Why A 912E Is The Perfect Long Distance Sports Car
We Took Our 40-year-old Porsche On A 1700-Mile Road Trip, And Couldn't Be More Impressed
This weekend we took our Talbot Yellow 1976 912E on a 1700 mile tour down the spine of Coastal California. From Thursday until Sunday my wife and I spent several hours each day riding in the sport-seat comfort of our vintage Porsche seeking out some of the best driving roads one might ever hope for. The weather mostly cooperated, until it didn't, and we had a lot of fun in the process. We weren't sure we'd still be in the mood to speak with each other by the end of this long journey, but we survived, and luckily so did our car.
We'd embarked on an adventure called the Coastal Range Rally, which is a three day drive from Carmel, CA down to Ventura, CA, driving some amazing mountain and coastal roads in the process. The Coastal Range Rally is hosted by a quartet of Podcast hosts from the Driving While Awesome! show based out of Santa Cruz, self described experts in automotive opinion. The 'rally' isn't really a competitive rally, or a rally at all, more a spirited drive for nearly 70 cars and over 100 people on a prescribed route with directions and not much else. It was an eclectic mix of exciting and unique cars, featuring everything from a brand new GT3 RS to a mid-80s Chevrolet Sprint Turbo to a Lamborghini Jarama. Good people, real enthusiasts, interesting cars (actually being driven), gorgeous scenery, and lots of driving. It's a great way to spend a weekend if you ask us.
We left our home in Reno last Thursday evening, planning to make it to the Carmel-by-the-Sea starting point to kick off the rally start the following morning. Of course, being a vintage aircooled Porsche, the car already had questionable heat, but all winter it's been performing far below average, nearly non-existent. Being that we'd be crossing the famed Donner Pass in early February, we packed extra blankets, thick winter coats, gloves, and Zippo hand warmers to stave off the chill. The weather wasn't too bad, it got a little wet, and cold on our way west, but we survived and warmed up with an In 'n Out burger. A few hours later we were in Carmel, no worse for wear, ready for a good night's sleep.
Friday woke with a plan, we met up with the start of the rally in a big parking lot with a Starbucks nearby for an easy morning caffeine and calorie boost. The plan for day one was to meander down to Paso Robles over the course of the day, running up, down, and around on our way there. A fuel fill-up that morning indicated that our trusty Porsche had returned a phenomenal 33.4 miles per gallon on our highway trip the previous night. By the time we got to Paso, another fuel up showed an indicated 25 mpg. It was clear that the trusty 165,000 mile Type 4 engine in the back was comparatively slurping its fuel after the caning it had received, but was still chugging along happily behind us, seemingly feeling more alive and sprightly with each passing mile. The car was revived from a two year slumber just a couple months ago, so perhaps that is true.
The weather on day one was a little on the wet side, but the rain was done. The roadways we were driving were mostly damp, and there was an occasional downed tree limb, mudslide, or large puddle to avoid, so speeds were kept in check, and attendees were on their best behavior. The pavement we were driving was infrequently traveled, and as such was infrequently maintained, featuring corroded and washed out shoulders, potholes, and patchwork-quilt-style pavement. While some of the stiffer cars were struggling with their juddering suspensions, our 912E's soft and compliant suspension was more than happy to plow ever onward.
Day two leaving Paso Robles was sunny and dry, featuring gorgeous green rolling hills, lush with the recent downpours. The roads we saw in the morning were more or less the same as the previous day, that is to say, lots of fun to drive, though perhaps a little smoother. The middle part of the day came around, bringing with it open plains and straight roads. It was then that we started to see a few cracks in the veneer of our until-then wonderful ride. The 912E is slow. I don't mean slow by today's standards, I mean it was slow when it was brand new in 1976. This is a car with a 0-60 time of 15.8 seconds. It has a top speed just barely north of triple digits, but it'll take you a month to reach that third digit. On the two-lane highways of Carrizo Plain area, passing a tanker truck becomes a suicide mission. We kept passing to a minimum and were forced to trundle along behind many of these big-rig behemoths for miles at a time doing ten under the speed limit.
