904 Driver

A cage-free 904 that’s been on the road since 1972.

Photo: 904 Driver 1
July 2, 2010

Wow, a 904! Is that one of those new kits?” asked the soccer dad leaning out of his “soccer van.” Alex Pollock stepped towards him and replied, “No, that’s the real thing.” “Really? I never thought I would see one of those in Detroit,” said the soccer dad, before dropping his van into gear and slowly pulling away, still glancing back at the diminutive silver racer.

For my part, I’m not sure what’s more out of the ordinary: a 904 in the heart of Detroit or a casual observer in Detroit recognizing it! Detroit is, after all, the home of the Big Three, muscle cars, and rust. While some designers at the domestic automakers indulged themselves with European exotica, “little foreign jobs” weren’t really looked upon kindly here. That was especially true in 1972, when Alex purchased his 904.

Alex’s love affair with Porsche’s first fiberglass flier had started several years earlier and hundreds of miles south of the Motor City — when he was a student at the Uni­versity of Florida with a passion for sports-car racing. He went to Day­tona and Sebring every chance he got. He watched George Follmer win the GT class at the 12 Hours of Sebring in a 904, and promptly fell in love with the car. Away from the track, he purchased a plastic model kit of a 904 and decided that, one day, he would own the real thing.

Once he had graduated from college and was making a good living as an engineer, Alex bought a used 1967 911. He couldn’t shake his hankering for a 904, but as things turned out, the path from plastic model to plastic Porsche was a relatively short one — albeit one punctuated by a move to Detroit and a wedding.

In time, Alex placed a want ad in Hem­mings Motor News to see what might surface. Not long after, his phone rang. Uwe Buehl was on the other end, saying that on his lot in Pennsylvania was a 904, white with blue trim and equipped with a four-cam engine that would fit both expectation and budget. It was 904-028, and by 1972 it wasn’t much more than an old, used-up race car. In fact, Alex says he was young and impetuous, and that he should have looked the car over more carefully, calling its condition at the time “tortured.”

The 904 had earned its scars. Its first several years were spent on the racing circuits of Europe. First delivered to Ger­hard Koch in Germany, 028 competed in and typically won the GT class in regional Flug­platz­rennen (airfield races) in 1964. More noteworthy were a second-place finish in the 500 kilometers of Spa in May and a series of class wins at the Nür­burgring, the GP de Paris, and the GP Angola.

Photo: 904 Driver 2

With a works ride for 1965, Koch sold 904-028 to Rainer Ising of Munich. Ising and Bernd Deg­ner piloted the car to a significant victory that year: the GT class win in the 84-hour Marathon de la Route at the Nür­burgring.

In 1966, the Porsche was brought into the U.S. by Uwe Buehl for yet another new owner, Roger Neuman in Pennsylvania. He kept 904-028 for only one year before selling it to fellow Penn­sylvanian Dieter Oest, who campaigned it throughout the 1967 season before replacing it with another 904.

At this point, the chain of ownership becomes murky. Published accounts differ, but the 904 somehow ended up back at Buehl’s lot, where it may have sat unsold for several years until Alex placed his want ad in Hemmings. Buehl’s call prompted a long heart-to-heart discussion between Alex and his wife. To meet the $4,800 asking price, their 911 would have to be sold and their entire savings pulled out of the bank. Says Alex: “This was a lot of money at the time!”

They decided to buy the car, allotting another $1,600 for a 906-spec flat six because Buehl told them the four-cam flat four wouldn’t be suitable for street use. His advice hit home on the drive back to Michi­gan; after 600 miles without a hitch, 904-028 nearly met its demise in Detroit’s stop-and-go traffic. Just blocks from home, with the engine loading up and coughing back through the carbs, Alex smelled smoke. The four was on fire!

By a stroke of luck, there was a fire station a few hundred yards away, and an alert fireman rushed over to extinguish the flames before major damage resulted. After the near miss, Alex installed the flat six, and the four has been in storage ever since. “To this day, I don’t know if that engine is damaged,” he says with a shrug.

Photo: 904 Driver 3

One year later, the Pollocks decided to drive their 904 to visit their parents in Florida, a 2,600-mile round trip. There was no room in the car for anything other than a few essentials and an overnight bag, so they shipped their luggage.

Somewhere in rural Kentucky, at about 2:00 AM, the 904’s VDO speedometer registered 168 mph for a brief moment. Asked what his wife had to say about that, Alex grins. “She didn’t say a peep,” he says. “But I thought her hand was going to crush my arm!”

