Less is More

The first 912 with a four-cylinder 911 engine, built by a man who prizes agility.

Less is More 0
September 14, 2012

“I HAD NO INITIAL INTEREST IN A 912 — until I drove one,” recalls Chris Pomares. “I was originally looking for a 356, but finding one in the quality I needed for my purposes had become too expensive by that time.”

Pomares loved the nimbleness of the 912 but had trouble getting past its four-cylinder engine, which failed to live up to the brilliance of its chassis. Of course, the 912 was never marketed on the performance merits of its engine. Positioned below Porsche’s visually similar six-cylinder 911, the 912 was a replacement for the entry-level 356C, and sold well as such. The 912 actually outsold the 911 initially, but its days were numbered because Porsche knew that “handles like a 912, goes like a 356” wasn’t much of a turn-on back in the late 1960s.

It still wasn’t when Pomares weighed his options nearly five decades later. As a driver who prizes handling over power, he wasn’t interested in an early 911 because its flat six is 120 pounds heavier than the 912’s flat four and sits six inches further back. He wanted to avoid the six’s weight and balance penalties — but he didn’t want a Porsche that felt underpowered.

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The mid-engined 914-6 may sound like a good solution, since it offers a flat six and better weight distribution than a 912 or a 356, but Pomares had already owned one. This time, he wan­ted a Porsche that he and his wife could take on longer tours: “My wife, Mar­tha, sometimes likes to nap while I drive, so the inability to recline a 914 passenger seat was a deal-breaker.”

That brought him back to the 912. Un­fortunately, the 1967 912’s 1.6-liter flat four was rated at just 90 hp. Contemporary tests suggested the 912, with the standard four-speed transmission, was a little slower in a straight line than 1965’s lighter, 95-hp 356 SC. Pomares wanted to retain the balance of a 912 while achieving the power output of a 911 — and he knew just how to do it.

Pomares had been calling Dean Polop­olus at Advance Perfor­mance Engineering every year like clockwork since he read a June 1994 Excel­lence article on an ingenious four-cylinder 911 en­gine used in “Des­perado,” a 356 race car owned by Gary Emory. That engine, thought Pomares, would be perfect for a 912.

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THE POLOPOLUS — OR “POLO” — FOUR-CYLINDER 911 ENGINE has advanced significantly over the last 18 years to become a favorite of 356 owners who must have more power.

Today, the overhead-cam flat four is based on a unique case made of 100-percent virgin ingot with five main journal supports. Its crankshaft is cut from a solid 4340 chromoly billet to allow for a “normal” firing order, and the cam­shafts are machined billet with a factory 993 Club Sport grind. Many factory 911 parts are used, both internally and externally. Dif­ferent pistons and cylinders can be specified to yield anything from 1.5 to 2.8 liters of displacement. As for weight? A 2.4-liter Polo four weighs about 20 pounds more than a 912 motor and is three inches longer.

Despite its high cost — think $30,000+ for an assembled engine — the ultra-trick flat four appealed to Pomares for its weight, packaging, 200-hp potential, and strength. He didn’t have the budget to build a four-cam 356 Carrera engine, and was wary of purchasing a hot VW or custom Type IV powerplant producing more than 175 hp on a crankcase designed to support no more than 100 hp.

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After committing to a 2.4-liter Polo flat four with electronic fuel injection, Pomares began his search for a suitable chassis. When he asked Dean Polopolus if he knew of any candidates, he was told, “I know of one that would be perfect.” That 912 was located in Morro Bay, California — about two hours north of where Pomares has a second home in Carpenteria.

When Pomares drove up to look at the car, he found a beautiful Bahama Yel­low 1967 912 with mostly original paint. The car had covered just 92,000 miles, and the paint was still shiny. The original owners, Larry and Linda Shepard, had just sold the pretty 912 to Craig Smith, a local Porsche mechanic. There were no signs of rust, and the car still had its five-speed 901 transmission as ordered. Pomares went for the deal.

