If You Want To Rally A 911 Across Africa, Pay A Visit To Tuthill Porsche First
Photography by Andrew Golseth
While on vacation in England for the Goodwood Revival, I made it a point to drop in at Tuthill Porsche. While many of you P-car fanatics surely know the name from their famous Safari builds, there’s more to Tuthill Porsche than its dirt-slinging 911s. Thankfully, Richard Tuthill was kind enough to have me and some friends in for an all-access shop tour, including a special bonus visit to their secret sheds packed full of treasures from Stuttgart.
It didn’t take long for us to realize Tuthill Porsche is far more than a shop that merely modifies old Porsches; it’s a flat-six-fortified compound of craziness that’d make any Porschephile weak in the knees. From completely rebuilding a 2.7 RS barbecued by a house fire, down to the most seemingly insignificant factory spot welds, to countless Safari commissions and 2.0-liter short-wheelbase racers, to a one-off sequential gearbox-fitted 996 Turbo, Tuthill is ready and able to turn any Porsche dream into reality.
Whether it’s competition on dirt, tarmac, or ice, this small but incredibly talented conglomerate of enthusiasts based in the evergreen countryside just outside of Oxfordshire are as friendly as they are serious about building the world’s greatest Porsches. I sat down with Richard Tuthill to learn what it is that separates Tuthill Porsche from the competition, and how it all came to be in the first place.
Andrew Golseth: Take us back, how did Tuthill Porsche begin?
Richard Tuthill: Well, actually, my old man was a farmer. He went to Australia to get a job, but when he arrived there was a drought so he couldn’t find work on a farm. So, he wound up getting a job at a Volkswagen dealership instead. That was the start of his car thing. Being a good farm boy, he could fix just about anything, so he got up to speed pretty quickly wrenching on VWs.
During his younger years, he spent a lot of time driving across the Middle East, for one reason or another, which is where his passion for adventure, safari, rallying, touring, whatever you want to call it—that’s where it began. So, later in life he wrote to Volkswagen, after having witnessed the London-Sydney Marathon Rally, saying he wanted to do the 1977 London-Sydney Marathon Rally in a Beetle. Volkswagen gave him a sort of manual as to how to prepare a Beetle, he prepared it, and off he went to run it in the event.
Through his earlier rally years, he drove Ford Escorts and then built this Beetle to try to beat the Escorts, which he did quite successfully given the Escort’s significance in rallying. I think the Escort is the most successful rally car of all time, actually. So, from there he ended up driving a works car for Audi during the early Quattro days, which was a really cool thing to be involved with. Sadly, he broke his leg during training and only did a couple rallies. That was his rallying background.
AG: So after his more active competition days, he then opened up shop?
RT: He established the Porsche motorsport side of business sort of by coincidence after he started working far David Richards at Prodrive. David approached my dad asking to buy his white Carrera. My dad asked why he wanted it, and David explained he wanted to pitch a 911 build to Rothmans, specifically the SCRS rally car campaign.
My dad said, “Of course you can buy the car off me, but only if I can do the paintwork.” They made a deal and my dad prepared the first show car for David Richards, which was the SCRS project they proposed to Rothmans! This was in the early ‘80s, and we now own this very same car again.
So what transpired was my father ended up doing all the bodywork repairs for Prodrive. He did all the bodywork and paintwork for all the SCRS, including some 959 Dakar cars, the Metro 6R4, the BMW M3, and all of the Subraru Legacys and Imprezas up until World Rally Cars was born.
At that point, he was so busy with his own cars that he stopped working for Prodrive. But yeah, dad painted and repaired most of Colin McRae’s accidents in his early years! [Laughs] So, in short, that’s the background, the foundation of where this all started.
AG: So, growing up around this stuff, was it sort of implied that you would eventually take the reins?
RT: Well, I always lived onsite. I moved away for 12 years, but my older brother, younger sister, and I grew up in all of this. I reckon my older brother spent most of his early life in service vans so he got pretty pissed off early on with this stuff. [Laughs] He’s just about totally uninterested in this stuff now. My sister actually ended up co-driving with me a little bit. She worked as an event organizer, so she was involved a bit.
But I always seemed to love it, and I spent most of my days kicking about, probably annoying the guys in the garage who were trying to work. I was always involved and as soon as I could be, I was into everything. In fact, I rolled my first Beetle in the field just outside the shop when I was 8 or 9 years old. That was my first shunt, and thankfully I haven’t had many since, but the point is I was just into it. Very quickly, my life became all about how to go rallying.
