1967. A TIME OF WAR. A SUMMER OF LOVE. A YEAR DEEMED BY MANY as the most groundbreaking in pop culture, film, and music. Screaming Yellow Zonkers was first with a snack to feature wild pop art on its packaging. A movie called Bonnie and Clyde lit up drive-in screens, paving the way for graphic Hollywood films like The Godfather. And, when Light My Fire by L.A. rock group The Doors topped Billboard’s popularity chart, it forever changed the sound of conventional pop songs.
Far from California, in Stuttgart, Germany, more lights were burning late into the night. A young Austrian engineer named Ferdinand Piëch was pushing for an ultra-light 911 variant. Grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, Piëch was the head of Porsche’s R&D department at the time, and the sleek and sexy “911R” he envisioned would eventually serve as a template for every racing 911 ever made.
The R stood for Rennen — German for Racing. The 911R would never be homologated for GT racing, though, because that would have required a production run of 500 cars — and Porsche’s sales department declined to approve production. A mere 24 911Rs were made in an exercise to find out just how light a 911 could be made. The target was 1,800 pounds.
An all-out assault was launched. Fiberglass panels were used everywhere: hood, rear decklid, bumpers, front fenders, and doors. Epoxy door handles, lightweight hinges, and rubber hood latches were chosen. Tiny indicator lights were fit in place of larger housings. Window winders and door panels were absent. Plexiglas was used instead of glass for all but the windshield, itself thinner than stock. No sound deadening, underseal, or trim was applied to the stripped bodies. Paint was minimal.
Inside, the lightest possible seats were used, the floorboards were drilled, and the bare-metal panels were painted black. An external oil filler leading to an aluminum tank just ahead of the right rear wheel was specified. Subtle flares accommodated race tires mounted on 15×6-inch Fuchs up front and wider 15×7s in the rear.
Of the 24 911Rs made, four were prototypes configured at Porsche’s experimental department, and the other 20 production models were built at the nearby Karl Baur Company. The majority of 911Rs were painted Light Ivory, although examples were made in red, orange, yellow, gold, gray, and blue. Production 911Rs weighed 1,810 pounds when completed (the prototypes were about 45 pounds lighter), and most had a Type 901/22 motor.
The 901/22 was a high-compression, twin-plug, 1991-cc flat six similar to the racing 906’s. With larger than stock valves, race cams, and a smaller fan, this powerplant had the potential to develop 210 hp at 8000 rpm thanks to 46 IDA Weber carburetors and a straight-through exhaust.
The production 911Rs were numbered 11899001R through 11899020R. The first of these, 11899001R, was driven from Stuttgart to Monza in October 1967, where it arrived just in time for the 96-hour race, collecting multiple world records. It replaced a broken 906 and averaged 130 mph over a distance of 20,000 kilometers (Excellence December 2001).
Of the four 911R prototypes that were constructed, the last was chassis 307670, today known as R4. Although all the 911R prototypes started out as 1967 911S models, R4 and R3 have no “S” where the number is stamped into the trunk frame above the fuel tank. Also noteworthy is R4’s color. In a Porsche document dated August 14, 1967, it is listed as being painted Zitronengelg (Lemon Yellow).
R4 appears to have a special place in Porsche history, although its race history was minimal. It’s rumored to be the 911R sent to Baur as a template for the production cars. Although unconfirmed, this makes sense, since R4 wasn’t delivered to the French Sonauto dealer until 1969. Apparently, the importer sold it to a concessionaire in the south of France that year, but the buyer couldn’t make the monthly payments. Records indicate the yellow 911R was to be auctioned on October 15, 1970. It was stolen the night before.
R4 was discovered in March of 1971 with broken connecting rods and missing seats. From there it remained in storage in France until reappearing in 1990. After being sold to a U.K. collector, it was refurbished and subsequently auctioned at a Christie’s Monterey, California sale in 2006. It was then restored in 2008-2009 at Bruce Canepa’s facility in nearby Scotts Valley, California. After that, it went into a private collection.
Terry English of Santa Barbara, California was blown away by R4’s glowing, bright yellow presence when he saw it at Canepa’s shop in August 2009. He had already built a 911R clone based on a long-wheelbase 1970 911T but wasn’t entirely happy with the result. This time, he vowed to start with a non-sunroof, short-wheelbase car and complete an R4 tribute — and do it for less than $25,000 total.
It took English two years to find the right donor car. “Shortly after Rennsport Reunion IV in the fall of 2011, I bumped into a fellow who had an old race car for sale in my home town of Santa Barbara,” recalls English. “When I went to look at the car, I found a neglected ’67 roller that was half 912 and half 911.”
