By now, everyone knows that Porsches are extraordinary instruments. Riding at the forefront of an unburstable bubble are the air-cooled examples, machines that offer the most special drive of them all. Whether you’ve driven one or not, you already know that it’s an experience like none other.
But of course, many knew this long before the P-cars of yesteryear were glowing red-hot in collector circles. My new friends Jeff Tharp and Michael Hartman are of this variety, and they picked up their respective silver and green ‘impact bumper’ beauties long before they were a car that would pay you to own them.
They bought them because they were exactly what they wanted, not because they were in style. Not that any 911 coupe is really ever out of style, but I know you know what I mean. Today, be you a driver, a tinkerer, an investor, a purist, or a subscriber of the Rough-World philosophy, there’s a Porsche for you.
These two owners are of the former kind: drivers. Not professionals, just a couple of guys like you or me who understand that indescribable connection between your right foot on the throttle, your hands on the wheel, and spent fuel roaring out the back of a metal box you’ve attached yourself to.
Naturally, this attachment runs deeper than a seatbelt. Michael picked up his factory Emerald Green Metallic ’77 911S in 1996 with a Euro-spec 3.0-liter, and it’s safe to say it’s come a long way since then. By ‘long’ I really mean it’s come about 606 cubic centimeters between then and 2004 when a different engine was swapped in by Rothsport Racing here in Oregon. But we’ll get to all that and much more soon enough.
Jeff, on the other hand, purchased his first Porsche when he was 33, as a single parent of three young children. It was a 944, and since then he has had 18 — Porsches, that is, not children. This ’78 SC was his first 911, and its history is intertwined with Michael’s green example.
On an early morning drive not unlike the one we experienced together, Jeff was pacing Michael’s 911 in his Cayman S – a fine vehicle in its own right, of course. But not a 911. Following from behind, Jeff was “admiring the form of the automobile I had loved for so many years,” when something clicked. Perhaps it was more of a snap, but either way, the Cayman was sold shortly thereafter and the search began.
Of course, Jeff did find a 911, the one you see here skirting the lush rolling hills in wine country outside of Salem, Oregon, sitting alongside the very car that spurred its purchase. And this tiny gathering of German goodness more than a year ago was quite meaningful for me, too. I’d driven an air-cooled Porsche before — in fact, a particularly special one from the same era that I’ll be sharing here soon. I had also driven 911s before, and of course they were quite nice.
But of all the wacky flavors out there in the world, this magic combination was one I’d never sampled. The rainmaker: the air-cooled 911.
There’s a lot of hype around these so-called G-body Porsches, and it makes sense. Before, during, and after, there’s nothing like a vintage 911. The closest thing is probably just a 911 from another era, and surely the newer ones are better and faster, but of course that’s not quite right either. And moving marques, well, you’re just missing the mark.
Driving my own Project 345 alongside these West German wonders, there is just no comparison. It’s not that the E36 is bad by any means, and I very deliberately purchased mine because of its nice analog feel. But it doesn’t really get much more analog than these 911s in a street car. And in 2021, analog is what we want.
This connection to something real, something direct, something pure; it’s what we need. Nothing scratches this itch better than a classic air-cooled 911 on a crisp morning with only road behind and ahead of you.
Focusing on Jeff’s silver 911SC, the history really goes back much further than that fateful drive with Michael I mentioned earlier. Jeff remembers being eight years old, in what would have been 1968, and he was able to name the year, make, and model of every car on the road. Passing through his teenage years in the 1970s meant that it was “a virtual rite of passage,” as he puts it, to be interested in muscle cars and hot rods.
But before this, Jeff had already begun his love affair with the 911 thanks to a scale model he built at age 12. He says he was enamored by the shape and contours of the unique bodywork, which were quite radically different than the American cars he was familiar with. Two years later in 1974, a friend of the family bought a brand new 911.
Jeff shares that it was through this experience of seeing and hearing the 911 up close that his love for this model became fully cemented, and no amount of American muscle cars in his teenage years could shake this foundation. When Jeff began his search initially, he already knew the direction he wanted to take his future 911.
He knew he wanted a silver example, and he explains that his plan was “to lower it, add 16-inch Fuchs wheels from a 930, Recaro seats, and a rowdy exhaust system.” He continues: “In a seemingly fateful encounter, I found this car in the right color with all of those modifications already made — and then some.”
