The True Driving Experience Only Comes From Driving A Classic



-June 7, 2013-

The True Driving Experience Only Comes From Driving A Classic

Kris Clewell

When you think of making a 2500 mile road trip across the United States you don’t generally think of hopping into a 41 year old car equipped with no air conditioning, no cruise control, no radio, and seats that don’t recline. When planning my trip, I reminded myself (and convinced my pregnant wife) that at one time, no one had air conditioning. Apparently earlier in motoring history, every trip to anywhere was fraught with misery and despair. People rarely left their homes before air conditioned vehicles, and without cruise control they often strayed no further than the local super market. With the fear of certain destitution, I packed all the survival provisions necessary, left a will on the kitchen table deeding my 911 to my younger brother, and hit the road.

Obviously none of that is true. There was once a time that people drove thousands of miles without any of the amenities that today’s generation of drivers is used to. As a young one, I remember driving through Kansas, dodging tornadoes with my grandparents at the height of summer. No air conditioning. I highly doubt we always had cruise control either and yet here I am today, brimming with positive family memories about vacations which all involved long road trips in the '80s. I’d be the first one to admit that I stood naked in front of my air conditioner when I got home a few weeks ago, but when did we turn into a culture where we need to be coddled by engineering? Do we really need need air conditioned seats and doors that close automatically? Is there a point where 500-and-some-odd speakers is really that much better than just rolling the windows down and listening to the world? Is my rant getting out of control? The point I am trying to make, if you haven’t pulled it in thus far, is that the demands of owners today are far removed from owners 40 years ago. The most common question I got on my road trip, other than what year my car was, was if I was hot, and how I was handling driving what obviously must be the worst road trip car ever. I of course got the "nice car" thing, but they presumed I couldn’t wait to get home. I feel bad for them. They have no idea how boring their cars are.

 

Before any long road trip, whether it be in a 911, or a Golf, I take a good look at the car. A general rule is to not mess with a car too much before you leave on a long trip. I had a sloppy gas pedal. It didn’t really affect the mechanical ability of the throttle, but it bothered me. Upon investigation I noticed some bushings had perished, and what I thought would be an easy fix turned into a marathon session of adjusting the ball joints to no avail. I had no idle, and no wide open throttle once the bushings had been replaced. I took the car to a nationally known local shop, Flat Six Inc here in Minneapolis. Owner Aaron Hatz made short work of the job, noting someone had bent the long rod that goes to the gearbox to make it work with the engine swap. The car has an early big-port 8.5:1 compression 3 liter out of an SC. With CIS for the fuel management, it was great to have someone dial in the proper specs. For the most part, CIS is a fantastic fuel system even by todays standards and is a good compromise between fuel economy and power. Though its usually reliable, CIS can be dodgy, and full of puzzles you can only solve through experience.  Aaron also spent the time to adjust the fuel and the timing, both of which were off. Timing by 6 degrees and the fuel in the rich direction. Despite knowing the car would be filthy before it was even halfway there, I always detail the car before I leave. Nothing beyond a wax and vacuum, but its important, and easier to keep clean throughout the trip if its clean to begin with. I dropped tools into a (very not waterproof) surplus ammo box, strapped them to my roof rack and struck out for our first stop in Wisconsin.

We left on a Monday. I needed to be in Helen Georgia by Thursday afternoon for a car show. This gave me just over 3 days to drive 1250 miles. My wife drove separately in a 1983 Mercedes 300d I had been fixing up and was dropping off in Milwaukee (330 miles) for my grandfather. Two hours or so into the drive and she was already done. Heartburn or some other pregnancy thing I obviously can’t relate to hit and we stopped. I feared we would never get to Helen. Tuesday went better, and we arrived in Milwaukee to drop off the Benz. On Wednesday the road opened up for us. Driving without a large group of people or club has it’s benefits. We stopped anywhere we’d like. Antique shops, historical markers, scenic spots, and the rest of the things that have been overlooked since the great American road trip apparently died.  The rush from point A to point B in X time has ruined the best part of a road trip: discovery and exploration of places you’ve never been.

 

 

The 911 was a bit of a handful at times. My car is sans a front oil cooler. Most 911’s from the SC and on have one, and usually its pretty easy to retrofit a later cooler onto an older car. Since my car is a ‘72, my oil tank is mounted forward of the rear wheels, and is filled externally. It’s a one-year-only option that makes fitting a later oil cooler difficult. Oil temperatures stayed around 230-245 degrees: Hot. Driving slowly was mandatory. The short early 915 gearbox combined with no front oil cooler meant the oil temps walked if I pushed too hard. I stopped at a hardware store and bought a laser IR thermometer to confirm the temperatures were indeed as high as they were. In proper German style, the gauge could not have been more accurate. I was running Liqui Moly GT1 10w60 race oil, as oil is the life blood of an air cooled engine; however, my fears were assuaged when talking to Liqui Moly themselves at Southern Worthersee. This oil does run a little hotter than normal, but is built for the long haul, and serious abuse.

