Mild Mod

One man's quieter, more comfortable, and home-built take on the early 911 hot rod proves to be awfully alluring.

Photo: Mild Mod 1
April 15, 2011

Huge tires, swollen fender flares, and an exhaust that sets off every car alarm aren’t for everyone. Nor do they necessarily make a car the fastest — or the most fun — thing on four wheels. Sometimes, it’s the sleeper you want.

Consider this Signal Orange 1971 911T. With modest 15×6-inch Fuchs wheels, 205 tires, narrow bodywork, and plentiful brightwork, it hardly shouts “street racer.” But there’s a lot more to this 911 than its pretty, period-correct face. A long list of carefully chosen modifications are hidden under its skin. And while the pristine coupe looks like it was painstakingly built by one of the big-name Porsche shops, it was built in a cozy Los Angeles, California garage by a determined gearhead.

Welles Hackett is that gearhead. Somehow, this busy freelance cinematographer found time between music video and television advertising projects — as well as the arrival of a new baby — to build his take on what a classic longhood 911 can be. Maybe his wife, Liz, sums it up best when she tells her husband, “You have a very productive obsessive compulsive disorder.”

Indeed. Talking to Welles, you get the sense he’s a guy with an excess of restless energy that has to be directed somewhere. “As long as I can remember, I was the kid who took everything apart and was constantly making model cars and airplanes,” he says. “In addition to working on cars, I also do woodwork, metalwork, and love to cook. And I have always loved the styling of the early 911s. I had a Corgi 911 toy car as a kid and never stopped wanting one.”

Eventually, he acquired a real 911 from a friend in 1998. He explains that the deal involved a little cash, his vintage BMW R90/6 motorcycle, and “maybe a bottle of Scotch.” Sounds like a more than fair deal for a solid, corrosion- and collision-free early 911 in a desirable color. “I believe he thought I would tire of the car and sell it back to him in a few years,” smiles Welles. “No such luck for him.”

Photo: Mild Mod 2

Welles was living in New York at the time, and the 911 served as a fun weekend driver when he wasn’t using his Volvo 240 wagon. He eventually relocated to L.A., where he continued to use the 911 when he needed a therapeutic break from life. A turning point came in 2007, when Welles took the car to a shop for a tune-up after he had rebuilt the carburetors.

“It was looking more and more like it was going to need an engine rebuild,” he says. “There were also a few body issues I wanted to deal with, a laundry list of nags.” He had just finished restoring his Laurel Canyon home and, as he puts it, “needed something to occupy all that spare time.” He had also noticed the supply of parts for early 911s was diminishing and what was out there was getting more expensive.

“The idea was to build a sort of ‘boy racer’ dream car,” explains Welles. While performance was going to be ramped up, he also wanted to modernize his 911’s amenities: “I have always loved things that look old and function like new. I wanted the car to look stock and have all the bells and whistles beneath the skin.”

Welles started by stripping his 911 to a bare tub. With the exception of some surface rust in the interior, the tub was nearly rust-free. “The main thing I did welding-wise was to repair a ton of holes from an aftermarket air-conditioning system that I removed,” he says.

He sent the chassis to Kevin Mentzer of Automotive Innovations in Van Nuys for paint, one of the few areas Welles couldn’t tackle on his own. He chose to retain the car’s original color, Signal Orange. While the Porsche was getting painted, Welles went to work on the engine.

Photo: Mild Mod 3

“I was originally going to build my 2.2 out to a 2.4, but I came across a used 2.7 so cheap I couldn’t pass it up,” says Welles. Even better, the 2.7 had the desirable 7R crankcase and was thus a prime candidate as the basis for a hotter street engine. Walt Watson at Competition Engineering was entrusted with resurfacing and machining all components. Welles chose to use Supertec studs, and to have Helicoils and case savers installed as necessary. The case was also modified for a later-style oil bypass.

When the case returned, Welles added a later oil pump, then bolted the freshly micropolished crankshaft to factory connecting rods. New Mahle 2.7 RS-spec pistons with an 8.5:1 compression ratio came next, with an anti-friction coating on their skirts and an anti-heat coating on their domes. Welles took an alternate route when it came to the camshaft grind, foregoing high-revving RS-spec camshafts for more street-friendly 911E cams.

The six individual cylinder heads were fly cut and ported to RS specs for better airflow. Heavy duty, Teflon-coated valve springs actuate valves coated in the same manner as the pistons, with an anti-friction coating on the stems and an anti-heat coating on the faces of the valves.