A very simple recipe was applied to this car, and it’s part of the reason why I was particularly excited about driving this relatively stock example alongside its heavily-modified green counterpart we had out on the same occasion. The suspension utilizes stock components on this one, albeit lowered by nearly two inches. The brakes, also stock, but with braided stainless steel hoses.
Jeff’s wish for nice meaty Fuchs was granted as well, and this polished set are wrapped wrapped in Hankook Ventus RS3 rubber. The high performance summer tires are more than enough to handle the 200 or so horsepower and lb-ft of torque that are put out from the flat-six.
This 3.0-liter powerplant happens to be the one that the car left the factory with back in the late 1970s, which is always a cool historical bonus 50 years on. Being the original engine, I enjoyed taking in the details all that much more.
Meanwhile, the small bump in power over stock is thanks to a few simple modifications, similar to what you’d see on just about any enthusiast’s car. A factory continuous injection system sources air that’s been pulled through a K&N filter; the catalytic converter has been removed altogether; and a custom race-inspired muffler has been installed along with 964 camshafts. It’s simple, but it’s all you need.
Inside, it’s also straightforward and to the point. The rear seats have since been removed as Jeff would prefer to add lightness than passengers, and a set of vintage Recaro bucket seats with fishnet headrests are installed up front. The console has also been sent out to pasture, and some other panels have followed suit.
I enjoyed absorbing the patina in the cabin just as much as I did in the engine bay; all these little bits and pieces tell so many stories, but we don’t know exactly what they are. We don’t need to, either, as new stories continue to be written from behind a Momo steering wheel, which is mounted with a 2-inch spacer for improved ergonomics.
Jeff describes the car as a hot-rodded driving project with a focus on saving weight and optimizing factory components. Qualitatively speaking, he says it is raw, visceral and mechanical, and provides tons of fun and feedback to the driver. They say you should never meet your heroes; in this case I did and it did not disappoint.
Michael tells me he has a spare set of 15×7-inch Fuchs that wear Toyo Proxes R1R tires for autocross and track days, and that his 911S was resprayed in its original Emerald Green Metallic (264) by Chris Jones at Canyon Auto Rebody of Mehama, Oregon in 2011. Looking at the finish, you certainly wouldn’t think that the paintwork was a decade old, nor that it has been subjected to the rigors of circuit duty.
However, considering what’s hiding beneath that nice green hue, it would be impossible — not to mention a tragic criminal offence — to own this car and not push it to its limits. The flat-six found here was sourced from a 1997 993, keeping with the air-cooled theme. However, the similarities end there.
This mill was reworked by P-car engine wizard Jeff Gamroth of Rothsport Racing in Sherwood, Oregon — the same man responsible for the wonderful engines found in both the Emory hot rods and Guntherwerks 993s. You could say the man knows a thing or two about these cars, and he is exactly the person you want digging around in your Porsche looking for more power.
The engine puts out close to 300hp and just over 250lb-ft of torque thanks to a factory VarioRam intake assembly with a modified air box, a chipped ECU to help tune for the lightweight flywheel, and custom stainless-steel headers paired with a Monty muffler.
A Wevo shifter is linked to a 5-speed 915 gearbox, which was rebuilt with custom gearing. The machined shift rod looks right at home in the Cork leather interior, as do the Momo steering wheel and patterned CoCo floor mats.
It’s easy to get lost in the simple beauty of the cabin, and it’s a more than pleasant place to be.
Back outside, you might have already noticed that the car wears a genuine RUF front valance, which accommodates an additional oil cooler up front. The car has been lowered and corner-balanced, a bump-steer kit installed, and the popular Turbo tie-rod swap utilized.
Out back, the whale-tail spoiler completes the aggressive look, while black 15-inch Fuchs provide some necessary contrast. This was a fantastically specced car in stock form, the important aspects of which — namely the fantastic color scheme —Michael has retained while at the same time making it very much his own.
Just by specs and looks alone, both cars are gems in their own way. The same can certainly said from behind the wheel, and each is just as different from the other in the real world as it is on paper. The experience is uniquely 911 in both, and yet nothing like a newer model. Porsche has worked hard for generations to disguise the fact that the engine is in the wrong place in their cars, even going so far as to put it in the middle or front of certain models.
But here, with these nearly 50-year-old examples, you really feel that engine hanging out over the rear axle. This won’t be news to anyone who has spent any amount of time in one of these, but it’s a very odd feeling that takes more than a minute to get used to at speed. I’m clearly no expert in rear-engined cars, so I won’t spend much time explaining, as countless others have done so in great depth many times before. It would also be senseless to sit here and explain how one car is better than the other, as a clear underdog quickly emerges.
