Total 911

THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED

We woke up in California, happy not to be in a hotel for the first time in what seemed like ages, relieved we had managed to get this far in a car burdened by a flammable leak, temporarily patched up en route and pushed, sometimes to the extreme, across five states. Dropping the 993 at Porsche Palm Springs, we swapped for a Panamera 4S while it was fixed. Sports exhaust permanently on, suspension set low and stiff, and PSM off, we took it everywhere. It was no 911, but for a big car they’ve an impressive chassis, plenty of power and are a lot of fun. Coffee every morning, a range of eateries, old roadside attractions, a cable car ride up a mountain, Idyllwild… we built time here into our itinerary as rest and recuperation, unaware it would be the car most in need. A week later the call came: our car was ready, and to my surprise it also had cold air-conditioning – so cold that even in the Californian desert it could make us shiver a little.

Technicians from Porsche Palm Springs at work on the C2S to fix a leak

With just one full day left in California, we eagerly hit the world-famous Palms to Pines Highway. It’s a perfect road, fast in places and breathtakingly beautiful almost everywhere. Some stretches are twisty with hairpin switchbacks, and some of it is straight enough to pass anything in your way. Stopping halfway up for an ice cream and a chance to thaw out in the hot sun, we parked next to another Porsche 993 and a Boxster. Right-hand-drive cars are a novelty in this part of the world, and there appeared to be as much fascination at the non-symmetrical mirrors being on the other side of the car as the steering wheel position. There are no side repeaters on the US cars, no bumperettes on the UK cars and so on. The owners were heading to the Palomar Observatory in San Diego County and we joined the party. It was a proper workout hanging off the back of them for a couple of hours, fast driving at its finest.

It was dark before we returned to our mid-century home-from-home. Not intending to be out late, I only had prescription sunglasses with me, giving me no choice but to drive back wearing them. With the windows down, sunroof open with warm air blowing in, the noise of the flat six engine pushing through the traffic and Palm Springs illuminated by lights and neon, I felt far cooler than the Porsche geek I’d been up in the hills earlier. Days like this were exactly why I shipped this car to America.

The adventure continued though Slab City and Salvation Mountain, America’s last free place – and in some ways lawless. With our newly repaired air-conditioning it should have been effortless, yet just 30 minutes in it was apparent the cabin wasn’t as refrigerator cold as the previous day. A new problem, and sadly one I suspected to be buried deep behind the dashboard. We were heading to a place where temperatures can reach 130ºF (54ºC)! Suddenly the day looked tough, but despite the heat we discovered a fascinating place blurring the lines between art and religion.

We did our best to forget about the air-con and stayed hydrated as we moved on to Arizona, stopping as little as possible and skimming the Mexican border. As the sun lost power in the late afternoon life became easier and the drive enjoyable, Renée and I taking it in turns behind the wheel and helping ourselves to empty stretches of tarmac, cruising into early evening and enjoying the desert backdrop. Even the difficult days of this trip turned out to be brilliant, the reward at the end of this one being margaritas.

Tackling the many curves on SoCal’s Palms to Pines Highway

“There are 318 turns both up and down hill, with aggressive cambers, side-of-a-cliff drops and more trees than I’ve seen anywhere. An ideal match for my old 911”

BELOW Salvation Mountain in Slab City, California

Consistent with all our time in the US, the days in Arizona that followed were crammed full: drinking in a bar that was once a funeral home in Tucson’s Barrio Viejo neighbourhood, visiting the only aeroplane boneyard civilians can get anywhere near, staying in a motel full of Americana charm – there’s something very ‘road trip’ about being holed up in a motel room with your car parked right out front, walking to the office for a coffee. We tackled the twisty roads of Saguaro National Park late in the day, the dropping sunlight adding maximum drama. The passes cutting through Saguaro are excellent when you get an unimpeded run. Flicking up and down through the lower half of the gearbox, the engine and exhaust barked like an angry animal. Out of the car trying to take such immense visuals in, I looked back to see my own 993, with its British number plates, parked among huge, majestic cactuses symbolic of the American wild west. The moon on one side, sun setting on the other – it was almost surreal.

