I bought a 911
But it took a VW Golf to make me realise what Iíd bought
It is fast approaching a year since I bought my 911, a 964 Carrera 2 to be precise. Iím the wrong side of 50 years old, and have been reading about 911ís almost since they first hit the roads. Iíve owned lots of cars over the years, but without doubt the 911 has long been the one I really wanted, the pinnacle, the icon. I have followed its progress through the eyes, minds and pens of Blain and Setright, Nichols and Cropley, their analysis and prose is all but etched into my brain somewhere, all that lift off oversteer and sledgehammer acceleration stuff. (Yeah, you guessed, a serial CAR devotee, until it turned to mush anyway). The important thread that has run down through the years is this, that the 911 was, is and forevermore shall be a Supercar. And thatís what I bought Ö a Supercar.
So why have I been so perplexed ever since I got it? Why did I have difficulty shaking off an enthusiastically driven Clio on a B road? Why is it I was faster on most of the bumpy roads around here in my old 924? Why do I consistently use it below itís potential because I donít trust the twitchy steering to tramline off into the verge unannounced? Why am I still not satisfied with the brakes, despite being on my second set of new disks? Is it me, or have I bought a turkey?
Back to the magazines (and now the net forums too) to look for clues. All I can find is more eulogising, made worse by a constant insistence that somehow the new water cooled 911ís are not quite the cars that the old air cooled ones were. Duh? Ö I just donít get this argument, which seems to suggest that the best and most profitable car company in the world are deliberately making worse cars than they used too. I donít think so somehow. Yet I own one of these shining beacons of excellence, but I am unsure of it. Confused.com? Ö forget insurance, thatís me and Porsches that is. Yet a sequence of events over the last few days, culminating in a drive in a humble VW Golf seem to have made it all clear for me, so let me try and explain.
First off I get my 964 back from the paint shop, who have tidied up some scruffy paint around the rear end, and let me tell you it looks utterly magnificent. When I bought the car it had a whopping great Techart bi-plane spoiler on it, which I loathed from the outset, but I managed by amazing luck to find my original electric spoiler on eBay. I won it and re-fitted it. I even sold the Techart monstrosity and made enough profit to pay the painter. So all told, the car looks original again and very sexy in itís Tahoe Blue. Good enough to have won this years 964.com photo competition too, hideous spoiler notwithstanding. Xmas day and we have a short run on clean empty to see friends and the car feels great, with that fabulous rumbling thrumming engine note. The more I drive the 964, the more it reminds me of my old Harley ElectraGlide, but thatís another story.
The friend in question has just bought a particularly nice second hand 996 Carrera 4, and I have now had the chance to drive it, albeit in the dark and the rain, yet it was a revelation. I must have taken all of 400 yards for me to feel at home, it feels instantly like a 911 to me, with that slightly odd feel around the front wheels, which no other cars (except perhaps an Alpine GTA) have. Yet at the same time I immediately see what all the die hards hate, the car is as easy to drive as a Ford, almost lifeless until you give it some stick. Itís still the same, but totally different too.
But it was today that put the tin hat on it. My wife an I drove up to Aberdeen to see my brother, the usual Xmas visit, which is about 150 mile round trip, and one I've done countless times with various 2 and 4 wheeled motorised devices. Traffic was light, conditions OK, and we took Eileenís new-ish Mk 5 Golf. It is a bottom of the range, 1.4S version, a 3 door in white, boasting all of 75bhp. It has a leather wheel and winter pack, and nothing else. We bought this a few months ago, and I have barely driven it, as to be honest I tend to look upon it as a sort of outdoor domestic appliance, motoring white goods (the colour was no accident believe me) and as such I pay it no great heed. Yet I drove it properly today, and I was quite frankly blown away.
