What it’s really like to live with an air-cooled Porsche 911

The quarry of my teenage desires? An air-cooled Porsche 911.

After 15 years of ownership, has the experience matched the dream?

No. It’s been better.

Like so many adulthood adventures, this one has roots in my formative years. Then, now, and in the days to come, a Porsche 911 has represented the dream. It has the performance, the mystique, the unmistakable sound, smell and silhouette. 

In my case, my ideal was a G-body car from the ’70s and ’80s. That model simply defined the era: impact bumpers, fat Fuchs, just enough fender flare. Practical, too, with a rust-resistant body, the possibility of a/c, and a torquey, long-lasting engine.

When I was in high school in the 1980s, a 911 covered both bases: a sign of success and the ideal tool for winning races. It was the ultimate “bad guy” car yet also IMSA’s star at the time. 

The one on my poster was a red Turbo. 

Small dose of reality: I couldn’t afford it–definitely not while in school and certainly not in the years soon after. But by the late 2000s, my world had changed. I worked at a car magazine. I knew people. Porsche prices had become reasonable, as a good 911 could be had in the teens. Seriously. 

While visiting the Lane Motor Museum, a quick spin in the collection’s 911 confirmed that it was time for me to go for it. I’d already driven Porsches both early and later, but a few minutes in this one told me that I had found the sweet spot. 

The first impression: The door unlocked with a firm, deliberate click that seems to reverberate through the panel. Then, rather than a slam or a thud or even a whimper, the latches confidently fastened shut. 

The interior smelled of oil and leather, yet the engine started on the first turn of the key. The shifter offered long throws that, paradoxically, effortlessly slipped into gear. The pedals hinged up from the floor–like in an old Bug–while the flat seats felt oddly supportive. 

Some of the switches seemed randomly scattered through the interior, evidence of a 1960s design updated through the decades to keep pace with consumer desires. The steering wheel had a thick grip yet a large diameter. In the middle sat a hockey puck. 

Does it all make sense? It’s not supposed to. The icon of my youth existed that day as the perfect older classic, and seemingly everything had a story to tell. 

Where to find a good example, though? This was before Bring a Trailer, before the recent explosion in the auction scene. 

This one fell in my lap as our former auction editor had tired of it: a 1984 Porsche 911 Carrera coupe wearing its original Ruby Red Metallic paint and, as far as we can tell, a factory Turbo tail. At some point, the car received the wider-than-stock Fuchs alloys. 

The car was originally sold by Merlin Olsen Porsche-Audi–yes, that Merlin Olsen, the former member of the L.A. Rams defense who, along with Deacon Jones, Rosey Grier and Lamar Lundy, made up the Fearsome Foursome. Olsen later starred in “Little House on the Prairie” and “Father Murphy” while also hawking cut flowers for FTD Florists. 

After spending much of its life in California, this Porsche had recently moved to Chicago. We live down here in Florida. The easy solution: Fly up and drive home. 

What spares to pack? None. I figured my AAA card, cell phone and GPS unit would cover me. 

The seller did offer some parting advice before I shoved off on the trip back: Don’t forget, you’re driving a red Porsche wearing a big-ass wing. 

This car–the shape, the details–has haunted many enthusiasts for decades. Finally, though, Porsche ownership. Would the experience live up to the dream? 

First stop on the way home: Tire Rack’s headquarters in South Bend, Indiana. The Porsche wore some all-seasons. Could we do better? John Rastetter, the company’s knower of all things tires, disappeared for a minute, returning with a binder full of tire catalogs circa 1984. 

Yes, he said, we could improve things, marrying modern performance and construction with period looks. A solution, he offered: the Pirelli P Zero System. In addition to the right looks, these tires had the N specification, meaning they carried Porsche’s seal of approval for the slightly unorthodox chassis setup. 

[Video: Why you need N Spec tires for Your Porsche]

Of course I fit a set. As a small postscript, the market for retro-looking tires for the 911 has since grown, with Yokohama, Michelin and others also offering period-correct choices for this car. 

The biggest lesson from that summertime drive home? This car comes alive at night: the view of the headlights, the glow of the big VDO gauges, the purr of the exhaust mixed with a whiff of oil. The two big components of the soundtrack: the constant whirl of the engine’s cooling fan backed by the quiet yet always present rasp of the exhaust. 