When they got to Florida, the proud couple was surprised by the reaction of family members; most if not all of them said they were crazy to come all that way in the fiberglass racer. The car’s cost drew criticism, as well. “You are so stupid to spend all of your money on this!” Alex’s mother cried. “It’s loud, it stinks…it doesn’t even have air-conditioning!” But as the 904’s value bagan to climb after a few years, his mother eventually remarked that her son had made a very smart purchase.

Alex says he doesn’t speed in his 904 these days because it’s too noticeable and too valuable. In fact, he’s never gotten a speeding ticket in it. Its value hasn’t kept him from using it, though: Since 1972, he’s driven the 904 nearly 35,000 miles and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. He’s still a regular at local PCA events, and he still takes the car out on nice days. And, on one of the last pleasant days of fall in Detroit, Alex and I met up to do just that.

The release button on the 904’s driver’s door is a reminder of how simple this car really is. As I swing the door open, I notice how flimsy it is. Its two thin panels of fiberglass are bonded together, and there’s a rudimentary sliding plastic window. It feels like the whole door might weigh ten pounds — when it’s wet.

Photo: 904 Driver 4

Peering inside, a new worry presents itself: Through a sad twist of genetic fate, I may be denied what is likely my only chance to drive a 904. Not only is there a limit to how much human this cockpit will contain, getting into it will be a job, too. The floor consists of a few small bars and a removable fiberglass panel, and it would probably be bad form to shove my Buster Browns through the 45-year-old fiberglass, Fred Flintstone-style.

On the other hand, I can’t just point my posterior towards the seat and drop in, because that seat was designed for a “Medium” and I’m every bit of a “Large.” A different plan is required: I squat on the door sill and then carefully slide my rear end into the fiberglass seat — all the while listening for splintering noises. Once my hands land on the small, leather-covered steering wheel, I come to the realization that the 904 is very livable for anyone up to about six foot two. Right: One less excuse not to run out and buy a 904!

After I carefully latch the delicate door, I feel the history of this particular car settle on me somewhat heavily. I stroke the fibers of the original blue-green velour seat covers as I imagine what they’ve seen. Were the small, telltale burns left by an errant ember from a cheap German cigarette after a race?

The rough fiberglass structure of the interior leaves no doubt that this was primarily a racing car; interior fit and finish was a trivial concern. The windshield framework is sloppily coated with black paint, itself covering hairy, bubble-filled fiberglass. The headliner is a square patch of perforated white vinyl, like that found in every VW Beetle or 911 of the period. It’s simply glued to the roof, its corners and edges peeling ever so slightly. The doorsills and inner structure feature flat-black paint over rough fiberglass, their nooks and crannies having collected the stains and dirt of 40 years.

Details like these would offend those conditioned by so many over-restored race cars, but will cast a spell on others. This is an honest car: the way it was made, plus usage.

Starting the 904 is its own adventure. Since the car is sitting on a slight grade and lacks a parking brake, I have to depress the brake pedal while squeezing the spoon-shaped throttle halfway down with the side of the same foot. Twisting the key, I’m rewarded by the 2.0-liter six turning over slowly against compression and then lighting off with a roar. I gently rev it a couple times to clear it out and get a feel for the throttle linkage.

Photo: 904 Driver 5

The sound of the intake and cooling fan are very 911, but their noises are coming from much closer. More of the flat six’s vibration comes through the 904’s lightweight structure, too, but I notice a secondary vibration in the cabin. It’s Alex, who has pulled his legs up even with the seat and is nervously thrumming his feet on the floor. To lighten the mood, I ask, “So, when’s the last time you were a passenger in this car?” Staring straight ahead, Alex is deadpan: “In 1972, the day I bought the car.”

Before he can change his mind, I pull the shifter back and to the left — the traditional slot for first with a 901 gearbox. You don’t reach as far for the knob as you do in a 911; the short, straight lever sits between the seats and falls comfortably to hand even when you’re strapped in place. Clutch takeup is smooth and predictable.

The 904 feels tiny and delicate along­side the large SUVs that seem to make up 90 percent of Detroit traffic. Glancing to the left, I get a good look at the wheels of whatever is next to me. Lane changes are the scary thing, though. The long buttresses of the roof and a lack of side mirrors mean the interior rear­view is my only help. And in order to line this tiny, fixed mirror up with the mail-slot rear window, I must lay my head on my right shoulder until I look like Nipper, the RCA dog. In other words, it don’t work.

