See, Jeff Smith’s a kidder. The joke was on me when I drove his shocking red 3.8-liter 911E hot-rod for our 20th Anniversary issue (February, 2007). Yes, that one. “It’s got nice torque, doesn’t it?” said The Cruel One, a subtle hint at the fact that I — being used to the dogleg 901 shift pattern in my own early 911S — had been unknowingly starting out in second gear instead of first.
Sitting in the driver’s seat of his dainty silver 911T, the yin to his red 911E’s yang, I’m silently lecturing myself not to do anything embarrassing, like repeatedly starting out in second gear. From the well broken-in factory sport seat, I take note of the 915’s shift pattern and determinedly choose first gear, up and to the left. Above second. After a few minutes spent acclimating to the car’s familiar early 911 layout and feel, I head for twisty roads not far from Smith’s home in Portland, Oregon to get a better sense of how this 911T performs. Looking back, I suspect Mr. Smith knew exactly what would happen — and was looking forward to the laugh I would once again furnish him…
Entering the first left-hand corner at a moderate speed, I make a quick downshift and brake smoothly before turning in for the apex. Just before the left front tire clips the apex, I feather in some throttle. With the 2.7 RS-spec flat six coming into the meat of its torque band and propelling us toward the exit of the corner, the steering wheel no longer seems connected. I add more and more steering input, but the understeer makes it feel as if the rack-and-pinion steering has been replaced with two frayed lengths of clothesline.
Reluctantly, I’m forced to back out of the throttle, which is precisely when I feel the clutch in the ZF limited-slip diff release, causing all of my steering input to once again factor into the equation. This, of course, results in us swerving like a drunkard stepping off of a carousel. Ah yes, 185/70R15 tires, 210 horses, and an 80-percent lock-up ZF diff. That’s like LeBron James suiting up for the NBA Finals in a pair of Florsheim tassel loafers and an aluminum knee-brace. Entertaining from the sidelines, perhaps, but certainly not the way you want to head into battle. Of course, Smith’s sitting courtside today — and has a grin at least 50 feet wide.
So maybe 15×5.5 Mahle wheels and tall Vredestein tires aren’t the best choice of rolling stock. But then sheer performance isn’t what this 911 is about. It’s more of a touring car, something you might use to pick a lady friend up for dinner and perhaps a drink afterwards. It’s about style. From its stunning finishes to its tasteful color combo, this 911 reminds me of a concept I learned long ago: “Classic designs are always in style.” Like James Bond’s black tuxedo or a vintage Omega chronograph, a silver longhood 911 will never lose its ability to cause a slight catch in the breath of people who appreciate finer things.
True style — not to be confused with a trend — is timeless. The first 911s had style, but many of those that came later followed trends. By the 1980s, one trend was Slant Nose 911s with three-piece, 16-inch BBS wheels. The 1990s brought the 993 and 18-inch, flat-face wheels. Today, we have a multitude of RS and S-T replicas rolling around out there, most of them built on early 911s not so different to this one. No one knows how examples of this trend will weather the test of time, but you can be sure the silver early car you see before you will still be stylish in 25 years. This 911 has more than style, though. It has panache. Like Mr. Bond in his tux, it’s a classic. And, like the world’s favorite spy, it is civilized enough to take you out for a fine vodka martini, yet snap your neck if need be.
As it turns out, this is the first early 911 Smith bought. And though it appears to be a freshly minted garage queen, it’s been together for nearly 15 years — a testament to the abilities of a younger Smith at a time when most people his age were dreaming of Mustang 5.0s or mini-trucks with tilting beds. Asked what influenced him to restore an early 911 while still in his early 20s, Smith explains some of the influences from his youth.