On Thursday we climbed out of Kentucky, and into Tennessee to an elevation of 1,756 feet at Deals Gap. Cooler temperatures meant I could run a little harder. 11 miles long, and packed with over 300 curves, the “Tail of the Dragon” is an intimidating road. Tagged with signs as US 129, and Tapoco road, its certainly one of the most technical roads I’ve ever driven. The real problem however, is that the road is filled with motorcycles and recreational traffic.  Unending unbroken double yellow lines don’t stop motorcycles from attempting to pass, and in a standard vehicle, there’s no chance of passing anyone. The stretch of road is torqued fairly tight: there’s no room to advance the gearbox, and the variety extends very little beyond sawing at your steering wheel from left to right while going over crest after crest. Constant gear changing from 2nd to 3rd and back gets tiring. I had difficulty finding rhythm, and the constant worry of cyclists and pedestrians taking photos left me holding back. Deals Gap throws your car off balance over and over again. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m scared of the driving dynamics of an old 911 and the technicality of the road unnerved me.  While the road seems like a story written with blanks just waiting to have “911” written in, the reality is sadly different. Taking advantage of the banked turns and quick dips and dives is difficult with so many distractions. I wanted to push my car harder, but I never had the chance. Often touted as the best road in America, I can see the potential but unfortunately it didn’t live up to the hype. While worth a look, there are far better roads for the enthusiast in the area.

 

 

After stopping for a few photos we continued on south on 129 to my destination in Helen Georgia, home of the Southern Worthersee VW show. Thousands of european cars converge yearly on this small Austrian style resort town. Along the way the roads opened up to what I consider some of the best roads I have ever been on. 17/75 (Unicoi Turnpike) south of Hiawasee GA develops into what is a 3 lane mountain road. Wide sweeping banked switchbacks with undulating crests at the birth of each corner are intermixed with downhill straights that force into steep banked hairpin corners. The sound of my 3 liter engine, M&K R muffler, and SSI headers ripped back at me off the cliff sides.  Even though its my job to explain it to you, it’s something I can’t even wrap words around. It left goosebumps on my arms. I smiled, shook my head and laughed to myself. It was just that good. My wife would probably tell you I looked like a little boy smiling to himself while playing alone in a sandbox with toy cars. It is the best toy I have ever owned.

The Unicoi Turnpike truncates in Helen GA. Just west of there is Highway 348, and Gainesville Highway: the best roads I’ve ever driven on in America. They offer everything Deals Gap lacks. Quiet and untraveled, they twist around on themselves. Elevation changes that dive into banked switchbacks test your nerve. The scenery, if you have the balls to look around while you are driving, is beautiful. I learned a lot about my car on those roads, and a lot about my driving experience and courage. The 911 chassis handles far better than I am willing to push it. I did drive some of these roads in a pretty dedicated manner, but I didn’t push too hard. I’ve seen photos of what these cars look like when they’ve been turned into recyclable material. It’s a statistic I don’t want to be a part of. Looking back I can see on Google Maps that I likely missed even more great driving roads. I didn’t think to pull out my smartphone. I was too busy enjoying no radio, no ac, and no cruise control in the twisties of Georgia.

On the way home, on mile 2200 or so, and despite the flatness, I noted that I love driving through the rural midwest. While I loved the mountains there’s something about being able to see as far as you can. Windmills lined for miles churn out volts as tractors beneath them turn over dark soil to plant summer crops. Many exits don’t have gas, hotels, or food. You are never far from humanity, but still miles from civilization. It’s definitely not a destination I would seek out, but it was a great way to wrap up the trip.

Driving 2500 miles in a 41-year-old 911 with no amenities whatsoever was not easy. I baked a bit in Tennessee, and popped in my headphones from time to time. I even pulled over to stretch my back once or twice. I may even have some hearing loss from not running the silencers I have for the R muffler. There is something about the contrasts of difficult and good experiences that shows us what’s best in life. Not because of, but in spite of the hardships, I fell more in love with the early 911 chassis. The driving dynamics of the car that engineers have covered up over decades of “development” are what truly makes it great. Manual brakes, manual steering, and a mechanical throttle body were all that stood between some of the best roads I’ve ever driven, and myself. There were no computers to save me if I blew it. I didn’t have ABS set to kick on if there was a bit of sand I couldn’t see on a blind crest. Though danger lurks just beneath the surface of these old 911’s, the car felt nimble, and capable, far exceeding my abilities. It was a life experience that just could not be accomplished by driving a newer car with say, PDK and satellite radio. Manufacturers have been obsessed with numbers for decades. Statistics hunting for safety, track times, and sales have diluted the romance of driver and machine. Perhaps the debate of the fall of motoring and machine is probably best left to another article, but I can say without equivocation there is no another car I would have rather been in than my old 911 that week.

The American road trip isn’t dead. It’s there if you’ll have it. There are roads to be found, places to be discovered, and memories to be made. Do yourself a favor. Roll down your window, turn the radio off, shut your phone down, and take it all in.


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