What? Another 911 story? Hasn’t more been written in the enthusiast press about the immortal sports coupe with the rear-mounted flat-six than about any other car? Is there anything left to say?
There certainly is. Not only does the breed continue to evolve, with the latest 991 incarnation a foot longer and eight inches broader than the original, but perceptions of the earlier machines constantly change. Sometimes the cars themselves change, too, and they become what they were not. That’s one thrust of old- 911 reappraisal. Another is the burgeoning obsession with originality, correctness and provenance in our world of classic cars, which rather goes against the trend for re-imagining old 911s. So, what happens next?
The three cars you see here are at the epicenter of the nascent seismic shift. These are the impact-bumper 911s, the cars from 1974 to 1989 whose bumpers were designed to absorb bumps at up to 5mph (front) and 3mph (rear) without damage in order to satisfy new US legislation. Behind the bumpers were hydraulic rams able to restore the bumpers to their pre-impact position, the rubber concertina covers at the sides decompressing in the process – but only on US cars. Elsewhere, crushable steel tubes absorbed the impact, so they needed post-impact replacement even if the aluminium bumpers themselves had survived intact.
I remember the impact cars’ arrival. They looked modern, clean, sleek: so much more relevant, it seemed, than the dated visage and cluttered tail of the original 911, whose design was by then a has-been look all of a decade old. That reflective red strip between the tail-lights, with PORSCHE capitalized across it in a giant logo, was an innovative bit of design later much copied by the makers of accessorized bling. And so the 911 didn’t look dated any more.
Time changes the way we see things. Suddenly a familiar sight takes on a different aspect, which is why the face of an impact 911 didn’t make me think of a startled frog back in 1974 but does now. Also, when something is no longer new, what went before it no longer seems automatically less desirable. Often the opposite occurs, especially in cars, because the first versions are often the purest. They are as their creators originally intended them to be, before marketing/legislation/cost-saving/fashion corrupted them.
Which is why the really valuable 911s are the pre-impact ones, with the deeper hood flanked by horn grilles, the slender (albeit still body-colored) bumpers and the number plate set between the tail-lights. The difference is that values can be extraordinary, with a decent pre-impact 911 likely to cost at least $65,000 even as a low-power T version, and a top-notch 2.4S double that. As for 2.7RS Carreras, they would be an excellent substitute for the gold reserves that Gordon Brown sold off on our behalf.
But are the pre-impact cars actually better? Of course not. They are simply redolent of a gentler, freer age, and to eyes tired of the visual assault of brutalist, misshapen, oversized modern machinery their visual delicacy is a joy. Another powerful point in their favor is that they are immune to the negative vibes visited by some upon impact-bumper 911s, which are considered to be a symbol of what was wrong with the go-getting 1980s.
Do people really still think like that? The 1980s were three decades ago, and much has happened in between. Besides which, the impact-bumper 911 was already itself a decade old by the time the Krug was regularly popping in the City. Time to give the car a break, I think.
Meanwhile, another trend has developed. Not being considered precious in themselves, impact-bumper 911s have been recreated in the image of their elders. ‘I look pretty old but I’m just backdated,’ as The Who didn’t quite sing. Impact 911s would shed their bumpers in favor of fiberglass-replica RS components; hoods and front wings would alter accordingly, horn grilles and other detail backdates would appear. You could go further and replace black trim with chrome and aluminum, or even make a complete RS replica. What the car then seemed to be, perhaps helped by a period number plate, became more important than what it actually was.
It’s a well-trodden path. Specialist Paul Stephens, who provided the two newer cars for this feature, does it all the time. I’ve contemplated having it done myself. But now there’s a new force at work, already well established in mainland Europe and starting to push here. The oldest impact 911s are 38 years old now, and pieces of history in their own right. They can’t stay in the pre-impact shadow forever; they can’t always be viewed as second-best, the 911 you buy only if you can’t run to an early one.
For years the cheap eBay 911s, the tired old heaps, the cars run on a shoestring, the messed-about ‘projects’, have come from the impact ranks. They still seem new enough not to need complete restoration, although many actually do. That’s how well they have aged: people think these cars are younger than they are, helped by the fact that to anyone but a 911 obsessive, a mid-’70s Carrera 3 looks almost identical to a 1989 Carrera 3.2. But the good ones – they’re rare but they’re there – are finally on the edge of stardom. They could just be the smartest 911 buys of all; easy to run, thrilling to drive and a sure investment in a way that a 964 or a 993 doesn’t manage quite yet. No doubt their times will come, too.
