Toy Cannon

A 1967 911 with less than 25,000 miles on the odometer

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May 29, 2013

Like the Chicago Bears’ immortal “Toy Cannon,” Walter Payton, the first 911 was compact, fast, irresistibly likeable.

It was 1965, and Porsche had really stepped in it. We all knew it. Our favorite boutique Swabian car-maker had taken away the Type 356 and was asking us to love the brand-new Type 901. But the 901—“911,” Porsche insisted—contained none of the curvaceous simpatico, none of the smiley-faced aero quaintness of the 356! The wedge-y new car had all the charm of a kitchen appliance. Zuffenhausen, turn back to the 356…now!

G.M. would.

It’s not easy being a Porsche product planner. Porsche owners view all change with anguish. Eyes roll. Hands wring. We love only what we’re used to. You can hardly blame Porsche, then, if they pay no attention to our grousing. We have no vision beyond the present.

But we were back in the mid 1960s, and Porsche was going to hell. Come to that, everything was going to hell: Vietnam, war in the streets, the complete collapse of personal grooming. That was when James T. Crow, editor of Road & Track, phoned one sunny day to say I must write a “Sports Car Country” touring story chronicling the twisty back roads, pastoral oddities and winsome steak houses of California’s Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo quadrant. And instead of me using my ’54 1500 Super Cabriolet, he volunteered fine photographer Cam Warren to chauffeur, shoot, and drive us in his brand-new red, yes, 911.

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“Well,” I said, “if he must.”

Cam stipulated an early Sunday morning start up Highway 101, “before Big John and Farmer John were up and around.” Wise stratagem. Rising through the elegant swaying bends of Gaviota Pass into the highlands, his 1966 911 moved with speed and ease. It was only then that I saw we were going 120. Nice. My 1500 Super wouldn’t go that fast downhill in an avalanche, not without spitting out a piston and a quart of balsamic vinegar dressing. This 2.2-liter six, though, loved it. I asked Cam how much more it had.

“Enough,” he said, not feeling the need to prove it.

“This is wonderful,” I said, and meant it.

The engine made that wonderful tearing-silk sound early 911s make, game for more. Summiting Gaviota Pass, simultaneously, I was transported far beyond 356 country. It would be forever before I could afford one, but a 911 was high on my to-own list.

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Time In A Bottle

Decades later—indeed, just a few days ago—I stood in a cinderblock wonder-garage in Marblehead, Massachusetts. The car in front of me was an untouched—I said, untouched—1967 911. It had done a scant 24,732 miles total and fairly howled it! It also had that understated coolness about it that had annoyed us 356 owners long ago. It showed none of the let’s-go-to-the-beachness both my 356s had had…and in this wonder-garage, there were several 356s for comparison.

By the same token, the ’67 before me had none of the lavish voluptuousness of the 2013 911 Carrera 4S I’d driven to Marblehead from New York this spring day. The C4S is a “showgoyl”—buxom, slim waist, high-performance tuchus, ready to please. By contrast with the adults-only 991, this ’67 is showered, powdered, primped, wearing pedal pushers—and yet….

And yet after first seeing this delicate little car three months ago, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Alex Finigan, its beaming proprietor, master of the dozen or so other treasures in this fantasy garage, is a ranking member of the elite Paul Russell Gullwing restoration shops in nearby Essex. As winners of multiple Pebble Beach Best In Show trophies, they know when a good car is good—and Alex will tell you his ’67 is among the very goodest. It’s so good that three months ago when I wanted to do a story on it, it was impossible. Winter was outside, threatening all manner of fall-on-your-ass gracelessness. And that’s not to mention the chassis-dissolving Highway Dept. dry goods, ready to dissolve this 1967 starlet like a cube of sugar at Starbucks. Even in the present struggling spring, neither a raindrop nor an inch of wet pavement are permitted to annoy this frozen-in-amber debutante.

But it was bone dry outdoors. Huzzah. I’ll get my short, necessarily ceremonial drive in Alex’s 46-year-old teenager, taking a savory sip from this vintage jeroboam.

