(R)eflections

The heart was weary and the hearing was gone. Trying to recover my hearing from the pummelling of 2 German boxers, both in great shape and good health was hard. As the adrenaline washed away, I caught my breath and tried to think: it took a good day to re-discover what we love about cars.

Sometimes, there’s more meaning in a letter than in a whole book: “R” means to  petrolheads more than you can imagine. “R” is perhaps the fastest letter in motoring: R, RS, RSR, GTR, GT3 R, R line…and it doesn’t refer only to Porsches. Whatever the car, the adding of a simple letter will always mean “faster everywhere”. In particular, in the Porsche world R means a healthy obsession for pure road racing.

One 1967 911 R and one 2017 991R together on windy roads was something we thought impossible. But like any family reunion, distant relatives would eventually meet for an epic get-together day and draw a conclusion. Honestly, we hardly thought this day could ever happen.

Driving the 1967 911 R feels like playing a Gibson SG electric guitar through a cranked vintage Marshall 1959 Plexi while wearing that old glorious pair of “Made in USA” Chuck Taylors. It’s raw, real and loud as hell. At a distracted glance it could be easily labelled as another terrible customized 911 or the most fashionable “throwback Thursday” Porsche ever…but we all should forget all this demonic hipster nonsense. It’s the most real and honest car we’ve ever driven, far away from that senseless “race inspired” modifications that ruined countless classic 911s in recent years. It’s the “rebel just for kicks” sort of car, the one defending the right to drive proper cars and to party down the road.

Driving it feels like going to the Summer of Love in San Francisco back in the day. Rather than driving it, it is more like experiencing a bygone era. The sound coming from the 906 engine is loud inside and the close ratio gearbox is a joy to use. Producing 220hp, the car is light too, with a full fiberglass body shell and obsessive weight saving technologies for a total around 840kg: alluminum door joints, no door panels and leather straps as window winders. Enjoy the R as you would a fine glass of scotch: no bullshit, fire her up and enjoy the ride. It is a great thing that we can still experience true power-to-weight ratio in 2018 with true savage acceleration. Under full throttle it gives emotions only a real racing car could ever give: pushing the pedal to the metal transforms the road you’re on in a race track. The barking sound behind your back is no different than having a Marine Drill Instructor shouting “harder! harder!” into your ears, leaving you without any other choice but to obey. Handling is marvellous and the strengthened chassis is wonderful: just think to go into a corner and you’ll find yourself already at the exit, powersliding your way out, thanks to the locked rear differential. The great thing about the R is that you’re never short of power, thanks to its potent and flexible engine: if you accidently shift from first to fourth (this is what happens when you’re not used to a close ratio ‘box), you hardly feel anything and then it keeps pulling hard. It is such a joy to use that this can be the only car you’ll ever need in your life. Definitive, I’d dare to say.

The emotions you feel behind the wheel of the new 991 R are similar to the ones you feel when you go to a modern day rock n’roll concert: experience all the classic good vibes, revisited for modern times. At a first glance, it may seem more of a marketing exercise than actual GT Cars Department stuff. We all know there’s more substance to it than mere appearance, but if paired to the rawness of the old lady it definitely looks more surgical and Teutonic. It’s composed, clean, elegant and vaguely reminiscent of the original “R” purebred racing tradition. Unlike its older counterpart, it’s a road-oriented, more streetable version of the mythical 991 GT3 RS. It is by no means a “racing car-with-the-license-plate” sort of 911. It uses the same 550 hp engine with hydraulic tappets valve train of the RS and comes with a minimalist interior, only has a stick and uses the same gearbox of new GT3 but with shorter gearing. Although lacking part of the wonderful precise handling of its newer sibling, it is still a great car to drive. Think of it as the GT3 you would take on longer trips, or to go out to dinner with your wife without hearing too much complains from her.

