There is no substitute for calling 911

Esquire swerves away from overpriced men’s fashion to cars:

In 1955, at the age of 24, and fresh from the success of East of Eden, actor James Dean popped down to John von Neumann’s Competition Motors in Hollywood, California to in a MG TD for a new Porsche 356 1500 Super Speedster. The sports car purveyor to the stars obliged. Weeks later, Dean entered a race in Palm Springs, and placed first in the under-1500 class. The following month he headed up to Bakersfield and won again. The Speedster threw a rod in Santa Barbara shortly thereafter. Back at Competition Motors Dean traded it in for Porsche’s latest race car, the 550 Spyder, got Von Dutch to paint “Lil’ Bastard” across the tail, and made a beautiful car iconic. After wrapping up filming of the movie Giant, Dean drove up the Central Valley toward Salinas in the 550 for another race. But he never made it.

And, yet. The glamor of racing didn’t end with Dean—in fact, it only strengthened from there, becoming part of the legend, the doomed romanticism. He died doing what he loved, and what could be more pure than that? Dean became among the first of a tradition: the actor turned gentleman driver, handsome and domineering, possessing not just the means to race but a level of dedication that transcended their stardom. He may have never driven one onscreen, but he cemented the legend: Porsche and the Hollywood connection, intertwined.

The racing image sealed it, but in the early years, Porsche’s 356 appeal was palpable—small European sports cars were hot, exactly the car to see and be seen in. James Bond may have never driven a Porsche (at least, not yet), but Sean Connery sure looked good in his 356. Janis Joplin’s 356 took on psychedelic colors (and in 2015 fetched $1.76 million at auction). In the film Bullitt, it’s McQueen’s Highland Green Mustang that gets all the glory, but Jacqueline Bisset’s Canary Yellow 356C convertible lends some balance to the film’s heavy-laden grit.

When the 911 came out in 1964, Porsche’s true potential as a sports car builder evolved: honed even further with a replacement that was faster, sharper, and more practical. Robert Redford put skis atop a 1968 Porsche 911T for the film Downhill Racer, a combination of cool made up of Alpine skiing, one of the earliest 911s, and Redford’s square-jawed magnetism. Can’t argue with that math.

And then there’s the legend of the Kings of the Mountain up on Mulholland Drive, clandestinely racing across the Hollywood Hills in hot-rodded 911s, the lights of Los Angeles on both sides below them. In 1981, Harry Hamlin starred in a film of that name, behind the wheel of a monster 356 Speedster—the movie didn’t do well, which is probably why you’ve never heard of it, but it’s a slice of old Hollywood history that we’ll continue to love nonetheless.

The Eighties arrived with a flash—a decade of excess and bright colors and car phones and Blaupunkt radios blasting Duran Duran—and Porsche symbolized that New Money glamor. They were fast, sleek, and most importantly, expensive. Witness the star turn of the Porsche 928 in Risky Business. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect moment than Tom Cruise, with Ray-Bans and a shit-eating grin, saying the unofficial Porsche tagline, “there is no substitute.”

What would Tony Montana buy? In Scarface, it was none other than a gleaming silver 928, bought to impress Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, who, understandably so, wouldn’t be caught dead in a Fifties Cadillac with tiger-skin upholstery. A fully-equipped 928 fit the bill. And in Sixteen Candles, main heartthrob Jake Ryan rolls up to Molly Ringwald’s house in a bright red 944, the perfect car for high school rich kids.

Given the brand’s rich history in racing, it’s no surprise then that Porsche became intertwined with high stakes in Hollywood too. In the 1987 movie No Man’s Land, an undercover cop infiltrates a gang of car thieves, led by Charlie Sheen, whose garage boasts an impressive number of stolen Porsches. Twenty years later, what’s the first car stolen in Gone In 60 Seconds? The hottest new 911 of the era, a silver 996 named Tina, flying out of the showroom with a bang.

Even today, Hollywood’s obsession with Porsche still feels as relevant as ever, without forgetting the decades past that made the match so natural—take the 2017 movie Atomic Blonde for example. Set in a Cold War days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is equal parts Soviet-drab and Western glitz, all pinks and purples and golds, a culture of fur coats and Carrera sunglasses. And for agent James McAvoy, whose amped-up flashiness belies a certain ruthlessness, his whale-tailed Porsche 964—seen evading spies throughout Berlin’s tunnels—is an indispensable part of his character, and key to the movie’s signature look.

Getty Images

That look leads us conveniently to the beginning. There’s nobody more associated with the Porsche hype than the aforementioned Steve McQueen, whose 1971 film Le Manswas a passion project, a love letter to his greatest hobby, and everything he touched in that film became imbued with a palatable cool—the Heuer Monaco wristwatches, the Gulf livery on his character’s Porsche 917K race car, and the Porsche 911 itself, his own personal Slate Gray 911S, purchased in Europe to match one he had in California.

