Racing in The Street

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It’s been a while. A while since I drove an early, well sorted, lightweight 911. I seem to have spent to much of my time recently in 996 and 997 Turbos. Brutal power of course, with the thrill of the on-boost whoosh throwing you at the horizon as if you’d just left the deck of an aircraft carrier. You learn to drive them not on throttle response, but on boost sensitivity, feeling for the onset of the boost building and driving accordingly. Sometimes even as your foot is lifting the boost is still giving strong forwards thrust, requiring forward planning and a constant awareness in the back of your mind that throttle position is not always an indication of the power delivery you’re going to get. Big turbo Porsches are always thought provoking, but take a while to become instinctive. Mid-corner line adjustments are often a case of listening to the whistle and playing a tune with the boost rather than balancing the weight distribution on a razor sharp throttle response. Good fun, but perhaps ultimately not as satisfying. It’s easy to forget the addictiveness of a lightweight flywheel. But with the escalating values surrounding the incredibly popular and desirable early Porsches, very few of them venture out in winter. So when you’re offered the chance to take one for a winter drive across the B Roads of Yorkshire, it’s a very welcome chance to blow out the cobwebs. And when you know that the car is an Appendix K FIA motorsport prepared car, you don’t hesitate.

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So as I climb over the door bar into the tight bucket seat of this lovely ’72 911T, I’m struck by lots of feelings. The stirring in my stomach of that familiar anticipation as I reach over my shoulders, flipping the race harness straps forward, snapping the clasps into the central five point fitting, snugging down first the hips, then the shoulders. Reaching out for the door pull, I’m fortunate to have arms long enough on this occasion to touch the leather door strap and flick the lightweight panel shut without having to undo the harness, which is my usual trick. It closes with that familiar metallic noise that only competition cars have. Not a flimsiness, more a featheriness. No side airbags, BOSE speakers, leather door cards, window motors. Just empty door. Look down into the footwell however and you’ll be surprised to see immaculate black carpet, not the bare painted floor of a competition car. I’ll come to that shortly.

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There’s no ceremony of fuel pumps, breakers to push, just a brief squeeze of the throttle, release, then turn the key. Catch it on your right foot and just listen to that throttle response. I open the door again and hold it ajar just to take it in. Workers taking a tea break across the road from us all wander across, interesed. There’s something about the sound of a well built, lightweight Porsche engine that even the casual bystander understands, revs rising lightning quick, but decaying almost as fast, giving the car an almost martial arts like response. Nods of approval over the steaming mugs of tea across the road.

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The gearshift is period Porsche 901, with first a dog leg across and back, reverse ahead of it. I’m initially slightly nervous of it, making absolutely sure that it’s second we’re getting, not ‘R’. The Francis Tuthill built 2.5 would not appreciate being buzzed skywards. However, hesitating on the shifts allows the revs to die too much, so you end up giving it a blip in between first and second for your initial couple of shifts. It’s a little while since I’d driven one of the early 901 box Porsches and I soon remember that hesitating makes this shift obstructive. The vagueness doesn’t inspire confidence initially. Stop pussying around, be confident, positive and you’re rewarded with a smooth shift and the fears subside to be replaced with the knowledge that you’re doing just fine. After a few minutes you cease thinking about it and the closely stacked ratios can be swapped just as fast as you can move your hand, keeping the engine spinning nicely.

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Out onto the open Yorkshire roads, mid week traffic not particularly heavy and as we turn off at a tight junction, down twisty B Road, the light steering inspired confidence, a foot full of gas and you feel the limited slip diff hooking up, the car seeming to pivot around it’s centre, flick the lock off and fire some gears in down the bumpy Yorkshire lanes. Only it doesn’t feel anything like as bumpy as the last time I drove down here. The damping control of this car is superb, riding those short, sharp jiggling imperfections, the type that make a GT3RS leap around a little under power, with total control. Far too soon, we’re at the location for photos, hard on the brakes, the edge of the throttle right where you’d expect it to be for a quick pivot of your right foot. I’d better stop this now, or we’ll never get any photography done….

