Blue-Chip RS Resto

Sweating the details, even when they're not perfect

Blue-Chip RS Resto 0
March 4, 2013

“Yeah, that part of the project turned out a little nicer than we had hoped,” reflected Tony Smetona as I examined the jambs around the engine opening.

Hmmm, that’s a perplexing statement coming from someone who was entrusted with the restoration of an extremely desirable automobile. Don’t construe this to mean that Tony and his partner Richard Humphrey had low expectations when they began the restoration of RS #9113600635. Rather, think of it as a telling commentary on how difficult it can be to balance high-quality restoration work and customer expectation while thoughtfully replicating the methods and, yes, even the flaws incorporated in a production Porsche of the 1960s and ’70s.

The 1973 Carrera RS just might be the most discussed Porsche model of all time. It was a huge hit when it was introduced to the press 40 years ago, and since then the Carrera has maintained its status as “the” blue-chip collectible in the 911 catalog. Thousands, perhaps millions, of words have been penned about the history, philosophy, development process and subsequent success of the RS. Instead of retelling the legend, we will focus on how a planner, two talented craftsmen and a willing benefactor (cue generic bank-caper movie theme music) teamed up to push the outer limits of the restoration craft and redefine obsessive-compulsive behavior as it applies to Porsches.

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The project began with Bill Morris, an amateur vintage racing driver and professional neurosurgeon from Tacoma, Washington. Bill wanted to scratch the 2.7 Carrera itch that had been working on him for a while. Knowing there were a lot of questionable cars out there, Bill reached out to Dirk Layer to help find a “no stories” example. Dirk has been surrounded by Porsches since childhood and as a youth developed a passion for authenticity and an appetite for the coolest of cool early Porsches. Even in his early twenties, Dirk had the vision that most of have just only in hindsight. He was vintage racing a 911R at a time when many Porsche hobbyists had never even heard of the rare racing 911. Much of Dirk’s time nowadays is spent locating, inspecting and vetting special cars

(particularly Porsches) for a refined clientele. He has an eye for detail and little patience for cars that are billed as restorations but under closer examination are found lacking in the accuracy he insists upon for his clients.

Fortuitously, about the time Bill went looking for a good RS, Dirk had just obtained a car that he had been chasing for quite a while. It was an early second-series Italian delivery car that had been owned by three individuals (two in Italy and one in the U.S.). The car itself was not especially remarkable, delivered in the fairly common combination of Grand Prix White with blue trim. More important than color and options was that it was a well-maintained, numbers-matching car with an excellent history. It was the perfect car for Bill.

Blue-Chip RS Resto 2

If you have restored a car, you know how difficult it can be to find a restoration shop that is honest and reliable, willing to listen to direction and able to finish a project to a high standard in a reasonable amount of time. Now imagine if you are shopping not for your own project but for multiple projects belonging to a demanding clientele. The pressure increases! This was exactly the situation Dirk faced when he stumbled across two guys in Southern California who were turning out stellar restorations after work in the evenings. In fact, one of these “amateur” restorations that caught Dirk’s eye had just taken Best of Show at the Dana Point 356 concours.

Of the pair, Tony is the pragmatist. He is a former Formula Atlantic crew chief and self-taught paint and body man with chops in that realm that match his suspension and set-up skills. Richie is more the “Rainman” type. He studies hardware plating, inspection marks and undercoating texture obsessively. Need to know what style of fender bolt was used on a specific year? Richie can tell you along with the type of washer and the kind of plating used.

Faced with more than a little encouragement from Layer, the pair quit their day jobs and opened a shop in southern Orange County. Few know the shop even exists. There is no sign on the door and, curiously, the business doesn’t even have a name. Dirk keeps them busy with his clients’ cars, and word of mouth fills in the rest.

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Dirk, Tony and Richard buck tradition in the vintage Porsche scene by being craftsmen who don’t simply restore a car but aim to document and reproduce factory imperfections and assembly processes. Recognizing that these were production cars, this team is motivated not by “shiny” restorations where every bolt is plated, undercoating has sharp cut lines and raw metal is clearcoated. Instead, they replicate how the cars were when they were delivered from the factory, faithfully reproducing textures and finishes and including all the little imperfections. Case in point: the engine compartment jamb mentioned at the top of the story. As delivered from Stuttgart, these jambs were a bit rough, with seam sealer smeared into the top corners (likely by a workman’s thumb) and often haphazardly painted. That’s a detail tough to replicate — emotionally and technically.