WHILE POLOPOLUS WORKED ON THE ENGINE, Pomares created a list of what he felt the chassis would need. That list never seemed to shrink over the following two years, this despite the fact that parts were being installed as quickly as the UPS man could deliver them.

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“Almost everything is custom-built to have the same look as the era in which this car was originally made,” says Pomares, who readily admits he’s gone overboard this time. “People have asked me my whole life why I do what I do. I’ve never felt the need to fit in. I’ve always asked in return, ‘Why didn’t someone do this before?’”

He proved his need to buck traditional thinking by completely disassembling the bench-like front seats and redesigning them for more support and safety. The side bolsters were reinforced up top for more torso comfort while the sides of the lower cushions were built up for more support.

“Before the seats were modified, I felt like I was sitting on a marshmallow,” says Pomares. He also replaced the 1967 headrest bars with stainless-steel stanchions that attach at four reinforced points, and then designed a much stronger hinge for reclining and folding the seats. He commissioned Auto Weave Uphol­stery in Denver to rebuild and recover the semi-buckets. To add a European flair to the cabin, a Scot­tish Buchanan tartan plaid pattern was selected by Martha. New three-point seatbelts finish the seating improvements.

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Pomares had North Holly­wood Speedo­meter rebuild the original five-gauge cluster, an option on 912s. The gauge next to the tachometer is now a combo unit with readings for volts, oil temperature, oil pressure, and fuel level. The speedometer has been converted from a top speed of 120 to 150 mph, and there’s an outside temperature gauge at the far left. The tachometer has a red zone starting at 7200 rpm, with a red needle in place of the stock green one.

The list of upgrades to the chassis goes on. Elephant Racing supplied external oil lines and a fender-mounted Carrera oil cooler. GBox of Boulder, Colorado built up a 901 transmission using a magnesium 914 case, a 1969-71 nose cone, custom hybrid flanges, a Wavetrac limited-slip differential, revised gear ratios (A, GA, N, U, ZG), and a lightweight starter.

To slow the car down, Pomares chose to use custom-sized, vented brake rotors with lightweight, period Brembo front calipers from PMB Performance in Sandy, Utah. The calipers feature 908-style, U-shaped brake pad pins. Jim Lyon of Trudesign Wheel in Denver added a half inch to the inside rim of 16×6-inch Fuchs to allow 205/55R16 tires to fit the rear of the narrow body with five-millimeter spacers. Al Reed of Los Angeles refinished the custom wheels as well as another pair of stock 16×6s to replicate “flat” 15×6 Fuchs wheels. 195/55R16-sized Bridgestone Potenza RE760 tires are mounted up front.

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The suspension modifications are fairly mild. 911 SC 19- and 24-mm torsion bars replace the stock 18-mm front/23-mm rear setup. New Koni dampers were inserted, as were 15-mm front and rear factory anti-roll bars. Finally, Elephant Racing’s rubber suspension bushings were selected for their combination of precision and compliance.

Since much of the car’s paint was original, the body was left essentially untouched. The chrome bumperettes are earlier versions without rubber guards while the rear license panel is a custom piece. Though Pomares did much of the work himself, he is quick to credit others. He says Brad Burry of Race­Kraft & Design in Engle­wood completed fabrication of the engine crossbar and other items. Reed Quinn installed the drive­train, while Dave DiMaria of nearby Vintage Car Works handled final preparation, including fabricating the rear engine tin and detailing the car.

When the 2400.2-cc engine was completed, it featured twin-plug 993 cylinder heads with titanium valves, 100-mm 993 pistons and cylinders, and 74.6-mm Pauter connecting rods. Four 50-mm TWM throttle bodies feed the big-valve heads, while an Electromotive Tec-GT ECU with a Clewett crank-fire trigger handles engine management. Richard Clewett of Clewett Engi­neering in Manhattan Beach, Califor­nia flew to Colorado to dyno-tune the four.

