Monday, May 26, 2014

The Ultimate Porsche Enthusiast

You already know that there are many ways to define such a creature, and I will add my view to the mix, because, well, the more the merrier. If you think I get it wrong, let me know.

To begin, here is a quote from an article about the 1984 Porsche Carrera that appeared in the February, 1984, issue of Car and Driver magazine. It is a bit over the top, but it's a start:

"It is the evil weevil, the rock-solid, steely-eyed grim reaper of sporting cars, the para­gon of knife-edged incisiveness and buttoned-down insanity. More than any other factory-fresh passenger car available here today, the Porsche 911 Carrera is the abso­lute embodiment of clench-jawed, tight­fisted, slit-eyed enthusiasm run amok, a car for making the landscape pass with explosive fluidity. Strange that a car so serious can bring such unadulterated joy, but there you are, sporting an enormous, cheek-splitting leer when you unstrap and step out. You devil, you."

The above euphoric POV is action-packed, sure enough, but that's good, because whatever I say following it will seem sober and believable.

No matter what, the whole point of owning and feeding a classic, air-cooled Porsche is to have fun with it. How and why you have fun is the matter in question here, and when I provide my stance on the question you may have another view, which you are free to offer and I hope that you do. 

The first mid-engined race car, of which Ferdinand Porsche was a co-designer. 1923  © Porsche (?)

When I mention feeding, of course I am speaking of Do-It-Yourself repair, maintenance, modification, massage, and activities of a similar kind; not only gas, and oil, and insurance, and the like. Plus, for me, I being a DIYer, 'checkbook restoration' - using the term in a widely inclusive way - excludes Enthusiasts. Sorry, but unless you occasionally get your hands dirty, your checkbook Porsche is a pampered artifact of another stripe entirely. Some will say that plopping down a check is okay; after all, some people are very excited about their elderly Porsche but simply have no manual skills, or no place to perform work. I respect that, but for me they are once-removed from being hard-core enthusiasts, otherwise they would find a way to approach the beast in a hands-on fashion, because there is no other way to gain the real depth of requisite knowledge and appreciation necessary to become an Ultimate Porsche Enthusiast.

Some people race, some prefer auto-cross competition, others rally, or compete in a concours d'élégance now and then, but the majority simply enjoy driving their 30 or 40 year-old cars on sunny summer days when it isn't raining. They often visit fellow Porsche owners to share chat and something to eat, while others are more daring and drive in the snow, but they exist in very small numbers because their cars are all rusting to dust from the road salt. I guess there are some who really enjoy just working on their cars. I hope they have a lot of fun doing this, because the main reason Porsches exist is for driving, not anything else. I've said this before, in an earlier post.

I used to know some builders of Experimental (home-built) aircraft who could actually fly, but didn't because their true passion was crafting airplanes. There is room for everybody. 

Nevertheless, it is rewarding to creatively address problems and equipment issues, even design shortcomings, with novel solutions that tread new ground. Which is to say that I don't consider a Porsche to be a sacred object to worship - keeping it all as the factory intended - rather, it's a car, that's all. A car that is perfect need not evolve; Porsches evolve. Darwin knew cars.

I'm not into hot-rod Porsches. For me there are too many of them, and too often they follow a dogma that rigidly dictates the genre's parameters. Many are nicely crafted and all; I just don't want to do this to my car.

Type 64  © Porsche

The notion of a sports car predates Porsche's sports cars by many decades. Ferdinand Porsche began in the last years of the 19th century by designing electric and hybrid cars for practical use, as an employee of the Lohner coach works in Vienna. They were, in essence, rough horse wagons with novel propulsion devices, and not very sporty. That said, though, the Lohner-Porsche Mixte Hybrid set an Austrian Land Speed record for the time, of almost 60 kilometres per hour (~37 miles per hour), plus with Ferdinand driving the front-wheel-drive model, the car won a rally. It was easy to add two more electric motors to the rear wheels, thereby making a four-wheel-drive version - so much for Porsche selling out when it introduced the Cayenne.

Ja, sehr gut

F. Porsche joined Austro-Daimler in 1906, but his subsequent career was dizzyingly convoluted, although he did noteworthy work for Mercedes-Benz (the SSK, and others). Briefly unemployed during the Great Depression, he formed his own company in 1931 at the age of ~56. During all of this time he was a great race car designer, even designing and constructing race cars when he had no customer for the car - he was an Enthusiast. You Porsche types know all of this, but I'm trying to make a case. . .

