Andrew Frankel has been racing cars for over 20 years and testing them for nearer to 30. He is senior contributing writer to both Autocar and MotorSport magazines, sits on the Car of the Year jury and was chief car tester for the Sunday Times for 15 years. He cites driving and writing as the only disciplines for which he has any talent and therefore considers himself vocationally employed. When he is not working he lives quietly in the Wye Valley with his family, a small and unimportant accumulation of cheap old cars and some sheep.
When I was a child I used to build cheap, plastic model aircraft. I’d lovingly assemble each plane and apply the paint and transfers with all the care I could muster, all in preparation for the real reason I’d built the thing in the first place. For each aircraft carried within its fuselage a secret payload, the existence of which was merely hinted at by the length of fuel soaked string sticking out of the windscreen. At one end of this string was me with a box of matches, at the other the kind of banger which I’m sure has been illegal for decades and which even then you could only buy on school trips to France. I’d light my home-made fuse and watch with glee as my creation exploded into a million particles of molten plastic. I only stopped because while experimenting with placing said banger in a home-made bath of petrol I briefly set fire to the garden causing almost as big an explosion from my parents as I had just witnessed from my very own Olympic Airways Boeing 707. I’ve really built very little since.
So I was somewhat out of practice when a few weeks ago a large box arrived from Porsche containing a radio controlled Tamiya model of a 911RSR complete with an instruction to build and present it at the launch of the new 911 Turbo S in South Africa where all those who could would race their cars around a specially created track.
I was completely intimidated by the idea even before I took the top off the box and saw sheet after sheet of unidentified bits, instructions in many languages and an unpainted body that clearly needed cutting out.
But I have a brother who is far more practically minded than me and far less easily scared, so I took it to him and we worked on it together for an entire day, building differentials, figuring out how the four-wheel drive system works and assembling double wishbone suspension systems. Not only was it really good fun, by the time we retired to the pub, the mechanicals were 80 per cent finished. So I left the chassis with him and took the body away to paint and apply transfers. Which is why, combined with inherent gross incompetence, I never realised we’d built the car with completely the wrong wheelbase and track until it was far too late.
By the time I had cut the body out with blunt scissors (I’m told you should use something called a craft knife), and applied the paint and transfers with all the skill of a blind man on rollercoaster, what resulted was without doubt the worst looking model RSR ever created, planted on what appeared to the chassis of a 1960s Commer van. But, to our collective surprise, it worked. A bit.
I so nearly rang Porsche and told them it had met with freak testing accident and was unable to make the trip, and when I saw the other RSRs my colleagues had made I rather wished I had. All were immaculate, a couple had extraordinary paintwork, and one had ball bearings, an aluminium propshaft and an owner as smug as I’d have been had I been so blessed.
To my amazement and despite the fact that this was the very first time I had ‘driven’ the car more than six feet into the nearest skirting board, I made a reasonable start in the race around the purpose built track (which turned out to be the hotel’s outside bar). Captain Ball Bearings was long gone out front, but a podium looked possible until I was nerfed by the man from EVO. I retained just enough control to hit him back with the result that both RSRs fell off the end of the bar, I mean track, and went tumbling over and over into the undergrowth below.
It was a massive accident and the crowd both gasped with indifference as I went to retrieve the remains of my 911. To my considerable surprise, once I’d picked all the foliage from its flanks, it seemed entirely undamaged. But it was too late: Brigadier Bearings was doing victory doughnuts while I slunk off to look for a beer.
And that was the end of me and my home built Commer RSR. At home I live surrounded by mud, I have teenage daughters who are as interested in such things as I am Kendall Jenner’s wardrobe and if I brought it home it would never be used again. By contrast, there was a local school near where we were staying in Johannesburg where there would be several hundred wannabe radio control race drivers. So that’s where my car went as, I am pleased to report, did that of the man from EVO. I like to think they race on together and that some bright spark has already figured out how to put my terrible assembly right.
What I would say however, is that if you have young car crazy kids and somewhere to run such a device, building it is great fun and a genuine lesson in the basics of suspension and transmission assembly, while driving it is about as much fun as you can have with a car without actually having a steering wheel in your hands.