Next stop Texas, travelling through Tombstone, a town immortalised by the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and onwards to the remains of the old mining town of Lovell. We were so close to Mexico that Google Maps offered alternative routes over the border. Everywhere we went served epic panoramas, movie-set towns and forgotten bits of America. On a dark desert highway in what felt like the middle of nowhere, the car humming along at 3,500rpm in sixth, the sky suddenly illuminated: the mysterious Marfa lights – be they extra-terrestrial, paranormal activity or atmospheric phenomena caused by shifting tectonic plates – put on a spectacular display in front of the windshield. An interesting part of the world, Marfa is a thriving arts community surrounded by landscape straight out of an old Western. Big Bend National Park sits to the south, as does Terlingua ghost town, the flowing roads nothing short of excellent for a 911. A park ranger flashed his blue lights to tell us the envelope of acceptability was being pushed a little too far – it’s easy to get carried away when you’re the only people around. We passed him again later and were given the thumbs up, clearly the right balance now found.

Route 90 was chosen to get us through Texas, having read online reports advocating it as a road to make swift progress. It’s a highway in great condition, light of traffic and almost totally straight, with sight lines several miles ahead. The nearest Highway Patrol substations were proclaimed to be so far away, a patrol vehicle would need half a tank of fuel to reach it. It turned into a lesson not to believe the internet, because we were stopped for wandering into triple digits. Fortunately after talking to our potential jailer about our exploits, we were let off with a warning, telling us we may not have been so lucky in California, where popular American pastimes like shooting guns and driving muscle cars have been replaced by pilates and veganism.

In Palm Springs, this is how we roll

A Panamera 4S loan car allowed us to see the sights of California for a week while the 993 was out of action

Replenishing the 993 at an old-school gas station in Lovell, Arizona

A bland motorway trek was a fair trade-off in exchange for reaching one of America’s most eclectic cities in time to enjoy the evening. New Orleans in Louisiana is a city famous for its music, food and voodoo. As a place to have fun it’s hard to top. The past couple of weeks had been done with shorter driving times than part one of our trip. Today was an exception, however, as we passed through Mississippi and Alabama, the pretty De Soto National Forest being the highlight – an ideal place for pushing a 911 of any era. The car is at odds with the pace of life here, but no one complained. Not that we saw anyone who’d complain. That said, we did pass through one small town, followed by an old, sinister-looking patrol car the entire length. We were probably tailed for no other reason than our car not fitting in – unpleasant scenes from scary movies flashed across my mind. Another road, clearly marked on both our paper map and our downloaded iPhone map, displayed signs proclaiming trespassers would not be welcome – we detoured the long way around, past trailer parks and bombing ranges, in their own way all highly entertaining.

The US is a vast place, almost incomprehensible to an Englishman like myself. Over the years I’ve seen a lot on my regular travels here, but the reality is I’ve merely scratched the surface. To offer an opinion as to the best roads I’ve driven, it would be fair and diplomatic to say any of the mountain or canyon regions. In my heart I’d choose the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee where the state line criss-crosses between North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. In our final week we’d enjoy a slower pace with no fixed itinerary. Looking out at a blanket of trees covering every mountain top, the air is as clean as it gets. It felt good to be here after what was at times a gruelling schedule, driving across 20 states. Not only is Tennessee blessed with some of the world’s best roads, it knows how to name them!

The Devil’s Triangle. Deep in the woods, the Secret City used to hide here, where during World War II an atomic bomb with Japan’s name on it was built. You can still find pieces of the past, like old railway bridges straight out of a Walking Dead film set. Nearby to a now-closed penitentiary is a noteworthy section of road, probably around five miles of turns and switchbacks followed by a sedate ten miles before it goes utterly bonkers again. It commands full concentration. A bandit landscape, the camber falls heavily in places, there are steep drop-offs with and without guard rails and one bend in particular has a concrete wall painted like something on a Tour de France cycling stage. Make a mistake here and you’ll be lucky to pay the price against a barrier – a tree or descent off a rocky hillside the only other options. Clipping points on the tarmac could drop you immediately into the abyss – one wheel six inches out of place could end in disaster.

