There were a few things that I could always depend on while growing up: Mom’s chocolate chip cookies, wedgies on the school bus, and my monthly issue of Car & Driver. It was a happy day for young Drew Karpinski when the mailman would deliver a fresh new car magazine. I had read it from cover-to-cover, including the letters, the ads, and most of all, the articles on all of the new cars. To this day, I can visualize the layout of these articles, the attention-grabbing cover headlines, and even the advertisements that seemed to appear in every magazine. Yes, it was a time when you could have 10 records for just a penny, California Car Covers were serving up sheep skins by the Benz-load, and eternal bliss was just a set of Kleen Wheels away!
I had not driven anything more powerful that a Big Wheel at this formative stage in my young life, so I obviously had no real experiences to validate anything of what I read, save for my passenger seat observations of whatever cars my dad had at the time. I would hang on to every word, except for those of which I had no clue of their meaning. Understeer? Oversteer? Trail braking? No problem for kids today…look it up on the iPad and read Wikipedia, or better yet, watch a YouTube tutorial. For me, though, I only had a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and a set of World Books from 1972. Great for learning about the transformation of Europe or the pollination of a flower, but not so much for brake fade or sway bars. I would have to rely on context clues, and trust the overall opinions of the writers.
Even as a child, I noticed that Porsches always were treated a bit strangely by the automotive press in the 70’s and 80’s. They hated the 924. Then they loved the 924 turbo. Then they hated it again. Then the 944 came along and it was like the Second Coming. (I guess it technically was.) The 928 was another love/hate story. When it was destined to replace the aging 911, it was a technological marvel. After the 911 survived the failed coup, though, the 928 became the ugly sister…too heavy, too expensive, and too controversial. The 911, on the other hand, never really wavered in the eyes of its champions or its pundits. It kind of was what it was, for all the years I read about them. Some writers never got it and would pen comments like “death trap,” and “suicidal handling.” (My favorite label was the “widow maker.”) Some other reviewers, though, wrote with reverence for the little cars. They would equate the tricky handling to that of a racecar, and would sing the praises of direct steering and good pedal placement. Good or bad, it was clear even to a grade-schooler that the 911 was a car steeped in history, controversy, and the arguably dated technology of a decade (or two) earlier. “Evolution, not revolution,” several reviewers would write.
One article that I remember particularly well, compared the then-new 1984 Corvette, complete with the buck board Z51 suspension option, and the also-then-new Porsche offering, the 1984 Carrera 3.2. The Chevy was a long-anticipated replacement for the aging C3, a car that started life with an athletic Ferrari-esque body, and crawled to the finish line in 1982 looking like Bowling Green Elvis. The C4, however, was sleek and handsome. It had good paint and fit-and-finish, and it was drop-dead gorgeous in the landscape of 1984. Fitted with a standard Targa top, it was America’s answer to the Ferrari 308, except for that it accelerated better (six seconds to sixty mph), and easily out-skid padded everything on the planet on its stock Gatorback tires (reportedly a crazy-high 0.95g with the Z51 package). The new Porsche, on the other hand, looked for all the world like the 911SC it replaced, which looked like the 911S it replaced. It had a new 3.2 air-cooled motor, and bigger brakes than its predecessor. Oh, yeah, and the front valance was different. I was a biased reader, as my dad had bought one of the very first C4 Corvettes to come off the assembly line, and I was in complete 14 year-old lust with that machine. Still, I was really shocked at some of the test results. I knew how fast the Vette felt from the passenger seat – my sore neck attested to that, too. The Carrera, at something like 5.7 seconds to sixty, was actually faster than the Corvette. The much smaller an air-cooled motor was also putting out more horsepower than the larger Chevy V8. The reviewers were mixed in their assessment of the Porsche, noting that it had “Teutonic” build quality and finish, but “nervous” handling and old fashioned driving dynamics. Two specific summations I remember: “Only a dyed-in-the-wool Porsche nut ball would buy a Carrera over the Corvette,” and “If you can master driving the Porsche, you can pretty much drive anything.”
So one cannot help but notice just how much things have changed at Porsche since, well, the last century. With the new 991 and 981 cars, there is no way anyone can accuse Porsche of living in the past. Long gone are torsion bars and air-cooled motors. The new 911 not only has the familiar PDK (seven speed semi-automatic) and PSM (stability management) systems onboard from the 997, but also has a new trick in the form of PDCC (Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control). In layman’s terms, the PDCC uses a combination of sensors and actuators on the roll bars to offset lateral body movement and make the car stay as flat as possible, despite what the driver throws at it. It is like rocket science, only more fun. As for measurable results, these systems, plus all of the intangible engineering feats worked into this machine, apparently help the 991S achieve a 7:37 time on the Nürburgring. This makes the “garden variety” 991S faster than the last generation 997 GT3, as well as a host of other contenders like the new Ferrari 458 Italia and the older 430 Scuderia supercar. How do you like those “dyed in the wool nut balls” now?
