Rennsport Conqueror Might US tuner SharkWerks’ 964 recreation be better than a factory Rennsport 911 of the same era? We take to the Californian hills to find out… Story: Sean Libbey Photography: Richard Smithies.
When it comes to high-performance, blue chip Porsche 911 models, American enthusiasts can be forgiven for feeling like they’ve missed out from time-to-time. The US was denied the Porsche 930 Turbo for five years from 1980-1985 due to emissions laws, the 959 too was spectacularly held from Stateside residence at the last as Zuffenhasuen hadn’t submitted a mule for crash testing. Porsche did famously send a batch of customer 959s to the US despite this, insisting they were race cars, but authorities saw well past the leather interior and seat belts, seizing them at ports and since writing them into automotive folklore.
It’s not just the Turbo cars which have a hazy history in the US though – Porsche Rennsports have long been regulated out of the territory too. It began with the 2.7 Carrera RS, which failed both emissions and crash safety tests, with the same fate falling on subsequent 964, 993 and 996 RS iterations. In fact, when you think about it, it is amazing that Porsche has managed to hold on to its all-important American market full stop, especially when you realise the territory is today considered the second most successful for the company, behind only China.
Porsche has tried to soften the blow over the years, releasing a series of US-specific models to appease enthusiasts. The most prominent example is perhaps the 964 RS America of 1993: the marketing said the car was a homage to the 2.7 Carrera RS released 20 years earlier, though really it shared very little DNA with either the first 911 Rennsport or the proper 964 RS delivered to the rest of the world. The RS America was based on a 964 C2 but was cheaper to buy, weighed just ten kilos less, and came with four options: a stereo, sunroof, air-con and LSD. That just 701 examples were sold (this wasn’t a numbered production run) tells its own story: clearly a PR exercise, the RSA didn’t offer performance or a driving experience close to that elusive 964 Rennsport.
US customers would have to wait years to be able to get their hands on the real thing, and most are now whittled away in collections. Well, on the 30th birthday of the Porsche 964, finally a special C2 has been built which isn’t a gimmick like the RS America, and which doesn’t conform to the usual Singer aspirations of contemporary taste either. Instead, this car holds direct appeal to the very thesis of those original 964 RSs – and it’s come from an unusual source.
It may be known for being one of the world’s finest tuners of water-cooled Porsche 911s, but Fremont-based SharkWerks have been bitten by the 964 bug and have created a car which deserves its place on these pages. Its credentials are impressive: better performance than even a factory 964 RS, without the compromise in comfort which comes as part and parcel of Porsche’s Rennsport moniker, SharkWerks’ 964 Carrera is an engineering masterpiece – and there’s not a whale tail or wide arch in sight.
“I used to have a four-speed 930 Turbo, so the air-cooled cars aren’t alien to me,” says SharkWerks co-founder, Alex Ross. “We then started building big power 996 Turbos in the 2000s and more recently worked on our 4.1- litre 997 GT3 RS programme. A natural step would have been a development programme for the 991, but as the 911 has become more and more bloated in the 991, it’s forced us to look back at its roots to when it was still a proper sports car. I’m glad we did, because we’ve had so much fun building this 964.”
Building SharkWerks’ 964 has taken two years and incorporated two development phases. Alex explains: “The first phase of our modification plan was with some bolt-ons – using the stock 3.6 engine we were able to boost power by 35hp over stock to 300hp. Aside from the power, we wanted to improve on drivability and give it a bit of a modern ‘Sharkafied’ RS-like gentrification as the USA never actually got the proper 964 RS.”
That came in the form of an updated, configurable ECU, the Delta S400, and some trick wizardry by Stewart Taylor of ST Systems, which worked around previous issues with ‘plug and play’ 964 ECU modifications. “By getting rid of the archaic ‘barn door’ system in favour of a modern MAP sensor and higher flow injectors, we’re not only able to tune for more power, but also use lightweight flywheels that don’t cause embarrassing stalling issues because the stock ECU just doesn’t have the response time to deal with it,” Alex says. Thanks to the ST Systems harness, the ECU itself plugs into the factory location, negating the need for any cutting or splicing and so keeping things nice and tidy. The exhaust note, meanwhile, was set with a primary bypass pipe (ever the way for 964 owners) and Dansk side exhaust.
SharkWerks’ standalone ECU kit proved a solid basis for the Carrera 2 project, which allowed for some additional engine trickery from James, fellow founder of the renowned Norcal company. With 300hp already in the bag, the aim was to take the 964 to the next level in terms of power, control and drivability. James decided on a 3.8 lightweight piston kit for more displacement, along with a lighter set of con rods and more aggressive billet camshafts. The power target was 340hp on just 91 octane fuel, the rev limiter was bumped “up a couple of hundred rpms” for good measure too. Clinical engine responsiveness has always been SharkWerks’ forte, James further committing to that by shaving 100 grams in weight from each con rod. A more aggressive, RSR-style billet camshaft set was also used, as well as a single-belt fan pulley conversion kit from Clewett Engineering.