The suspension set up is very similar (if not identical) to the one used in the 991.2 GT3 but with a softer spring rate. No question that the R is everything we want a modern 911 to be but it just seems to be a weird car for the name it has. Back in 1967, the run of 24 cars (4 prototypes and 20 production units) was indeed the first batch of factory racing 911’s that was ever produced in Porsche history. However, the new 991 is more of a throwback experiment to the feelgood days of the orginals rather than an outright racing car. Technically, if the people at Weissach would have followed the R philosophy, they would have given the 991 a full carbon fiber body shell, bespoke parts only to be found in the RSR, no sound deading, a savage racing twin clutch box and produced only a handful dozens cars.

Yet, there’s more in the letter R than you would imagine and these two Porsches explain a lot without having too much stuff on them. Yet, if the 991 R would have been a street-legal RSR in the truest sense of the word, its true appeal would have immediately faded away, given the difficulty in using such an extreme machine on the road. Needless to say, the meaning of the letter R has changed dramatically over the course of 50 years: the ’67 is indeed more usable, just like any vintage racing car and so is the new one. Of course, the 991 is larger, heavier and packed with electronics, but it is set up for fun and pure road enjoyment. The suspension is supple enough for longer journeys and it doesn’t make you go deaf as you press on the accelerator…and so does the original.

Also, the 991 has been the favourite among the modern day Porsche fanatics, those who claim to be the purveyors of pure driving. In 2016, when it came out, people could only think about “manual, manual, manual” and Porsche, who has become a marketing oriented firm, delivered. It went and searched in their archives for the most catchy and lesser-known name they could find that could perfectly embody the Company signature minimalist approach to design and they put it on a 991 chassis with a manual gearbox and a few kilos less. Needless to say…it was the right car, for the right moment and for the right people. No Ring records, no aggressive GT3 wing, just shorter gearing, softer suspension  and plenty of fun. It never had the same sharpness and “unstickable” feeling of the GT3: it was set just for mountain roads rather than track days. It took the best marketing team available of the automotive industry to reverse the meaning of the original 911 R despite maintaining the same appeal: I believe they didn’t screw anything up. In the end, the feelgood, mountain-road-morning-blast-feelings of the original car counted more to enthusiasts rather than its own mesmerizing details and intricate racing history. Instead of being strictly limited, it was produced in 991 examples, a huge number for a collector’s car and it was a sensation right away it hit the Geneva Auto show. Some owners even got away with the whole Steve McQueen – Porsche narrative (who by the way, never drove the R in period), and commissioned even a tribute one-off to him. Prices of pristine, delivery mileage examples skyrocketed to almost 7 figures as people wanted to own the supposedly last naturally aspirated manual 911 (Porsche never announced such a thing). Then Porsche trolled them all. Twice. With the GT3 Touring pack and with the new GT3 RS, which by definition make even more sense than the R. Both have naturally aspirated engines and the touring even comes with a stick! Apparently one seemed to care much: ironically between these two, the Touring is the real Unicorn people always wanted the 991 R to be. It’s clean, slick and has that unique character and better handling.

Now, let’s get to a point: the two Rs are more alike than you would believe and they’re both great for what they individually represent. They’re were made for what we all petrolheads live for: the holy funday blast on a twisty road. End of the story. As I said in the beginning, these are cars that exist to defend our right to drive and enjoy ourselves. This is what they are, nothing more and nothing less, they’re highly desirable and collectible fun-machines. You must know that sometimes in life you’re reminded about what made you fall in love. It might be the eyes of the woman you’ve chosen to marry or a night out with your best friends or that certain detail of the car you decided never to sell. In our case, it was going deaf, and laughing hard to the exhilarating sound of a 911 that reminded us what made us love cars in the first place. Depending on the angle of which you see things, the letter R has sure a lot of meaning per se but for us, it has perhaps the greatest: it means we’re Petrolheads.

Happy 70th Birthday Porsche.

 

We thank our friends Giovanni and Powerslidelover, the “lord of the hairpins”.

 

 

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