Luckily the 912E engenders a relaxed attitude, maybe by virtue of its shared roots with the mellow Volkswagen Bus, or perhaps that was Coastal California giving us a "Whatever, man, it's all good" feeling. We weren't in a hurry, we were having fun enjoying the sights, and we always managed to catch up to the crowd eventually. Even fast cars have to obey the laws of physics, and not to mention they were stopping for gas a lot more often. As it happens, a V10 Audi R8 uses fuel more quickly than an 88 horsepower flat-four Porsche.
All of that time behind the tanker trucks payed off in the end, though, as our eventual destination was the gloriously perfect driving road, Highway 33 between Ventucopa and Ojai. We found a rhythm on that road, a magical connection between the road and our Porsche. We had a minty-fresh BMW E30 325i up ahead, and the Chevy Sprint Turbo behind, and our little pack of slow cars was really hustling through the corners, never breaking grip, and never really making mega speed, just enjoying the drive. I'd fitted a set of Yokohama S.Drive summer tires to the 912 before we left, and I'm impressed with how well they held up. The sticky tires really allowed the car to carry more speed through the corners, the ever important momentum maintenance of a very slow car with a very capable chassis. The E30 and the Sprint both had less tire, but the BMW carried more power and the Chevy a good deal less weight. We were the perfect sparring partners for that drive, our trio.
On Sunday we left Ventura to head back north along the coast, stopping in Santa Barbara to invade the local Cars & Coffee event with our sixty-some deep crowd of now-filthy cars. More camaraderie and caffeine was in store, with everyone happy to answer questions about their own cars, or talk to other owners about their cars. By this point we'd all developed a bond, both with our cars and with our fellow rallyists. When the time came, we had one last road to hit before the rally was over, it felt like we were saying goodbye to our summer-camp friends. The Coastal Range Rally is less a rally and more a three-day car enthusiast camp.
Heading north out of Santa Barbara, we hit up another dynamic and challenging road, this time hindered by some pretty severe fog. At the worst of it, visibility could not have been more than 50 feet or so. As visibility went down, obviously so did our speeds, and everyone made it through unscathed. When the fog lifted, or we came out above the cloud level, whichever, the roads were flowing and fun. My wife wasn't particularly thrilled about the lack of guard rails and switchbacks with steep dropoffs, but confidence in the car's ability and a good set of fresh brakes was all we really needed.
At the final lunch stop, we said our goodbyes and got on our way back home. Google Maps indicated 7 hours drive to get home, while our weather apps indicated snow on I80 in about six and a half hours. "Great, we should be getting home just as it starts to get bad," I said. What's that line about best laid plans?
By the time we reached the junction of I5 and I80, the rain was coming down in sheets. Rain I can deal with just fine, the 912 has great wipers and only a few minor leaks. Rain in Sacramento, though, means the dreaded white stuff at the peak. While we started our day at about 12 feet above sea level, we would have to end it by crossing a 7300 ft peak, without heat. Sure enough, by the time we got to Nyack the snow was coating the highway. Eventually we hit a chain control checkpoint at the Cisco Grove exit, and we were forced off the highway to fit chains to the back tires of our vintage ride. I'd brought a set of chains along, but in my haste to pack the car, I'd picked the wrong set, and of course they were far too big to fit our 205/50-15 rears. Nearly a hundred dollars and a broken-beyond-repair original Bilstein-built factory-fitment emergency jack later, the 912E had a new set of tire chains fitted and we were back on the road. The snow started to clear on the far side of Truckee, some thirty miles later at a staggering 25 miles per hour.
From there it was all downhill, as they say. Our original 8PM arrival time turned into an 11PM arrival time, we were cold, wet, hungry, and exhausted, but mostly I was proud of what the little Porsche could accomplish. 1700 miles in three days, driving some of the best roads in California, earning the respect of several enthusiasts in much faster cars, and gaining an admirer in its owner. Our old aircooled type 4 had run the gamut, taking the abuse in stride, and only asking for a half-quart of oil with each fill-up (okay, that's excessive, but what can you expect of a 160,000 mile car?). The 912E is the best long distance sports car I've ever driven. If you ever get the opportunity, I suggest you drive one.