The a/c barely cooled the air, but that didn’t matter. Opening the front windows kept July’s summertime temps at bay. The wind didn’t roar through the cockpit, but rather flowed by, taking the heat with it. 

The 911 would devour long stretches of interstate without complaint. It never got hot. It didn’t get weird. Easy to get in and out of, too.

Is it fast? Depends on the yardstick. Reportedly it was the fastest car sold in the U.S. that year, yet today it could get rolled by a loaded-up minivan. 

The biggest issue? Budget a few extra minutes for gas stops as people will ask questions. The car is approachable and inviting. Perhaps a bit humble, too, especially by today’s performance car standards. 

And no tickets during that trip home. 

The practical lessons here? If shopping for a 911–or really any classic–know which car to seek so you can quickly say yes or no. I went into this knowing that a big-bumper, G-body Porsche was the answer, but that range covers a lot of cars. 

The G-body range starts in 1974, the first year for the short-hood, big-bumper cars. These came with a 2.7-liter engine that developed a bad reputation over the years for issues with head studs. Fortunately, by now the good/surviving cars have been fixed, but at least at the time, a 2.7-liter car sounded like a bit too much of a roll of the dice for me. 

The 911 got an all-new, 3.0-liter engine for 1978 along with an updated formal model name: the 911SC. Injection was via Bosch CIS–extremely common during the ’70s and ’80s as it was used by Volkswagen to Ferrari, Volvo to Mercedes-Benz. I once owned a Rabbit GTI so equipped, and it ran flawlessly. The advice given to me by several CIS mechanics: Do not touch. 

[Repairing and rejuvenating the Bosch CIS Injection in our Rabbit GTI]

The 911 line got a big update for 1984 with a displacement bump to 3.2 liters as well as Bosch Motronic injection. Where the CIS setup could be called mechanical fuel injection–a computer basically just handles cold start and a few other tasks–Motronic features an electronic brain. Like a modern car. 

The move to Motronic meant more power and, in theory, improved drivability. Along with the new injection came an updated model name: The standard 911 was now known as the Carrera. 

I wanted a 3.2-liter car, but my budget pointed toward an SC. I scored a Carrera in my budget. Sometimes you get lucky, which as we all know is preparation meeting opportunity. 

The other part of the puzzle when shopping for a 911: parts and what it costs to buy and replace those parts. Just about everything is available these days, from sheet metal to little pieces of trim. 

Some parts just cost more than others. Those rubber bumper bellows found at each corner of the body? Depending on the supplier, new ones start around $20. A set of pistons and, since they can’t be rebored, new cylinders? Still available via Mahle; budget at least $4000.

The big take-home here: Engine work on a 911 can quickly get extremely expensive. As with any car, so can bodywork. I’d rather repair some cosmetics than face a mechanical redo. Shop smart. 

A pre-purchase inspection can be money well spent, especially with today’s selling prices closing in on six figures. Contact the Porsche Club of America or a trusted shop to line one up.

Did I have one done? Um, no. 

Is an air-cooled Porsche today’s fastest car? Doesn’t matter. It’s all about the experience, whether you’re leaving town or blasting through the mountains. Photography Credit: Kevin Abel

A month after arriving home, the Porsche made its public debut at a local cars and coffee. My mindset: Get out there and get involved. Make new friends. Take photos. 

The car went on a few early road trips, too. We drove south to see Judas Priest and up into Tennessee for a rally with Coker Tire. The love affair was growing–whether on the mountains or the highways, the Porsche stuffed old-car charm into a practical, usable package. 

With the back seat folded down, there’s plenty of room for overnight bags. The trunk is a little oddly shaped yet still effective. Cavernous door pockets await. 

Mechanical issues during those early days? Not many. I had a torn CV boot and simply replaced the entire axle for about $250. 

No tow trucks, no stories about being stranded on the side of the road. I can’t even recall a dead battery.

Two years after buying the car, though, it was time for a valve adjustment. We could simply hear that something fell out of spec.

Randy, an old friend, offered to do the job at his home shop.

Upon pulling the valve covers, he found not just a broken head stud but the end simply missing–meaning someone knew about the problem and chose to bury it. 

Houston, we have a problem. And this project is just getting started.

After two years of honeymoon bliss, we ran into a slight problem: The engine needed to come out to fix a snapped head stud. What else awaited?

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