Saturday, July 16, 2011

Checkbox on the Bucket List

Ripping along a twisty rural road in a ridiculously overpowered and underbalanced sports car, I dipped just a bit too deep into the gas pedal coming out of the apex of a good hard curve. Damn near pirouetting the car at 70mph, my eyes popped wide, my jaw fell open, and I think I barked a sort-of laugh of heedless joy.

Driving the 1989 Porsche 911 Turbo felt exactly how I imagined it would, and how I hoped it would. Which is considerable as I've been carrying that hope for over a quarter century.

My son called it "Dad Heaven." He wasn't not far wrong: my day was spent switching off among three gleaming Porsche 911s of various vintages, tearing up the countryside to reach private tours of two magnificent classic automotive collections.

At a fundraising auction for my daughter's school, I and 5 other middle-aged little boys bid high for the chance to spend the day scaring stroller-pushing moms and dumping fossil fuel carbon into the atmosphere in pursuit of the ephemeral realization of a fantasy we didn't know we shared. One ill-considered gentleman provided the cars (can you imagine the optimism?) while another brought race-driving experience, classic auto expertise, and-- prudently, I thought-- his own vehicle. The 6 of us toted cameras, comfortable driving shoes, sunglasses. And a lot of expectations.

First up for me was the 1978 911SC, #800 off the line in a production run of around 58,000 I was told. All I know is that this 33-year old car showed only 17,000 miles on the original odometer. The leather interior gleamed warmly, uncracked, and soft to the touch. The tiny interior was close, dated in design, yet every control fell right to my fingertips. The floor mounted shifter was a surprisingly long throw-- 1st to 2nd was pretty much knee to hip-- and the clutch pedal was both very stiff and long of travel, so the deftness I lacked would have to be earned. Unassisted steering, something by which I had not been abused in many years, forced me to haul the wheel two-handed from lock to lock in order to escape the parking lot.

But once on the road, this car warmed me right up. The steering turned out to be go-kart tight, communicating everything going on between the tires and the asphalt. Once I figured out the clutch, the whole package seamlessly blended into a giddy montage of nimble cornering and torquey power on tap. The flat 6 screamed happily as I raced up through the gears. The snug bucket seat held me fast, secure and comfy as I tossed the car vigorously into turns. Going fast felt like going fast. The SC was peppy and light on its feet, like a retired hoofer whose inner vitality and skill are apparent only when the music starts and the dance floor beckons. It felt old-school: simple, pure, even slightly underpowered, but surely not old.

Next up was the Turbo, and it had me smiling like an idiot just sliding into the seat. At 14 years old I had brochures of exactly this car on my bedroom walls-- all black, with a 2-tone leather interior and the huge "whale tail" fin on its rump. One of my first summer jobs was as a Porsche dealership lot attendant, just so I could wash cars like this in the shimmering July heat. This car was legendary even then for its danger: an unusual combination of rear engine weight and huge turbo boost, which came big and fast and very late in the power band, frequently hurled inexperienced drivers into a sideways spin. More than a handful of new buyers spent their first night of Porsche ownership in the hospital after putting the car on its side in a ditch, or splitting it open on a tree trunk.

Yet it felt immediately like home to me. I'd played this moment over in my head as a teen so many times that I was comfortable from the start. After my initial, overconfident but predictable experiment with the power surge, I settled right in. Power out of a turn in second gear (wait till it's almost straight please), upshift to third as the revs climb toward 6000. Dial it up to 50 in third, 60, 65, then ease off the gas, clutch in, heel the brake a touch, gently shift back to second, use the toe for a bit of gas, keep the nose just off the yellow line, gradual clutch release before the revs come down, clutch catches the engine easily to slow the hurdling beast, haul it through the turn, then dip light into the gas again coming out of the corner. Repeat.

It was like sex and I had to bite my tongue to keep from actually moaning as my body fell into the thrum of the vibrating vehicle. Everything fit, everything was in tune and in sync. I swooned. The car and I were one.

"Okay, my turn," My right ear barely registered the sound as though it was from a distance. I woke from my trance. My passenger was 10 inches from me, impatiently drumming his fingers on one knee, jealously eyeing the steering wheel and the driver-centered tachometer as though I had actually borrowed his lover.

I didn't want to drive the last car, a stunning metallic red 2008 Carrera S. It was so modern, so plush. Bose symphony sound, satellite navigation screen, 12-way power seats. I knew it would be like driving any new luxury car, but with Porsche capabilities: 160 miles per hour, corner on rails, stop on a dime ...

I was wrong. It was quite a bit better than that. It was ... effortless brilliance. Mozart and air conditioning, supple black leather and adjustable lumbar seat bolsters. I took a green light 90-degree turn at 40mph, the car didn't even blink. I left a Mustang behind at the next light like it was standing still. Before I even thought to change lanes and move ahead of the pickup truck in front of me, I was passing the semi in front of him. Glanced at my speedo and saw ... 85!? Slow down.

With the '78 SC and the '89 Turbo, driving well required work, and practice practice practice. Attention must be paid not to pop the clutch or jab the brakes or select the wrong gear ... or oversteer and send the heavy back end around to the front. Not so in the 2008 Carrera. This car did all the heavy lifting for me. I just pointed it, snick-snicked into gear and WENT. Whereas the '89 Turbo became almost overwhelming with its force-fed 278 horsepower, this normally-aspirated descendant possessed 325hp but behaved itself. It was affable, imperturbable. Limited-slip differential technology, wider & stickier tires, computer-assisted throttle controls added up to a safer, and better, sports car. Even a novice could look like a champ in this car.

Which, for me, is its downfall. I don't want affable in a sports car. If it comes so easily then maybe it isn't really worth having. I need to work, I want to earn it. I want skill demanded of me equal to the skill of the vehicle. I'm looking for a learning curve that makes driving it at least something of a challenge. Then-- when I finesse a surefooted freeway slalom, when I dive into that next country road bend and roar out of it with my back bumper in the back, where it belongs, when I convincingly dust sports cars 20 years younger and more powerful from a stoplight, and when I grin the awestruck grin that bubbles from my ecstatic gut-- then I'm satisfied.

Drifting to Fifty  |  Random unrelated nugget of the week
Learn a sport that you can play even as you age: skiing, golf, swimming, tennis. The more you enjoy it, the more likely you are to remain active the rest of your life.

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