When asked about their passion for accuracy, Dirk stated, “There is no such thing as almost correct. It’s either right, or it isn’t. People over-restore these cars and then justify it by saying, ‘Well, that’s how the factory would have done it if they could have.’ I disagree. The factory did things the way they did them. Anything different is revisionist history! It’s just as easy to do these things right as it is to do them wrong.”

This philosophy may not sit well with everyone. Yet in person it comes off as sincere and logical, not arrogant. Yes, the team is proud of its work and eager to point out the little details that in many cases aren’t noticed let alone replicated, but with this enthusiasm comes an admittance there are still things to be learned. No doubt somebody will study these details and clarify or improve on them in some future project. It’s also understood that many couldn’t care less about date codes, inspection marks and 100-percent accuracy — and that is okay. The controversy arises when claims of originality or accuracy don’t match reality. So, for the time being, this 1973 2.7 RS might well be the standard for the especially pedantic among us.

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Need an example? Where to start? How about the tiny welds that lock the rear peak of the front fenders to the cowl? After setting the fender gaps, but prior to painting, the factory would tack-weld the fenders to the cowl to hold everything in place. These welds are seen in most early 911s that haven’t had their fenders removed. Another example: Examin-ations of other low-mileage, unrestored 911s showed that where wiring passed through the body, (for example, headlight wire holes in the inner front fenders, bottom of the headlight buckets, etc.), the factory placed carelessly torn bits of masking tape over the holes prior to undercoating. After undercoating, the tape was removed and the chassis was painted, leaving a small, smooth surface around the hole so the rubber wiring sheaths could snap into place without interference from the undercoating. Sometimes, as noted on some of the data point cars, even a corner or chunk of tape remained beneath the paint. Each of these details was replicated on the RS.

The obsession continues into the interior. Noting that the original sound deadening on the floors had a pattern of connecting hexagonal impressions, Tony had a die manufactured that when heated would replicate this exact pattern. When examining an original carpet set, he also noticed the vinyl grommets behind the pedals didn’t wrap around to the back side, leaving a somewhat raw edge of vinyl, jute padding and carpet where the pedal arm passes through. Modern reproductions are finished to a much higher standard, with the cut-outs for the pedals neatly rolled under and sewn. So, when Autobahn Interiors was commissioned to sew a new carpet kit, there was some convincing required before they agreed to perform “inferior” work for the sake of originality.

This obsession for accuracy carried on to locating the correct parts for the RS. Date-stamped hood struts…check! Date-tagged seatbelts with the correct Euro orange tracer woven through the center…check! Lightweight RS-only steering wheel horn butterfly…check! Wait, you ask, what’s special about the RS horn butterfly? Most are unaware that Porsche made exact copies of the normal steel horn butterfly out of lightweight plastic for the RS. These are rarely seen; they had the structural integrity of a rice noodle, and few survived the first frustrated toot of the horn.

Blue-Chip RS Resto 5

So, what is it like to drive a “brand-new” 1973 Carrera RS? Preparing to leave the shop parking lot, a childhood memory came to mind. When I was young, we had a family friend, an elderly widow. A visit to her lovely home was like a trip to children’s prison. The pathways from room to room were delineated by clear plastic runners. Exposed carpeting was light colored, and the nap was raked to military-spec perfection. The furniture was slipcovered as the final defense against dust, lint and rough clothing. Your surroundings were to be looked at but never touched. There would be no play, no fun, no unnecessary moving about.

That’s exactly how it feels! I have driven some pretty cool cars in the past. Some have been more valuable, more powerful or more historically significant…but none were this perfect, this new, this virginal. C’mon, the floor pan and fenderwells are glossy white! Tossing this car around on a twisty California road is akin to wearing a white tuxedo to a Carolina BBQ restaurant. Sure, you can, but really…?

So yes, I was a bit hesitant as I shut the door and heard that “ping” that always reminds me of the sound of a well-hit golf ball. A slight tug of the hand throttle and twist of the key caused an immediate response as the 2.7-liter flat six barked to life. First impression: That’s one well-dialed mechanical fuel-injection system. It started quickly, even when stone cold, without the plumes of over-rich exhaust and surging idle often found during the cold-start phase of these MFI cars. Asked about it later, Richard admitted to spending “a lot of time” getting it tuned exactly to factory specification.

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Running through the gears slowly, waiting for operating temps to come up to a reasonable level, I began to sense what made the 2.7 Carrera so desirable in the early ’70s and why they achieved such legendary status. This is a remarkably balanced package. It starts with the engine. Before the 2.7 RS came along, top-range Porsches had effervescent and peaky little engines that needed to rev before they made any useable power. The 2.7, with its longer 70.4mm crankshaft and 90mm pistons, changed this philosophy slightly, moving the powerband down and creating torque unlike anything Porsche drivers had experienced. It created a more comfortable car to drive quickly. So, no, it doesn’t rev quite as quickly as, say, a 2.0 S, but it begins to pull lower in the power-band and piles on speed at a quicker rate as it heads toward redline.