The Owner of this car couldn’t be with us today, so we catch up over the phone. The more we chatted about the car and the build, the more the little pieces of the previous days drive fell into place. The Owner is experienced at 911 ownership, having owned many 911’s of various vintages. His original plan was to have his perfect historic competition Porsche 911 built, exactly how he’d like it, but within the FIA Appendix K rules. Several long discussions with Francis Tuthill resulted in him locating a very close to perfect road 2.4 911T, just two owners from new with no corrosion issues. Even so, the car was stripped to bare metal, etch primed and repainted with new wings, rear arches plus front and rear bumpers, all lightweight. An FIA specification roll cage was fitted, together with permitted strengthening. The correct Fuchs and Minilites were located for it and at the same time, a centre fill fuel tank was added.

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The original intention had been to compete with the car, but as it progressed, The Owner’s priorities began to change. The car looked so good that he wanted to drive it not just in competition, but on the road too. “I realised that work commitments were probably always going to get in the way of a season’s competition, plus it just looked so good, I wasn’t sure I would want to commit the car to outright competition.” Nevertheless, the correct FIA paperwork was obtained and the overall build of the car continued to be to FIA regulations. At this point, a few concessions were made to road going use. That aforementioned carpet suddenly began to make sense, together with a back lightweight headcloth and a cunningly hidden iPod interface with disguised volume control.

The specification of the engine and matching gear ratios were subject of intense discussion. For outright race or rally use, something with a comparatively highly pitched power band would be just fine. For road use, though, the specification of the engine was pitched to bring the power further down the rev range. This mean that The Owner decided upon a 2.5 long stroke engine, matched to a Tuthill’s close ratio gear set. The delightfully fluid engine response and brilliantly spaced gears from yesterday suddenly start to make sense. That firm brake pedal that was the perfect pivot point for blipping into those downshifts came from Tuthill’s own brake callipers and pedal box. While not FIA compliant, it’s a simple job to switch calipers and the larger 6 pot system still fits into the 15 inch wheel, but gives better stopping power on track days.

Yesterday in between the self discipline needed to get some photography done, blasting along the tight Yorkshire B Road lanes, between dry stone walls and around tight ninety right corners and box junctions, held tight by the five point harness and Recaro seats, the car felt pretty much perfect. I’d have felt quite happy dicing with some modern technology from Subaru or Mitsubishi, such was the confidence inspiring feel of the car and the effectiveness of the damping. “I’m really, really glad you said that. That’s exactly what I was trying to achieve. I wanted a car that could hold it’s own on just that type of road. The sort you see all over the UK and down into France.” Those dampers are made for Tuthill’s by Exe TC. Famous for the damping of Loeb’s WRC Citroen, Aussie V8s and many others, they’re state of the art, but still Historic FIA compliant.

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The distasteful subject of cost comes up. “I haven’t added it all up, but it’s not cheap. I’d probably rather you didn’t say.” Not that The Owner is worried about what people think, more that he doesn’t want to see that figure in print, really. Best to not think about that too much, far better to jump in it and go for a drive instead.

And indeed that’s probably the most unique thing about any historic Porsche 911 prepared for competition. Disregard for a short moment the concessions to creature comforts and weight saving and you’re left with a car that is perfectly driveable on the road. Unlike more highly strung relatives such as the Ford BDA, historic Porsches retain a great many production parts. Without the musical but hysterical 10,000 rpm engines that have rebuild intervals measured in hours and ‘stage kilometres’, a Porsche is quite happy living between six and seven thousand rpm. The sheer sharpness of the throttle response is addictive, the small dimensions and perfect chassis setup make it the perfect tool for blasting along country lanes in ways that bigger, more modern Porsche derivatives don’t achieve. Really, I shouldn’t have driven this car. It’s made me want a hot rodded old school Porsche 911 of my own so much it’s painful.

Thanks to Specialist Cars for the car keys. http://specialistcarsltd.co.uk/ and The Owner for his trust.
Francis Tuthill Ltd are at http://www.francistuthill.co.uk/

Words and photography Neill Watson

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Author: Neill Watson

If you love the sound of the Cosworth V8 as much as the V12 Merlin, the smell of Jet A1 as much as Castrol R and admire the late Ray Hanna as much as Sir Stirling, you’ll find you’re both on the same page. Neill's love of art deco buildings means that his ideal home would be a brilliant white, 1930′s control tower in Southern France, with crisply mown grass, biplane parked on the driveway and a Ferrari 288GTO in the garage. This is something that those around him tolerate, though it does concern them from time to time.

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