As I said, Iíve done this journey umpteen times, yet I cannot ever recall racking up these 150 miles with less effort and stress. This humble little Golf turned in a stunning performance. It whistled up the dual carriageway sections at 80mph in almost total silence, yet with speed in hand. It tackled the flowing A road bits with aplomb, and in particular with very little body roll, all the more surprising as it rides like a Mercedes limousine. It is no fireball for sure, but it more than keeps up with traffic, has the engine tuned for low down torque rather than power, which aids driveability, and if not careful can still activate every GATSO between here and Aberdeen. The brakes are powerful and easy to modulate. The seats look non-descript, but are supremely comfortable, and heated. It comes as standard with air con and a basic climate control that really works, great headlights, a half decent CD player and the best set of washer/wipers Iíve ever used. The admittedly optional VW 3 spoke leather sport wheel is only bettered by my vintage MOMO Veloce for feel. Needless to say it is parsimonious with fuel too. I have often joked that this car should have Indesit or Hotpoint on the bumper, but after todayís run I take it all back. It is simply a fantastic bit of safe, efficient, modern transportational equipment, and fun to use as long as you see it in that light.
What really came home to me today is just why Porsche had to move on from the 964/993 era and into the 996 and 997, absolutely irrespective of what any of their most hardened and blinkered fans might have said. If this humble little Golf is what Volkswagen can produce for a mere £12,000, then if Porsche had persisted with the crappy outdated systems in the air cooled bangers, they wouldnít have lasted days in todayís market place. They would be as much an industrial ghost as Alvis or Francis Barnett. Thank God Wendy Wendykins had the sense and the nous to see what was coming and react accordingly. I havenít yet driven a Cayman or a 997, but I have driven a new Boxster and several 996ís, and what I see in them is the same strain of progress that our little Golf shows, just with a lots more grunt and focus.
But what of my 964, my Supercar? What today showed me in clear relief is just how much the world has changed in the 15 years since my 911 was king of the heap. I have been guilty of looking at it, and I still seeing and hearing the car that Mel Nichols was raving about 15 years ago, or those pictures of George Kacher driving the doors off it, and assume that I can do the same today. Yet the cold hard truth is this, that todayís humble little 75bhp Golf knocks spots of it in almost every area except outright power and speed. And what is the one factor which is all but unusable on todayís traffic choked and camera infested roads? Yup Ö power and speed.
So you might conclude from this that I should sell the 964 and buy another Golf Mk5 1.4S for myself, as after all I have just convinced myself that it represents about 99% of what you really need in a car today. Wrong on all counts actually. In fact I have come another step closer today to understanding my Porsche 911, in that I must learn to stop reading all those old CAR articles and pretending they apply today, Ďcos they plain donít. They are a piece of history now, as in fact is my 964, and should be revered and treated as such. I will no longer pretend that my 911 is a dragon slaying supercar of today, as it simply is not. If I want a car for today, Iíll use the Golf (or buy myself a new GTi if I can scrape up the beans) but from now onwards I will see the 964 in a totally different light. It is truly a relic from a different age, just as are steam trains and racing Bugattis. 15 years may seem a cruelly short life span to go from supercar to historical icon, but it is true. If you donít believe me, borrow a new Golf and drive to Aberdeen. Funny, that for all of the above philosophising, I do believe I love my 911 more this evening than I did 24 hours ago.
Sequel Ė Nov 2014
This article was written nearly ten years ago now, and it is fascinating to look back on it. I stand by all I said then, but ultimately the 964 proved to be an enigma to me, and I never really truly bonded with it. I always felt the car had its own agenda, and it was not a totally reliable partner when the chips were down. Not my idea of the perfect car. The rose tinted spectacle brigade will tell you that this is all part of the character. Personally I think this is romantic nonsense, it is just a latent flaw in the design. The upshot is I did not keep the car long. Iím glad it was part of my motoring CV, but I do not yearn for another 911.
Shortly after selling it, I bought another Porsche, another flat 6 too, but this time with the engine in the middle, where it should be. I will shortly start my 9th year of ownership of the best car Porsche has ever made, arguably the best road car money can buy. I refer of course to my utterly sublime Porsche Cayman Ö but thatís another story altogether!
Copyright, words and photos - John R Hunter