Why I Bought an Air-Cooled Porsche 911 (Twice)
Something keeps pulling me back.
Ten years ago, I dumped my savings into a Porsche 911 SC. It was an ’83, slate blue and gorgeous, a purchased rationalized as a short-term investment that could get me across the country while doing research and photography for a book. The plan was to sell the car for a profit after arriving in Los Angeles, ideally before the engine exploded. Or, you know, whatever other financially crippling fates befall oddly-engineered, ass-engined air-cooled German sports cars.
But after seeing the country through its curved windshield, luggage packed snugly against its vestigial rear seats, I fell for the damn thing. Of course I did. And by the time we’d traversed the national parks, skimmed the Rockies, and tucked the 911 safely in our garage back home, my wife had, too. “You’re never selling that car,” she said. As is often the case, the girl was right. Something about the slopey tail, the earthy cabin smell, and the mechanical honesty of the rear-mounted flat-6 made that little car feel like home. So I spent the next year bombing around L.A. Well, until a zombie-eyed Toyota driver T-boned me. Spun the 911 like a top. It came to rest, crumpled, its fluids slowly spilling into a storm drain. And just like that, an air-cooled hole was punched in my life.
Ask Porschephiles what about air-cooled 911s gets their blood pumping, and they’ll spew some cockamamie about performance or practicality. Lies. While early cars were quicker than many of their contemporaries (and, yes, roomier than the average two-seater), air-cooled 911s are positively Pleistocene by modern standards. They capture the imagination because they’re outliers, mechanically and logically, an anti-cookie-cutter that’s stubbornly steeped in its German roots. For the better part of three decades, Porsche couldn’t be bothered with natural engineering evolution—you know, like using radiators to cool an engine that’s in the front, or middle, of a car. The allure of the air-cooled 911 draws on something primal, the desire for a touch of analog in a digital world (Hey look, I’m different!) without the perils of, say, daily driving a carbureted rally car (Hey look, old 911, I’m every other douchebag in L.A.!) It’s a weirdly familiar yet inscrutable fingerprint these cars have. Once bitten by the air-cooled bug, it’s hard let it go.
Nearly a decade after my Porsche met its demise, I found myself snaking up Big Tujunga Canyon Road in the Angeles National Forest in a considerably more valuable 911: The “Chicago Car,” a 964-series specimen rebuilt by the folks at Singer Vehicle Designs.
O.K., so a $575,000 custom refined to an inch of its life is hardly representative of air-cooled reality. But the light, accurate steering, the musky smell of oil, metal and leather, and that familiar flat-six valvetrain blatting and exhaust brapping… By the third corner, I knew I had to have another one.
But time can be a cruel mistress. In the case of air-cooled 911s, the landscape has transformed from a bargain-filled niche into a frenzied, collector-driven market. My old 911 SC? I paid $8,500 for it in 2006. At the time it was totaled, the insurance company valued it at $17,500. These days, the same car would fetch nearly double that amount.
I considered everything: early longnose models (too pricey), 3.2-liter G-body Carreras (too similar to my dearly departed SC), and 964s (dynamic drivers, but not, in my eye, as sexy as their wide-hipped successors). So I kept returning to the 993, the last generation of air-cooled 911s, built between 1994 and 1998. It’s a car I’d idolized when new, the car Rob Dickinson, the man behind Singer Vehicle Designs, had recently purchased a 993 for daily driving. And he’s the one who’d gotten back into this mess. It was time.
Porsche owners can be pricks. But they can also be a warm, insular, and weirdly trusting bunch. After honing in on a forest green metallic 993 coupe on Rennlist, a veritable online temple of Porsche geekdom, I stepped into a pleasant but probing exchange with the seller. Apart from the usual jitters about the horribly expensive things that go wrong with old German cars, the process was easy, and at times, even fun. After wiring the money over, flying to the Midwest, and entering the garage code to fetch the 911 from the seller’s suburban Chicago home while he and his family were away on vacation, I was back in the game.
Is the air-cooled life everything I remembered it to be? Owning a 993 is irrational and fantastic. So yes. As for the dollars and cents, the rationale is still alive and well in my reptile brain; like before, I call this purchase an investment. “You’re never going to sell that thing,” my wife announced when she laid eyes on the 993. She’s probably right.