Hitting the autobahn in a new Porsche 911 S is a bucket list experience. And now I was ticking the box. As the Porsche’s speedometer clicked through 245 km/h, I turned off the stereo to focus on the symphonic howl of the motor – a soundtrack freighted with history and speed.
Accelerating through a long curve, I was seeing something similar to what my father had encountered almost 60 years ago when he test-drove a Porsche on the autobahn: the world beyond the windshield as a high-speed blur of grey and green, set against a pair of curved fenders.
My dad always wanted a Porsche 911, but raising three kids on a military officer’s salary meant sacrifices. My brother and I got university degrees. And my dad died without getting his Porsche.
Now I was taking the latest version of the 911 on a mission – a road trip that would take me to the places where my father had first taught me about German engineering, and the way of the sports car.
There are worse cars to love than the 911. Since its introduction in 1963, it has become a legend, and not always for the reasons you might expect. With the weight of its engine in the back, the 911 loved to spin, and that sexy, bullet-shaped body developed lift at high speed, making for some serious stability issues. This wasn’t a car for the unskilled – the 911’s nicknames included Widow Maker and The Doctor Killer.
In the 1980s, Porsche management tried to phase out the 911, convinced that its time had passed. But it lived on, an automotive outlier that improved with each generation.
The 2014 model retains the key features that have defined each and every 911: a teardrop profile and a howling, rear-mounted boxer engine. But that’s where the similarities to the original 911 end. This new car is water-cooled and computer controlled, with a seven-speed PDK transmission and a chassis that routed torque to all four wheels. It has more than three times the power of the 1960s cars, and the handling has been tamed over time – The Doctor Killer, no more.
Despite all this, the 2014 model I drove still had the signature feel of a 911. It is quick and agile, with an interior that wrapped around me like a fighter jet. And the new motor retains the signature sound that comes from the 911’s unique mechanical layout – six pistons that shoot sideways out of the engine block like a boxer’s fists.
This sound is part of my soul. In my twenties, I worked as a mechanic in a Porsche-VW shop in Vancouver. It was one of the best times of my life, and I came to understand the car my father loved above all others.
In the late 1950s, my family left Canada behind and moved to Werl, a small German town where my father was part of a Canadian military contingent. My dad and his friends spent their off-duty time racing their cars on parade squares and Second World War airstrips. They fuelled them with high-test poured out of jerrycans, and laid out courses with sandbags and coloured cones. One of my dad’s closest buddies was a fighter pilot named Punchy Payne, who put his helmet on my head and hoisted me into the cockpit of his F-86 Sabre fighter jet.
Punchy had a Porsche 356 Speedster (the bathtub-shaped Porsche that actor James Dean would later make famous). My dad wanted a Speedster, too, but with a wife and three small boys, a two-seater was out. He bought a Borgward Isabella sports coupe instead.
I was back in Germany recently to explore a half-remembered world of speed and engineering. Rolling up to the Porsche factory in Stuttgart, I had a powerful sense of déjà vu. My father had brought me here in 1959, and I still have memories of a red brick building, and men in coveralls bolting parts into rows of shining Porsches.
That same red brick building is still there (it’s called Porsche Werk 1), surrounded by a collection of modern factory buildings and the new Porsche museum, which resembled a mirrored spaceship that had fallen to earth. Inside, I watched teams building 911s. The scene blended the old and the new – robot carts carried shining engine parts through buildings with wooden floors laid down before Hitler’s rise to power, and mechanics gathered around the partly-built cars like elves.
Now it was time to head north, to a pair of places that had special meaning: the legendary Nurburgring racetrack, and Werl.
On the autobahn, I reflected on the changes Porsche had made to keep the 911 in the game as the world around it changed. The engine is still in the back, but pushed closer to the rear axle line to reduce what’s known as polar moment (to understand the concept, think of a brick swinging at the end of a rope). The suspension of this new 911 is light years beyond the old car, and the shape tweaked to eliminate the aerodynamic instability that plagued the original – the 2014 car locked to the road, even when I ran it up to more than 275 km/h.
I pulled off the autobahn near the Nurburgring, arcing through the twisting back roads and savouring the sweet feel of the 911’s electrically assisted steering. Some enthusiasts denounce the new system as “artificial,” but to me, it felt nearly perfect.
The Nurburgring was as I remembered – a long, undulating strip of grey that ran through the woods and hills like a bobsled track. A medieval castle stood on a hill above the Ring, and I could see why my dad thought this was the world’s greatest racing venue (and one of the most dangerous).
In my father’s time, the 911 was available only with a manual transmission – stick and clutch skills were a prerequisite to ownership, in the same way that guitar skills were a prerequisite to joining Led Zeppelin. I hit the road again, wondering whether my dad would have approved of the new 911’s seven-speed, digitally controlled PDK transmission.
The PDK has made the 911 club less exclusive, but I have to admit that it worked like a dream – the transmission clipped off flawless, rev-matched downshifts faster than I could. It’s as if Ayrton Senna is programmed into the car. And yet I still longed for a manual, so I could play that sweet transmission myself like a metal Stradivarius.
I arrived in Werl guided by the Porsche’s GPS. The 911 glided over the cobblestones and carried me to a hotel overhung with ancient trees. The next morning, I found the blocky concrete buildings that had been my family’s home from 1959 to 1962. There were a lot of memories here. I remembered Porsche 356s howling down the curving roads, and digging up a trove of German machine guns in a nearby field (the war had ended just 14 years before, and retreating armies had buried countless munitions).
As I walked away from the buildings, there was a moment of epiphany. I’d found the place where I’d lived as a boy. The new 911 S was sitting at the curb, a perfect, steel-grey shape. I accelerated back out onto the autobahn. My dad had been dead for 15 years, but I was still here, driving his dream car, flat out in seventh gear.
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