Sure, today's Porsche AG is in business to make money, but they do so with cars that possess tremendous capability, plus they continue to build and field top-tier race cars. That's their thing. Porsche is not a company that attempts to sell econo-boxes that are cheap enough for the masses; others do that. Porsche builds exciting cars.

Beetle prototype, 1937, Ferdinand looking on.  © Porsche
I'm going to skip the part involving Hitler being an automobile aficionado, and Porsche stealing - essentially, and it was proven in court - the idea for a rear-engined, four cylinder air-cooled people's car from Hans Ledwinka of the Czech company Tatra (and others). That car became the Volkswagen Beetle, and later Porsche sports cars sold to ordinary citizens throughout the 1950s and into the '60s were pretty much hot rodded VWs. As of the model 911 they very much were not VW hot rods any more, at all. 

This is not a detailed Porsche automobile history lesson; it's a simplistic overview meant to establish the idea that enthusiasm and invention have always been at the core of Porsche production and ownership. I believe that the majority of Porsche's sports cars that have vanished from the face of the Earth have done so because they were wrecked while being driven beyond their limits (or the driver's) in competition. Not all, obviously, but a substantial percentage. Anyway, that's my theory. The rest are still on the road. Competition = hard use = inventive involvement to keep them going. There are many ways to be an enthusiast. 

So, how and why do you have fun with your classic 911? My 911 is a hot car. I mean it is hot in there when summer arrives; it doesn't have air conditioning. The car is like a terrarium, all windows and a small top with no sunroof, and inside I'm sweating and there is flora growing. With the windows all the way down it is cooler, but of course it is also much louder that way, and the aerodynamics are such that not a lot of air blows on me. My car lacks central dashboard air vents and the rest of its complicated 'ventilation' system doesn't take up the slack.

As I said, it's just a car, not a sacred object, so I scare off purists when I experiment with solutions to problems, sometimes. This is not a big thing, but I'm playing around,  building a silly gadget to duct more cooling air onto my perspiring carcass as I drive. It does nothing to cool me when I stop, but neither does the car. My first prototype, proof-of-concept version blasts me with welcome air, which is better than no air, but I want to make it smaller and less obtrusive, and maybe more efficient, too. 

My first prototype air snorkel  © Me
This simple gadget is often the subject of dumb jokes and the like when Porsche types see it, but, really it's a useful concept. The idea is to enjoy the car through the act of creatively seeking solutions to its assorted problems, thereby making the car more agreeable to use. In other words, it's not necessary to bow down to a tightly focused Porsche dogma in order to have fun with the car.

The above project is only an illustration of an attitude; it's not meant to be some sort of central focus of this post, since I invent things continuously. However, any other car as uncomfortable as mine (noise, heat, complex and obsolete maintenance, bumpy, harsh, et al) I would get rid of. I put up with the raw nature and hard edges of my car because it isn't like other cars. It doesn't sound like them, doesn't drive like them. It's a Porsche. It's got a heritage, and it has a unique history of real enthusiasm on the part of its builders.

Notice that a central snorkel air intake, for cooling the driver, was fine on this '70s Grand Prix racer.

So, I enthuse over all of it, warts and all. Air cooled. DIY. Dirty hands. Don't be shy about being creative, because it's a lot of fun and it sometimes works.  

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Driving Arizona

Saguaro National Park. Saguaros live 200 years and can reach 78 feet (~24m) tall.
On a recent trip we went to Arizona, mainly. Up here in Quebec there was snow on the ground when we flew off to Arizona - there still is some here at this writing - and I imagined that Arizona, which borders Mexico, would be warm and snowless. But no, there was snow on the ground there, too, at least in the mid to northern part of the state, and it was as often as not quite cold. This would be an ideal season to drive an elderly Porsche like mine, which is not equipped with air conditioning although it has heating, but we saw (almost) no Porsches on the roads of Arizona.

This lack of Porsches was puzzling, considering the very active Arizona Region of the Porsche Club of America; perhaps we frequented the wrong neighborhoods. Where we were, 85% of the vehicles were pickup trucks of vague vintage, except for the tourists' cars and the like. In my perspective the exciting parts of the state mainly reside in the Navajo Nation, where a utilitarian truck is the obvious option. Sports car? No. Most of the Navajo Nation is located in Arizona; it sits in three states and it is the largest land area assigned to a mainly autonomous Native American jurisdiction within the United States.

Anyway, driving in Arizona, in any sort of 'car', was a real treat to me, even in my small rental Ford. The paved roads are deliciously smooth and sinuous, the landscape is stunning always, the scale of the spaces is humbling, the air is mainly clear - unless there is a haboob happening, which is routine, but it was simply very windy when we were there. Back home the frost-heaved highways keep the speed of all travel modest, and your Porsche's suspension gets mercilessly tested by those Quebec roads, but slowly. Mine is still in my shop awaiting dry dirt roads, instead of mud.