In the opening of Le Mans, he roams across the unspoiled French countryside, no MAC trucks or soft-drink billboards along his two-lane highway. He parks the 911 in the pits. Some unremarkable human drama ensues. McQueen climbs into his other Porsche, the mighty 917K. And so it was, and so it will continue to be.

Well … keep in mind that Porsche aficionados considered neither the 944 nor the 924 to be true Porsches, since they had four-cylinder engines in front. (The 924 was originally intended for Volkswagen.) Nor did they consider the 928 to be a true Porsche, since it had a V-8 in front and an optional automatic transmission. (The 928 was intended to eventually replace the 911. The 928 is gone, and the 911 is not.)

Now an aside: CBS-TV’s “Magnum P.I.” had the hero driving a Ferrari 308GTS.

Less known is the fact that the producers first considered putting Magnum behind the wheel of a 928, asking Porsche to build one with an extra-large sunroof. Apparently Porsche balked at the idea.

Certainly visually Magnum with a 928 doesn’t work. (Irrespective of the issue of Tom Selleck’s height, which forced the producers to take out the driver’s seat cushion from Magnum’s Ferrari. The famous Italian driving position is long arms and short legs.) I have driven neither (again, life is unfair), but I gather that the 928 is not the same car as the 308.

The biggest difference between a 911 and most other performance cars is its engine — a flat-six (originally air-cooled), located behind the back wheels. (Which makes it “rear-engine,” in contrast to a “mid-engine” car with the engine either ahead of the rear axle or behind the front axle.) Unlike American front-engine cars that are nose-heavy, the 911 is tail-heavy. Whereas a driver can make front-engine rear-drive car spin by punching the gas too hard (either accidentally or deliberately), they usually understeer, but not 911s. Their squirelly handling (in the opinion of those who weren’t used to driving them) was also a complaint of the Chevrolet Corvair, which had the same engine design and location.

Down the street and on the other side from the Corvettes-owning neighbor was the owner of a dark red 911. I never got to see that car except when it was driving past our house. Our next-door neighbors briefly had a boarder who had a red 914. (Not sure if it was a four-cylinder or a 914/6.) That, sitting in one at a Milwaukee car show and the vicarious experience of my eighth-grade English teacher’s Christophorus magazines (for Porsche owners, published since 1952) are the total of my own Porsche experiences. (The magazine made me aware of Porsche’s European delivery option, in which one could go to Europe, pick up the 911, drive it around Europe for a while, and then when done have it shipped to the U.S.)

One of the interesting features of the early 911s was the instrument panel.

On the far left was the fuel gauge and oil level gauge. Next was oil temperature and oil pressure. The tachometer was in the middle, with the speedometer (and turbo boost gauge) to its right and the clock on the far right. No engine temperature gauge (perhaps because the first ones were air-cooled), and no battery gauge, but a lot of focus on oil.

The ignition switch was on the left side of the dashboard, a race setup to allow the driver to start and shift immediately. (Also found on Fords back in the ignition-switch-on-dashboard days allegedly because Henry Ford was left-handed.)

There is one additional experience of sorts. Not long after I was hired to be the editor of a business magazine, my boss (one of my two favorites in my career) knew that I was a car nut. He was not, but he suggested (perhaps because it didn’t involve his own money) buying an old 911 and learning about the car by fixing whatever came up. I didn’t follow through on his suggestion (remember, I work in journalism, the land of low wages and lousy hours). Maybe I should have, though I’m guessing my ownership experience would have lasted until children started arriving, even though the back seat of a 911 will fit children and car seats.

Meanwhile, there is good news reported by Road Show …

Enthusiasts grumbled when the previous Porsche 911 GT3 hit the scene offering only a dual-clutch gearbox. Even though the sequential manual pushed the performance envelope with faster shifts for better lap times, some Porschephiles still longed for a more involving driving experience that comes with three pedals. For 2018, there’s good news for those manual transmission purists because the GT3 will once again be offered as a stick shift.

How is it? On roads throughout California’s Napa Valley region, it’s spectacular. Rowing through gears with the crisp short shifter is certainly more entertaining than flicking paddle shifters, and it makes perfect downshifts with its auto rev-matching, which can be turned off if you prefer to blip the throttle yourself.

Improvements to the 991.2 Porsche 911 GT3 don’t end with manual transmission. There’s a new 4.0-liter boxer six-cylinder engine in back cranking out 500 horsepower and 339 pound-feet of torque. That engine replaces a 3.8-liter unit making 475 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of twist. Redline remains a stratospheric 9,000 rpm.

… not that it makes me any more likely to buy a Porsche because (1) I would honestly prefer a Corvette, and (2) I can afford neither, even if I could find a Corvette cheaper than the 911 GT3’s $144,650 price.

 

 

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