“The owner was Ludwig Modl, an older Austrian gentleman who had raced Porsches in California during the 1970s and was now moving to Germany,” he continues. “According to Vasek Polak’s racing/parts director, Carl Thompson, this car was most likely one of the 912s that was converted to 911 race spec at Angelo Mezzaloni’s old shop in nearby Ventura. Modl says that he bought the 912 from Mezzaloni in the mid-’70s and subsequently rolled it at Riverside Raceway. A new roof was purchased from Dennis Aase and installed. Then it was crashed again, and a front nose from a ’69 911 was substituted.”
Most folks would look at an old, beat up race car like that and run in the opposite direction. English felt compelled to investigate further. “The shell was sitting on four flat tires, in primer, and covered with a thick layer of dust,” he says. “It had a 912 VIN, 458886, but the engine, transmission, interior, and glass were long gone. On closer inspection I could see where a roll bar and 911 motor had been. There was a dead pedal, a 100-liter gas tank, and 911R-style rear flares. Additional parts to be included were a pair of dusty Recaro race seats with corduroy insets, a smashed factory roll bar, a 10K tach, and 150-mph speedo. For $5,000, everything could be mine.”
Knowing the parts alone were worth more than the car’s asking price, English struck a deal and hauled everything back to his shop to begin work. Of course, he still needed an engine, a gearbox, wheels, and all the parts that make up a 911R replica. He also needed to do all the body modifications and paint the car.
English’s goal was to be done with the car in time for the R Gruppe Treffen in May 2012. Since the club was named for the 911R, it only seemed fitting. He had six months and $20,000 left.
Once he stripped all the primer off the car, English could see where the new roof, front end, and rear flares had been neatly welded in. Considering what it had been through, the body was remarkably rust free and straight. From there it was just a matter of inserting a 911R-style oil filler into the right rear quarter panel, closing up both rear fenders to accept 911R taillights, and adding the appropriate fiberglass doors, front fenders, hood, rear decklid, bumpers, and dashboard. Easy.
Fortunately, English already had several of the fiberglass pieces, having collected them at swap meets over the years. He had even traded one of his vintage surfboards for a pair of plastic 911R doors that fit perfectly. The front fenders would prove more difficult: Hard as he tried — and English has years of experience shaping fiberglass surfboards — he couldn’t get them to work. He finally resorted to grafting metal fender material into the fiberglass pieces for the surfaces and gaps to appear correct.
Fast and frugal were the project’s watchwords over the next five months. English didn’t have the budget for a 901/22 motor or a five-speed 901 with a 904 mainshaft, ZF limited-slip diff, and special gears. But he did have access to some affordable alternatives. Luckily, when he sold his 1970 911T to fund his new project, the buyer didn’t need its engine, transaxle, or wheels.
English’s 911R tribute motor would be a hopped-up, single-plug 2.2 with 911E camshafts built by Bill Adams of Burbank. 40 IDA Weber carburetors were supplied by Brian Lum, rain shields came from Greg Young, and the muffler would be a B&K with dual outlets painted gray. 160 hp was the conservative estimated power output. Joe Schneider at Schneider Autohaus in Santa Barbara had already rebuilt the five-speed 901 transaxle, and the “Deep 6” and “7R-style” 15-inch Fuchs came from Harvey Weidman of Oroville, California. Factory aluminum lug nuts were used after their ends were machined off.
With the crucial drivetrain and wheels transferred over to his new project, all of English’s worries seemed to be behind him. If only life were that simple…
Tracking down the remaining pieces that would take his project beyond the previous one might be challenging in the time remaining. Or would it? Luckily, the global early 911 community is small, and English has many friends.
Since the primary visual cues of a 911R are its external oil filler, plastic louvered rear quarter windows, and built-in indicator lights, English had to make sure these were as authentic as possible. Californian Brad Davis provided a reproduction aluminum 911R oil tank with the correct dimensions, baffles, and cap — made after he researched a real 911R oil tank and got input from fellow 911R enthusiast Ernie Wilberg. Dave Bouzaglou at TRE Motorsports in North Hollywood supplied reproduction Plexiglas windows, plastic door handles, decklid hinges and straps, a replica 911R roll bar, front indicator lights, and more.
An original 911R hood latch was sourced from a gentleman in Germany who had the correct, barrel-shaped rubber strap. The rear lights were a swap-meet find and are the correct color of amber on the outside and amber and red on the inside. At a Los Angeles literature meet, English was able to buy real factory 911R decals. Early Euro headlights using clear U.S. glass lenses were installed, though English plans to swap them for clear Plexiglas lenses eventually, because that’s what R4 wears.