Arizona offers a surreal and curiously spiritual experience to the visitor, and I don't even regard myself as a spiritual person.   

The first sentence of Albert Einstein's wonderful essay
An Ideal of Service to Our Fellow Man is the following: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious—the knowledge of the existence of something unfathomable to us, the manifestation of the most profound reason coupled with the most brilliant beauty." This says a great deal about how you might feel upon first seeing Monument Valley, or Antelope Canyon, or the Grand Canyon, or Canyon de Chelly. They overwhelm, but they are real and directly before you even though they are part of the 'other' as they stand alone, timeless, and alive. And unfathomable, and beautiful. Etherial is an overused word and is somehow unexpected in this case, but it works, never mind the stone and colossal scale.

Click on any image for a larger version.

Spider Rock (800 feet or ~244 meters tall) in Canyon de Chelly is considered a center of the Navajo spiritual universe. 

Going to all of these places during the heavy tourist season would result in another impression, but if you aim your camera away from the gawkers you may be okay. The heavy tourist season hadn't started yet; we were okay.

Monument Valley
But, speaking of driving, you are permitted to drive your own vehicle into Monument Valley, for a fee. It's a poor idea to do this. The Navajo Nation is happy to collect your money, however, they have no interest in the type of vehicle that you are driving. Pay and go, and if the bottom of your car gets torn off you will be reminded that there is a 'rough road' sign somewhere. We saw plenty of low-slung cars crawling along and zig-zagging while crunching and scraping noises escaped from underneath to accompany the grimaces of the drivers. Also, without an official Navajo guide you will not be told where to drive, nor what you are looking at. Find a good tour in a closed Suburban or Jeep; this is much more comfortable and you will be able to hear the guide more easily - and ask questions when you want to.

You can drive into Canyon de Chelly, too, but there are restrictions as to the type of vehicle permitted, plus there you must be accompanied by a Navajo guide. This is better all around if you feel that you have to do your own driving. Forget any Porsche but a Cayenne in these places, and note that all-wheel drive vehicles are not allowed in Canyon de Chelly. Maybe that excludes the Cayenne, too.

More of the sublime before we get to the ridiculous. Antelope Canyon is a sublime 'slot' canyon in Navajo land on the northern edge of Arizona. I was told that there are about 150 slot canyons on Navajo land, but south of Interstate Highway 70 in Utah there are over 1,000, also they exist all over the world. None are as commercially exploited as Antelope is and there is a mixed blessing and also curse in this. It is said that Antelope is the most dramatic and exotic of all; of course this is subjective and self-serving as an appraisal, since this description was provided by one of the mandatory Navajo guides in upper Antelope, and the Navajos know which side their bread is buttered on. They know too well about commercialization, but also not well enough.

A slot canyon is a narrow canyon, most often narrowest on its top (maybe 3+ feet - 1 meter) wide up there, but getting a good deal wider down in the depths. As a result, light is always dramatic as it bounces down the sculpted walls, and the colors change with every passing wisp of cloud. The forms to be seen are beautiful beyond belief and it is impossible to take an uninteresting photograph in the place. The blessing with Antelope is that it is easily accessible by 4x4 from Paige, AZ; the curse is that the Navajo Nation evidently enforces no limit on the number of awed viewers that get packed into the canyon every day, which means around 1,700 people per day in the peak season. It's only about one-quarter mile (402 meters) long and the interesting part is mostly in the middle! Oh, and the average width is around six or eight feet. The drive to the canyon follows a deep-sand dry wash, and it's fun to churn along in a jacked-up truck with huge tires, but then that's the ten-year-old in me.

This visitor density results in the sardine syndrome, with tourists photographing each other's heads if they are not careful, and all of them are rushed through like herds of animals on the way to market. They will kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Okay, those visitors are not there because this is yet another over-hyped, mediocre roadside attraction - it truly is stunning to see. But, if you go to see such a thing, consider doing a bit of research on alternative slot canyons, especially if you are up to doing a little 'canyoneering' that might get you muddy.

That said, the place is sublime. Click on any of these images of mine for a larger version. It was worth what it took to make these photos of tiny Antelope.

