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Why not own a...? Porsche 911
Is there any other super car that’s as practical or pragmatic as this Porsche? The 911 may have changed out of all recognition since its launch almost 55 years ago, but thankfully has always remained a 911 in spirit and character enabling it to appeal to those who love the older classic models as well as the more contemporary alternatives. Like those pair of timeless legends – Caterham and Morgan – it’s a classic that you can still buy brand new.
Charting a car that’s been in production for over half a century would fill an entire magazine so we can only summarise here and it boils down to how you like your 911s, classic or contemporary and by the latter we’re talking of 993 and 996 models. As a rule, the earlier the car, the more purist it is although most ‘typical’ 911 enthusiasts lean most towards post 1960’s models because they became more powerful and became friendlier to drive.
A shed load of changes and revisions over the decades, of course, the most fundamental being a longer wheelbase for 1968 along with better distribution and revised suspension a year later, bigger engine for 1971, the mighty Turbo range three years later, fully galvanized bodies and a lighter clutch for 1975, the likeable 3.0SC (1977), and a roofless cabriolet for 1982, replacing the earlier Targa.
Mechanically, apart from fuel injection and increasing engine sizes, the advent of the G50 gearbox during the mid 1980s is a significant landmark and one which sways many buyers, as is the fundamental switch to coil spring suspension before 1990 – by which time four-wheel drive and Porsche’s famed Tiptronic semi-auto option made the 911 amazingly easy to drive.
The 1994 993 was in fact the last of the air-cooled 911s and when it bowed out in 1998, by then, a 3.6-litre engine was developing 285bhp in normally aspirated guise, and 402bhp once turbocharged – a far cry from the 130bhp the 911 started off with! This model is identified by a major restyle while a much revised suspension finally cured the tail happy handling that you either love or loath.
Ignoring the super but super pricey original RSl Carreras, other prize Porkers include the 160bhp 911S, the 3.0 SC (not the best 911 but a pragmatic choice) any Turbos for their raw appeal and the late 3.2 Carreras for their rounded nature.
The convertibles are a personal choice (most folk prefer Targas) while the once shunned, poverty pick 912 with its 1600cc (356) engine has almost become a cult figure.
Another 911 with a four-speed gearbox is the 911T, designed as entry level 911 and sported just 110bhp, but, like any chrome bumper 911, sell for big money now and this even includes the quirky if forward thinking Sportomatic semi-auto, that many racing drivers actually preferred on the track!
Left-hand drive ones are usually cheaper but that much harder to resell yet specialist Paul Stephens says it’s better to buy a good LHD car than an average UK model.
Stephens stresses that it’s vital to know your 911s before buying and adds that those on a tight budget are probably better off opting for a really good late 996 instead of the usual accepted classic alternative.
Ah, the 996. This model broke with 911 convention in a big way, utilizing a water-cooled engine and looks more akin to the smaller Boxster. It’s not the greatest of the 911 family but was considerably improved in later ‘997’ guise even if that essential 911 character is sadly diluted as computer controls moved the job away for the driver.
Behind the wheel
The earliest 911s were a real handful because of their short wheelbase and trigger-happy handling, while early Turbos added massive lag, which could make them a nightmare to drive, with the boost arriving just when you didn’t want it! The chances are however, that you’ll be looking at something from the 1970s or 1980s, without too exotic a spec – the RS models are stupidly valuable nowadays. However, even these share many of the traits of the more attainable derivatives; the heavy controls, inch-perfect steering, plus the rearward weight bias.
Without doubt a 911SC (1978- 83) is the best value for money. But with heavy clutch and (usually) stiff gearshift it’s not quite a ‘daily driver’. Post-’84, living with a 911, as perhaps your only car, gets easier. The Carrera 3.2 is the affordable compromise – especially with G50 gearbox – and reckoned by many to be the ultimate extension of the original 911 line. The 964 that followed is smoother, more comfortable, and powerful, but somehow less engaging for the sporty driver. A good one, however, makes a great grand tourer, while the 4WD of the Carrera 4 results in a 911 which anyone can drive with uncanny confidence.