The steering wheel is a Monza repro sans horn button from Bob Aines of Zuffenhaus. A correct, on-the-dash 911R-style horn button came courtesy of Andy Boyle in the U.K., and the distinctive dual-ignition switches were found online from a seller in Finland. Amazingly, English’s ’67 912 already had 911R-style holes in the dash where the horn button and ignition switches would go.
Like R4, the car has a 100-liter, steel fuel tank with a short fuel-filler neck, not one recessed into the front lid as commonly seen on the production 911Rs. The car also has its gas gauge deleted, so a wooden ruler is used and an amber light goes on when the fuel level gets low. A cargo net from a Toyota dealer completes the front trunk.
The winter of 2011-2012 was spent finessing fiberglass panels as well as crafting the oil-filler hole, front vents, and indicator-light receptacles. After primering and block-sanding the car, English was ready to apply paint. He chose Ferrari Fly Yellow in lacquer, a less expensive but close match to the bold, almost fluorescent lemon yellow used on R4 as restored by Canepa.
“I shot paint in my garage during March 2012 using plastic sheeting and a gravity feed spray gun,” says English. “I put down about nine good coats so I’d have plenty of material to color-sand and buff. The door jams, engine bay, and trunk were painted in matte black to emulate the finish of R4.”
When the project was finished, English took it to a local transfer station with a quarter-tank of gas. The weight scale reading caught him out: 1,786 pounds. “I knew it was light, I just didn’t know it was that light,” exclaims English gleefully. “It’s exactly what the real 911 R4 weighs!”
So what about the R Gruppe’s May 2012 Treffen? English’s car was ready — finished under budget with three days to spare. It proved a hit in Solvang, winning the club’s most coveted “GT” award.
Stepping into this 912-turned-911R, I’m immediately reminded of the saying, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” This is a poster child for Porsche purity. It lacks any pretension of amenities. There is no carpet, no headliner, no passenger sun visor, no glovebox door, no radio, no clock, no ashtray, and definitely no cup holders. The seats have great patina, with faded corduroy centers. A thick rubber strap keeps the featherweight door from opening too far.
Seated firmly in the spartan cabin, my gaze falls on the three-gauge instrument panel dominated by a 10,000-rpm tach, which is urging me to find a reason to exercise it. Upon turning the slim ignition key, the sensation of a tin can with an engine attached is overwhelming. As the revs climb, an angry beast behind me is trying to get out. With each swing of the tach needle, its scream rises in pitch, accompanied by a raspy racket that keeps growing edgier and harsher.
There doesn’t seem to be a muffler.
Five minutes into my test drive, I’m convinced there isn’t. I’m also convinced this is the lightest 912 or 911 I have driven. The usual adjectives attributed to early 911s — agile, responsive, nimble, tossable — lose all relative meaning. Piloting a car this light is a singular experience. The connection between car and driver is sublime. As soon as I begin an input, the car completes my intention. Instantly, I’m rewarded with what I wish for. It’s like winning the lottery, over and over again.
Some might consider a narrow-body, short-wheelbase 911 like this dainty — or argue that more modern and capable Porsches outclass it. Such talk would fall on deaf ears this day. This is a Porsche that feels noticeably less numb and far more involving than any GT3 I’ve driven. It’s also a car that can be taken closer to its limit at real-world speeds. When longtime enthusiasts sit around and reminisce about pure 911s, this is the one they are describing.
Even with a passenger on board and 50 fewer horses than a 911R, this 912 continues to impress with each eager blast down a straightaway or razor-sharp turn. The 2.2 provides ample torque and doesn’t need to be taken above 6000 rpm like a real 911R. The five-speed 901 is unexpectedly tight, with an engaging mechanical quality. The modern yet modest tires, sized 205/55R15, provide plenty of grip. And the chassis, with 911S brakes, 18-mm/23-mm torsion bars, Koni shocks, and 15-mm front and rear anti-roll bars, proves a perfect match.
The chassis plate may read 912, but it doesn’t matter. Almost 500 pounds lighter than a ’67 911S with similar horsepower and torque, this Porsche moves out unlike any stock early 911 I’ve driven. With a total investment of under $25,000, well, you’d be hard pressed to find a better return on your investment these days.
It’s a perfect example of what can be done when you put your mind to it. Others are sure to follow, especially as they consider the advantages of working within a budget. English welcomes that. “I hope to light a fire under people out there to do as much of the work as they can by themselves,” he says. “It’s not only fun, it’s enjoyable once you get into it — and you can save heaps of money.”