Fuel delivery is handled by a pair of 40-mm PMO carburetors, a PMO fuel-pressure regulator, and a Pierburg fuel pump. The car’s original gas tank was thoroughly cleaned and then coated with POR-15 to ensure a reliable fuel supply. On the exhaust end, a set of Jet Hot-coated SSI heat exchangers lead into a Dansk muffler. Spark comes via an MSD 6AL-2 ignition system, an MSD Blaster coil, a distributor recurved from CIS specifications to work with carbs, and Clewett Engineering plug wires. An upgraded 95-amp alternator is hidden behind the engine’s cooling fan.

Welles decided to retain the original 901 five-speed transmission, as it had been gone through recently. He cleaned it up and had its magnesium surfaces coated with anti-corrosion coating before bolting it to the engine. Welles replaced all of the bushings in the shift linkage, then ditched the stock shift lever and its associated parts for a Rennshifter short-shift setup.

Photo: Mild Mod 4

When the painted body returned, it was time to start bolting parts back onto it. Welles started with suspension, which he had spent considerable time researching. “I wanted something that would handle incredibly well but still be comfortable enough to not make unwitting passengers complain,” he explains. In the end, he chose to use 21-mm Elephant Racing torsion bars with Bilstein HD dampers up front and 27-mm Elephant Racing torsion bars with Bilstein Sports in the rear.

Welles installed a pair of adjustable rear spring plates from a 911 SC. After welding in new anti-roll bar mounts at the rear and then heavily reinforcing them, he installed a 27-mm hollow, adjustable anti-roll bar from Tarett Engineering. Tarett’s 21-mm hollow anti-roll bar keeps body roll in check up front. All of the primary suspension bushings were replaced with Elephant Racing’s poly-bronze bushings, and the steering rack was rebuilt and now actuates 911 Turbo tie-rods. The suspension rebuild was thorough, with every original metal component replated and new bushings installed throughout.

After having 911S front brake calipers restored, Welles paired them to original-spec rear calipers. Braided stainless-steel brake lines, a new master cylinder and Hawk brake pads round out the changes. A few years earlier, Welles had upgraded his 911’s original Fuchs to 15×6-inch “deep sixes,” which were restored by Wheel Enhancement. Before the 911 was put back on the road, fresh BF Goodrich G Force Sport 205/60R15s were installed.

After installing the restored gas tank, Welles put an Optima battery in the “smuggler’s box” in the front trunk and plumbed a later Carrera oil cooler into the right front fender. He assembled the body carefully, and with an eye on cost. Most exterior trim was restored, and what couldn’t be restored was replaced with new, O.E. components. He salvaged and renewed rubber gaskets when possible.

Welles turned to lighting next. A set of H4 headlights found their way onto the car, as well as new signal lenses all around. “One of the real labors of love was restoring the impossible-to-find Hella 139 fog lamps, which were bent and pitted,” says Welles. “I restored the lenses by grinding them down and then polishing them to remove the pits. The bodies were then straightened and chromed.” The worn-out reflectors were welded up and replated. The final exterior touch was the installation of a 911E badge on the engine lid. Welles says the badge is not intended to represent the car as something it is not but rather as a tip-off that the 2.7-liter uses E cams.

Photo: Mild Mod 5

“I did most of the interior myself with the exception of the seats and headliner, which I left to the pros,” says Welles. His research revealed that purchasing the vinyl through wholesalers can save some money: “All of the vinyl to redo my whole interior was less than $200, and it is German (and) correct.” A layer of Dynamat was installed on the floors and the roof, while the firewall was covered in a more modern and effective sound-deadening. The floors got another layer of carpet padding before a new Haargarn carpet kit was installed.

“One of the trickiest things to get right in an early 911 are the door pockets,” opines Welles. “Inevitably, they sag.” To repair the pockets and ensure they would retain their shape, he stripped them down and then reformed them by wetting the cardboard they’re made from. “When the shape was right, I fiberglassed them so I won’t have to worry about this problem again.” Just Dashes restored the armrests and Welles recovered the door panels himself before assembling everything.

Keeping with his budget build, Welles had his admittedly mildly cracked dash repaired and redyed by Fibrenew. “The dashboard looks brand new and the repair cost was less then $100,” he says. “I only had minor cracks, but I think this would work on far worse cases.”

The cosmetic end of the interior was rounded out with replica Recaro sport seats from GTS Classics, redone rear seats, a Momo Prototipo steering wheel, and the addition of modern, retractable seatbelts. The renewed dashboard houses the car’s original VDO gauges, which were cleaned and serviced by North Hollywood Speedometer. Like the car, they benefit from some hidden upgrades.