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Older Than Springtime

The most striking thing about the ’67, particularly compared with the lavish C4S, is how small, understated, even delicate, it is. It’s pleasingly little, words that simply won’t wrap around the meaty, grumbly 991. The two are clearly of the same lineage, but only if you look beneath their vastly different presentations. From an engineering standpoint, their similarities are clear only when you consider their basic architecture.

The interesting thing about this ’67 is that in 1966 Cam Warren’s car seemed cold and uninviting, yet after a moment in Alex Finigan’s garage, the ’67 seems unspeakably “sweet.” Everything about it is modest and welcoming. Its lines are graceful and, in some inexplicable way, vulnerable, like the lines, say, of the earliest 924s. After 50 years, of course, huge changes take place in one’s automotive sensibilities. Everything we thought about the first 901s has been transformed by decades of race-winning, boulevard-bashing, gorgeous 911s that everyone with a pulse would like to own. Those initial impressions, earnestly held, must go under If Knew Then What I Know Now.

The 901 is a 911 but an infant 911. It’s properly equipped, but it’s just beginning to find its way genetically. Finigan’s car, for example, has Fuchs wheels (as would early 911s for another decade). However, his are among the very first Fuchs wheels and are completely unadorned. They have no highly polished surfaces, no black-out backgrounds. It’s as if the makers thought they’d done a pretty good job so far, but they couldn’t decide yet how to make their wheels really pop. Unadorned, these Fuchs look unusual, knowing what was done later, yet they still look great. Finigan also has a set of original chromed pressed-steel wheels—with the original Dunlop “dog-bone” tires on them! They’ve followed the car through three owners. To achieve a “period” look, these pressed-steel wheels would take the car deep into the proto-901 Sixties.

Genealogy Before Preciosity

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You may never have heard of Herbert Dramm. Be grateful to him anyway. He was Natonal Service Advisor of Porsche of America and the face of the company during the sports-car struggles of the Fifties and Sixties. He was also one of the main reasons Porsche won races and prospered. For example, when the fast Tony Adamowicz 911 L crashed heavily in the last Friday practice at Daytona in 1969, Dramm called Ferry Porsche in Germany direct to expedite speedy, complete NASA-style repairs in time for the next day’s race. Thanks to Dramm, the car finished fourth overall against prototypes and big-bore V8s—another Porsche sensation.

And the first owner of Alex Finigan’s elegant ’67 was, yep, Herbert Dramm. He took delivery of this company car on August 24, 1966. It was finished in Slate Gray, a dark, exquisite hue. The leather interior is Beige; Finigan would call it “Bone.” And candidly, he says he’d dislike the interior if not for Dramm’s tastefully ordering tinted windows, elegantly darkening the interior’s appearance.

Dramm drove the car for about seven months, exchanging it for the next current product. It was put up for sale, and Carl Weber of Rockledge, Pennsylvania, got a buy you would’ve accepted without haggling. With 10,622 miles, it sold on June 28, 1967, for $5,100, no ups, no extras. Mr. Weber drove it about 14,000 miles from 1967 to 1981, after which it was put in storage until 2009. That was when Alex Finigan heard of this 24,000-miler from a Pennsylvania friend.

“I was going to start haggling for it,” Alex says, “but my friend said, are you crazy! With that mileage, it’s a fantastic deal. Just buy it as is. Which is exactly what I did.”

The car had been under covers for decades, and removing the covers revealed some industrial-strength patina. But if there’s one thing Finigan knows, it’s dealing with dead paint. The finish came around handsomely while still showing realistic signs of age.

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The engine needed some Botox, too.

A teardown revealed most of it was perfect, but the valve springs had been frozen in position since the first Reagan Administration. These were renewed. And the engine, perhaps at Dramm’s specification, had the later 1967 Weber carburetors in place of ’66 Solexes. The fuel system and brakes were redone and…snap: It was 1967 all over again!

New As Sgt. Pepper

Climbing into this car is hugely unfamiliar. The seat is soft and bouncy, unbelievably comfy! It’s the opposite of the racer-like C4S seat, which left my thighs numb after the three and a half hours of driving. The 1967 seat doesn’t make you conform; it conforms to you.