The Mother Road

Before the building of the Interstate Highway System ten years after WWII - a project championed by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower - the roadways across the U.S.A. were small, slow, sometimes unpaved, spottily marked, and unevenly mapped.  Eisenhower envisioned a high-capacity, well-marked, and fast system of roads connecting all areas of the United States, so that even remote parts of the country could have access to improved transport, commerce, and easy freedom of travel.

Nevertheless, the first single highway that reached from the east of the country all the way to Los Angeles on the west coast, and that was paved all the way, was U.S. Route 66.

The road signs were individualized by state. 
This one has rare glass reflectors in the '66'.
Known by several names throughout the years including the "Mother Road," "Main Street of America," and the "Will Rogers Highway," Route 66 served travelers for a half century, before totally succumbing to the 'new and improved' interstate system. 

Established in 1926, road signs began to be erected the following year, but, it would be several years before the 2,448 mile (3,940 km) highway would be continuously paved from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Running through the states of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, the highway became one of the most famous roads in America. For decades, this historic path served thousands who were migrating west, especially during the Dust Bowl drought of the 1930's.

Over the years, the road underwent many improvements and realignments, changing its course and overall length, and moving its endpoint farther west to Santa Monica, California.
(The preceding five sentences are paraphrased from the website Legends of America.) 

As happened with the earlier trans-continental railroads in the U.S., and Canada, towns sprang up along 66's path, businesses were invented to service those towns, as well as travelers passing through them. Some of those businesses were a bit goofy. There is a lot more info on the Web about this road, so let me get to my recent experience of artifacts left along its path.

Today, many of the small towns along the no longer official Route 66 are shabby and somewhat derelict, at least in my limited experience. We wound up in Holbrook, AZ, one evening. Basically it fits this description. Here we found the Wigwam Motel #6, one of three remaining of the original seven 'Wigwam Villages'. It is a quintessential example of vulgar Americana and, therefore, fits nicely into the experience of visiting run-down small towns along a defunct piece of roadway, fruitlessly looking to spot at least one Porsche in Arizona.

Chester E. Lewis built #6 in 1950, which makes it the last to be constructed, maybe, as there seems to be some confusion over the final franchise built vs. the last Wigwam Village built - that was not a franchise. In any case, it's based on the design of Frank A. Redford, who built the first example in 1933. Lewis purchased rights to Redford's design, as well as the right to use the name "Wigwam Village" (although it's identified on its sign as 'Wigwam Motel') but with a novel royalty agreement to use the name: coin operated radios were installed in Lewis's Wigwam Village, and every dime (10¢) inserted for 30 minutes of listening would be sent to Redford as payment for the name's use.

The concrete 'wigwams' (better identified as tipis) have a door with two skinny, curtained windows, and two small diamond-shaped windows at knee height, one of which is filled by an air conditioner. In other words, you can't see out. There is a bathroom, but the mirror above the sink is mounted onto the sloped wall, meaning that you must squat down in order to see up into it. You take a shower on a slant, too.

Old cars and other junk that Chester favored are scattered around the motel to give a sort of time-warp effect, bringing you back to the '50's and '60's when this place was newer, in a time preceding the Interstate Highway, which later bypassed Holbrook. Chester's daughter, Elinor, still presides at the registration desk of this family-run relic of 66's heyday. I enjoyed it for its pure silliness.

The Porsche Pimpmobile 

Finally, I did see one, and only one Porsche in Arizona. It was a Cayenne, and I saw it on the south side of Tucson, near the airport. I'm sorry, I'm probably insulting the owner of that SUV, but it looked for all the world like a pimpmobile. I thought I was in Chicago, or New York where such vehicles regularly run around. Maybe not Porsche pimpmobiles in those places, so this must have been unique to the environs of Tucson.

I apologize to you, too, but I don't have a picture of the 'car' because I was driving and that Cayenne scooted by at too excited a pace to grab a photo, but there was no mistaking it. Pure pimpmobile. This means extra, extra wide whitewall tires, so it didn't have the current, trendy low profile rubber seen on giant diameter wheels that are ubiquitous, but it did seem to have chrome wheel spinners, along with absolute tonnage of other chrome bits. There was a massive hood ornament, plus other shiny gizmos attached up there - little fins and things; of course the windows were blacked out, and that 'mobile' was a bright bronze, almost copper color. I might carry on, but I'm sure you can imagine it and I hope you aren't ill.

Poor Arizona. That state is filled with natural and cultural wonders, but I'm unable to include a brazen pimpmobile as being culturally significant, even if it was a Porsche. Perhaps that's my mistake. My innocent 40+ year old 911 was there to greet me when I got home. That was nice.

There was much more to Arizona, but thanks for reading as much as you did. Maybe some day. . .