Look at the cars here. Don’t they look great? All three have, or have recently had, a $30,000 tag despite their age disparities. The 1983 SC in Hellbronze (gold to the rest of us) differs outwardly from the 1987 Baltic Blue Carrera 3.2 only in its badge and its front foglights, aftermarket on the SC, built-in on the Carrera. The India Red car, however, is a different matter. This is nearly as early an impact 911 as you’ll find, registered in January 1975, and that unusual creature, a 2.7-liter 911S.
The S tag is a misnomer, really. Up to the 1973 model year, S meant the fastest (limited-run RS excepted), and the final 2.4S had a heady 190bhp. Designations changed for the 1974 model year – the first impact-bumper cars, with which came 2.7- liter engines across the board instead of just for the RS. The 911T and E were gone, with the range now consisting of the simple 150bhp 911 (effectively the old T), 175bhp 911S (corresponding to the former E and sharing its green fan housing) and a Carrera – an impact-bumpered, series production RS with an identical 210bhp engine.
That last one kept the old-style fuel injection while the gentler versions got a new K-jetronic continuous-flow system. The Carrera also gained the new set-up when, for the 1975 model year, it became the Carrera 3 with the 3.0-liter capacity from the new Turbo and a power drop from 210 to 200bhp. Here lie the roots of the SC – but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Unlike the Carrera, our late 911S retains the narrower rear bodywork with unflared arches. This fact, along with the chrome headlamp rims and door handles plus the bright aluminum glass surrounds, makes it an intriguing blend of early and later 911s, a transition between eras. It has the same-size tires all round, 185/70s on 15in Fuchs rims, the tail bears no spoiler, and its interior straddles eras just as the exterior does. This is a very pure-looking 911 apart from the clunky, if period, aluminum sill trims.
The dashboard has a speaker grille on its top and no vents beneath it, and the steering wheel is similarly primordial except that the spokes are filled in with a piece of safety padding. Door trims are plain, but dials are like the later cars’ with red needles. There is no center console, and the gearlever’s base is shrouded by a monstrously over-specified convoluted rubber gaiter.
Now, those seats. They are the first version of the ‘tombstone’ chairs which replaced the pre-impact models’ heavier, flatter items with separate headrests. In this car the front seats’ trim material is the tweed intended for 1975’s Silver Anniversary editions, so it’s right for the time even if this example isn’t in the metallic silver that normally went with such chairs. A period option, perhaps?
I was fortunate enough to drive a very fit Carrera RS 2.7 back from the Le Mans Classic, and the memory is still fresh. That car, being a Touring version, weighed much the same as this 911S’s 1075kg but had an extra 35bhp and usefully more torque at high engine speeds. Despite having narrower rear tires and slightly different suspension details, this S compares better than you might expect. It lacks the RS’s ultimate sharpness but shares the surprising lightness, even at parking speeds, of the unassisted steering.
There’s more. Part of the 911 ‘legend’ as propagated in the press is the notion of the steering wheel’s motion over camber changes, the gentle writhing in the hands that tells you what is happening under the tires and that Porsche wanted to eradicate for the 991. At that new car’s launch we were told older 911s didn’t do it. It’s true; both the RS and this 911S have sublime steering feel, but neither writhes much because the relatively narrow tires don’t generate those particular forces.
Lacking wide rear tires, the 911S actually feels easier to point into a corner at moderate speeds than its beefier siblings, because the back wheels develop their slip-angles sooner and there’s less of a tendency to push the lightly laden nose wide. The corollary is that rear-end grip runs out sooner, so you’d better be ready for that in the wet, but up to that point this S actually feels more ‘normal’ than more familiar old 911s do. It rides with surprising suppleness, too – at least until the lowered front end of this example meets the bump stops.
And the engine? In 1975, Porsche was in sales doldrums after the energy crisis and was also losing interest in the ageing 911, looking ahead instead to the 924 and 928 to come. So not much development money went the 911’s way, and every world market was obliged to continue with the US-optimised engines of low compression ratio and woeful fuel efficiency that had begun with the 2.4s. That said, even the RS had shared this 911S’s 8.5:1 ratio, and it does make for an engine of extraordinary smoothness when revved.
