than the sound it makes would suggest. There’s a harsh, loose, uncoordinated chatter, but press the right-hand pedal and its smooth, high-revving power delivery reminds me that it’s still a flat six-cylinder engine – with all the natural balance that brings – regardless of its throbbing air-cooled cacophany. There’s a smooth chromatic whizz as soon as I hit the throttle, followed by a racetrack gargle of accumulating violence from 3000rpm. The rear seems to squat at the same rate at which the accelerator is squeezed, so the more you accelerate, the more it grips. Idiosyncratic though the 911 might seem – especially when approaching tight bends – no other layout can do this. The harder I push it, the more it tries to help.
There’s no avoiding that gearchange, though; it’s not helped by the strange floor-hinged clutch pedal that pinches your ankle every time you go for it, and while first and reverse gears are easy to find, the fore-aft planes of second-third and fourth-fifth are so close together that they’re easily misslotted. The torque Carl has been eulogising about helps to overcome it, but the shift quality is not ideal.
Carl revels in the 911’s simple, delicate details. Early car’s trademark prominent rev counter remains on latest 911s. Porsche swapped these four Weber carburettors for Bosch fuel injection in 1969.
Carl’s engineer’s eye crawls all over the car at our next pitstop, pulling out all the little details. ‘Those Hella foglights are just beautiful,’ he says. ‘I’d like to nick them and use them as bedside lamps! And the interior is so elegant, so simple. Everything is just black vinyl and unpainted aluminium. There’s an honesty about it too – Porsche didn’t even try to hide the metal that holds the elements of the 911 badge together. I love it, I want it, and if I had the money I’d definitely have it.’
He has one last sit in the driver’s seat, then suddenly has a quick rethink. ‘Actually, I’d want it if it were worth a little bit less,’ he says.
‘Value and desirability are on very different and independent planes for me. The latter is obviously in the driving, but with values of these cars as they are, I’d be scared to thrash one whereas I can drive other, cheaper cars as their manufacturers intended.
‘However, if they ever come down in value, I’m having an air-cooled 911 – it’s as simple as that. I love the noise and that special sense that comes from having the engine slung way out back. Everything about it is addictive.
‘Also, as an engineer, I take genuine pleasure in Porsche’s attention to detail. On the surface the rear-mounted engine seems like a bad thing, but it was clearly engineered for traction off the line and out of bends. When you learn that, understand it, use it and appreciate the fine tolerances to which it’s been finessed, you realise how incredibly thorough Porsche’s engineers were, even in the early days of the 911.’ And that gearchange? ‘Well, it’s certainly tricky to master, but that would be a nice problem to have, wouldn’t it?’
Thanks to: Paragon Porsche, Mayfield – paragongb.com