Bad Boy Porsches: R Gruppe Car Club

August 4, 2010
Rolly Resos glances in his rearview mirror and murmurs, more annoyed than anxious, "That orange car is right on my ass."
R Gruppe Porsche Front
With a deep, satisfying blip of the throttle, he downshifts from third to second and plants his foot in what's appropriately called the loud pedal. The rorty snarl of his barely muffled flat six crackles through the canopy of trees enveloping the picturesque, two-lane road threading through Carmel Valley, California. But it isn't until Resos backs out of the throttle as he brakes for a hairpin that his vintage Porsche 911 gets really cantankerous, backfiring like a high-powered rifle -- bap! bap! bap! -- and spitting flames out the tail. "Sorry about that," he says sheepishly as he gets back on the gas and hustles down a short chute. "With the twin megaphones and the cracked header, you've got to keep your foot in it."
Resos is a charter member of R Gruppe, the quasi-underground, semifamous car club whose provocative devotion to hot-rodding early 911s has earned it a reputation as the bad boy of the Porsche world. This morning's spirited drive is part of the group's annual Treffen (German for meeting), which has brought 150 members and their performance-modified cars from England, Germany, Mexico, and all over the United States to the Monterey Peninsula for a weekend of touring, tracking, tire-kicking, and bench racing. The mods run the gamut from mild to wild, from Kent Moore's elegantly understated '67 ("I jazzed it up a little, but I like cars that are for the most part stock") to the voluptuous RSR-ish hottie that Scott Longballa fashioned out of a plain-Jane '72 T ("I didn't intend to go this crazy, but once I got into it, I couldn't stop"). Purists would scoff that there's not a truly "authentic" 911 in the bunch. Then again, is a '32 highboy with a flathead Ford "authentic"?
The 911 that Resos is driving is a poster child for R Gruppe's mix-and-match ethos. He spotted it in 1999, buried in the back of a used-car lot in Costa Mesa. At first glance, it looked like a tired '66 in need of plenty of TLC. But when he got closer, he saw a factory roll bar, Recaro seats, "deep 6" Fuchs wheels, and, under the hood, an oversize fuel tank typically found in rally cars back in the day. Resos wasted no time buying the car, and as a collector who's owned as many as seven Porsches at one time, he immediately set about bringing it back to life. But not, as you might imagine, as a concours queen with numbers-matching components and screw slots pointed in the same direction, like soldiers on parade.
Resos -- seventy-eight-years young, with the craggy features and bushy white mustache of a Western desperado -- is a member of the Outriders, an elite SoCal hot-rod club that dates back to 1932. So, much to the consternation of Porsche pedants, he proceeded to turn his car into the ultimate 911 rat rod: Rally-style driving lights. Matte-black American Racing aluminum wheels. Fiberglass front fenders in white gel coat. Black fiberglass hood with period Shell and Hella decals framing a center-fill gas cap off a Porsche 904. Red body with plastic 911R door handles. R-style taillights. S-model fuel-injection head (with the fuel-injection ports plugged) on a Weber-carbureted '66 engine of uncertain pedigree. Zuffenhausen by way of El Mirage.
R Gruppe Porsche Front End
"It's not an R. It's not an RS. It's not an ST," says R Gruppe cofounder Cris Huergas, name-checking three of the rarest and most iconic of early 911s. "It's a car that's an extension of the owner, and it embodies the image and the essence of the sports-purpose Porsche. That's an R Gruppe car."
R Gruppe is arguably the most exclusive, the most polarizing, and the most influential car club in the Porsche universe. A small, invitation-only group dedicated to creatively modified and thoroughly personal versions of "early" 911s -- defined as long-hood cars built before the U.S. bumper regulations enacted in 1974 -- R Gruppe thumbs its nose at convention while offering a rough mechanical and philosophical template for owners looking to pump up the performance of their Porsches. The result is a fleet of sweet, esoteric cars that cherry-pick elements of crazy-expensive limited-edition R, ST, RS, and RSR models -- a ducktail here, a twin-plug motor there -- to create one-of-a-kind pieces of inspired mongrelization.
"We started with three criteria," says R Gruppe's other cofounder, former Porsche (and current Ford) designer Freeman Thomas. "The first ingredient was sports purpose -- cars that can be driven on the track on weekends and on the street during the week. Second was the SoCal hot-rod thing -- if it looks right, it is right. The third element was the Steve McQueen attitude -- great taste and the cool factor. We're not about screaming. There's a discretion that characterizes an R Gruppe car. It's about delivering more than it promises."