The 911S actually goes very well, with much the same kick into life past 4000rpm that the RS shows, albeit without quite the ultimate fire. It’s quiet and gentle at low revs, so much so that all you can really hear aft is the whine of the fan, but once roused it makes just the right sort of 911 howl. Contemporary road tests credited it with a 140mph maximum and 0-60mph in 6.5 seconds – a full second slower than the RS but still pretty lively. And, despite the lack of spoilers, it feels happily planted on a blustery, wet motorway.
To drive, then, this impact 911 feels much like its pre-impact ancestors, gives pace between that of a 2.4E and a 2.4S, and uses less fuel than either. Apart from the bumpers and seats, the character has barely changed. Yet ‘backdating’ this car to a pre-impact look could easily increase its value by 50%: ‘It seems ridiculous,’ says selling dealer Nigel Jeffery, ‘and it also seems a shame to corrupt such a nice car.’ Would you? Should you?
I’ll leave that question hanging while we meet the 911SC. Its engine bay looks almost identical to the 911S’s apart from the red fan shroud, yet the motor is broadly that of the Carrera 3 whose arrival spelled the end of both the original Carrera and the 911S. In the C3 the 3.0-liter unit made 200bhp, but that dropped to 180bhp for the first SCs launched for the 1978 model year, although torque stayed the same.
The Carrera 3 also bequeathed its wide-rear-arch body to the SC, a style similar to that of the old RS but subtly different in the detail of the arch lips, so the narrow-arch 911 was no more. Power rose to 188bhp for 1980, then with Porsche’s renewed enthusiasm for the model line that refused to die came, for 1981, a properly high compression ratio (9.8:1) and a power increase to 204bhp. That’s the spec of our SC here, with the 16in Fuchs wheels, Bilstein dampers and whale-tail rear spoiler (and matching front lip to balance the aero forces) that were part of the popular UK Sport package. Tires are 205/55 R16 front, 225/50 R16 at the rear – hence the ample back arches.
So there’s a visual meatiness here that’s absent from our 911S, along with black external details, discreet body-color sill covers, more prominent seat bolsters, diagonally-striped door trims, a three-spoke steering wheel and the vents and console missing from the S. There’s also a bold 1980s color scheme in this cabin, mainly brown but with cream center panels in the seats. Was this the 911 pandering to the tastes of fashion? It seems wrong to me: a 911 should be a pure, functional car above such trivial concerns, and really it should be neutral black inside. Color is a distraction. I could go for the wacky distorted-check Pascha cloth option, though…
The heater controls are new for the SC, with a thermostatic control between the seats in place of the two demisting levers and a slightly better chance of achieving the temperature and visibility you want. It’s still fairly useless, though. This car’s later K-Jetronic fuel injection dispenses with the hand throttle that previously sat next to those levers, relying instead after a cold start on an automatic air valve. But the first thing you notice after moving off is how different one 915 gearbox – Porsche’s in-house, standard unit of the time – can feel from another. They are quite fragile and often need a rebuild, and our S’s could be typically cantankerous, as could that of the RS I drove.
Not this SC’s, though; freshly rebuilt, like the engine, the 915 shifts as cleanly as the best I’ve tried, although the looseness in the linkage will never go away completely. The lack of spring biasing from the first/second plane to the third/fourth makes the looseness more obvious because there’s nothing to take up the slack, so you must remember to apply the right lateral pressure yourself. The light, cheap plastic gearknob adds to an impression of fragility that’s odd to find in a Porsche, but once you’re familiar with it this becomes a delightfully light, quick shift.
Of course, the floor-hinged pedals don’t suit everyone (I like them), and the minor switchgear is famously random, but that stuff just goes with the 911 territory. Much more important is that the rev-counter is dead ahead and it’s telling you just how eager this 911SC is. Again, there’s automotive folklore here. The SC is docile, torquey, easy to drive very quickly without revving it to oblivion, but this one feels extremely keen at the upper reaches of the rev range. It’s a punchier, fiercer engine than the 911S’s, with a road-tested 5.7- second 0-60mph time to make the point.
This one has stainless steel manifolds and heat exchangers (which give another 5-10bhp), so it’s louder and crisper than I remember, enough so for the fan whine to be no more than overlay here. And the dynamics are different from the S’s, with a much firmer ride, sharper steering with more tug and kickback, and a tail glued firmly to the road unless you really provoke it. It’s less flow, more point-and-nail. And great fun with it.
