This Is the Car that Inspired the Porsche R-Gruppe
Fifteen years ago, Mr. Cris Huergas ignited the early 911 hot rod revolution, by applying a humble list of factory sanctioned modifications to this 1969 911S. The car attracted the attention of Mr. Freeman Thomas who, together with Cris, founded R-Gruppe, a club that in turn inspired countless 911 enthusiasts, to adopt the same modifications as set forth in the factory’s Sports Purpose Manual. Over time however, the tuning became more ambitious, extending well beyond the scope of the original 1968 manual and climaxing with super builds like the WEVO built PVX, a 1969 Porsche 912 with a water cooled, 425hp 996 GT3 Cup engine mounted under its carbon deck lid. Yet Cris's "sports purpose" car is remarkably simple, bearing little if any resemblance to the latter.
Even among the well-heeled Porsche community, one simply cannot walk into a dealer and buy the kind of cool so effortlessly exuded by this first R-Gruppe build. So when fellow POC member Mr. George Puckhaber, the current owner of the car, suggested that I borrow it for this story, I wasted little time accepting his generous offer.
I have always had a great affinity for the R-Gruppe and their admiration for early 911 hotrods, where creativity is expressed and celebrated, through cars that may otherwise have been lost. On the other hand, my experience with the Porsche Owners Club has been the antithesis of this; where cars are merely tools, subjected to the brutality of racing and while my passion for racing is absolute, the creative exercise and camaraderie the R-Gruppe promises, would be a welcome refuge from the harsh realities of racing.
This however, is all a moot point, as I am not among the lucky few to have been extended an invitation. Quite the contrary, my good friend and long time member Curt Autenrieth has said, and I quote "Bermudez your passion for Porsche is commendable, however you're still not R-Gruppe material!” So with that in mind, I squeezed into the driver’s seat of the Porsche that started it all.
After exploring the Antelope Valley in John’s SCRS, I felt it was time to go east towards Death Valley, after all, what better place to take a vehicle with no AC?
The following morning started with a brisk climb up Angeles Crest but once above five thousand feet the asphalt turned dark and reflective as rain battered the mountains and everything on them. To my relief, the forty-five year old windscreen wipers performed perfectly, eclipsed only by the magnificent chassis that came to life, as the Dunlop DZ101s floundered in the wet! With the Porsche rapidly approaching Wrightwood, snapping and popping on every upshift, I caught myself giggling like a schoolgirl, at this little car’s natural ability to rotate. If there was ever a vehicle that exemplified the concept of automotive theater, this was it!
As the rain subsided I traveled east from Wrightwood on Lone Pine Canyon Road, a largely forgotten strip of tarmac, which has the eerie distinction of being constructed along the San Andreas Fault. Thankfully, the five-mile stretch was free of seismic activity and I pushed the tachometer’s needle towards its redline. Lone Pine feeds into the 138 about a mile west of Interstate 15, the site of my first pit stop. With forty dollars of gas, and some bottled water, I was on my way to Baker. The next 115 miles of mundane interstate would provide ample opportunity to reflect on George’s car.
In spite of its age, this little 911 feels surprisingly modern, and while its performance pales in comparison to that of the new 991, the joy this car brings comes from maximizing its modest ability, not flashing power in meaningless spurts of short-lived exuberance. Regardless, this car’s reliability, solid demeanor and sublime chassis, are a testament to Porsche’s long-standing commitment to excellence. The glaring exception being the 901 transmission, although cool due to its dogleg configuration, is extremely hesitant into first and painfully slow across the remaining ratios. Only with time and dedication was I be able to cajole the gears into place. Purists would point out that mastering the transmissions, is a right of passage to owning such a car and in spite of my frustration, I would have to agree.
Additionally Huergas’ “sports purpose” treatment complements the car’s already timeless design. Gone is the excessive chrome from the deco molding and front overriders, as are the sugar scoop headlights replaced with European spec variants, all adding to the aesthetic that has come to define the R-Gruppe. Inside, the utility is further enhanced with Recaro competition seats, rubber mats instead of carpet, simplified door trim and the removal of rear seat back rests, all in an effort to shed weight in what is already, the lightest production long wheelbase 911 ever produced; in the words of the great Colin Chapman “to add speed, add lightness.”
The 2-liter engine, although left unmodified, was happy to hum its way along the endless freeway. Its light assembly of parts give it a certain eager charm, not found in larger displacement engines. Although one has to work for it, the car is more than capable of “excessive speed,” to quote the nice Highway Patrol officer I met along the way!
Eventually I arrived in Baker, California, home to the world's tallest thermometer, located approximately ninety miles southwest of Las Vegas; it serves as a rest stop for the gambling hordes, most of them down on their luck. But to the town’s six gas stations, such trivia makes little difference to the price at the pump. At Baker’s only four-way intersection I headed north along SR-127 towards Death Valley.
Once free of interstate traffic, the desert defiantly encroached on the hot pavement, as if to give context to humanity’s fleeting existence, a notion that was completely lost on me as I single-mindedly downshifted to fourth in search of speed. But the landscape was playing tricks, the barren terrain absent of any visual cues masked the sensation of speed within the vast canvas that is the Mojave Desert. No matter how hard I pushed, the majestic scenery barely seemed to move.
The same could not be said for the orange needle, frantically dancing up and down the gas gauge. At any given moment, the car was either two-thirds full or empty with the reserve light on! Under normal circumstances this would not be much of an issue but this was Death Valley. Luckily Furnace Creek, population: 24, was on the horizon, and before long I topped off the tank and headed south, on my final leg towards the lowest and driest point in North America.
As I approached Badwater’s crystallized lakebed, 282 feet below sea level, I marveled at how resolute this 45-year-old Porsche was. I had driven it mercilessly for 322 miles nonstop, through a variety of demanding road conditions and it hadn't skipped a beat, towards the end, even the transmission gave me a break. Looking back it’s hard to comprehend how this car must have felt in the context of 1969. The new 991 today is competent amongst its peers, but George’s 911 must have been out of this world in ‘69!
Soon after the sun slipped behind the Panamint Mountains, I began the long journey back to Pasadena. For miles I pondered something George had said the day before. The car I was driving once belonged to an acquaintance of his, a fellow Porschephile, who proudly touted its R-Gruppe heritage, and adamantly swore never to sell it. However when George first caught sight of it, he was so struck by the car’s attitude that he gestured to buy it if ever the owner had a change of heart. Much to George’s surprise, six months later, his offer was accepted!
And on that note I would like to publicly extend the same offer to George, if by some miracle you decide to move on, I would very much like to be this little car’s next custodian. What would I want with this little car, I hear you ask? The truth is, contrary to my previous condescension, this car is not little at all; it is in fact a giant among legends.