Air Cooled Porsche 911's: The Perfect Off-Roading Oxymoron to Bug Out In

The Porsche 911. Everyone knows it, and just about everyone loves it too. An enduring icon, the Porsche 911 is absolutely everything a driver could possibly need, and nothing they don't. Sleek, elegant, aerodynamic, and over-engineered, the Porsche 911 is the Colt Python of sports cars. Since time immemorial, the 911 has captured the attention of every young kid who dreams of going fast and fishtailing the back end of a rear engined car around a corner at Mach McQueen. And in a 911, go fast you will. The car even looks like its going 150mph standing still.

The beauty of a 911 is in it's simplicity, and nowhere is this clearer than the air cooled Porsche 911's of the 1980's. These cars were fast, nimble, and provided a driving experience unlike any other due to the rear engine placement and the soundtrack of that wonderful flat six engine. You see, the genius of the Porsche is that despite being wrapped in a divinely luxurious exterior, the flat six power plant giving this rolling work of art life is essentially a tractor motor on the bottom end. Ergo it's sterling reputation for not only an incomparable driving experience, but reliabilityToss in the fact that it's air cooled, and you have something really special. Bulletproof reliability coupled with breathtaking aesthetic design always was a winning combination. Indian Motorcycle Co. won many a long distance endurance race title back in the day with their Scout 101 using these same principles. They might not have been the fastest off the starting line, but they never broke. And rolling in came title after title after bulletproof title.

But with the 911, you get that reliability and all the speed your heart desires. After all, this is a Porsche we're talking about. 

Which is why the geniuses turning them into off-road, rally, and bug-out vehicles have struck gold. Proverbial, lightning fast, German-engineered gold.

We recently had Mike Glover of Fieldcraft Survival on our podcast, during which Mike discussed his rally Porsche build with Tom. You can listen to his interview here.

There's a few renegades taking these once solely street worthy Porsche's into their garages and giving them the off-road treatment. Leh Keen, H&R, and Kelly-Moss come to mind, to name a few. These car designers have a reputation for exceptional quality with regard to craftsmanship, and as well they should, because a vintage Porsche 911 certainly deserves no less.

The suspension and tire upgrades are a force to be reckoned with, and so must the driver be behind the wheel of this car. This variation of the 911, this beautiful Frankenstein's Monster, is the ultimate do-it-all, perfectly rounded, one car collection. It's all you need. Need to hit a dirt trail? You've got professional off-road suspension and all-terrain tires. Need a car to pull up to the office in to show everyone that you mean business? It's a Porsche. And talk about a conversation starter, my goodness. Even a Prius driver would admit that this is one of the coolest four wheel rigs to ever grace winding roads and wilderness.

To start, the cars are outfitted with an off-road suspension, to include a 4" lift. Couple that with off-road tires, a hood mounted with extra lights (often two high beam, two low beam), a roof rack for a spare tire or any other gear your heart and wallet can muster, and you've got a nimble go-rig that's so reliable you'd have to try to break it. "Heresy!" cry the purists as they clutch their wayfarers in penny loafers, scoffing at the dirty mud boots worn by those who understand the beauty of a rear-engined Porsche's predictable oversteer on a dirt road. However, what the purists and naysayers are blissfully unaware of is Porsche's storied off-road history with the 911. 

Yep, thats right. Your eyes are working just fine. See, while all the naysayers of the rally Porsche were presumably riding around town on 50cc mopeds to and fro, Porsche were getting their hands dirty off-road, far away from the primadonnas who never dared to dream bigger than the catalog at the dealership. "A Porsche should never be dirty!" you hear them bemoan at the top of their lungs as they indulge themselves in whatever gelato stand their hearts desire after a long day of tying sweaters around their necks. Oh really, Chadsworth? A Porsche should never be dirty? Tell that to these guys.

Of course, even near-perfection is not quite perfect. If ever there was a negative to the rear-engined, air-cooled Porsche, it would be the lightness of the front end due to the rear-engined nature of the design. Hardly something to complain about, considering it is simply part of the character of the car. The reason it has been the woe of many an inexperienced driver is that in cornering you absolutely cannot let off the throttle if you get nervous mid-corner. Should you decide to commit to laying off the throttle, you will experience trailing throttle oversteer. Essentially what this means is that when you suddenly slow the car coming into a corner the weight shifts to the front tires. With less weight on the rear tires, there is less lateral force to be delivered and the performance of the tires is exceeded, causing the back end to swing out (think "drifting"). Then, when you try to correct and steer into the skid, and the rear tires catch traction, the car snaps back the other way violently and you spin wildly out of control. In simple terms, if you let off the throttle too quickly the back end will slide out, correct itself with a snap in the opposite direction, and you'll crash. The weight of the back end is your friend. Lay on the throttle through the entire turn, hold your line, and you'll come out the other side smiling ear to ear. Ease off of it in a nervous panic, and you'll experience the dreaded rear tire corner correction and spin out that has caused countless "Honey, I totaled the new car" conversations, should the driver be lucky enough to still be around to make that call. They don't call the 911 the "Doctor Killer" for nothing.

Conversely, this is why the off-road 911 is such an incredible idea: on a dirt road, there is no snap oversteer to worry about. The back end doesn't snap back in the opposite direction after sliding out. You get all the boon of a rear engined car with predictable oversteer to swing the back end out without having to worry about catching the rear tire, over correcting, getting snapped around, and losing control. All that exists is blissful, predictable oversteer and the backend sliding out nicely and under control as you zig-zag right and left through twisting woodland trails, the motor concussively wailing it's hyper-engineered song through the trees. Contrary to popular belief, Beethoven did not create the most beautiful music to ever come out of Germany. The air-cooled Porsche 911 did. 

To demonstrate this off-road driving experience, I'll take a page out of The Big Short's playbook and cut to a celebrity showcasing what I'm describing. Here's Matt Farah of The Smoking Tire to visually clarify everything for you.

Right, left, right, left. Flat six engine firing. No fear of snap oversteer. Just sliding through the wilderness wrapped in the most highly engineered air-cooled magic carpet ever created.

The off-road Porsche is an abomination to some, but to those who have the vision for it, and the driving talent, a dirt road becomes freedom as you slide around corners effortlessly, in perfect rhythm with the machine and the ground you're melding it with. Even still, flying through the wilderness in a 1980's Porsche 911 will always sound heretical and nonsensical to brand purists.

To me, its the greatest oxymoronic mechanical waltz there ever was.



Sam Swidensky, COO - The Kensington Corner


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