Let me tell you a secret about this silver 1995 Porsche 911 (a car that has consumed so much of my time, energy, money and attention over the last two years that my significant other would be jealous - if, indeed, I actually had one): it isn’t even really the car that I wanted.
No, the car I wanted was something a little older – a 1990–1994 model, a ‘964’ in Porsche-speak. It’s a red 964 that hung on my bedroom wall when I entered my teens; it was a red 964 that, as our family drove to Lake Scugog to fail to catch fish the summer of 1990, rocketed away from a stop sign making the most glorious noise as its rear spoiler rose into place.
My mom thought I’d gone insane, and my friends made fun of me.
I spent a year and a half looking for a nice 964, spent too much time reading internet forums about all of the potential things that could go wrong. Every one I looked at seemed to manifest at least one Big Problem. I stopped looking for a while, but the desire to own an air-cooled 911 never abated; one day, I stumbled across an Auto Trader ad for this newer 993-generation model, and, other than getting it checked out at the local dealer, did pretty much no research at all. It was almost 20 years old, I reasoned; stuff was going to go wrong. The important thing was to get on the bandwagon before old-911 prices went through the roof, and deal with the rest as it came.
When I bought the 993, I was still working at Porsche, and driving a free, new 911 as a company car. My mom thought I’d gone insane, and my friends made fun of me (“as if one goddamn Porsche wasn’t enough!”). But driving it and a brand-new 991 concurrently let me in on another secret: while my 911 may not have all of the features of the new one, or indeed its outright capability, it is just as fun to drive, with telepathic steering feel, instant throttle response, and those distinctive rear-biased dynamics.
In fact, it is actually more fun, for two reasons. First, thanks to skinnier tires and more modest power levels (my car makes 270 hp compared to a base 2015 Carrera’s 350), you can drive it harder more of the time and not be in license-losing territory. Second – and more importantly – to the general public, and indeed to car enthusiasts, an old 911 is as cool as, if not cooler, than a new one. And you’re way more likely to be let into a gap in traffic in the old car, because you’re not just some rich dude with a set of expensive wheels.
To own, it hasn’t been onerous. Compared to the tech-fest that is a modern 911 (or any modern car), there’s not a lot to break, and what there is was built to robust standards where cost was less of an object than it is nowadays. Oil-change intervals are a very reasonable 12,000 km (though that’ll be 10 quarts when you do). After 170,000 km, it’s still running strong, it still has its original exhaust system, and the suspension is still tight and well controlled. Like most air-cooled 911s, mine drips a little bit of oil, something which the new valve cover gaskets I’m having installed this spring should fix for another couple of years; other than that, all I’ve done is replace the rear tires and a couple of notoriously crappy power window switches.
Objectively, the car’s a mixed bag by modern standards. In some ways, it’s still ahead of its time: how many cars can you buy in 2015 that have a flat underbody and active aerodynamics? In other ways, it’s hopelessly outdated. The steering wheel and pedals are weirdly offset, the cabin is cramped, the climate control system wheezes like your asthmatic grandmother and the ergonomics are laughable (at least the switch that operates the sunroof is on the floor console instead of the bottom surface of the instrument cluster, where it was on previous generations). All that stuff, though, is part of the car’s charm; it’s modern enough to drive every day, and I do in the summer, but it also feels weird and a bit special like a vintage car should.
Except for its lower limits and the distinctive plishy-plashy noise at idle, the 993 is a thoroughly modern thing to drive. Unfiltered by computer, the throttle summons up instant responses from the 3.6-litre flat-six, and you can choose whether to surf along on a fat wave of torque or wind it up to its roaring redline (the six gears are closely stacked, with sixth for real driving and not fuel economy). The suspension setup, with struts up front and a multi-link rear axle, is broadly similar in concept to the setup that’s still in use on modern 911s, and it’s easy to settle into a beautiful rhythm on a beautiful road, steering and shifting with your fingertips and really leaning on the throttle and the brakes.
Here’s another secret, though: I live in downtown Toronto, and by far the greatest joy I get from driving this car isn’t from carving along some perfect country road. It’s actually the most fun when barging around town, dodging traffic and running errands, where its modern quantities of acceleration, power and responsiveness team with its best vintage-car qualities: a body that’s tiny in comparison to almost all modern cars and a nice, upright seating position paired with super-thin pillars that makes for incredible all-round visibility. Throw in the 993’s solid, unburstable feel and you have – knowing that it was surely made for nobler things – the ultimate, and coolest, urban runabout.
It’s almost as much fun to photograph as it is to drive. Walk around the car and the shape seems to shift; its proportions look different from every angle. The Polar Silver paint – I really didn’t want a silver car – goes almost blue in bright sunlight and shows off the curves better than the red I would have preferred. Its organic, almost liquid, look under artificial light makes it a joy to photograph in the city – not a setting you’d normally pose an old 911 in, but one that actually tells a great story of old integrating with new.
As you may have surmised, I love this car. But I love it for reasons I never really anticipated.
At some base level, I thought owning an old 911 would confer some sort of prestige, or cool factor, on me, that I didn’t have; I thought it would somehow make me more than I was. What I discovered, instead, was something I’m more at ease with than any material object I’ve encountered. It’s obsessed with both history and modernity; it’s small and kind of funny-looking; it likes the city as much as the country; and it’s capable of surprising feats of strength and speed when called upon. Instead of making me feel better about myself, what this car does is far more special: in here, I actually feel more like myself than anywhere else.