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.
Aware of the consternation this will cause among my colleagues, it is with great pride but no little anxiety that I must now reveal the fact that I have driven the 911 R and, in that respect, and certainly among motoring hacks I know, I am in a minority of one.
It will therefore come as a great relief to them to learn the 911R I have driven is not the 500hp, back to basics, limited edition special that got plenty of us drooling at the Geneva show this week, but the car that gave it its name, the original 911R. But it shouldn’t. It is a reasonably realistic hope that in time most of us who exist on the front line of car testing for mainstream automotive media will get to drive the new 911R. The original is more difficult to get your mitts on. How difficult? Well perhaps it will give you some idea if I tell you that not even Porsche owns one…
My yet greater fortune was to drive the most important and famous 911R of them all, the very first prototype from a run of four, and the only one with an aluminium body. Just 20 steel bodied production versions followed.
It was created because, four years after it was first shown, Porsche had finally buckled to customer pressure and created its first racing 911. Others had raced before and even at Le Mans, but until the R, all Porsche would provide were upgrade kits to make the car better suited to the track. With the 911R, it went a little further.
Look around and you’ll see evidence of Porsche’s obsessive efforts to shed weight everywhere. The wheels have no centres, the caps that cover the rear roll bar adjusters have been removed. The only glass is the windscreen, and it is as thin as it can safely be. Everything else is Perspex. Its Porsche and 911R logos are not badges, but stickers. Inside the seats are wafer thin, the door bins are perforated, the door hinges are aluminium, there are no sun visors and they’ve even taken the lid off the glove box. Ventilation comprised air inlets in then front quarter lights and exit vents in the rears. That was it. Even when fitted with a full race 2-litre twin spark motor from a 906 prototype, a necessarily strengthened gearbox and a limited slip differential, it weighed just 814kg or, put another way, a lot less than half the weight of a modern 911 Turbo.
Its greatest claim to fame was to enter the 1967 Marathon de la Route, a race around the Nurburgring lasting, would you believe, no fewer than 84 hours. Porsche entered the aluminium car to prove the concept of the clutchless Sportomatic gearbox it had fitted. Sensibly given the distance and just on this occasion, a standard engine was used too. Drawing upon the combined talents of future Le Mans winners Hans Herrmann, Jochen Neerspasch and none other than Vic Elford, the 911 not only won the race, but did so by a margin of over 1,000km, which must have been some kind of record and probably still is. Elford did all the night stints – four of seven-and-a-half hours each – and missed the end of the race because he had to fly back to the UK to fulfil another racing obligation at Brands Hatch.
Of course while Porsche is using the name again today, the crucial difference between today’s 911R and that of 1967 is that the new car is conceived specifically for use on the road, while the original was a racer from bumper to bumper.
And it shows. Having been fortunate to drive all manner of quite fast racing cars over the years, I wasn’t counting on being intimidated by a car built almost 50 years ago, based on a street design and powered by an engine displacing fewer than 2 litres. But I was: even within the tolerably safe confines of the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit I found the car extremely difficult to drive. The engine was the most peaky I’d ever tried in a 911 as it needed to be to extract over 100bhp-per-litre from an engine with but a single camshaft per bank, just two valves per cylinder and air cooling. Below about 4,000rpm it barely functioned and even between there and 6,000rpm you could tell its heart wasn’t really in it. Only when you started whanging it around past 8,000rpm did it start to scream and bellow in approval.
It was hard to handle too, even by the scarcely user-friendly standards of early 911s. Skittish and twitchy, it needed a firm hand and an even bolder heart to take it by the throat and throw it around.
Looked at rationally, in its truculent nature and wayward responses, it was a far harder car to drive than it should have been, but it’s also what made it feel alive and why when I finally felt I was getting the hang of it, I felt so richly rewarded. The new 911R looks like it should be, peachy in every respect, but I still hope it has some of that old 911R fire in its belly. Because that’s what makes you feel alive at the wheel, and that above all, is what any 911 should be about.
Second image courtesy of ‘Stahlkocher’ licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0