Sideways in a 911 Turbo at 12 years old | Thank Frankel it's Friday

15th March 2024
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

I wonder how many of you remember David Heynes? He was a formidably rapid ‘gentleman driver’ who raced for many years in historics until one fateful day at Silverstone in 2003 when he died racing a Lotus 15. He appeared to lose control at Becketts, the car hit the tyre barrier and that was that. But for his family there was perhaps some comfort to be had when it was later revealed that he’d had a heart attack and crashed because he had died, rather than the other way around. What was so cruel was that he was only 56 and outwardly in fine shape and very good health.


I still think of David a lot, not least because he was for many years my father’s business partner and close friend, but also because once I’d become established in this industry, he was always encouraging me to come and drive his cars. Sadly I remember only doing so once, when I tested his lightweight Aston Martin DB4 race car at Silverstone, probably not long before he died.

I simply could not believe how good this car was, tuned and developed to the absolute limit as it had been by Richard Williams, with well over 400PS from an engine which probably displaced rather more than its original 3.7 litres. He raced it for years, against top-quality opposition from the likes of Mike Salmon and Gerry Marshall and was always right up the front. His combination of ridiculous car control, an apparent total absence of fear and a competitive nature allowed him often to beat established professional racing drivers.

But the reason for thinking of him now is, of all things, because this year marks the half-centenary of the Porsche 911 Turbo. It sounds like a bit of a leap, but every time I think of that original car, so too do I think of David and the first time I realised what an exceptional driver he was. It was probably around 1978, and I would have been about 12 years old. I have no idea where we were going, why I was in the passenger seat of his 911 Turbo nor even whether it was wet or dry.

All I recall was the car suddenly going sideways as we entered a slip road that led down to a motorway. Now, my father was a fine and fast driver but always operated within the limits of what his car could do. Having never therefore been in a car addressing the road at such an unorthodox angle, I naturally assumed he was about to bin it and braced for impact. Except however strange the behaviour of the car was to me, that of its driver was even more peculiar: he appeared to be giggling. And accelerating.


But it would be another ten years or more before I found out just how good he was. Now a proud member of the Autocar road test team, a 911 Turbo came in for testing because it was one of the last of the original series and the first fitted with a five-speed gearbox. I always wondered why they’d only had four gears and never quite bought the line that the turbo motor had so much torque it didn’t need the full five. I only figured out later that such was the size of the gears required to handle said torque, there simply wasn’t the space in the casing for the usual complement. It was only when the old (915) box was replaced by an all-new (G50) transmission that the fifth could be restored.

Anyway, I was far too junior to be allowed to write about just exotica, but I was allowed to do a few cornering shots largely, I expect because no one else wanted to. There was a reasonably safe corner on an old army base near Chobham we used to use and try as I might I just couldn’t get the car to look good for the camera. If I stayed within the limit it just looked like it was parked, if I went over it the car would just understeer away from the apex.

Eventually, someone far more senior than me grew exasperated with my footling efforts and decided to have a go instead. And I was pleased to see him wrestling with precisely the same problem until, in a fit of pique, he turned in and jabbed the brakes at the same time, with the result that both he and the Porsche disappeared promptly and backwards off the track, happily to the long term detriment of neither.

And this, remember, after a full decade of development since my first exposure to the breed, in which the engine’s capacity had expanded from 3 litres to 3.3 litres and its manners allegedly somewhat improved. Not from where I was standing. Anyway, every time I see a Turbo I think of David, sideways, chuckling quietly to himself with me terrified and thrilled in equal measure clinging on next to him. Funny to think that over half a lifetime later that kid is still enjoying his first ever ride in a 911 Turbo.

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