The safest method? Find a roomy gap ahead, drop down a gear, roll on the throttle so hard that no Escalade or Astro van in the blind spot can hope to remain there, flip the stalk activating the turn signal, and confidently take the lane. That this happens to be a bucketful of fun is only secondary!

Also working against the 904 in this urban environment are its stiff sus-pension and light weight. On the streets of a city where potholes have become a source of civic pride, the asphalt craters come at me faster than aster­oids in the video game of the same name, and there simply is no way I can swerve to miss them all. It’s nerve-wracking, and as I dodge the worst and hammer through the rest, I begin to worry that all these bangs and thuds are adding up to real damage. Alex seems unconcerned.

Photo: 904 Driver 6

Meanwhile, the absence of low-end torque from the 2.0-liter engine and the tall second and third gear ratios of the “Nürburgring” box result in frustration. Right-hand turns in city traffic become a challenge because second is too tall to keep from lugging the motor out of the powerband, and it is not realistic to drop down to first just to round a corner.

Away from Detroit’s traffic, potholes, and SUVs, however, the 904 is a fantasy on wheels. Light weight, high revs, and long gears translate into speed that piles on quickly. As the 2.0-liter mighty mite comes into its powerband, it’s eager to rev, tight, and smooth — and the howl of the exhaust’s megaphones bounces off nearby buildings and thickets. Lifting off brings the rapid deceleration typical of high-compression engines, as well as a raspy, buzzing growl from the exhaust.

These are noises that will bring goose-bumps to the arms of anyone who knows the history of the 904 and its later fiberglass brethren. Then there’s the handling: The car zips from one corner to the next, light and responsive. It reminds me of — gasp! — a well-sorted, lightweight 914 race car. And, as the factory developed the 914 for racing, one suspects its engineers were reminded of the 904….

A few years back, Alex decided that the 904’s flat six wasn’t as fresh as it once was. The engine was removed and sent to Cleveland, Ohio, where former Stoddard engine builder John Truman works his magic. While the exotic engine was apart, Alex decided to detune its spec slightly for better manners on the street.

Out came the center-lube camshafts and the non-adjustable lightweight 906 rocker arms, to be replaced with a more moderate cam grind and standard 911 rockers. At the same time, the original 46 IDA Weber carburetors were swapped for a more modest pair of 40 IDA triple-throat carbs. Of course, Alex stored all of the original parts.

The engine is probably more impres­sive for the driving I’m doing this day than it would have been in its earlier, higher-strung state. I’m not spinning the twitchy mechanical tachometer anywhere near 8000 rpm, where the original 2.0 made peak power — and the less peaky powerband satisfies completely.

As the 40-mm carbs mix air and fuel behind us, Alex looks over and proudly tells me he can average roughly 35 mpg on the highway if he drives the 904 conservatively. That observation earns him points in my book, as he’s the only person I’ve run across to spout fuel-economy numbers for his 904!

Eventually, my drive comes to an end. I kill the ignition and coast to a stop in the driveway. Alex steps out and latches the passenger door, while I sit by myself for a moment and soak in the last few seconds. I can feel the heat from the engine coming through the thin fiberglass bulkhead, validating Alex’s comments about how warm the car can get in the summer. After one last pat on the steering wheel, I reach for the door release and whisper, “What a wonderful little machine.”

And it is. Watching Alex talk about the car and listening to him reflect on adventures from years ago, I can’t help but feel a little jealous. Not so much for his owning such a valuable collector car or even for having had the foresight to buy a 904 when they were “affordable.” No, I’m jealous because I can tell he really loves this car. The two have had a near 40-year relationship filled with pleasure, trials, and pride. The 904 wove itself into Alex’s life when he was a teenager, and this particular one has become part of his identity.

When asked about his plans for the future, Alex has this to say about the car he calls his emotional getaway car: “I’ll keep driving it. I drive it because Porsche wanted people to drive them!”

Also from Issue 185

  • Chris Harris on the 620-hp 911 GT2 RS
  • Chris Harris races for Porsche at the 'Ring
  • A two-owner, D-I-Y four-cam 356
  • Driving the most expensive 997 of them all
  • Is Porsche's second Cayenne good enough?
  • American driver Patrick Long steals the show
  • 996s and 997s, the greatest daily 911s?
  • A new driver sensation
  • Turbo club racing 911s with a modern twist
  • 2010 Cayman S stance adjustment
  • Our 914 gets seals, an interior, and audio
  • M96 rear main seals
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