The evolution of these cars is very noticeable at the track, where as an instructor for NNJR, I get to spend a lot of time in students Porsches of all shapes, sizes and ages. There is no question that the technology has made these cars faster, safer, and easier than ever to drive competently, if not well. It has always amazing to me just how great of a learning platform Porsche puts out on the road, and in stock form from the factory. More so than the older cars, the newer cars can mask small mistakes, correct the larger mistakes, all without any consequence to the driver, instructor, guardrails, small children or nearby livestock. Sometimes it is a double-edged sword, though. If you are out in an air-cooled 911 and the tail slips out a little, the teaching point presents itself pretty clearly to everyone involved. When instructing in a newer car, though, the conversation goes something like this:
Instructor: “Did you feel that?”
Student: “Feel What?”
Instructor: “In that last corner, you lifted a little and the tail got a little light.”
Student: “Really?” “Wow, no, I was just checking my Twitter account.”
OK, not exactly. But honestly, if it was not for that little PSM light tattling on the driver sometimes, there usually isnot a hint of anything wrong.
As great as the new cars are, though, I have to admit that my heart still is with the older generation machinery. Or maybe I just like traditional things. My grill uses charcoal, because that is where the flavor is in good barbeque. My home sound system is designed around vinyl records, because analogue playback is sweeter to the human ear than the harsh reality of digital. As for my air-cooled 911 Porsches, well, you always feel like you have earned everything that you experience from one.
The other older Porsches that frequent DE are also great. At any given driver education event that we run, you could see thirty 944 series cars, ranging from bone stock street cars to full on race cars. When you consider that the first 944s here in the US were model year 1983s and the last were 1991s, it is pretty amazing to see that so many of these cars are driving around in good shape, let alone being driven on a racetrack. Compare that to other sports cars of the era. How many Mazda RX-7s do you see in your day to day life? Or Mitsubishi Starions? Or Datsun/Nissan 280ZX and 300ZXs? Or Toyota Supras? Jeez, how many million Renault Alliances and Chrysler K-Cars did they make in the eighties, and how many are left of those?
At our March Monthly Membership Meeting, we hosted a technical panel made up of four Porsche experts – Mike Daino and Mike Carr from Powertech in Rockaway, and Will DiGiovanni from Precision Motorsports in Califon and John Paterek of Paterek Brothers. Three of these gentlemen are not only experts in the care and maintenance of these cars, but there are also all instructors for NNJR. (Mike Carr, in fact, is one of our chief instructors.) Among the great questions asked that evening was what their favorite track cars for driver education would be. Favorites from our experts included the 944 and 968 cars, as well as early Boxsters. Examples of these cars are affordable to purchase and maintain, and they are not too highly powered. The reasoning behind having a car with ample, but not overwhelming power is that the driver is able to safely bring the car much closer to the edge of its objective capabilities and enhance their learning experience. With many of the faster cars, the capabilities are so high that it is very difficult for a student to get anywhere near the limits.
Speaking of different Porsche models – I have been fielding a lot of questions about Porsche convertibles and the roll bar rules that apply to them over the past month or so. In a nutshell, there are several tracks that we drive at that have strict roll bar rules for convertibles. These tracks are Lime Rock, New Jersey Motorsports Park (Thunderbolt and Lightning) and VIR. At all three of these tracks, roll bars have to be in place and visible at all times on the track. The Boxsters, which have exposed roll hoops from the factory, are allowed, so long as the driver and passenger (instructor) are able to pass what we call the “broomstick test.” This means that the driver’s and passenger’s helmets must be lower than a broomstick that is placed between the top of the roll hoop and the top of the windshield. The early Boxsters may have the Brey-Krause roll hoop extensions added to help meet this criteria (required at VIR on pre-2005 models). The 996 and 997 convertibles, however, are not allowable at these tracks unless they have aftermarket roll bars or cages built into their interiors. While these cars do have factory rollover protection automatically, the bars are not deployed until there is an actual emergency, and they are not easily “pre-deployed” or popped-up manually.
Aside from these few caveats on the 996 and 997 cabriolets, we welcome all other Porsches at all of our driver education events. You can even bring a Cayenne or Panamera if you would like to. As to which one is best, well, that is really up to you.
Whatever your choice is, we will be at Mid-Ohio this month on the 18th to 20th for a great long weekend of driving. If you have not yet signed up and want to consider making the trek with us, give me a call or shoot me an email. We usually have some space available, and we will try to work everybody in!