Although the R Gruppe mission sounds harmless enough, the organization has become a lightning rod for haters from all four corners of the car world. To the august Porsche Club of America, R Gruppe is populated by a bunch of yahoos with no respect for tradition. To the hard-core racers who dominate the Porsche Owners Club, R Gruppe is full of poseurs who'd rather look fast than go fast. To early 911 aficionados who haven't been invited to join the club -- membership is limited to about 300, and members are booted if they don't continue to measure up to unspecified standards -- R Gruppe is a gated community reserved for arrogant snobs. To high-dollar collectors, R Gruppe provides a prescription for replicars and fakey-doos that cost more to build than they're worth on the open market.
Operating on the assumption that any group that's managed to offend so many diverse constituencies must be doing something right, I decide to join R Gruppe for its eleventh annual Treffen. The weekend begins on Thursday with a track day at Buttonwillow Raceway Park, a club circuit about two hours north of Los Angeles. In keeping with R Gruppe's street/track philosophy, only a couple of cars are full-on racing thoroughbreds, most notably Mike Gagen's wicked-fast, black-primer RSR look-alike -- a '69 T packing a 3.6-liter engine from a '95 993-series 911 and rear tires wide enough to bridge small rivers. But the ambience is laid-back and low-key, unlike a serious race weekend, and Treffen organizer John Gray seems as happy telling me about his 911 as he is playing hero race driver out on the track.
R Gruppe Porsche Porsche RSR
"Anybody can take their car to the shop and say, 'I want this, this, this, and that,' and then write a check," he says, explaining how he tricked out his metallic green '70 with an idiosyncratic collection of parts ranging from an S-spec engine and SC suspension components to lug nuts off a Volkswagen Vanagon. "Some guys will spend years hunting down an authentic part, and then, right next to it, they'll hang something that they whittled in their garage."
As I wander around the paddock, I have a hard time zeroing in on the demographics of the group. Gray is a fifty-seven-year-old senior software engineer for Wells Fargo. Gagen is a retired air-traffic controller. Ron Wolfe, who's created a Frankenstein he calls a 912R -- a beast you won't find in any Porsche menagerie -- is a forty-one-year-old physical therapist who slaps a beanie on his head the instant he pulls off his helmet. Thorsten Klein is the effervescent young designer who recently styled the interior of the Porsche 918. Although his R Gruppe car is back in Germany, he's driving a 911S Targa owned by SoCal chaptermeister Ray Crawford, who's a paramedic/firefighter in downtown L.A.
As a club, R Gruppe isn't an if-you-build-it-they-will-come phenomenon. It's more like the shared obsession that brought total strangers together in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. For the most part, the gospel according to R Gruppe was popularized by word of mouth. The group's success speaks to the strength of the hot-rodding impulse in the Porsche community, and it's something that's not found, by and large, among devotees of any other high-end marque.
R Gruppe Porsche Porsche Graphics
These days, 911s are so expensive and well-appointed that they're often perceived as totems of affluence rather than weapons of high performance. But it's worth remembering that Porsche was founded as a manufacturer of nothing but sports cars, and racing has always been part of its DNA. Virtually from the moment it debuted in 1963, the 911 was rallied and raced not only by the factory but also by customers. In 1967, Porsche created a factory racer dubbed the 911R, but only about twenty were built. So for privateers who couldn't get their hands on one, Porsche published manuals that detailed exactly how they could modify their cars to maximize performance. Porsche titled the books, "Information regarding Porsche vehicles used for sports purpose." In America, of course, we call this hot-rodding.
Huergas happened to have two of these sports-purpose manuals in his possession when he started restoring a '69 911S that he'd bought in 1991. "I knew the car was something special," he recalls. "But I didn't want to keep it stock. I wanted something different -- an S with an R flavor that captured the essence of what it used to be like back then. I realized that I didn't have to play by anybody else's rules. Those sports-purpose manuals told me that I could do anything I wanted."