Will the 3.2 Carrera feel much different? Its bigger-bore engine is up to 231bhp at the same 5900rpm; torque shows a proportionally smaller increase and peaks at a higher speed. That’s why the pundits used to declare this a revvier motor without the SC’s low-end energy, but it isn’t really true. This engine, visually quite different from the S and SC’s thanks to its revised digital injection and exposed plenum chamber, feels slightly sharper than its predecessor throughout the rev range, with particular energy at the top, but it’s marginal.
Contemporary tests put its 0-60mph time at 5.3 seconds and the top speed at 152mph (up from the SC’s 141), and fuel economy was significantly better. But those figures were for an early 915- gearbox 3.2: this car has the later, heavier, stronger G50 ’box with slightly longer gearing and matched to a heavier flywheel, both of which take the edge off the extra pace potential.
The Borg-Warner synchronisers of this Getrag-built ’box put up less resistance to lever movement than their in-house Porsche predecessors, there’s normal spring-biasing in the gate and the slop has gone. No question, then, that this is an easier, more forgiving change most of the time, but it can’t match the speed and lightness of a perfectly-judged 915 shift should you be clever or fortunate enough to perform one. On a track you’d choose a 915; in traffic the G50 is streets ahead.
Steering, handling, ride, brakes? They are all much the same as the SC’s. Interior? It’s in light grey this time, calmer than the two-tone SC cabin and just about able to avoid looking irrevocably stuck in the 1980s. The steering wheel is another new design, this time with two full-width, horizontal spokes sandwiching a rectangular pad.
This 3.2 Carrera is lovely to drive, and unlike the others it hasn’t been the subject of huge effort and expenditure. At 73,000 miles it feels fully fit and highly original; the downside is the knowledge that a top-end engine refreshment lurks in the future. Not so for the SC; it, and more, has been done.
Three impact-bumper 911s, the oldest almost a proper primordial 911 which just happens to wear different extremities. It’s an ideal way to get the early-911 experience at a sensible price, and is eligible for historic motor sport events denied to younger 911s. Its value will always lag behind that of cars just a couple of years older, but the gap will surely close as this example’s financial parity with its siblings here demonstrates, even though they’re ostensibly better cars. It’s on the way up.
So, too, will values rise for good SCs and Carrera 3.2s, as they become rarer and the poor examples fade out of serious contention. If a 964 or, even more so, a 993 are just too modernised for you, then the SC and 3.2 represent classic-era 911s while giving a properly powerful drive. They’re durable, usable, dependable – and arguably they are easier to enjoy than that other impact-bumper 911 and past schoolboy fantasy-machine, the Turbo.
They’re also affordable, especially the SC. So find a good one and buy it. While you still can.
‘We’ve got a stack of impact bumpers and whale-tails in a container here,’ says Charlie Wildredge at Paul Stephens Ltd. ‘They’re left over from cars that have been backdated. But we’re finding it harder to do, taking apart good cars.
‘We feel the impact-bumper cars will come back to life and then the backdates will themselves start to look dated. The impact cars are great value at the moment, but the market has surely bottomed out. Cars offered privately at maybe $16,000 to $23,000 look cracking value, but if you’re paying top money it’s important to see if there has been a top-end and gearbox rebuild unless the mileage is low.’
Paul Stephens himself also counsels caution: ‘At that price they all need something. I’d say you need $32,000 as a baseline for reliability and not having to chuck cash at it. What you want is a car on which someone has already lavished a lot of money – like this gold SC, which has had $36,000 spent on it.
‘As for which impact-bumper cars will rise the most, the 1974 Carreras are virtually RSs and are still undervalued – although you’ll pay $130,000 for a good one. A Carrera 3 is rare and a good place to put your money. It’s ironic that my first Porsche was a 911E – I couldn’t afford an impact-bumper car back then!
‘I can see a time when backdated cars will be forward-dated again… and we always make sure our conversions can be reversed.’
Time to take the impact-bumper plunge, then? A final note of caution comes from expert 911 bodywork restorer, and former Autofarm bodyshop manager, Robin Dalwood: ‘Don’t think that just because later cars are galvanized they won’t be rusty. The galvanizing doesn’t last for ever and these models are getting old. If an impact-bumper 911 hasn’t already had new sills and kidney bowls, and maybe wings and B-pillars, it will almost certainly need them.’
Thanks to Paul Stephens (www.paul-stephens.com, +44 (0)1440 714884), Nigel Jeffery Specialist Cars (www.nigeljeffery.co.uk, +44 (0)1442 834638), and
Robin Dalwood (+44 (0)1296 655574)
Published Dec 7th, 2015