I was the youngest to enter a world championship, and I did so in a Beetle. In fact, that was the last time a VW Beetle was allowed in a World Rally Championship. That was in ’92, so I was just 17 years old, and my dad was the co-driver. Then I built a Vauxhall Nova, which I won the British Junior Championship with in 1996. Then I built my first Porsche. I was actually trying to get a deal with Honda, but that didn’t work out so I built a 911. It was really cool because I was so young turning up to rallies with Jimmy McRae, Björn Waldegård, Stig Blomqvist, Robert Droogmans, all these great drivers who were driving after their professional careers.
So, A) I was driving a Porsche, which in terms of driving development, if you can drive a 911 you can pretty much drive anything, and B) I was learning about the family business that’s since become my life. So, that’s how I got involved.
After the first few outings in the Porsche, I ended up driving in the American Championship in a Mitsubishi. Actually, just before that I drove in the British Championship in 1999. David Richards, who helped start my father’s career, gave me the opportunity to develop his Group N car. So, I did a year and a half racing for Prodrive driving their Group N Subaru.
Then I spent a bit of time in Santa Barbara racing stateside in a Mitsubishi and a Hyundai. I had some success there in a couple rallies, but ultimately, I got involved full-time in the business in 2003. I had been training one of dad’s clients to get better in a car. He wanted to do the Safari Rally so I was his co-driver, which was a bit terrifying, but it was an amazing event and we managed to finish third.
AG: So your father retired and now you’re running Tuthill Porsche?
RT: Oh, no. [Laughs] He’s onsite just about everyday still, but he’s gone back to building Beetles and Saabs for himself, which is where he started. He’s sort of gone full circle. He’s an incredible asset. For all sorts of little things, his knowledge is extremely valuable. Of course, to a certain extent, he’s still sharing that knowledge and we all need to keep learning from him. He’s the one guy you need on your side.
He’s just a phone call away at the farthest, and we’re grateful for that. His knowledge is invaluable and we oftentimes need his help figuring stuff out. That said, he’s let me get on with running the business side of things.
So, I’m now the director of the company, not that we’re real formal about official titles and things. I don’t even know what to call the guys in the shop. it’s just me doing my thing and all of us trying to have fun doing some cool stuff.
AG: Some very cool stuff I’d say. Speaking of, most people know Tuthill Porsche for your Safari-spec 911, but I didn’t expect to see a 2.7 RS getting restored here, let alone all the early longhood race cars in the garage.
RT: It’s certainly not a bad reputation to have, to be the one’s who built the best Safari Porsches in the world, but it’s a singular label. We do much more than just build Safari cars. We juggle our life around what we call the “safari cycle.” Because the East African Safari Rally is every other year, we juggle our life and work around this schedule. But over the last two years we’ve actually done more racing than rallying.
Not to mention the cars we’re restoring, the engine and transmission building, and even some routine service stuff. I think the Chris Harris car was a little bit of a headline turning point in the way we’re perceived, in that people are realizing we’re building road cars too. Honestly, anything that has to do with early Porsche and even up to our 997 Cup car project, we’re involved with.
We’re a bunch of guys who love what we’re doing and if someone comes up with an idea worth working over, we’ll generally have a go at it. Which means, we end up doing all sorts of wonderful things and we have a deep understanding of how these cars work and how they go together. After all these years of rallying, we understand what it takes to make a car work for a very long period of time in the harshest conditions. That principle has so much carryover into other types of builds.
Rallying, in its simplest form, is a road-based event. The disciple of building a car to work right in these environments actually challenges you far more than making a race car go around a perfectly smooth track.
AG: You did mention to me back in the shop that you loved 2.0-liter cars. Obviously, you have far more powerful cars at your disposal, but what makes the 2.0 standout?
RT: I really enjoy those. To a certain degree, it all started with the 2.0-liter cars, but that’s just one side of it. The short wheelbase element of the 911 means you can change direction very quickly, and that’s often confused with the idea that they’re undrivable, but they’re not. They’re really small, really light, and because you’ve only got 2.0-liters, you’ve got to work really hard to make them go fast. You’ve got to keep them on the boil. It’s much more fun to keep them on the limit. It’s just nice to feel like you’re moving fast at 60 miles per hour.
I think with modern day driving, we can’t drive too quickly everywhere because of the traffic and laws. But with these early cars, you can get that feeling of driving quickly at a much slower speed. You get the feeling of the car moving and it’s so, so pure. So, I really like them. Of course, you’ve got to have more than one Porsche in your life [laughs], but if I did have to choose just one, it’d be an early car.
That said, last week just before the 997 RGT (a converted gen-2 cup car) left for a rally, I took it out for a shake down, just a 10-mile drive. It’s just a phenomenal thing, and you think, “Everyone needs to have one of these.” If anyone is feeling down, go do 10-miles in one of these and suddenly life is amazing. I just love these cars. I love Porsches.
