Welcome to yet another hot and humid summer’s day in Vratislavice nad Nisou, some seventy miles north of Prague. They used to speak German in this picture postcard region, which was known as Maffersdorf in the late nineteenth century when Austria-Hungary was the dominating force in central Europe. Now, it’s part of the Czech Republic.
Once renowned for its glasswork ateliers, silversmiths, and carpet weavers, the valley of the river Neisse was the home of the Porsche family. Ferdinand Porsche was born here in 1875 — the same year that Siegfried Marcus is said to have completed the world’s first gasoline-engine automobile in Vienna. When Ferdinand, the son of a tinsmith, turned eleven, Karl Benz had just begun manufacturing his motor vehicle in Stuttgart Cannstatt. Porsche started his career as an electrician, but by the age of just twenty-five, he, too, had completed a passenger car. It was shown to great acclaim in 1900 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Porsche’s birthplace and family home is located at 38 Tanvaldská. The Volkswagen Group acquired this rundown building several years ago to convert it into a museum, but that never happened. You have to look twice to spot the recently installed metal plaque that reminds passersby of the great engineer and designer. Less than half a mile up the road, a modern municipal building accommodates a small Porsche exhibition that displays a few period posters, a VW Beetle, and a well-kept 928S on loan from Stuttgart.
The car we turned up in did Ferdinand proud. The guards red 1981 Porsche 911SC epitomizes everything the rear-engine legends from Zuffenhausen are famous for. It weighs a wiry 2550 pounds yet feels as solid as an oyster, and its 204-hp, 3.0-liter six-cylinder boxer engine makes all the right noises. Thirty-two years after it rolled off the line, the two-plus-two-seater still has no trouble whisking us from 0 to 60 mph in a brisk 6.8 seconds before continuing on to a respectable top speed of 146 mph. SC stands for Super Carrera; in 1981, the model was available in three different body styles: the coupe, the wide-body whale-tail Turbo, and the Targa with its removable roof section. We chose the Targa for this journey, partly because it combines the best of all worlds, partly because a brand-new 911 Targa will be introduced at the upcoming Detroit auto show in January.
As the crow flies, Maffersdorf and Vienna are only about 190 miles apart, but Porsches don’t have wings, which is why it took us four and a half hours to cover the 268-mile distance on an entertaining mix of highways and byways. When he was employed by the Lohner works, Ferdinand Porsche used to commute regularly to and from Maffersdorf with his fiancée, Louise Kaes, in the breakthrough Mixte hybrid vehicle, which employed a gasoline engine to power the wheel-hub motors via a large dynamo.
Porsche would ultimately have more than 400 innovations registered in his name. Some sixty years later, it was his son Ferry who fathered the 911, a relatively straightforward evolution of the successful 356, which in turn was inspired by the Kraft-durch-Freude Volkswagen, a.k.a. the Beetle. First shown as the 901 in 1963, the iconic best seller retains its quirky rear-engine layout and with it an adventurous weight distribution. Tricky handling? A full tank and a laden trunk make all the difference.
Porsche attended the Vienna polytechnic institute without officially registering. He designed the famous electric wheel-hub motor while working for Béla Egger, and he raced a four-wheel-drive Lohner-Porsche Mixte in various hill-climbs, such as Höhenstrasse and Exelberg, both on the outskirts of Vienna. To our great surprise, most of the road sections shown in old black-and-white photographs still exist, complete with original mileage markers, period road signs, and polished cobblestones as slippery as the State Opera’s ballroom floor. Turf like this and toys like a classic 911 separate the men from the boys — especially in the rain. Sure enough, our Targa is all over the slippery stuff when pushed. Coming from a modern world suffused with airbags and electronic guardian angels, we find it refreshing to smoke through hairpins in a filterless car: no power steering, no ABS, no limited-slip differential.
When Lohner’s cash ran low, Porsche eventually moved from Vienna to Wiener Neustadt, where he joined Austro-Daimler. With the First World War virtually around the corner, the restless designer concentrated for a while on engines for airplanes and zeppelins. Predictably, however, automobiles never completely disappeared from his agenda. On the contrary: Porsche put his name on all Austro-Daimler cars conceived between 1907 and
1923, among them the small Sascha roadster, which won a reported fifty-one of
the fifty-two motorsports events it entered.
One can check out a relevant array of these little-known classics in the recently opened Fahr(T)raum museum in Mattsee, near Salzburg. All of the vehicles on display are owned by Ernst Piëch, the older brother of Ferdinand Piëch. The name rings a bell? It should, because a certain Anton Piëch, husband of Porsche’s daughter Louise, held a fifteen percent interest in the Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche GmbH design bureau, which was founded in Stuttgart on December 1, 1930, and served as the cradle for what later became Porsche Holding.
Although our voyage began and ended in Zuffenhausen, we took a deliberate detour to Gmünd, where Porsche set up a satellite office he ran with his son and a small team of close allies. When you choose the scenic route over the Semmering Pass and through the Tauern Mountains, the drive from Vienna to the heart of Carinthia can take the best part of a full day.
Not fitted with the optional air-conditioning, our 911SC Targa shed its roof whenever the skies smiled down on us. The targa concept is as clever and practical as an umbrella: unclip the folding baldachin from the windshield surround, pull the canopy forward and lift it up, and then fold it — carefully — without damaging the paper-thin fake-leather outer skin. The weather-protection parcel then stows neatly under the front lid. Removing and installing it single-handedly is a fifteen-second job. The targa effect easily surpasses that of a large sunroof, but it cannot quite match the total exposure of a cabriolet. High-speed buffeting is an issue, as the fixed rear window acts like a big air scoop. However, in a world increasingly short of emotion, the targa top adds a welcome dash of excitement.