“The clock is now a quartz unit that actually keeps time,” quips Welles. The combination gauge was upgraded to the 1974-style setup with an oil-pressure warning light, allowing it to take advantage of the oil-pressure sensor integrated into the later 2.7-liter engine. “The original tach was upgraded to a solid-state model, which the MSD will work with,” says Welles.

Photo: Mild Mod 6

After mulling over how to combine an original appearance with a great, easy-to-use stereo, Welles came up with a solution: “Parrot makes a small Bluetooth controller designed to integrate an iPod and a Bluetooth phone into an existing stereo.” The controller comes with a small LED display — small enough to fit inside the 911’s existing tachometer.

At Welles’ request, Hollywood Speedometer cut a small window in the bottom of the tach’s face for Parrot’s LED display. A later tachometer face with a high-beam indicator in a different location left room at the bottom of the tach for the control panel display. The correct, early markings and redline were then silkscreened onto the later gauge face.

The car’s original Blaupunkt Frankfurt still functions and is now accessed as a sound source by the Parrot controller. The controller also handles phone calls with Bluetooth, thanks to a microphone hidden behind the headliner. “The small controller is just stuck onto the dash and can be removed anytime,” says Welles.

The rest of the stereo gear resides in the trunk, in a fiberglass enclosure Welles fabricated and installed in the spare tire well. The JL Audio HD 600/4 amplifier works with a JL 8×7 subwoofer in the trunk and 6.5-inch JL XR speakers in the doors.

“When you get in the car, if you didn’t know there was a high-end stereo installed, you would never notice it,” says Welles. “The small window (in the tach) is the only giveaway.” He’s the first to admit that many Porsche purists cling to the notion that the engine is the only real music you need. “You can have both,” he says. “That’s what the volume knob is for.”

Photo: Mild Mod 7

Keeping with his theme of upgraded amenities, Welles replaced his 911’s manual windows with later 911 power windows. But he didn’t stop there; he wired the switches to a DEI control unit, allowing one-touch operation as well as remote actuation. “Honestly, this is a great upgrade, since no A/C means the windows are up and down all the time,” he says.

His 911 also has keyless entry via a DEI key fob, which allows remote control of the retrofitted power door locks as well as a dome-light delay, horn actuation, and exterior light actuation. The control boxes were all mounted on the firewall. “I’m neurotic about my wiring, so everything has custom harnesses and there’s a new fuse and relay sub panel in the unused battery box.”

In person, this 911 comes off as a very well-built car. At idle, the combination of SSI heat exchangers and Dansk muffler lend the 2.7-liter six a deep voice. Inside the car, however, engine noise is more pleasant than intrusive.

On the move, this 911’s accommodating experience continues. It’s far from raw and edgy, which was exactly one of the goals of this build. Around the streets of the Hollywood hills, the car feels exceedingly well screwed-together, bobbing and traveling over rough sections of asphalt with hardly a creak or tremor.

It’s not hard to find the Mr. Hyde side on a particularly sinuous stretch of Mulholland Drive, however. Thanks to E cams and 2.7 liters of displacement, torque is immediate — propelling this 911 out of corners with a raspy, eager howl. The E cams give the engine an interesting character; judged against the tall powerband RS cams provide, this flat six is all about midrange torque. While it happily revs past 5000 rpm, it doesn’t do much beyond that point. What it does below 5000 rpm is extremely invigorating, however.

Photo: Mild Mod 8

Rolling onto the throttle in second or third gear produces immediate, gratifying acceleration, the kind that’s more useful on the street. When it comes time to grab a quick up- or downshift, the Rennshifter is a revelation, transforming the stock 901’s loosey-goosey shifting characteristics into that of a precise, slick-shifting gearbox.

Welles has also arrived at a suspension setup that’s nearly perfect for the street. The ride is definitely firm over bumps and dips, but it never threatens to knock your fillings out. Grip is extremely good considering the relatively narrow 60-series tires, and the chassis displays a neutral attitude — both through tighter hairpins and sweepers taken at higher speeds.

Body roll is almost entirely absent, which contributes to quick turn-in and a stable, planted feel. There’s enough easily accessed torque that booting the back end out on the exit of turns is not only possible, but seemingly encouraged. There’s just an eager nature to this car — it’s the kind of setup that yields no evil surprises as your cornering speeds rise.

Overall, no one thing about this 911 stands out. Actually, let me correct that: What stands out is how harmoniously everything works together. The car’s dialed-in suspension and conservatively sized tires are perfectly matched to its power and torque, as are its brakes.

Welles is just as happy with the results. “It’s exactly what I wanted,” he says. “I feel it’s an absolutely perfect combination of old and new, sportiness and comfort.”

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