Here’s Why You Buy A Porsche 911 Sight Unseen And Leave On An Epic Road Trip
Photography by Jamey Price
A few months ago, I was hit by a car on my bicycle. Which you’d think would make me hate cars like many of my fellow two-wheeling friends who believe the world would be a better place with no cars at all. The wreck could have killed me and did leave me with significant concussion-related brain damage, among lots of other frustrating soft tissue injuries and a broken rib. In short, it made getting out of bed difficult and enjoying much of anything at all even harder.
My therapist told me that she advises people in my position not to make any major decisions for at least six months after they experience brain trauma like mine. So, naturally, I broke the love of my life’s heart repeatedly and bought a 1984 Porsche Carrera on Bring a Trailer. At the root of impulses is truth. Some of them, at least…
I had never driven an aircooled Porsche before. I’d always had a crush on them, on the weird challenge of floor-hinged pedals and driving dynamics that favor keeping your foot planted when you want to lift and speeds high to keep steering effort low. The original 911s are a bizarre combination of focused and comfortable, utilitarian and sporty, classic and modern.
My first hands-on experience with one was when I walked up to the garage my car was parked in, where its hips looked so wide and its steel body so solid that I wondered how I’d ever successfully pull it out of the garage and onto the streets of the Valley north of L.A.
I sat in it and depressed the clutch. It kicked back, hard. It also smelled like leather and oil. I could see the edges of the whale tale in either mirror and the tops of the fenders along the front of the car. Beyond that, where the edges really were was a nerve-wracking mystery. Everything about engaging with a Porsche for the first time is like hearing a love song in another language you’ve only just begun learning. It is beautiful and heart-rending, and it requires your utmost attention.
After a few minutes of breeze-shooting and a rather large Chase transfer, it was time for me to pull it out and head off towards Sunset Boulevard and then the Pacific Coast Highway and then beyond, towards Utah and Colorado and Texas and the rest of America beyond that.
But first, I had to meet an old friend for coffee in West Hollywood, then another old friend for dinner and a place to stay in Venice Beach. The streets of LA will test a car’s mettle more than any others in the world. And the Porsche was right at home. I commuted across the expanse of the City of Angels, down every street and past every landmark. I called this place home for five years, a period which conspired along with everything else in life to make me forget about what I really love.
This homecoming was more life-affirming than I’d ever imagined time spent in Los Angeles could be. Creeping down Venice Boulevard with KCRW on the FM radio, arm out the window resting on the door, I remembered the glimmer of the golden dream that’d drawn me westward to begin with. A time before cynicism routinely won out over passion, when I did seemingly impractical things to follow my dreams. In a way, idling on Venice Boulevard in a 1984 Porsche Carrera was as full-circle as life could possibly come.
After two days of zig-zagging the coast, it was time to start leg one of this vague trip. Point the car east from the coast, stop by my home in Texas, then keep meandering east and north and south and west, following trout and fall foliage and friends and strangers wherever they may lead.
But first, we had to cross the Mojave Desert. My copilot for the LA to Utah leg of the trip was an old friend who still calls LA home and who doesn’t drive stick shift. But he was along and willing to suffer in solidarity with me as the mercury rose and the only way through the desert straightened out and grew faster and bumpier. Porsches aren’t really out of their element anywhere, but if there is one place they’d prefer not to be (or at least their drivers wouldn’t mind skipping), it’s the long, straight, traffic-clogged highway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, a place where modern cars are strewn along the shoulder from overheating and exits are dozens of miles apart.
The desert is so pervasive here that you see as many Joshua Trees per capita in the highway median as you do in Joshua Tree National Park itself. The temperature needle climbed as the throttle stayed pinned and the ambient temperatures hovered above 105. But dropping my speed two or three miles an hour allowed the motor to cool down, and Matt and I made it into Utah amidst a monsoon, just in time to get four hours of sleep before hiking Angel’s Landing.
From there, I continued to Colorado, then through New Mexico and home to Texas, where I spent some time cleaning spark plugs and freshening the CV boots. Minor maintenance to ensure major reliability over the next six thousand miles.
* * *
Taking a thirty-two year old Porsche on an extended road trip, especially one that involves a bicycle and camping gear and fly fishing gear and driving hard on great roads, is an exercise in self-indulgence and masochism alike. Every second on the road is spent behind the wheel of one of the great cars of all time, and as long as you remain mindful of that, every downshift and input is a blessing and a gift.
The Carrera is one of those machines that is so good at its job that it almost makes you forget that it’s doing it. Which is an astonishing feat of engineering but also requires a bit of conscientious gratitude, because at times you find yourself cursing the lack of effective AC or some other frivolous shortcoming because the basics are just so, so good. Then you get to the twisties and feel the weight hanging out behind you and everything you know about driving is subtly altered. Dig deeper into the gas to keep the car in-line. Brake early, gas early. Higher speeds make it easier to steer. The tail has a tendency to follow the laws of physics more than the nose. It is all foreign, but it is also all right. Like a luxury tailored garment with tags you can’t read. You don’t know what it’s made of, but you know it works. And then after you feel it for the first time, you want to know everything about it.
