Yet it was just then, in the '50s, that Porsche was really beginning to rack up the world-class racing victories that put the marque on the map, thanks less to the 356 than to the mid-engine 550 and RSK. Unlike the chop-top 356, these dedicated racing cars were designed from the outset as ragtops (Spyders), the aim being to shed weight and keep the center of gravity low - the same approach that would make the 914 such a giant-killer. (The 550 was so low as to be easily overlooked on public highways; James Dean's last words before fatally crashing his 550 were, "That guy up there's gotta stop . . . He'll see us!" He didn't.) Mid-engine Porsches proved particularly effective in the Targa Florio, a twisty Sicilian road race of considerable antiquity where they scored overall victories versus the more powerful Ferraris in 1956, 1959, and 1960. So when invited to drive parts of the old Targa Florio route in the updated 2009 Boxster S, I jumped at the chance.
After landing at Palermo in gale-force winds, I staggered across the tarmac to a row of Boxsters - all were S models, which account for 55 percent of Boxster sales worldwide these days - and grabbed the first one that came to hand. It was painted a conspicuous speed yellow but at least lacked the cop-magnet racing stripes and numbers that besmirched some of the others. I set out briskly at first but soon was picking gingerly through dark, muddy mountain roads rough enough to better suit an SUV. The Boxster campaigned along gamely enough, its interior snug and warm, although this car suffered from excessive wind noise where the top met the windshield and a persistent squeal in the left front brake. In the last of the light, I stopped amid the broken stone towers of an ancient ruin and looked out over the long, ragged backbone of western Sicily, a landscape resembling that of Ireland but steeped in an even richer history. Greeks, Romans, Africans, and an almost ceaseless assortment of European warlords had campaigned on these roads, taking a full day on horseback to climb roads that my little yellow Boxster had just covered in an hour.
"The morning rises from the sea, still drunk with the song of sirens," wrote the Sicilian poet Lina La Mattina, and the dawn sun did look a bit tipsy as it shuddered in and out of a bank of storm clouds. But the rains had subsided momentarily, so I fired up an off-white Boxster S, put down the top - a quick operation that requires manually releasing only a single, central latch before pressing a button that lowers the roof in twelve seconds - and headed out for a loop around western Sicily. The roads were empty, and my speeds climbed rapidly. The car was light and tight, affording a wealth of informative feedback through the steering wheel and the seat of the pants; like the very best Porsches, it conveyed a sense of being able to respond accurately to every input, no matter how expert or inept. Its seven-speed PDK gearbox - effectively two transmissions, each with its own clutch, sharing one housing - was wonderful, even though I still had it set on Normal.