My carefully wrapped Christmas present in 1998 was a $4.95 issue of Hemmings Motor News , the thick, pulp-paper monthly classified listing of collector cars. Even if it carries a 21st-century date, each issue still looks like something you'd find on the toilet tank of a 1950s Sinclair station restroom in Tucumcari, New Mexico. So was this a cheesy gift from my wife? Hardly.
"You look bored," Susan laughed at my bafflement. "You finished the addition to our house. You built an airplane. You're playing around with models." (No, no—the 1:48-scale plastic kit kind, not the double-breasted variety.) "You need another project," she said. "Buy yourself a car to restore. A Ferrari. An Aston Martin like the one you had when you were a young stud. A Corvette, a Cobra ?"
Wow. I'd always wanted to restore a car, and my unfailingly perceptive partner, game for anything, was encouraging me to start at the top. Husbands who feel that permission to watch the Super Bowl is marital bliss don't know what they're missing.
But I didn't want to get in over my head with an exotic car that required expensive specialist help. A hard-core anal compulsive, I'd always wanted to do that frame-off rebuild, totally disassembling a car, detailing every part and reassembling it to ? well, maybe not perfection, in this era of spare-no-expense professional restorations worth more than Monets, but at least to sanitary standards.
I also wanted a car that would provide a reasonable level of performance when I was done, not a 1950s classic that might have run strongly in fond memory—an XK 120, an MG TD, a Morgan—yet would make me turn to my wheezy old Saab whenever I felt the need to exceed the speed limit. So the choice was easy, particularly with my then-19-year-old car-enthusiast daughter, a Skip Barber graduate, chanting, "POR-shuh, PO-shuh, POR-shuh" in the background. I would seek out a restorable Porsche 911.
Ultimately, I found my car just 65 miles from home, in Long Island City, a shabby New York neighborhood near LaGuardia Airport, amid sidewalks littered with broken bottles, corner bodegas and stripped cars perched on milk crates at every other curb. The dealer's wares, though advertised in Hemmings as "exoticars," were a motley collection of dreadful Jaguar Mark sedans, ugly entry-level Ferraris, Cobra kit cars, decrepit Royces and Bentleys, poseur Panteras, neglected Porsches and phony fiberglass MGs. They were packed grille to bumper, fender to dusty fender in a dim, foul warehouse. The mechanical expertise of the place seemed limited to jumping dead batteries.
The car was a sad little rat. The mechanic started it, and it idled smokily at a warm-up setting; the haphazard Porsche threshing-machine clatter brought back memories. The interior was grungy, the driver's leather seat split, the carpeting bunched and filthy, the glare shield terminally cracked, the rear bulkhead paneling waterlogged and crumbling, loose wires showing the harsh removal of an aftermarket amplifier and a boom box speaker rig that had been parked crudely on the jump-seat cushions, the engine compartment slick with spilled oil, the air-conditioner hoses dangling loose, the Guards Red paint cracked and faded where the Neanderthal PO (previous owner, in Porschespeak) had rigged a nose-protecting bra and then never removed it. The driver's door sagged half an inch when opened, so he was probably fat as well, accustomed to using the door as a crutch.
I took the headlights out of their fender bowls to look for hidden rust. Ran a magnet all over the body to test for Bondo, the sandable plastic paste that body shops trowel over crash damage they can't be bothered to smooth. (The magnet would stick to steel but not Bondo, of course.) Parked the car so that the sunlight hit it at the right angle to give away bodywork ripples when I sighted along the fenders and doors. Checked the vehicle identification number to find that the car had been built during the summer of 1983 in Stuttgart for the U.S. market—a very late SC, one of the last of the breed. Checked the engine number to confirm that it was the correct engine for the year. Looked for the dreaded spilled-acid corrosion under the battery tray. Jacked the car up and poked an awl at the bellypan in some famously vulnerable areas to check for rust-thinned metal ?
"I've never seen anybody do all that," the dealer said—either admiringly or calculatedly, hoping to make me think I actually knew what I was doing.
I drove the thing around for barely five minutes simply to make sure it actually ran and tracked straight. No need to check compression, valve leakage, gearbox crunching, shock stiffness or tire condition. The tires were Sumitomos, a Japanese off-brand famed only for their cheapness and excellent adaptability for use as boat-dock bumpers. I had no interest in any of the obvious things that used-car buyers concern themselves with, for all of those components would be renewed, rebuilt, replaced before the car ever ran again.
Ship it, I told the dealer. Put the thing on a flatbed and send it to me. Oh, and how about a discount for not asking for a warranty? "Warranty ?" he laughed. "Warranty? No such thing, my man. You can bring your mechanics, you can examine the car all you wish, you can drive and test and check, but you buy and it is yours. Don't come back. No warranty. No nothing."
Well, what the hell. It's a project car, not a grocery-getter.
Rebuilding a Porsche 911 engine is neither impossibly complex nor in any way counterintuitive. It can be done by anybody who has the time, tools, compulsiveness and common sense to do the job in a scrupulously clean, careful and organized fashion. Literally. Bruce Anderson, a respected Porsche technical expert, gives weekend-long, small-group, hands-on workshops in suburban San Francisco on how to rebuild Porsche 911 engines and transmissions. He once said to me, "I can teach anybody with a pulse how to do it."
OK. So how do you actually do it? How do you ruin—which is essentially what you're doing by taking it apart—a machine that Porsche will charge you $30,000 to replace? How do you do that and then somehow make it good as new again?