The problem arises if you drive one, especially an early model, like a modern and do naughties such as lifting off or braking in a corner – poor driving which an early 911 will punish the pilot for! In actual fact, as ace high performance tutor John Lyon advocates, the 911 understeers when pushed and it’s because drivers don’t unwind the excess lock as the rear starts to lose grip that the Porsche tightens its line and gives rise to its infamous oversteer trickery. It’s driver not car induced, he feels.
That said, any 911 can be hard work to drive really well. It’s all about the satisfaction of getting to grips with a car that can bite back if you don’t treat it properly, but it’ll also reward you like no other supercar when you get it right.
The cockpit is comfy if a tad cramped but the rear seats are passable for small kids and luggage capacity is fair given that there’s no rear bootlid. The controls are time warp and earlier 911s can be heavy to drive plus they don’t tolerate tired clumsiness either – you have to be in the mood to drive a 911. There’s no doubt you feel more ‘at one’ with an early (pre-SC) 911, lighter weight, narrow(er) wheels and tyres, and the lack of servo assistance on clutch or brakes, make for a more ‘seat of the pants’ drive.
What to pay
So large is the 911 market, spanning more than half a century that we can only generalise in the space available but there’s no bad models – even the once dismissed 912 has its select followers as prices are now proving – but values for the majority may have peaked. With such a vast range of models to choose from, classic or contemporary, it really depends what type of 911 (air or water cooled, for example) floats your boat and your budget but you need around £25,000 for a respectable SC, perhaps the least liked variant, says 911 experts Parr (01293 537911).
As a rule of thumb, the earlier the 911 the more expensive and exclusive it will be; early chrome bumper cars are for no holes-barred 911 enthusiasts who have £40-50 grand to spend – minimum – and an easy five figures for top examples.
The 964 used to represent particularly good value for those on lowish budgets, yet even these broach £30,000 if half decent. Parr’s Lawrence Stockwell recently told us that owners are spending strong money on maintaining and restoring 911s, in part due to their soaring values and the overall standard out there on the open market is pretty good indeed; the days of cheap 911s are long gone.
The problem stems from the fact that as values for prize Porsches rise it drags the poorer cars up with them. Asking prices are governed by specification, history and condition.
LHD models are perhaps the cheapest route to 911 ownership with poseur Targas in the main, Targas appear to be worth £1000 less than coupés, but cabriolets (from 1983) are worth two to three grand more.
The current prize Porker pricewise is the Carrera 3.2. although you must decide what type and age of 911 is best for your needs and this can only be achieved by talking to a 911 expert; Tiptronic and Sportomatic semi autos aren’t liked, for instance, so can be good value.
Making one better
Early engine castings are weak and will probably have been replaced by now with an improved design. It’s the same story for the magnesium units, especially 2.7-litre engines.
Within the period we’re covering, in theory it’s possible to fit any engine to any car because the mounting points didn’t change across the various generations.
Most US cars featured less powerful engines than equivalent UK models, so expect an import to serve up a little less fun. There have been all sorts of detail changes to the suspension specification over the years. Fitting an anti-roll bar to any 911 along with better damping is worthwhile, particularly as modern tyres can’t give their best when the car is really leaning over.
Brakes can be usefully improved either with later 911 hardware or from a variety of aftermarket tweaks.
According to leading 911 specialist Autofarm, the secret of buying any perfect Porsche is… Patience! By this, the Oxford-based outfit means decide what car and spec you want and don’t be prepared to take second best when it comes to service histories.
Being complex normal car checks may not be enough to weed out the good from the bad. Many specialists operate their own inspection services, which for a fee (prices start at £350 at Autofarm) will thoroughly inspect an intended purchase – assuming the seller agrees to it, that is.
