by James Kraus
Like the 356 that it replaced, the 911 was a very special car and quite unique in the marketplace.
The unconventional design incorporated a number of characteristics that defined its character and set it apart from its competitors.
Supple, long-travel suspension. Unlike most decidedly sporting automobiles of the era, the 911 combined excellent roadholding and handling with a smooth, comfortable and well-damped ride that was unique at the time.
Ample ground clearance. In combination with the long-travel suspension, comfortable seats and spacious cabin, this is what made the 911 (and the earlier 356) stand out among other sports cars as legitimate daily drivers regardless of terrain, weather or road conditions. While other drivers had to be cautious of possible threats to low-hanging exhaust systems and oil sumps, the Porsche driver could press on. In concert with rear-engine traction, the generous ground clearance allowed the 911 access anywhere; high-crowned gravel roads, dirt roads or snow-covered roads. The 911 would take on any road anywhere.
Extremely light, sensitive and responsive steering. With most of its weight in the rear, the 911 was able to provide the enthusiastic driver with the best of all possible worlds: a fast steering ratio, the directness and feedback of a full-mechanical system and the low-effort of a powered system. Light, responsive and alive, the 1970-1973 model-year 911’s had in all probability the finest steering ever to be experienced in a mass-produced automobile.
These attributes combined to enshrine the 911 as the premier Gran Turismo; a sporting car capable of whisking a securities broker at high speed down to Saint-Tropez for a weekend of relaxation, and back to Zurich in a relaxing enough manner that he could meet with private clients on Monday morning, fully refreshed and alert. And the Porsche could execute this feat under any road conditions, up to and including fairly deep snow.
Unfortunately, all too many buyers of early 911’s immediately set about molesting them; denigrating and negating the very characteristics that made them special.
While owners of vintage Ferrari’s, Lancia’s, Mercedes and most other marques seem content to enjoy and drive their cars in the manner in which they left their respective factories, 911 owners somehow feel the need to don an engineer’s smock and recreate their cars according to their own specific fantasy.
The first thing most of these erstwhile automotive designers do in a misguided attempt to “improve” the car is add extra-wide tyres (usually after lengthy contemplations of which size combination would look best), a tiny steering wheel, and lower and stiffer suspension by way of oversize torsion and anti-roll bars. This immediately transforms the classic 911 into a generic (albeit rear-engined and air-cooled) harsh-riding, heavy-steering sports car at its best only at high speeds on smooth surfaces.
Some add fatter torsion bars only at the rear as a complement to huge rear tyres. If an unwitting future owner switches to equal-sized rubber all around, he will likely find himself soon sliding into a ditch tail-first, wondering what happened.
I have driven a number of these FrankenPorsches and found them most unpleasant. I can only conclude that their owners actually bought the wrong car, and would likely be better served with an alternative vintage classic like a Healey 3000, an E-Type or an Aston Martin.
Other early 911 drivers go beyond adding steamroller tyres and bone-jarring suspension by tossing out the original 2.0-2.4 litre engine in lieu of a 3.0 or 3.2 motor in a never-ending search for more torque. They get possessed by a fever and the only cure seems to be more torque. Unfortunately, this is often accompanied by installing the later, more robust 915 gearbox, which on earlier cars, requires hacking into the body shell to provide room.
For these individuals I have another suggestion: A 1963-1967 Corvette Sting Ray. Here is a firm-riding, low-slung, low ground-clearance machine right as it came out of the factory. Torque? There is an unlimited supply with engines ranging from 5.5-7.0 litres. And the coup de grâce: with the often-fitted over-boosted power steering, adding larger tyres can actually improve the steering feel.
Best to decide in advance what characteristics one prefers in an automobile and select the car that best meets those criteria as originally built. Any modifications should be correct to period; is that not the point of buying a classic car? As to tyre size, to preserve the 911’s original steering lightness and sensitivity, I would never install anything larger than 185/70-15 at the front, particularly on a 911 built prior to September of 1969. This is because the earlier cars had much more castor (the top strut mounts were located 14 mm further rearward as compared to newer cars) and are even more sensitive to the installation of wider tyres. Keep in mind that 185/70-15 was the size later factory-fitted to the front of the considerably heavier and more powerful 930 Turbo. I do not recall anyone accusing the Turbo of being under-tyred.
Wide tyres can lower lap times if you are actually racing the car competitively, but the originally homologated sizes retain more driving pleasure. The early 911s with displacements of 2.0-2.4 liters did not have giant reserves of torque at their disposal, so as tyre size increases, the ability to steer the car with the throttle decreases. The most fun is to be had in cars with a moderate rubber-to-power ratio. This is exactly why the original Mini Coopers were so entertaining; they had a healthy bit of power feeding tiny 145 x 10 tyres.
If one is after extra adhesion, stickier tyres are a better alternative than wider tyres. Some good period-correct choices (though not inexpensive) are the Michelin 165HR-15 XAS, the Avon FIA-spec CR6ZZ 175/70-15 or 185/70-15 and the Michelin 185/70VR-15 XWX.
If you are considering the purchase of an early 911, you must be careful that you are not in fact unwittingly buying a FrankenPorsche. While most modifications can be visually discerned, in order to verify torsion bar diameters, some disassembly is required.