Instead, I want to focus on how extremely different these two cars feel despite being innately the same. Mostly, both provide the driver with amazing feedback, and both share the curious dynamic where as the back wants to step out you need to apply even more throttle to get it to stick. I didn’t push either car to the point where sharply lifting off the throttle would have spun me around, but as you go quicker you really feel this awkward center of gravity at play.
Namely, this is most apparent in the silver 911, as it doesn’t have as sharp of a suspension setup. Jeff’s car relies on factory components and it’s much more of a challenge to get it to do exactly what you want. While it’s much harder to carry to same speed through a corner, it’s far more rewarding when you do. A car like this requires work to master, and it inspires a greater level of awe thinking back on the hoards of these 911s roaring around Laguna Seca at Rennsport or racing at full tilt in decades past.
By the same token, both cars utilize the same 915 transaxle, but with the Wevo shifter paired with Michael’s 993 power plant, the shifting action is quick, notchy, and precise.
Meanwhile, the 911SC requires a more patient and accurate shifting hand, and I hate to admit I missed plenty of times, not to mention got it completely wrong on more than one occasion. While self-deprecating, I might as well share I stalled it a couple times as well. Similarly to braking and cornering, you have to earn your stripes with the stock shifter and clutch feel through seat time; there is no substitute.
Then, there’s the engine itself. The Rothsport Racing 3.6 is just so smooth, and with the lightweight flywheel it revs instantly. There’s power throughout the rev range, and of course quite a bit more of it is available at any time as compared to the silver example. It does exactly what you ask of it, and some might say this automatically makes the 993-swapped car a better drive. But again, it’s not so simple.
Thinking of my old Miata and my current M3, I feel these two cars offer a relatively similar experience when compared. Not exactly, since they aren’t quite so far apart, but it’s a thought experiment that I think might resonate clearly. The M3 is not very powerful by modern standards, but it’s well-balanced and easy to access. That’s the Carrera 3.6 for you, and with the right driver it’d definitely turn a lap more quickly than the silver coupe. Similarly, my E36 is faster and on paper simply a better car than my Miata was. And at times, I definitely enjoy driving it more.
But when I’d go for a truly spirited drive, where all that mattered was what was happening between my tires and the tarmac, my 10AE Miata beats out the E36. Both chassis are great, but the lack of insulation, the squeaks, and the rattles in the Miata just made it more exciting. It felt faster, and once you got the hang of how little you could brake and how much speed you could carry through a corner, it was more satisfying one to hit the apex and absolutely pin the throttle in. Though the M3 is the better car, I just can’t drive it in the same way as I could the Miata, and when you boil down to the raw experience the Miata takes the cake.
So the green 911 is a bit like loading up your favorite single-player video game and dialing back the difficulty. You can go on an absolute rampage, and sometimes this is just what you want. Exciting and fun as it is, it’s more of a relaxing, settled vibe. But in being better the S here is also easier, and you just lose a bit of that raw, vintage experience.
The SC on the other hand requires more focus and more dedication to get it all right, and I never quite did in my short time with the car. It’s a similar frustration as trying to play a game on its highest difficulty; you will fail and fail again. You know you could be doing better, and yet you acknowledge that you will never quite be perfect.
But that leaves a world of incremental improvement to explore, and the gains you see by making these adjustments are much more satisfying to accomplish. Both were addicting, both delivered fantastic feedback, but the more stock example certainly felt like a higher mountain to climb in terms of understanding the car.
So in the end, you really need both of these 911s. I fully understand why Jeff, for example, has owned 18 different Porsches. I likewise understand how after Michael mastered the feel of his 911S that he wanted to crank up the power and experience a new echelon of air-cooled 911 goodness.
Through this morning behind the wheel of each of these cars, I realized that this is exactly the beauty of a classic 911: they’re all phenomenal. Further, in the right hands any 911 is a potent weapon. The original engine in Jeff’s example is charming and makes the right vintage noises, and the chassis gives you a springy sort of satisfaction when you get it to do what you want. Meanwhile Michael’s Rothsport-powered coupe is unbelievably refined and smooth, an roaring animal all to its own, and scary-fast if you want it to be.
Long story short, if you have a chance to drive any 911, do it. If you’re thinking about getting one, do it. Treat the car right, and I promise it’ll do the same to you, throttle open at sunrise. Sun in your eyes, a big stupid grin on your face.