Probably designed by off-campus agitators.

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And then there’s the simple act of closing the door. This car is so new (this is not an “old 1967 911,” it’s a new 1967 911) that simply closing its door is a revelation. The door has been closed so few times that it makes this precision, crisp click/handshake you want to hear again just to hear it. An old 1967 911 with, say, 96,000 miles of closures doesn’t sound like this. And here’s the point Finigan makes: Restored old 911s don’t sound like this, either. Speaking from long experience, he says restorers have a lot of trouble recreating the exact mechanical handshake of a “new” door, and more than that, they have worse trouble getting the authentic empty-drum reverberation from the early-911 door’s sheet metal when it closes. Thinking they’re clever, they almost always use too much “mud” in the door, mistakenly dulling the sound.

This door is like a tom-tom. I remember the sound well.

The transmission uses the “racing” gearbox configuration. First gear is to the left and down, with the “H” containing second, third, fourth and fifth—“racing” because first is only needed at the start. The gating is typical early Porsche, by no means short-throw and by no means strictly aligned. Yet with its casual feel, the gating is entirely adequate for enthusiastic driving (albeit the Richie Ginther in you might want to make changes).

The engine, too, is free-revving and, of course, beautifully balanced. Starting it on this cold spring day, it’s as I remember them, cold-blooded and stubborn about smoothing out. Another memory is of how genuinely muffled this muffler sounds. It makes a deeply cushioned throb, reinforcing the impression that this is a circumspect, gentlemanly performance car, quite different in nature from the rumbly threat of the C4S at idle. But after being warmed and given its head, the ’67 will make that signature shriek that used to stop pedestrians on the street.

The car’s interior is fresh, profoundly new, downright delicate. Slivers of comfortable elbow rests on the doors are punctuated with little buttons at the front to release the doorlock. Wonderful. Only a few years later, these elbow rests would become huge Baroque assemblies. A display of five large dials on the dash keep the driver informed of fuel level, oil temp, engine revs, speed, and time of day. Very aeronautical. Yet there is an airy simplicity about the content and style of this “modern” dashboard—and of the interior, in general. For a small car, markedly smaller than the C4S, it’s roomy and comfortable and far less intense. In fact, it’s completely different inside, far more like the 356 from which it so recently sprang.

Slipping the shift lever gently into first and releasing the light clutch, the wide-diameter wooden wheel, so tiny in my hands I could wrap around it three times, steers the 911 gently and effortlessly. The car feels unbelievably light through the controls. And as we drive out through the streets of Marblehead to the coast, a sharp, gusty wind whipping us, the car reacts to the weather as if alive. This is not merely an impression—the car is literally light, responsive in a completely different way than the forceful, muscle-bound C4S. It brings back all the sensitive, effortless qualities we used to love in the earliest Porsches—feather-light agility and high-spirited responsiveness.

As I move up through the gears now, I listen to the tearing silk behind us. I feel the electrical liveliness through the beautiful optional wooden steering wheel. The car communicates every tiny pebble on the pavement, every asphalt crease and patch…and I remember riding up through Gaviota Pass with my friend Cam Warren long ago, feeling the pleasure of this car.

The Carrera 4S is a deeply satisfying drive that makes available a huge slice of cutting-edge racing technology—a slice that you can park in your own driveway. It is where we are after 50 amazing 911 years. But in this vibrant, delectably alive young creature from 1967, I am driving another precious part of the Porsche experience. It’s a part that in the headlong rush of progress reminds us that we have lost some priceless sensations that only the early Porsches, with newness in their heart, ever had.

Also from Issue 211

  • 1975 911
  • 911 50 year celebration
  • 1955 356 Continental
  • 911 Cabriolet buyer's guide
  • 997 GT3 RSR
  • Zwart's 911s
  • Profile: engineer Helmuth Bott
  • 18 year old racer Tyler Palmer
  • SC vs. C2 buying comparison
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