In 1998, Huergas's lightweight was featured in Excellence magazine. Shortly after the article appeared, he got a call from Freeman Thomas. Thomas had grown up in Southern California as a neighbor of Jeff Zwart, who went on to become a photographer, filmmaker, and racer closely associated with Porsche. (He's also a charter member of R Gruppe.) Zwart's father was a hard-core 911-phile, and each afternoon at 5 o'clock, Zwart and Thomas would pedal their Sting Rays to an empty lot in Cypress just so they could watch a Porsche speed by when its owner returned home from work.
Ironically, Thomas hadn't been able to afford a Porsche while he was working in Stuttgart. But since returning to the States, he'd bought a 911E and was giving it a Huergas-style makeover. During the course of their first hours-long phone conversation, Thomas and Huergas discovered that they were Porsche soulmates. After meeting at several car shows, they realized that the existing car clubs -- PCA, the Early 911S Registry, and so on -- didn't really fit their hot-rod ethic. So in 1999, they created R Gruppe with twelve charter members. The late Steve McQueen was given membership #001.
R Gruppe Porsche Top Hood
The club has no formal entrance requirements. The cars tend to be discreet early 911s modified with period-correct parts, but this isn't a hard-and-fast rule, and there's no shortage of backdated chassis and look-at-me graphics. The club mantra is: "There are no R Gruppe cars. There are R Gruppe people." In other words, Porsche diehards who regularly exercise their cars and attend several events a year. Joining the brotherhood entails a lot of hanging with other members and hoping that -- like a fraternity pledge -- you're judged to be R Gruppe material. As Thomas puts it: "There's just enough structure so that things don't fall apart."
The Treffen, I discover, is a perfect example. The only items on the agenda are a visit to Bruce Canepa's killer shop/showroom/museum and a Saturday night banquet. Other than that, there are informally organized drives, an impromptu visit to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, casual meals, and, mostly, adult beverages and tire-kicking in the Porsche-only parking lot of the Hyatt in Monterey. On Friday, around midnight, I hear a couple of guys still arguing out there in the dark over whether that's a '67 or a '68 rocker panel.
During daylight hours, I ride shotgun with Chuck Miller, an old-school hot-rodder who's got 212,000 miles on his '73 S with an RS look and engine. Later, I buzz around with Bob Imamura, another SoCal hot-rodder with another fast ducktail coupe, in his case a '70 S with a 3.0-liter engine out of an '81 SC. Next, I buckle into the houndstooth sport seat of Dave Eck's reworked '72 T, whose subdued exterior hides a mind-boggling array of goodies -- twin-plug flat six, RS flares, RSR distributor, 930 Turbo brakes, '86 suspension bits, etc.
Still, this year's sleeper award goes to Zvi Hirsch, a thirty-two-year-old Miami firefighter who left his '69 E in a factory color known as sand beige -- it looks just as unprepossessing as it sounds -- and upgraded virtually everything else. "I wanted a car that was built the way the factory would have done it in '69, '70, or '71," he explains. "I could buy a brand-new GT3 right now with all the money I have in this car. But anybody can go out and get one of those. This is unique."
R Gruppe Porsche Rear
I find myself thinking about his words as I drive back to the hotel in the new Carrera I'm borrowing for the weekend. It's an immensely capable and comfortable car, but it's also the 911 of more -- more power, more weight, more room, more luxury. Even as it reaches the most exalted levels of performance, it distances the driver from the driving experience with sound-deadening material, power brakes and steering, stability control, and a dual-clutch automatic gearbox. It's hard to believe that this car was built in the same factory that produced the 1970 911S hot rod that Ray Crawford drove up from San Clemente.
The moment I slide into the red-leather Recaro Racing bucket seat of Crawford's black beauty and grasp the sleek Momo Prototipo steering wheel, I realize that I'm in a car designed for driving, not merely conveying occupants from point A to point B. I twist the key and the 260-hp Andial-built engine sparks eagerly to life. The throws of the 915 gearbox are relatively long, but engagement is positive and instantaneous. The lively, unboosted steering provides unfiltered feedback about what the chassis is doing, and I swear that I can feel the brake pads clamping down on the rotors. The experience is viscerally mechanical and tactilely satisfying in a way that even the finest modern cars can't match.
Before this Treffen, I hadn't been a particular fan of early 911s. Too sober, I thought. Not enough power and a bit -- dare I say it? -- boring. But hot-rodded 911s, I realize, are a different breed of Porsche. Two thoughts come to mind as I ease Crawford's baby into the parking lot: First, I'm sure glad I didn't hurt it. Second, I really need an R Gruppe car of my own.


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