STUTTGART, Germany—We drive and review many new cars every year at Autofocus, and many of them are good—so good, in fact, they can occasionally be bland, boring.
Many of us – and I’d guess some of you – get nostalgic for old cars, cars with flaws and character, for a time when cars were not all easy-to-drive, when the most important component was the fleshy human at the wheel.
Are we crazy, or was it better back then?
Porsche gave us a chance to find out, by handing over the keys to a 1981 Porsche 911 SC Targa. Yes, 1981 wasn’t exactly a vintage year for classic cars, but for the 911, well, at that point it was still basically the same car that debuted at the 1963 Frankfurt motor show: a small sports cars with a rear-mounted air-cooled flat-six.
It’s a perfect sunny afternoon near Stuttgart, Porsche’s headquarters: blue skies and green fields.
This particular Targa SC is a museum piece, from Porsche’s collection. It’s got over 100,000 kilometres on the clock, but it is in time-capsule condition. The Targa roof looks like it’s never been folded. The black-and-white checkboard cloth seats show minimal signs of use.
This car, I’m told – as with all 600 or so cars in the Porsche Museum collection – is meticulously maintained by a small cadre of Porsche’s most elite mechanics. If they can keep a LeMans-winning 917 running sweet, then this ’80s 911 would be child’s play.
How much does a replacement Targa top cost today, I wonder, or a new headlight from the factory? I’m glad it’s Porsche looking after this car and not me.
The 1981 911 looks like a squished version of the current one, a 3/4-scale model. It’s impossibly narrow. This was before side-airbags, of course. Opening the featherweight door doesn’t give much confidence in the side-impact protection either.
Once I’ve folded my legs under the steering wheel, the view out the front window is perfect. The high front fenders let you know exactly where the car is on the road, a styling feature that has been diluted in the current 911.
There are some issues with the ergonomics: chief among them is that I don’t think the Porsche engineers had ever heard that word in 1981. The pedals are offset to the right, and the area in which your shoes are meant to work the pedals is entirely too small. My toes get stuck on something every time I press the clutch in. I’m rubbing shoulders with my passenger. Any closer and he’d be on my lap.
There’s no navigation, no fancy stereo, but there are power windows, which – in this context – feel like a modern luxury.
This was almost the last generation of the Porsche 911. It was due to be phased out and replaced with the front-engine 928. The 911 SC, “Super Carrera,” debuted in the summer of 1977 and was envisioned as a kind of last hurrah.
It had wider rear fenders and came in both Coupe and Targa versions. The first SC made only 180 hp, but this later SC 3.0 Targa makes – wait for it – a whopping 201 horsepower from its naturally aspirated flat-six.
The suspension includes crude torsion-bar springs. Technical highlights are limited to anti-roll bars and power-assisted brakes.
Any complaints about a lack of features vanish when you realize this car tips the scales at just 1,160 kg. It’s a featherweight. Porsche rates the car for zero to 100 km/h in 6.8 seconds, and at a top speed of 235 km/h.
Thankfully, the 928 wasn’t a big hit and people just kept buying the 911, so Porsche decided to stick with it.
Finding first gear is like rowing a canoe. The shift throws are ultra-long and vague. But all the controls are light: brake, clutch, throttle. Well, all controls except the steering, which is non-power assisted. It’s not as much of an issue as you’d think. The skinny tires don’t take much muscle to turn even at parking speeds.
Once on the move the steering becomes almost dainty. It follows every ripple on the pavement. There’s always something to do when driving this old 911, even if it’s just making sure the car stays between the lanes. Today even that’s become partially automated with lane-keep assist.
The gearbox has five speeds, but on these two-lane country roads there isn’t a chance to get above fourth. It takes time to build up speed, but the car doesn’t feel as slow as the numbers would suggest. Partly it’s due to the wind rushing around the open cabin. Partly it’s the fact that with so little weight to move, 200 horsepower is enough. And partly it’s due to the thrumming, air-cooled chortle of the flat-six roaring behind me.
It’s eager to rev, and above 4,000 rpm it flies toward the redline. To drive quickly, you’ve got to keep the motor in that powerband—again, another challenge that has been lost with torque-rich turbocharged engines.
The ride is surprisingly comfortable. The high-profile tires soak up the road. There’s lots of body roll, but once the car has settled into a corner, most of the vagueness goes away. It’s nowhere near as sharp as a modern sports car, however.
Back off abruptly mid-corner and you’ll get plenty of the old 911’s trademark oversteer. There’s so much to feel at legal speed. Roundabouts become laugh-out-loud fun, a lesson in weight transfer and vehicle dynamics. All inputs have an immediate and visceral output. It’s a cliché, but this classic 911 does feel more alive than the modern car, at least on the road.
You’re unlikely to find an old SC Targa in museum condition, but there are plenty of examples out there. These 911s – unlike pre-1974 models – haven’t seen such extreme price spikes in recent years.
According to Hagerty’s price index, a 1981 SC Coupe in “good” condition would’ve sold for around $18,000 (all figures USD) in 2012. Today prices have climbed to around the $30,000 mark. Compare that to a 2018 Porsche 911 Carrera, which starts at $104,000, or the Targa version, which costs $126,000.
Even if you set aside an extra $15,000 for maintenance and winter storage of the classic 911, you’ve got plenty of cash left over to get a reliable daily driver, even a luxury one like a C-Class, 3-Series or A4.
As competent and comfortable as the current-generation 911 is, to find real driving thrill and engagement you’ve got to be going very quickly, which is best done on a race track.
Objectively this old car nowhere is near as good as the 2018 model – in fact the SC Targa is quite bad: cramped, noisy, slow – but it delivers everyday thrills the new model simply can’t.
Maybe the trick to making really great cars is to make them kind of bad?
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.