“I looked back to see my own 993, with its British number plates, parked among huge, majestic cactuses symbolic of the American wild west. The moon on one side, sun setting the other – it was almost surreal”

Linking combinations of the best local roads together with the Tail of the Dragon as a centrepiece occupied two days. The Dragon has a notorious reputation to be taken seriously: 11 miles with hundreds of corners, over 30 road users have died on this road in the past decade. The flipside of notoriety is popularity. It’s a mecca for Harley riders, slowed by their bikes’ dynamics through tight corners. However, people here share respect for one another. We witnessed many kindly moving over for the funny little car with a steering wheel on the wrong side. On a Friday afternoon the experience became the closest I have come to a Formula 1 qualifying session, slowing down and pulling over, patiently waiting for a clear run. Away from the Dragon itself, traffic is not an issue. A chance meeting with three guys from Canada who’d driven a long way to sample these roads led to some group fun, the 993 at the front of the pack with a fancy-looking 5.0 V8 Mustang GT closely following. Those Mustangs have more than 400bhp and over 670Nm of torque, far more powerful than a C2S, but size and traction pulling out of corners levels any advantage. The thing about these roads is they make you feel you are travelling faster than you actually are, the joy coming from threading together a series of turns, picking the correct position, braking in the right place, looking through the turn and getting ready to accelerate out again.

Given the experience two days before, Sunday was not the ideal day for a clear rerun on the Dragon. Everyone from the North Carolina chapter of the Hell’s Angels to picnicking families in SUVs would be there. But with a trailer due to pick up the 993 and deliver it to the port closing in, it was now or never.

One of the 318 corners of the Tail of the Dragon, Tennessee

My incredible adventure is brought to an end as the 993 is loaded onto a truck, headed for the ports and home to Britain

I knew what I wanted from the day and set about building a route with a folded map over a couple of cortados in a coffee shop. 200 or so miles, starting with the Foothills Parkway and the Fighting Gap Creek Road, Newfound Gap, down to Cherokee and onto the Tail of the Dragon. A solo mission, everything surplus to requirements was left behind. Some traffic on the route was unavoidable, but other bits were clear enough to enjoy to the full. Even the busy areas offered delights like stopping off to look at old Americana, or slowing down to avoid elk in the road – a first for me. As the Dragon got closer I became hopeful my caffeinated plan would manifest. Tennessee is Bible country, where family values are alive and well. Arriving around 17:30, everyone should be home enjoying dinner. It was a good call.

The photographers occupying the vantage points were gone, with just the hardcore and singletons remaining, piloting very fast bikes and a handful of sports cars. During my ownership of this Porsche I’ve rebuilt its engine to 3.8 litres with hotter cams, had the entire suspension refreshed, and modified the gear change. Putting aside the recent air-con issues it’s beyond a well-sorted car. There are 318 turns both up and down hill, with aggressive cambers, side-of-a-cliff drops and more trees than I’ve seen anywhere. An ideal match for my old 911. The uninitiated are often wary of Porsche 911s, with the engine and weight at the rear. They fear becoming a pendulum, being spat off the road into a ditch – or coffin. It is simply not true. Once you understand weight transfer and adjust to take advantage of it, you begin to see why the 911 remains the most accomplished and engaging sports car since the 1960s. Most 911s understeer as they are light at the front, and they possess phenomenal grip at the rear thanks to their weight sitting over big rear tyres. Trail braking plays to the 911’s advantage, braking late into corners and getting fast onto the power once the anchor pedal is lifted. Putting together a series of turns, this technique was a joy to execute on my lonesome drive across America’s most challenging of roads. The 993 C2S has no traction control or stability management electronics, so as a driver you plan ahead, make decisions and take reward from getting it right.

With the windows down, the angry noise of the air-cooled engine – with an accompanying exhaust that pops and bangs – became the soundtrack to this road. At times I could hear the tyres finding the limits of grip. It’s without question one of the best drives I’ve had in any car, anywhere. A high point to the trip and a worthy end to a great adventure.

The next afternoon I helped load the car onto a trailer to begin its journey back to the UK. It was hard, the realisation that six months of planning followed by six weeks having the best of times was all but over. It took strength not to cry watching it drive off without us. Thank you Tennessee, and thank you America. There really isn’t a superlative big enough to describe how good it’s been.

Our writer Anthony Coyne has compiled a blog with a wealth of information on how to take your own car to the US: aircooledbug.co.uk