This 1967 Porsche 911S Delivers A Definitive Air-Cooled Experience
Photography by Naveed Yousufzai
I still vividly remember the first time I drove a 911. It was an experience that noticeably altered and expanded my perception of what made a car a good one. At the time, I owned a 1990 Nissan Skyline GT-R, and although I typically went on drives with fellow JDM enthusiasts around the Bay Area, spending time with the local RGruppe members became a typical weekend morning habit as well.
I’d always thought Porsches were “cool,” but I was drawn to this group of drivers mainly because of, well, how they drove. It seemed like they were working their modified 911s hard on a weekly basis, and while there’s nothing wrong with preservation and low mileage, it’s always nice to see sports cars being enjoyed rather than just fussed over. Porsche did build more than 400,000 air-cooled 911s after all, why not have some fun with them?
Friends in the group would always ask when I would inevitably get my own air-cooled early 911, but one of them went a step further and offered me the chance to actually drive an example of Porsche’s definitive sports car. My friend and frequent driving companion Gen Shibayama wanted to “convert me,” and he picked something more than a little convincing to do it: a 993 Turbo.
It was an early, warm summer morning with clear skies above San Francisco’s Marina district. Already charged with the promising weather, I met Gen at his garage where two beautiful 911’s sat idling. We planned to head up to the northern part of the Bay for the majority of my conversion therapy, and the 993 Turbo that would be my teacher was warming up next to one of Gen’s personal favorites, a short-wheelbase 1967 911S he affectionately calls “Natsuko,” which translates from Japanese to English as “summer child.” Given the San Francisco setting, the year of the car, and the Bahama Yellow color, I think it’s more than fitting.
Gen decided to put me behind the wheel of his Turbo because it shared some basic characteristics to my Skyline, what with both being AWD, twin turbo cars from roughly the same era. He on the other hand was far more practiced in the cockpit of a classic short-wheelbase 911, and chose his ’67 S. It goes without saying the contrast between our two cars was stark, and as we headed along our route toward the good coastal driving, I kept thinking to myself, “There’s no way he’s going to be able to keep up.” As you can guess, I was shown the way in due time.
After a short scenic commute over the Golden Gate Bridge, we proceeded through the first section of the run with Gen leading the way. He downshifted into second gear at the start and proceeded to leave me with the iconic sound of his carbureted flat-six echoing through the trees. I realized he wasn’t about to wait up, and closed the gap with good old fashioned horsepower. Approaching the first real corner, Gen trail-braked and rotated the squirming orange rear end around the apex and slingshotted out the other side, the car appearing much further down the road than I expected when I regained sight of it. Skinny tires and all, the little 911 darted and weaved through the turns and over the undulations in the road, its pace making it clear that this wasn’t Gen’s first time out here. I could see the car fighting for grip, but by all appearances it was never out of its element. I’d seen what properly set up Miatas and other small lightweight cars can do, but I had genuinely never seen something move quite like the little orange 911 I was chasing did. To this day I can still picture that one.
I struggled to comprehend how quick it was. I was in a 993 Turbo, and though it would be an altogether different story out on more open roads where power and outright speed take precedence, I still thought it would be a matter of simple business keeping up with Gen’s 911. Along our curving route it was a different story. I’d always heard of how quick the short-wheelbase 911Ses could be in the right confident hands, but aside from watching two-liter cup videos on YouTube, I’d never seen one first hand. To relive this formative day, Gen and I took another drive together with Natsuko. Before we set off in our separate cars (no 993 Turbo this time, sadly), I asked him to give his perspective on his car.
“It’s a raw, engaging, and challenging driving experience. The car is mechanical, lightweight, and nimble, with a relatively tiny motor in the back which forces you to keep the RPM within the power band at all times in order to be fast,” Gen says, describing what it’s like to drive the ’67. “The short gear ratios in the 901 transmission help with keeping the revs high, but the key rely lies within the driver and their inputs. You really have to be focused when pushing it to its limits, as these cars can be prone to snap-oversteer situations. But with the right driver balance, really paying attention to smoothness of throttle and weight balance, you can keep up with modern cars with much more power,” he concludes. After that day we spent some years ago with me in the 993 Turbo, I was inclined to agree.
Finally switching seats and driving the 911S was a revelation, even after all the time I’d replayed that day and hyped the car in the process. One of the first things I noticed with was how light it felt. It’s surely not secret that earlier vintage sports cars were much smaller and lighter than today’s, but it’s a characteristic that remains more or less academic until you really experience it for yourself. You understand why lightness makes for better performance, but feeling the translation of these merits through the seat and steering wheel is the difference between reading the manual and driving the car.
The car really requires its driver to manage where the weight and momentum is heading, and how to smooth that out with steering and throttle inputs in harmony. It is a unique feeling if you’re not used to rear-engine cars, and it’s only made that much more so by the fact that nothing, not even later models, feels like an early 911. I heeded Gen’s advice about keeping the revs in the peak of the power band in order to have a fast exit speed, and I was comforted by the fact that the car never felt unhappy despite how fast its heart was racing. It simply sang its beautiful two-liter song that much louder.
It is easy to get lost in how perfect it feels to manage all these variables correctly through a corner, but there is always that constant threat to keep you attentive and humble. Namely, the threat of losing grip and thus losing your nerve. It was utterly nerve wracking to trust that less throttle was not the answer to overcooked entries. And even when you do it all correctly, you still need to modulate the right pedal throughout the corner to get the most out of the chassis cornering capabilities. Mix in the small contact patches and you’ve got a recipe for some sweat. It’s exhausting but only because it’s exhilarating. This short-wheelbase S with skinny tires was by far one of the most input sensitive cars I’d ever driven on the street.
So despite the fact that Gen has some pretty serious cars in his collection, it really comes as no surprise that this one, Natsuko, holds a special place. It’s enough to make anything bigger, anything more powerful, anything ostensibly but not really better, feel pointless if the point is having fun behind the wheel. If you’re looking for more measurable performance you’ll have no hard time finding it elsewhere. What’s so special about this car is that it reflects our abilities while inspiring us to practice them, so great is the payoff. Besides all the merits of the 911’s aesthetics and place and history, the real dopamine hits are delivered on the road, corner after corner.