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With 1.75-inch headers and a stock 911 muffler, the 2.4-liter Polo produced 127 lb-ft and 148 hp at the rear wheels, according to Pomares. That test occurred at 5,900 feet in Den­ver; adjusting for sea level and correcting for a crank reading, Pomares estimates the numbers are 208 hp at 6700 rpm and 170 lb-ft of torque at 5300 rpm — not bad for a 2,100-pound car that he says is capable of 33 mpg on the freeway.

WHEN I MEET UP WITH POMARES, the slow drawl I heard over the phone makes perfect sense. He’s an ex-ski bum/ surfer dude who thinks everything through methodically. His car, the result of long planning, sits gleaming in the pre-dawn light with its dainty fog lights and chrome trim twinkling.

A DP902-1 number graces the engine compartment, a “2,4 Polo” badge is affixed to the rear grill, and a “912P” badge stands proudly on the deck lid. The trick engine, with its vintage Claude’s Buggies air filters, has some serious cool-factor going on.

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As I use a normal 50-mm lens to shoot all of the photos, I wonder if I’ve seen a more beautiful example of a 912 coupe. Its original color is stunning, and its stance appears perfect for rural roads, with a rakish attitude and adequate ground clearance. When I’m done gawking, I ask for the keys. Before handing them over, Pomares asks the question that’s been on his mind for years: “What if you could have 911 power and 912 balance? Wouldn’t that fill the need for the propulsion of the upper-end 911 series yet retain the handling of the 912?” I guess I’m about to find out.

Even at an altitude of 4,300 feet, this 912 pulls like a freight train from a dead stop. The strong push in your back will have you believing there’s a hot-rod flat six behind you. It feels like a 2.4-liter 911E on steroids, with a flatter torque curve and more grunt throughout the rev range, especially from 4500 to 6500 rpm. It is not unlike a stock 3.2-liter Carrera flat six.

The sound it makes is glorious, with a snappy bark that bounces off the canyon walls. Pull the slick shifter straight back from second to third and you get that same effortless, linear thrust all over again — with no reduction in acceleration. The willing powerplant gets a second wind at 5900 rpm and pulls hard right up to the 7200-rpm redline. This is no underdog.

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Back in second gear to carve through yet another curve, the Koni dampers — set to their middle range — feel ideal. The sense that the car has been fully sorted is undeniable. There are no squeaks, annoying rattles, or unwanted noises anywhere. The controls are butter smooth, with no slop. It’s among the very tightest classic Porsches I’ve driven. The grippy tires stretched over wide rims are unbendingly planted, and the chassis remains flat in the curves.

There’s less tendency towards oversteer in this 912 compared to a short-wheelbase 911, and it’s a touch nimbler. The resulting confidence inspired by this stable platform is welcoming. Even though I’m unfamiliar with the car, I never feel like I’m in the wrong gear or lacking for power when I need it. Speaking of gears, spacing of the ratios could not be better, and the tall fifth gear is perfect for freeway cruising.

You sit high in the seats, but their tall side bolsters keep you supported and their tartan plaid inserts add flavor to the experience — complementing the OJ-colored exterior perfectly. The big wood steering wheel is perfectly appropriate, and the plaques and decals speak of times past and present. The custom gauges, wood shift knob, brushed-aluminum dash, and vintage radio complete the look. The only thing that’s out of place is the passenger-side mirror, which is so small and low that the only one who can actually use it is the passenger. I love it.

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As early 911 prices head for the stratosphere, the 912’s elegant simplicity becomes even more appealing. It has the same alluring lines as the 911, and the view inside the cabin is essentially identical. And, with a Polo motor thoughtfully placed in back, you’d be hard pressed to tell any difference in performance — though you might be traveling faster through the corners.

Polo motors may not come cheap, but “handles like a 912, goes like a 911” certainly has a certain ring to it…

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  • PCA Parade Autocross in an early 911
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