With comprehensive revision of the M64 flat-six complete, SharkWerks sought to better harmonise the transmission, another area within which it is historically known to excel. “From our previous experience with shortening gears on the GT4 we once again partnered with GT Gears to make our own SharkWerks stack of shorter, close-ratio gears,” Alex says. “Some people call it ‘simulating more torque’ but for scooting around our favourite canyons we picked a complete shorter 2-through-4 set to play with first gear to around 50mph, second to 75mph and third to 109mph, with fourth going to 138mph.”
A Guard LSD was added to the 964’s arsenal, and now that Alex was certain SharkWerks had complete control of the tuning without any stalling issues resultant from the stock ECU, he added what he describes as ‘an exotic clutch package’. Think a combination of extremely light 4.0 RS flywheel and pressure plate, plus a lighter, non-sprung sport disc, which saves an additional five pounds of weight against a regular 964 RS set up.
Another area in which the company managed to save weight while offering improved performance was the 964’s brakes, using the Brembo Club Race front: “The goal was to be able to get the most braking whilst using a factory 17-inch Cup wheel,” Alex says, in an effort to ensure customers wanting to retain a broadly factory look can do so.
SharkWerks though have deviated ever so slightly from that, a set of the 917-style style Magnus Walker Outlaw 003 wheels in satin gold roll under those Guards Red arches instead. To shore-up the rest of the 964’s 30-year-old chassis, the team installed a popular PSS10 adjustable coilover kit from Bilstein, coupled with stiffer front and rear anti-roll bars and SharkWerks’ own semi-solid, RS-style engine mounts, finishing with an alignment setup from Tony at TC Design. It’s a comprehensive engineering overhaul, but despite a clear obsession for saving weight – reducing overall mass by some 55 kilograms – SharkWerks has resisted the temptation to undergo an extreme programme of paring back with the 964’s interior. Looking inside, the only obvious deviations from stock include lightweight Recaro Sportster seats and that timeless MOMO steering wheel.
The fruits of 24 months – and thousands of miles – of development means SharkWerks’ maiden 964 masterpiece is intent on delivering RS-rivalling excellence from the driver’s seat. The cost, crucially, is less than that of a Carrera RS, and unlike the factory car, you won’t be afraid to drive this 964 hard. Which is just as well, because from the moment you get a taste of the outrageous throttle response and absurd ability for the engine to rev so hard and freely to nigh-on eight grand, that’s all you’re going to want to do. Mid-range punch is most impressive, the Sharkwerks 964 is unrivalled here among any other air-cooled 911 I’ve driven. In fact you’d likely have to jump into a 997 GT3 RS to match the ferocity of its initial pick-up, such is its willingness to bear down on the redline, you’d think that flat-six out back has been shoehorned in from another era. It is only that rich mechanical roar customary to the M64 which really gives the game away. Once you’ve got your head around the regear, you’ll realise the revitalised transmission is nothing short of brilliant, too. Hold onto it and that much longer first ratio is useful for building momentum, the quick change-up from second to third adding to the intensity of the 964’s drive. On curvy roads such as these Californian mountain routes, a leggy second would likely suffice in a factory car, but here the transmission encourages more involvement, more commitment. The featherlight clutch is not without feel, allowing precise blip-shifts and seamless shifting between second and third on these fast, flowing roads, dropping down into a usable first for tighter twists.
The car’s rapidity is abundantly more evident than a factory 964 RS, and its ride is far superior, too, the Bilsteins doing a brilliant job of providing focus but filtering out the crashiness for which the RS is famous. An up-step in communication between chassis and driver is welcomed given the impressive increase of nearly 100hp over stock, though managing traction is never really a problem, so excellent is the chassis and feel from the car that its movements are delightfully predictable.
Many hours could happily be spent hairpin hunting in this remarkable petite 911. Certainly, in trying to keep up with the agility of the SharkWerks 964 my brain would tire long before my body. The MOMO Motorsport steering wheel is a delight to hold, and the brakes do a fine job of suitably managing the car’s inertia. As you can tell, I’m really struggling to find anything remotely dissatisfying with this car, though there will be some from a more hardcore motoring persuasion who will beg for that interior to be stripped out for the full motorsport experience.
I think such a move would detract from what this car is designed to be. A very fast classic Porsche that you can jump into for an errand dash, it won’t be taxing to drive in town, and once you’re free of urban impediment, it’ll deliver you an invitation to play quite unlike anything of the same vintage with a Porsche crest affixed to its nose. That’s including a 964 Carrera RS, which frankly this SharkWerks car blows firmly out of the water. The US may well have missed out on most of Porsche’s air-cooled Rennsport chapter, but with this wolf in sheep’s clothing, that loss will seem wonderfully insignificant to those who seek excellence in engineering from their reworked classic 911.
SharkWerks’ maiden 964 masterpiece is intent on delivering RS-rivalling excellence…
ENGINE: M64 specification horizontally-opposed
DOHC six cylinder boxer
CHASSIS: Bilstein PSS10 suspension all round, Brembo Club Race brakes (front), 7.5x and 9×17- inch Outlaw 003 alloy wheels with 205/50/R17 tyres (front), 255/40/R17 tyres (rear)
POWER: 340hp at 6,000rpm
TORQUE: 270lb ft at 4,800rpm