Similarly, normal car traders may be out of their depth dealing in such prestige performance vehicles and the warranty provided inadequate for repairs. All of which brings us back to using a known Porsche expert for peace of mind.
Autofarm reckons that 5-20 year old 911s dominate its service bays as values rise and 911s become valuable. “As pre-impact bumper cars have become so expensive the market has moved onto other Porsches. Already 3.2s are fetching high prices so enthusiasts are looking to the SC as well as the 944 and 928. We have two of the latter in the workshop this week.”
The later 996 is also starting to firm up in values as it has become the most affordable 911. Says Autofarm: “We have a growing number of 996 customers really taking care of their cars. Many are put off by stories of engine issues but there are a lot more cars that have had the IMS bearing issue solved and are a very practical, everyday car.”
Even before you buy, it’s a wise move to join one of the numerous owners’ clubs or forums first. Porsche Club GB is the main one and offers an enormous range of services to its members and this includes racing championships.
Porsche is also very pro-active and protective of its classics, which is hardly surprising given that over two-thirds of all models are still on the road! It has teamed up with Pirelli to ensure the right classic tyres (for road and track) are being marketed to suit most models.
911s rust badly; it wasn’t until August 1975 that the bodyshells were galvanised. Even then, many early cars still corroded; the plating just slowed the rate of rusting a little. However, things got better; as the Seventies turned into the Eighties, the cars became much better rustproofed but they still corrode with the best of them.
If you’ve never driven a 911, try a few before buying as they are an acquired taste and can vary widely meaning without experience it will be hard to spot a bad one.
Don’t think that a lightly used 911 is good news as the Porsche flat six engine hates long term inactivity where major engine damage can result in it lying dormant.
Make sure that the heating works, as the heat exchangers can be problematic being prone to corrosion, plus can lead to oily smells inside.
2. Body and chassis
Whatever the age of car, start by looking at the bulkheads at each end, as rust can spread from the base of the front and rear screens. If there’s any corrosion in these areas, you’re better off finding another car because the necessary repairs will be involved and very costly indeed.
Early 911s could corrode pretty much anywhere, and even relatively new cars, such as many from the 1980s, will have rusted unless they’ve been well looked after. You need to make sure that you take a look at the inner and outer wings, sills, battery boxes, floorpans and door bottoms. Check front crossmember, battery boxes, heater tubes and the windscreen surround.
The 911’s flat-six is generally durable if maintained, but whether it’s thrashed or not it’ll wear out eventually. The first sign of impending expenditure is (blue) oil smoke when the car is started up and on the over-run, signalling that the valve guides have worn out.
By the time the guides have worn the timing chain will also have seen better days, so listen for rattling when the engine is revved up.
Low oil pressure isn’t necessarily a concern; the dash-mounted level gauge is only accurate at tickover once the engine is up to temperature, which is why it’s best to rely on the dipstick instead.
Expect to see 45psi at 2500rpm and ask for evidence of the lubricant having been changed regularly, using high-quality brews. Engine parts are generally very expensive.
There were three types; the first (2.0 and 2.2-litre cars) wears out bearings. Between 1972 and 1985 there was a stronger gearbox fitted, known as the 915 unit. Listen out for bearing wear and feel for baulking. Whichever gearbox is fitted, rebuilding it properly costs anywhere between £800 and £3500.
The gearbox fitted to post-1986 911s is the strongest of the lot and unlikely to give any significant problems. Called the G50, it’s very durable (and can be retrofitted). Clutches also got better engineered as time progressed; again it’s the G50 clutch that’s the best of the lot.
5. Running gear
Any car that’s been converted from left to right-hand drive should be avoided, even if it’s temptingly priced. There aren’t many such cars about, but there are some – and because the conversion is rarely done well you’re better off simply steering clear – as it were.
Although brake specifications evolved, there aren’t any weak spots as long as the car is used regularly and properly serviced. Cars that haven’t had enough use will probably be suffering from callipers that have seized up as a result.
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