“When I was young, my father and my uncle both owned 911s,” he begins. “One car in particular I remember was a ’67 S my uncle purchased new from Vasek Polak Porsche. Eventually, my father ended up buying that car, and I always enjoyed riding in it.” But immediate family wasn’t the only influence on Smith as a child. “In the early eigthties, I used to walk past a house on the way to school, and the guy who lived there always had two 911s in his driveway. The cars would change from time to time, but one specific car stood out to me. One day, I walked by and there was a silver 911 SC coupe with bright trim and a red full-leather interior. The memory of that car is what motivated me to build this car the way I did.”
In 1991, a 21-year-old Smith purchased a solid but ratty 1972 911T. He drove the car as-is for a couple years before tearing it down for the restoration. Standing in the garage and looking at the results of many years of hard work, my mind is filled with questions. With Smith behind the wheel, I can ask them. On this idyllic Portland summer day, he’s got the electric sunroof open and we’re enjoying the sun and wind coursing through what’s left of our middle-aged hair. He explains that the ski rack creates the majority of the wind noise we’re hearing and that he typically removes it for any serous drives. For what we’re doing, it isn’t an issue.
As I fiddle with the window switch on the passenger door, he branches out on a detailed lecture of the rarity and esoteric appeal of what he refers to as “guillotine” windows. It seems the earliest 911 power window systems were not only ruthlessly quick, but also lacked any sort of safety protection in case an errant finger found itself between the window frame and the rapidly closing glass! And, sure enough, running the window from full open to closed drives home the point that all limbs and digits should be carefully kept far away from the process. The window snaps shut with unpitying efficiency.
If nothing else will make an impression on your lady friend on the way to dinner, rest assured: this 911’s rich red interior will. Red leather was a stunning yet relatively rare choice for a 911 in the late sixties and early seventies. Back in 1972, even when this option was chosen, the red was limited to the seats, center of the door panels, deco strip on the dash, and the rear package-tray area. The result is a severe red/black contrast that can draw your eye away from the cabin’s architecture.
When Smith set out to trim his interior, he took additional steps that would guarantee a unique 911 interior. First of all, everything was trimmed in red leather. The dash was wrapped along with the center speaker grill. In addition, the door-tops were wrapped and even the lower door pockets received a fresh covering in fine red leather. Looking down, you notice thick red wool carpeting protected by a set of dealer-option Coco mats. The extra panels that wrap over the center tunnel differentiate these new old stock mats from modern copies. The extra panels are connected to the main mats via small leather straps. Extremely rare, these mats were discovered in the parts stash of Gary Emory at Parts Obsolete.
When asked where he found the red carpet, Smith explains that new old stock parts were far easier to come by back in the 1980s. However, he’s not suggesting that this is NOS red carpet. No, that would be too simple. A NOS carpet set was used — but only for the original backing materials. The top side was torn off and thrown away, being replaced with the red wool carpeting seen here.
The rare Coco mats were not the only thing Smith discovered at Emory’s place. During one of many treasure hunts into Emory’s vast spare-parts collection, Smith located three NOS lower cushions for Recaro sport seats. The first was a brown plaid, the second a Madres Blue Tartan pattern, and the third a red Tartan pattern Smith immediately recognized would be the defining element of his interior. The only problem was he had just one cushion — what to do? Most of us would probably start shopping for a material close to the pattern, but not Smith.
He began a search for someone in the greater Portland area with a loom and the skill to weave several yards of the Tartan wool! Eventually, a professor in the Hand Weaving Guild was located who could do the job. That’s right, the sample cushion was used as a pattern not only for the design, but also to gauge the correct weight of thread used to weave several yards of new red tartan cloth in exactly the precise scale. As a finishing touch, all of the hardware for the factory sport seats and their seat tracks were sent out to be replated before final assembly.
The eagle-eyed may notice something odd about the dashboard of this 1972 911. Instead of the typical, soft-rubber switches, it appears that earlier, pre-1969 switches have been installed. When asked about this anomaly, Smith says that the rubber switches were a concession to the U.S. Department of Transportation and that 911s delivered to European markets retained the more simple, graceful switches of earlier 911s.