From Wiener Neustadt, we followed the Semmering Railway, which is an industrial monument all by itself. Winding its way from sea level up to 1500 feet over twenty-five miles, this curvy, brick centipede straddles yawning valleys and pierces near-vertical rock faces. A shortcut took us through the fairy-tale Adlitzgraben climbing region straight to the top of the mountain, where the rich and famous used to spend summers in luxurious art-deco hotels and lavish period villas before the war put an abrupt end to the monarchy and the Austrian empire. Today there is an autobahn that swiftly bypasses all of this gracefully aged splendor, so we had the old two-lane practically to ourselves: no traffic, no police, no radar traps.
The 911 felt instantly at home on the bleached tarmac, which meanders in elegant and rhythmic 100-mph curves through the so-called Chalk Alps, heading for Leoben and eventually Graz. Like almost all Porsches, this is a minimum-input, maximum-reward driving machine. All it takes to get the best out of the SC is to keep the rear wheels planted by feeding them enough torque, settle for small steering angles, and avoid unnecessary gearchanges. Why? Because every time you step off the gas, this mobile house of cards is prone to rethink its composure momentarily.
The best part of the entire journey was the final 100 miles before we sat down to schnitzel, parsley potatoes, and a bottle of sauvignon blanc. On the approach to the towering Turrach summit, the Targa proved that 204 horses is enough to change the passenger’s complexion from healthy to ghostly, that 197 lb-ft of torque can make brand-new 225/50 Pirellis beg for mercy through second-gear kinks, and that two-piston cast-iron fixed calipers are all it takes to stop the red rocket from understeering into embarrassment.
The next hurdle was the Katschberg Pass, where father and son Porsche, often accompanied by chief technician Karl Rabe, conducted acceleration and braking tests. A nausea-inducing mix of blind corners, heart-attack crests, free-fall descents, and never-ending surface variations must have made this seven-mile mountain road the toughest section of the engineers’ sixty-minute trial loop around Gmünd.
On the outskirts of the gateway to the Malta valley sits an inconspicuous wooden building next to the main road; time has been kind to the old Porsche design workshop. The keeper of the keys (and an expert spinner of endless yarns revolving around his favorite marque) is Helmut Pfeifhofer, who runs a private Porsche museum in the village.
In 1945, Ferdinand Porsche was imprisoned by the French occupying forces, but his son remained in Gmünd to complete project 356, the first car to be marketed solely under his family name. The first roadster left the provisional factory in June 1948. In the course of the following two years, a small team of 300 craftsmen built forty-four aluminum-bodied coupes and eight convertibles. When Porsche senior returned to Austria, he started work on a pair of tractors for Allgeier and an all-wheel-drive racing car for Cisitalia (tipo 360). In 1950, the clan returned to Stuttgart, where sports car assembly resumed in the Zuffenhausen factory. In January 1951, Ferdinand Porsche passed away at the age of seventy-five.
Although Ferry Porsche’s first claim to fame was the 356, the engineer and entrepreneur struck pure gold with the 911, which was designed by his son Ferdinand Alexander, who was called Butzi. The company headquarters, the think tank, and the production site are still based in and around Stuttgart, but the family home has long been in Zell am See, Austria, only a stone’s throw away from one of several estates owned by the Piëch clan that has for decades entertained a love/hate relationship with the Porsches.
Cultivating that familiar potpourri of functional and dynamic imperfections, the 911SC Targa is closer in character and genetic code to the original 901-series than to the latest 991. Its hoarse engine is still cooled by ambient air, not by conditioned water. Its transmission can only count to five, not seven. Its clutch is so heavy that the driver’s left leg will be more sore than the right, which gets its own workout from the unassisted brakes. The 1981 model burns more fuel than its most basic contemporary counterpart, which is almost twice as powerful; our test car averaged 18 mpg. Grip and traction meet today’s standards, but directional stability is about as precise as the Oracle of Delphi, the front wheels lock up under hard deceleration faster than you can say omigod, and the headlights brighten the night with the dubious luminosity of a pair of mine lamps.
Yet, as a memorable driving experience, the 911SC still scores a remarkable nine out of ten. Why? Because, like every old 911, the 1981 Targa keeps body and mind up to speed. To get the best out of it, man/machine interactions must be carefully planned and executed. In this Porsche, input and response lie eerily close together. These rear-engine animals draw a fine line between biting and obeying.
That’s the way Ferdinand and Ferry Porsche played their game: straight and simple, with little margin for driver error and plenty of scope for improvement. In a 911, it’s not only the going that counts but also the getting there. Which seems perfectly appropriate for an automobile in which close shaves have always been the rule rather than the exception.
1981 Porsche 911Sc Targa
- Engine: 12-valve SOHC flat-six
- Displacement: 3.0 liters (183 cu in)
- Power: 204 hp @ 5900 rpm
- Torque: 197 lb-ft @ 4300 rpm
- Transmission: 5-speed manual
- Drive: Rear-wheel
- L x W x H: 168.9 x 65.0 x 52.0 in
- Wheelbase: 89.4 in
- Weight: 2550 lb
- 0-60 mph: 6.8 sec
- Top Speed: 146 mph