The Porsche Safari 911 Is Filthy Fun
Nothing makes a fat man smile like off-roading in Leh Keen's rally-ready 911.
Let me tell you about the best day of driving I’ve ever had.
It wasn’t behind the wheel of a sparkly new McLaren, or the unbelievable Ferrari 488 GTB. It wasn’t when I got to run Steven Tyler’s Hennessey Venom GT down a runway meant for the Space Shuttle. It wasn’t the day I got my license, or the day I bought my first sports car. It wasn’t even yesterday, when I put a hundred incident-free miles on my (Maybe? Possibly?) “Finished,” and “working” project Fox Body Mustang. All contenders; all strongly satisfying on the automotive bucket list. But not worthy of the top spot.
The best day of driving I’ve ever had was July 19th, 2016. We were in an unfathomably beautiful nook, tucked away in the rolling, forested hills of rural North Carolina. Racing driver Leh Keen, a podium fixture in American GT racing since 2004, has built a cabin here, a retreat from the grind of living on the road. At the time of our visit, it has neither any furniture, nor any internet connectivity. It’s just us, the woods, our camera equipment, and what’s waiting in the driveway—“The Keen Project.” It’s a 911 Safari, more commonly known as a rally car.
Off-road sport cars are, like, sooooo hot right now. And I totally get it, for a very specific reason: I’ve driven rally cars. I’m no expert; I have maybe ten days of seat time behind the wheel of various prepped rally cars, and another twenty days or so of fairly serious off-road miles in mid-engined, rear-drive cars I bought off Craigslist and modified . . . not at all. So I’m not claiming to be Sebastian Loeb, or even Sebastian Ogier, or any Frenchman named Sebastian. But I am claiming to know just how fucking fun it is to drive a sports car on a loose surface. And when that car happens to be a 911, the experience is amplified threefold. Let me explain.
A 911 of any vintage is a wonderfully integrated driving experience. The seating position, the mechanical connection between your hands, feet and the car, the thrum of the engine at low revs, and screeching wail at the top, the vault-solid feel of the whole thing. This is especially true for the old cars, the G-bodies of the 1970’s and 80’s, which, in my experience, feel absolutely rock solid on the road after thirty-five years. Honestly, nothing else of that period comes close. And during that period, Porsche themselves dabbled heavily in factory-built rally cars. Remember the 959? Rally car. Before that, there was the 1984 911 SC/RS, also a rally car (now worth seven figures), and the inspiration for this build. Other people, such as legendary 911 Rallyist Richard Tutthill, have gone off-roading in 911’s to great success, but I’ve never had a go in one until now.
Good chassis dynamics are good chassis dynamics, whether you’re on the road, or off it. So if you’re building a rally car, and you start with a great sports car, all those things you love about that driving experience will translate to the dirt—in the case of this car, even more.
It started out as a 1981 911 SC with reasonable miles and a straight body. Leh had the 3.0-Liter engine and 5-speed gearbox rebuilt, but left it mostly stock, save for a mild cam upgrade and an aftermarket exhaust, so it now makes about 200 horsepower. It has a vintage-style roll bar, four-lamp fog light pod, and a simple ducktail spoiler. The bumpers were brought in closer to the body, with Safari-style bumper bars and skid plates rounding out the look. Inside, it’s vintage-style buckets, a Momo Prototipo Wheel, and trippy-ass vintage fabric. It looks like the set of a German après ski porn shoot. I love it.
Unlike some other Safari builds I’ve seen, which do a full coil-over conversion with seam welding, Leh kept it simple. He changed the uprights and got custom long-travel shocks from Elephant Racing, but left the rear torsion-beam design, just to keep things simple. Hell, if it worked on the road car, it would work on the dirt. It’s got a four-inch lift, which is just right on big BFG All-Terrain tires and stock 16” Fuchs wheels.
Every person who sees this car smiles. Every person like me who sees this car, their jaw just drops. It looks the business, but it’s also clean, classic, and ready to party. Leh hasn’t washed it once since it was painted. “I just drive it through the river when it gets too dirty,” a strategy that actually kind of works. It’s a metaphor, in fact, for the rest of the build. Fabric excepted, it was all approached with the simplest solution in mind.
“If It’s complicated, I’m working on it and not out driving it. And this car is the daily driver out here.” A statement which rings true, since Leh often posts photos on Instagram of the Safari 911 parked at the airport when he travels for work, filthy as ever.