From a driver’s point of view—and I’ve driven lots of cars competitively—the Porsche in its configuration is so mentally stimulating. And I say this all the time, but a Porsche asks you a question. Every corner asks you a question. It’s just really, really cool to master them. Not many people really master them, but once you do, there is no better car. They really cannot be beaten because of their inherent advantages.
AG: You mentioned a cycle based on a safari rallies, so what is it that makes the East African Safari Rally so addictive?
RT: It’s an event that gets under your skin. Africa is a really special place. The minute you land in Nairobi, you get out and you smell the country, it just gets to people. I went when I was about four or five years old when my dad was there racing a SAAB, and I knew it was a special place even then.
It’s a combination of a great country, great people, the color of the dirt, the smells, the landscape, that alone will have you hooked, but then the rally itself is such a challenge. It’s such an adventure. Every single day on those rallies you experience things that some people will never experience in their lifetime. It’s the combination of pressure, seeing wonderful sights, being with incredible people, and getting into trouble in the middle of the bush. It’s just incredible.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see all four corners of the earth in some form or another, but there is just something unique about Africa and this rally’s challenges. The locals are massively into it and they support it wholeheartedly. It’s an extraordinary thing. It demands an awful lot of respect. There’s the Safari Rally and Dakar, and in my opinion, they are the two big adventures in life. They’re the toughest rallies in the world.
AG: Your clients that enter these rallies alongside you, do they often have a lot of motorsport experience or are they fearless rookies jumping right into it?
RT: Some of our clients were into motorsport when they were younger but got busy with family and work, and they’re back to have a go again. Others are just, “Wow, this is cool, I’ll have a go at it.” What we do is we take them on from the beginning. You don’t need to have any experience when you come to us. We’ll talk you through the process of owning and building a car, and then we’ll train you up.
If they’re complete novices, we’ll take them through our system, train them on local rallies, train them in different environments ranging from forest to ice driving, and we can even link them up with pro drivers. We really can do absolutely everything. We try to make the entire process turnkey to where all you’ve really got to do is book your flight to Kenya, and it works quite well.
AG: I couldn’t help but notice the shop expansion under construction—I take it the company is growing?
RT: Yes. So many cars pass through our shop every year for many different reasons, and racing and rally cars are a fairly niche market, but we must be working on north of a hundred cars each year. Plus we’re building 17 to 20 cars a year, not to mention maintaining them all.
We’re building the new facility because we need some more people. Demand is high and what we’re finding is, whether it be a rally build or a restoration, we’re paying more for cars but getting less because they’re just not in the condition they used to be. All we try to do is look after people well and find solutions to their problems, and of course have fun while doing it.
AG: And you guys are doing everything build-wise in house, right?
RT: Yeah, we do it all and I think that’s one of our strongest attributes. If you’re a client of mine and have an issue, you’ve got just one phone call to make—if you have a problem, you’ve got one person to call. Whether it’s an engine, transmission, chassis, bodywork, or suspension issue, it’s all us. You don’t have to ring the engine builder or the chassis guy or the gearbox man separately. We do everything under one roof and that gives us a huge amount of control over the entire process.
From a client’s point of view, as I say, “The buck stops with me.” My neck is on the line when the car is being used, so we’re here to fix problems when they happen. When we go on these rallies, I tell our clients, “We’re going to run into problems. We’re going to have small problems, but we’re going to keep them small.” Small problems can rapidly turn into big problems if you don’t address them immediately, so we come fully prepared.
AG: I watched the Tuthill Porsche East African Safari Classic Rally documentary, and I simply had no idea just how big of an undertaking it was to put on such an event. The amount of equipment you bring for backup alone is staggering.
RT: It’s a very complex event, but we’ve done it enough now that we’ve really got the logistics figured out. We don’t rely on any outside assistance. If we want a jack, we take it; if we want a welder, we take it; if we want certain brake pads, we take them. So, we take everything. The reality is, we ship all these parts and tools and end up bringing it all back with us because, in all honesty, the cars generally don’t go wrong.
We bring everything so we we’re prepared to fix anything, but in all actuality we don’t end up fixing all that much because they’re just so good. But, you have to have everything with you because you’re out in the middle of nowhere.
AG: You guys are apparently on the right path to the middle of nowhere—is it safe to say Tuthill Porsche is sticking around?
RT: We certainly hope so. Things are going well. We’re just a bunch of guys in the middle of Oxfordshire doing some cool stuff with a brand, a particular model, that’s just such an extraordinary car. Really, we’re lucky. There are worse things to do in life. Of course, we have our moments, but we’re generally extremely fortunate to have got involved with what we’re doing. My old man started it, and now I’m doing my best to continue it’s path and improve it. I’ve now got kids of my own and it seems history is slowly repeating itself perhaps!