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1965 Porsche 911 owned by Bill Shanahan.

Bill Shanahan

Bill Shanahan will have six small German pistons pushing him instead of the eight big American ones pounding away up front he's accustomed to as he thrashes through the back doubles of Brigus and the concrete-curbed gyrations of Gander in this year`s Targa Newfoundland rally – but he expects to be quicker.

When the flag drops Sept. 10 to start the 11th annual, five-day, all-tarmac event, Connecticut-based Shanahan and co-driver Murray Smith will be belted into something more than a little different from the big brash 1964 Ford Falcon rally racer they`ve run for the past three years, a Euro-svelte 1965 Porsche 911.

Shanahan, a veteran of La Carrera Panamericana, the week-long Mexican open-road race, turned up for his first of four Targas with a rally-prepped Corvette. And the result was "the scariest experience I'd ever like to have."

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He'd driven it to third place overall in the Panamericana, but the wrong tire choice made it "kind of tail happy, a real handful. I couldn't keep the rear end under it."

A switch to the Falcon – one of 100 built by Ford for the Monte Carlo rally – for the next event continued the learning process and the following year saw the team finish first in class and third overall in the classic division. A broken axle resulted in a DNF last year.

By this time, Shanahan had figured Targa out. "It's a very difficult, very challenging event. In the first year it's a mystery, you don't know how it works." And very different from Mexico, which is "all about the mountain stages, which you run at very high speed. In Targa, you win by doing well in the town stages, which are extremely difficult."

With the twists and turns through the back alleys of Newfoundland's fishing villages in mind, he decided to opt for something more nimble this year.

Enter the classic 1965 Porsche 911 found for him by Connecticut Porsche specialist Jim Newton, an original low-mileage, low VIN number car wearing its original paint.

Shanahan's new rally ride would have been among the first 911s to be seen in North America, likely arriving with one of the early shipments of Porsche's all-new model early in 1965 when its original owner would have paid about $6,500 for it.

The 911 was the successor to the original Porsche 356 and was created in response to the need for a larger, more comfortable, better-equipped and more potent car.

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The 911's classic look was first seen at the Frankfurt auto show in 1963 and it went into production in September, 1964. Like the 356, it was nominally a four-seater, but larger, roomier and more civilized and fitted with a 130-hp, 2.0-litre flat-six. It proved an immediate success and remains in production, as recognizable today as it's always been and with its engine still mounted in its tail.

Shanahan's 911 has been turned it into a competitive Targa runner, within the spirit of its classic classification, by replacing the front end and deck-lid with lightweight pieces and installing a full roll-cage. The brakes have been upgraded and its suspension toughened up to deal with the mixture of surfaces encountered on "The Rock." And the 2.0-litre air-cooled motor has all the "good stuff," raising output to 200 hp.

Shanahan, now 72, is also something of a high-performance classic. In his early days he travelled the United States as part of a military family, graduated from Dartmouth College and then went to the University of California at Berkley to study geography. But says he didn't like its early 1960s atmosphere and departed for Japan to study the language, spending three years there and in the Philippines playing pro basketball before returning to the United States and a sales job with Colgate-Palmolive. After stints in New York, Toronto, Mexico and Brazil, he was named chief operating officer in the mid-1980s and president in 1989, a job he retired from in 2005.

As a teen, he'd built and raced dragsters, but it wasn't until 1990 that motorsport re-entered his life in the form of a friend who was planning to build a Lincoln to run in the Panamericana. That didn't come off but Shanahan was hooked and soon built a car for himself. This October's event will be his 20th in a run that's included many top 10 overall finishes and class wins, in the early days driving a 1954 Volvo PV444 and a P1800.

His biggest Panamericana "moment" he says, was driving off a cliff. "It was an interesting experience. You say a big Oh Shit. And then you see blue sky. And then it takes forever as the car slowly turns. And then you see a city below. And then you hit the rock."

He's also done some circuit racing; one highlight was winning the Historic Rolex Endurance Series in 2005 in a Triumph Spitfire. He owns a 1959 Cadillac, a 1967 Sunbeam Tiger, a Ford GT, a 1967 Corvette big-block convertible and "real" Shelby GT350, a race car he drives on the street, plus the Falcon and his new 911.

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But he says he's not a real car person. "I'm not into the history, one of those people who can sit and tell you everything about a certain make. I like 'em because they're beautiful or because they're fun."

He was talked into Targa by an early competitor Jerry Churchill, who won the hearts of Newfoundlanders by hammering around in a Dodge Viper and then bright red 1963 Chevrolet Impala, but sadly Churchill died before the two could run against each other.

Why Targa and the Panamericana?

"At my age you make a good endurance driver. You have to be quick and have very good judgment and it's extraordinarily challenging. And rallies are different, you spend a week in the car. Murray and I work well together and we have fun. We laugh a lot."

Beyond that he says, rallies have a flavour provided by the people involved "and Targa has terrific people participating. And Newfoundland is staggeringly beautiful, a wonderful place to drive around."

His only disappointment? "I'm upset that I've yet to see a moose."

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You can follow the Targa, which begins with the prologue Sunday, Sept. 9, at targanewfoundland.com

Correction: An earlier online version of this story incorrectly stated the number of pistons in a Porsche 911. It has been fixed.

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