On the road, it honestly feels just like any other old 911. It’s amazing how you don’t notice the four-inch lift at all when you’re in the car on the highway. It rides beautifully, and the BF Goodrich A/T tires are designed for dual-purpose vehicles, so they don’t make too much noise. Running the six all the way to seven is an aural experience to behold; the grumble turns to a shout before becoming a guttural wail near redline. I always forget how long the gearing is in these older 911’s, and find myself going a gear or two higher than I need to be in several occasions. Eventually, I realize that it’s totally normal to be in third gear at 65 MPH in one of these cars, and let the engine sing as we cruise down the road, in the rain.
When the tarmac gets tighter and the undulations more pronounced, you do notice a bit of deadness in the center of the steering; credit, no doubt, goes to the tires for that as well. But I can still carry good speed on wet, winding roads, and Leh and I concur that the 911’s road mannerisms have not, in fact, been ruined by making it into an off-roader.
Turning off the highway on to a remote mountain stretch of dead-end dirt road, we send the film crew ahead to scout and Leh takes over to show me what the car can do before I drive. He proceeds to put on a rally driving clinic wearing flip flops that would embarrass most of the field at a Rally America event. No helmets, no roll cage, no worries. I get out of the car trembling, certain that if I try to drive anything like Leh, I’ll end up backwards in a tree, and owe someone a lot of money.
As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. This is the most forgiving, predictable, fun rally car I’ve ever had the privilege of piloting. As Chris Harris once told me, “It’s all about the front. A good driver can always control the back, but the front has to do what you ask of it.”
That statement has never been more true than of this car. Enter a loose, rocky corner, brake firmly, and turn the wheel. The front end sticks and goes exactly where you put it. The back end, slowly and controllably, steps out.
At this point in the corner, on tarmac, an old 911 will earn its “Widowmaker” nickname. If the back steps out, the instinct is to lift off the throttle. Weight transfers forward, the back will slow down, and, thanks to that big ‘ol engine hanging off the back, the rear tires will catch and the car snaps back in the other direction, causing a spin. To avoid this, the experienced 911 driver has to stay on the throttle through the corner to keep weight at the rear. Follow me there? Because the Safari isn’t like that at all.
So, the front is planted, and the back is now sideways and I’m countersteering. But, because of the loose surface, there is no sudden “grip and snap.” The car maintains its slide on its own. No fancy handbrakes here either; this is Weight Transfer 101. Once you’ve used that sideways slide to slow down enough for the apex of the corner, hold that angle, roll into the throttle and rocket out of the corner, getting maximum grip on power because the engine is on top of the rear axle.
The very dynamics which make a 911 fast on a racetrack in the hands of a pro, and intimidating in the hands of an amateur, make the Safari 911 the most predictable and fun rally car I’ve ever driven. And because we were making this /TUNED feature about it, I got a whole day of this. We closed the road, up and down I went. Leh did some passes, then I did some passes, and with each run up this closed dirt road, I gained confidence. I began linking drift corners. In a borrowed Porsche. Fucking three feet from trees on a single lane road. What was I doing? How did I end up in this situation? And more importantly, how am I having fun and not shitting my pants?
Even more impressively, there were no squeaks or rattles. We drove up and down this road in our rented Dodge Journey (or similar) and it felt like the dashboard was going to rattle right off. Yet here I was, careening up a dirt road in a 35-year-old Porsche turning 6,000 RPM, and nothing rattled? Nothing squeaked? How was that even possible?
My mind was boggled. I never thought I could have so much fun in an old Porsche with 200 horsepower. I never thought I could drive up a dirt road at speed in any old car, and not hear a rattle. I never thought you could do so much with the 911 platform, while modifying so little. I want one. I want to daily drive it in LA, and not slow down for anything or anyone. I want to jump it, hit curbs, and make like those Austrians and take it skiing. I want to live in this thing.
The only thing keeping me from going on Craigslist and buying a 911 SC that very day was the fact that Leh’s cabin didn’t have internet. So we sat on beanbag chairs, drank beers, and talked about color combinations and crazy interior patterns covering every single surface of the car.
And of course the best part is, we brought back video. So, if you’ve got a minute or eight, I strongly recommend you have a look. But be warned. SC’s aren’t getting any cheaper.