Once up to temp, the quality of this package is further clarified. The handling is superb. Yes, at that stock ride height there is noticeable body roll, but it doesn’t wallow about like your grandmother’s de Ville. It works well and doesn’t beat you to death while doing so. Body roll and tire deflection are foreign ideas in today’s era of huge swaybars and 40-series rubber. But back in the ’60s and ’70s even race cars had quite a bit of movement in their suspension and tires. Classic photos of early 911s carrying the inside wheel through a fast turn illustrate this nicely. Even period Formula 1 cars had what would now seem excessive body roll until aerodynamics forced builders to stiffen chassis so they wouldn’t “unstick” the ground effects while cornering.

Tony shared an insightful theory on the nose-high stance and soft suspension Porsche designed into the Carrera RS. “Those German engineers knew what they were doing. I think that they set the spring rates, shock valving and ride

Blue-Chip RS Resto 7

height where they did because that was where it worked best with the tires they had at the time. As time went by, owners and enthusiasts began to lower the cars, install stiffer torsion bars and lower profile tires, and I’m not convinced that it was the right thing to do, especially for a street car.”

This comment stays with me as I drive the car and becomes even more relevant when I am hustled around by Dirk Layer at a considerably faster pace. Yes, the car is very comfortable, not beating you up like some more stiffly suspended 911s I have experienced, but it is quick, too. The RS sprints from one corner to the next, changing direction with very predictable slip angles. You wouldn’t describe it as being “on rails”; instead, this is a car that wants to be tossed around a little bit, all the while making you feel very much in control and confident that you will get plenty of warning before the back end tries to get away. It really makes one wonder if sometimes we don’t overthink the suspension on these old cars.

After returning from our drive, we take the car to another photo location and get some final shots. Looking through the long telephoto lens, I’m struck by how perfectly straight the single-stage Grand Prix white bodywork really is. I have seen many cars where each panel – fender, door, quarter-panel – has been made perfectly straight individually, but not as a complete unit. The resulting reflections in the paintwork tend to jog and change planes as they cross from one panel to the next. In contrast, the reflections in the side of the RS have perfect continuity from front to back with only tiny breaks at the door gaps. The trick for a really straight 911, explained Tony, is to mock up the car completely during the bodywork stage with a set of new sacrificial door and hood seals as well as window frames (prior to re-anodizing) and the same latches and hinges as will be used during final assembly. With the panels fitted perfectly, the car is block sanded as a unit before blowing it apart and prepping for paint. This adds labor and expense, but the result makes a compelling argument for the procedure.

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Continuing the mantra of “factory correct,” the trunk area and underside were not slathered in thick coats of color or, heaven forbid, clearcoated. That’s not how Porsche delivered the car. Instead, these areas received a thin coat of white with hints of gray sealer primer peeking through in the crevices or in the shadows of pinch seams and flanges. Some may cringe, but that’s the way it was originally. No revisionist history here.

So what does one do with arguably the most pristine restored ’73 2.7 Carrera RS? Currently it is parked most of the time. There are a handful of concours events in its future, and it needs to remain as perfect as possible, at least for the time being. It’s a tough time for Bill, who admits that once in a while he sneaks it out of the garage and takes it for short drives around town. While talking with Bill about the car, he reminded me of his occupation, saying, “That’s probably why I had the car restored the way I did. I like to concentrate on the details.”

With that said, this is also the guy who had the RS completely sideways during his maiden drive. This “show-car” period is destined to be short lived. Bill is a racer at heart, and he knows that a 73 Carrera RS isn’t a car to be coddled like fine art. Many concours show cars have the reputation, right or wrong, of being all fluff and no substance, likely unable to drive home if they had to. Bill’s RS is dialed, meaning that keeping it in the garage is even more of a challenge. After all, this is a car that Porsche expected to be driven hard, and you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to understand that!

Blue-Chip RS Resto 9

Also from Issue 209

  • Craig Porter's dream car, by 911 Design
  • A sexier body wrapped around Carrera power
  • Dual-purpose 944 S2, 911 SC and Boxster
  • A state of the art twin-turbo mind-blower
  • A primer on choosing the right rubber
  • Stacy Schulman wanted only the best
  • Charles Faroux, Porsche's French connection
  • How to make sure your machinery is fit
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