This detail ties in with a secondary theme to Smith’s silver T — it is completely spec’d out to mimic a French-delivery car. Other European-only details are the factory seatbelts with thin orange threading woven through their centers, a Blaupunkt AM/FM/SW/LW radio, and the European gauges. One of the more obvious French-spec items is the pair of amber H1 headlights above the amber-and-white Rest of World front signal lights. At first glance, the rear lamps appear to be the common Euro/RoW lenses, as well. But they are specifically French spec. The difference? The reverse-lamp lenses are a light yellow tone instead of being white.
While on the subject of lighting, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the fog-lamps. They may appear to be the expensive but common Hella 118 “through the grill” lamps. Look closer, though. They’re approximately one inch larger in diameter than the optional factory 911 lamps. Smith points to the lamps, explaining; “I prefer the looks of the larger lamps and I like the idea that, when a rock takes out a lens, I can just go down to the dealer and buy another.” Of course, installing the larger lamps was more complicated than simply bolting them in place. To keep the hood from hitting the lamp when opening and closing it, they must be spaced out a bit further. This required Smith to cut his own horn grills to accommodate the spacing. Only one detail is left: where might one find these lamps? Unfortunately, Smith doesn’t like to share all his secrets. All he’ll say is that they come from another popular, late-1960s German luxury car.
The rest of the car’s exterior changes are largely subtle. This T is equipped with the wider bumper deco strips and wide stainless rocker trim usually reserved for 911Ss of the same era. The optional rear window wiper is a nice finishing touch, as is the rare factory stainless muffler shroud that hangs beneath the rear bumper and valance. The rest of the car’s visual pop comes from its stunning silver-over-red color combination — and the luster of the metal-flake paint job that makes up the greater half of that combo.
As the late afternoon sun threatens to dip below the horizon, the quickly disappearing light makes the silver paintwork on this 911’s front fenders glisten like a precious stone. My question of who is responsible for the paint and bodywork prompts a proud smile from Smith. “Back in 1994, after driving the car for a couple years, I decided it was time to start the restoration,” he begins. “A talented paint and body guy named Brian Scribner supervised me as I did all the bodywork and paint on this car. It was my first paint job and it turned out really well!” Not only did the paint turn out well, it has held up well — you’d be hard pressed to identify it as anything but a fresh job.
When it left the factory, Smith’s T coupe came equipped with a 2.4-liter flat six rated at 130 horsepower. Smith, being Smith, wanted more. The T’s tired running gear was removed and a fresh 2.7-liter engine and RS-spec 915 gearbox were installed. The powertrain was built by Gordon Ledbetter, who started with a solid 7R engine case and a goal of building an RS engine accurate in every way other than its serial numbers. Smith sees the setup as nothing fancy — just a solid, proven engine-and-transmission combination.
The suspension and braking systems were completely refreshed, but remain stock with the exception of S brakes. A set of 15×7 911R Fuchs with sticky, low-profile tires would have been the obvious choice for improved performance, but Smith chose a set of 15×5.5 Mahle “gas-burners.” The Mahles bring a dash of style that fits with this 911’s understated theme. Often called bland, these magnesium ten-spokers — the lightest wheels offered on a production Porsche road car — appeal to hard-core enthusiasts who appreciate Teutonic efficiency and exotic materials as an alternative to the usual Fuchs.
Back behind the wheel, with a better understanding of this 911’s dynamics, I’m able to loosen up and drive the car like it was meant to be driven: like a 1972 911T, but one with a lot more power. With the last flicker of sunlight fading behind us, we’re headed back to Portland. The smooth torque of the 2.7 belies the fact that this is a 35-year-old car. It feels like a far more modern incarnation of the 911, requiring few downshifts to negotiate your typical back roads at respectable pace. Listen-ing to the low growl of the 2.7 exhaling through the factory muffler, I’m reminded that you don’t need big tires, flashy paint, and a noisy sport muffler to create a noteworthy early 911 all your own.