Driving the Carrera across the country creates an intimate roadmap of America. You can get your heartrate up and whiten your knuckles driving between two rural towns in Arkansas without committing felony offenses. With the windows down and every sensory input dialed to eleven, you feel the very fabric of the nation as you pass through it, smell every burning leaf pile and cattle farm and pine woods, notice through your hands which paving material each county prefers. You know whether it’s hot or cold and whether that paper bag on the road was from McDonald’s or Sonic. The 911 is the perfect travel companion, if you’re willing to submit to its packaging constraints and see the poetry in its quirks.
For one, the gas tank is in the front. Pulling up to a pump in White Plains, Missouri in early morning creates a country-slow frenzy. I have to angle the pump nearly upside down to prevent it from clicking every five seconds. And I pump nearly as much gas as the Suburban at the pump next to mine.
As I walked inside to buy a donut and some coffee, an older gentleman in overalls approached me from the stoop he’d been standing on.
“That sure is a gorgeous car. What year is it?”
“Oh, it’s an ’84.”
“Where you coming from?”
“Well, Texas, but I picked up the car in LA about three months ago and have pretty much been driving it ever since.”
“I seen you pull in and knew you wasn’t from here. That’s a gorgeous car.”
“Thank you so much! I’m loving it. The roads around here are incredible.”
“I bet it just flies, huh?”
I proceeded to wash my windshield and sit in the car looking at my atlas and eating my donuts. He returned to the stoop of the gas station where his buddy was waiting.
“What year is it?”
“1988,” the man in overalls said with authority. “He bought it in California three months ago and hasn’t gotten out since.”
“Now, is that what they call a h-whayuhl, tayuhl?”
“It is,” the man in overalls said.
I still wonder how the legend of the whale tail has made its way to rural southern Missouri and how those men knew it so instinctively. They didn’t know I could hear them through my cracked window, and the conversation continued and faded in and out as I fired up the car and gave them a wave and a throttle blip as I headed back out on the open road, towards the Eleven Points River and then towards a nearly-nameless town near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.
This is Porsche country, even though everyone is surprised to see it here. The roads are open and undulating. Light traffic means the roads are less engineered and twistier and easier to hustle on.
The first leaves of fall lay on the tarmac in the morning, and I can envision the view from above, looking like a scene out of a movie as the flat six whirrs and the wind and tire noise disturb the blissful silence, leaving whirling leaves in its wake. You can make a lot of progress when every second of the drive, even all the extra ones from “taking the long way” feel this good. You arrive at your destination exhausted and invigorated, ready to catch fish or go for a bike ride or meet strangers or reunite with old friends.
And traveling with only impressionistic ideas of where you’re going opens up vast possibilities. It leads to drives on unforgettable roads with forgettable names. Roadside attractions and geographical curiosities that are best noticed in a car that says, “Go ahead, stop for a little while; we can hustle, but we ain’t in a hurry,” all in a German accent, of course. The panoramic windshield and iconic front fenders frame the world in a way that naughtily encourages adventure, that practically dare you to go hike on that unnamed trail or get a slice of pie at that diner in the middle of nowhere.
The beauty of the classic car is that it suggests, indeed almost prefers, meandering and rest stops and photo ops. Once you free yourself of Waze and Google Maps, you immediately forget how much time gets added to your ETA if you turn down the gravel road that says there’s a pumpkin patch or a gristmill or a historical marker twenty miles away. And the time seems to pass faster when you aren’t trying to beat the clock, yet the days also feel much richer.
* * *
Cars are vehicles for the imagination. We all sit on our computers dreaming about what we’d do to and with every car on our dream car bucket list.
A truly great car is so much more than steering that tells you about grit of the concrete dust or the size of the pebbles in the asphalt. It makes you want to drive it. It drags you out of the depths of the mundane, causes you to daydream about the noises it makes and makes you relish scalding your fingertips on its oil cap because it’s weird and requires the motor to be running and at temp to get an accurate reading. And then you discuss the meaning of life, or your favorite band, or the one piece of wisdom you’d like the other person to remember, until well after midnight. All because you both appreciate the gulping, whirring car.
And maybe that’s it. I sustained the type of brain injury that subdues your emotions and leads to existential crises, and I experienced both things to a terrifying degree. But the last few months of driving a Porsche around America, fishing for trout and talking to friends new and old, have instilled in me the sort of simple passion that I haven’t felt since I was a teenager. I may be more alive than ever.
Sometimes there really isn’t anything more to it than the sounds and the sensations of a special car, of holding a trout in-hand, of meeting someone at a bar and earning the trust of a lifelong friend in a matter of minutes.
There is a maniacal beauty to the way engineers decades ago decided to stick the motor out back and put the ignition on the wrong side and levers for the heater astride the parking brake. And the fact that they’ve spent the ensuing sixty years not messing that up, while the legion of people who admire their commitment to the impractical grows.