New Car Reviews

2002-2004 Porsche 911 Targa

After it was all over with, I stood in front of everybody connected with the first annual Targa Newfound-land and accepted the ninth- (and last-) place medal for our performance in the Trials class. By this measure, my navigator, Distractible Dave Menzies, and I had failed. The “time, speed, and distance” (TSD) stuff of the leisurely navigational rally proved elusive; our glistening Targa had been bested by the likes of a 1965 Morris Mini and a 1959 MGA.

Yet we were two of the most exhilarated barnacles clinging to this island (half the size of Great Britain with but one-hundredth the population). We’d collected abundant penalties in the first two days of the five-day rally, so we hewed to the spirit of a Newfoundland expression: “It is as well to be hung for a sheep as a lamb.” (Newfoundlanders keep alive a great many old words and sayings.) The fully race-prepared cars in the Targa division had been going all-out. In the final three legs, we would entertain ourselves by trying to match their times.

By our going all-out, justice would be served. The 911 Targa had been creating a sensation. Newfoundlanders are somewhat innocent where cars are concerned; the nearest Porsche dealer is off in Qubec City, well more than 1000 miles by road and a minimum of seven hours on the Nova Scotia ferry. Crowds of spectators squealed when we passed, and clusters immediately formed when we stopped for lunch or at night in the hockey arenas where we always displayed the cars. People walked halfway around the 911 Targa before crying out, “It’s a Porsche!” (They never pronounced the final e.) Then the barrage of questions: “What’s she cost?” “How much horsepower does she have?” “What’s she registered for?” And finally: “Here’s me camera, boss. Would you takes me picture sittin’ in ‘er?” The night we rallyists displayed our cars in the Gander ice arena, I was on the pay phone calling my wife and overheard a ten-year-old boy reporting: “Mom . . . I fell in love . . . a blue Porsche.”

So it was clearly our duty to make the 3.6-liter flat-six engine howl for the Newfies, to pitch the car into turns, to fly on this trapeze without a net. For the special Targa stages, the roads were closed to local traffic, and only the laws of physics–or the random appearance of a moose–could stop us.

It was not only for the public good but also out of duty to self that I gave up on the TSD rally. How many times had I dreamed of driving a 911 as fast as I could, day after day? Coming home and admitting I’d never redlined the engine or gotten deep into the brakes would’ve been disgraceful. The Targa Newfoundland–“The Ultimate North American Tarmac Rally”–was a chance to put it all together with this superb car.

The 911 Targa was fitted with the optional, wider, eighteen-inch wheels and tires. It was not equipped with Porsche Stability Management. The transmission, I’m happy to say, was the six-speed manual. Great satisfaction was derived from diving into a 90-degree turn in any of the numerous towns, villages, and hamlets on the Targa Newfoundland’s course and downshifting under braking while matching revs and making the engine shout for spectators. I grew besotted with the 911 Targa. The powerful and fade-free brakes, the perfectly arranged and precisely weighted pedals, the incredible grip of the tires, and the combination of growling powerplant and trick aerodynamics that had us going as fast as 160 mph all combined to boost my confidence and thrill my soul. In the turns, I only had to get the nose down with the brakes, the car would obediently enter, and the chassis would rotate; then, away we would go, rolling into the throttle on exit. This applied at 25 mph in the hardest village corners (Leg 5 presented a couple of first-gear turns) and in a 125-mph bend sweeping through spruces and firs.

At the end of Leg 3, our first day of sheep instead of lamb, I compared results for the special stage in Gander, a 3.9-mile slalom through residential neighborhoods where the fire hydrants had been removed, and it was a mild surprise and a source of pride that we were eighth fastest overall. (This is the stage in which the Saxby-Rees 911 all-wheel-drive twin-turbo–till now the most formidable car in the rally–left a very expensive puddle of oil in the street.) Faster cars were the ’67 fastback converted by its Australian owner, Len Cattlin, to right-hand drive, equipped with a 5.0-liter V-8 and a six-speed sequential transmission, and running on racing tires; Jerry Churchill’s grotesque ’97 GTS; the BMW M Coupe rebuilt in San Raphael, California, off a salvage title; the Baldhead Racing Porsche 944 Turbo from Ontario; the Datsun 280Z with a bored and stroked engine running at a compression ratio of 12.0:1 and sucking on three Webers; the impressive Ford Mustang GT of Newfoundlander Daniel Gosse; the Ford Falcon Rally Sprint driven by Canadian rally champion Tom McGeer (who’d put the car on its side during demonstration runs in the provincial capital); and the ’72 Targa of Targa Newfoundland marketing director Scott Giannou. On a 19.7-mile stage during Leg 4, we easily moved up to sixth, 5 seconds behind the Mustang GT and 24 seconds after the leading Mustang fastback.

Beyond questions of dynamics, there was the evocative stylishness of the 911 Targa’s sleek roofline and the trick, electrically retracting glass panel. Those who kept urging us to spin the rear tires–calling out, “Burn ‘er!”–were more dazzled when we pressed the center console button and quietly withdrew the tempered panel and its cloth shade along internal tracks to a position inside the rear glass. Whenever the car was displayed during our lunches at places such as Beachy Cove Elementary School or the Muddy Shag Lounge and at night in the various hockey cathedrals, I kept explaining to the uninitiated why it was called a 911 Targa, but when I took the story back to the first Targa Florio, run in Sicily in 1906, their eyes crossed, and their thoughts turned to having a traditionally restorative feed of cod tongues.

The final thing to say about our car is that the Targa Newfoundland administered a pounding to every entrant. One particularly brutal seaside stretch caused Peter Buckingham’s ’65 911 to jump out of gear, forced a WRX to the limit of its suspension travel, and rapped the Baldhead 944 Turbo’s skid plates. But the 911 Targa–with only 3.9 inches of clearance and with unique damper and spring tuning compared with the Carrera–never suffered these ill effects. More than that, the reinforced roof rails groaned only on the most insufferable patches.

Sometimes when we sat at a starting control, we’d chat with spectators, and they’d ask if we were enjoying the scenery. “It’s all going by in a blur,” we’d respond. Sometimes we would be able to appreciate subtleties such as trees on a hilltop (“a hat of woods”) or a well-kept, colorful house on the level top of a hillock (this clearing being called a “nuddick”). Many special stages ran right along the sea, which I loved, and some others had us dramatically high above it, Big Sur-style. Mostly, though, I looked where I wanted the car to go and reminded myself to breathe.

Distractible Dave, on the other hand, was squeezing in some sightseeing. We had been teamed up in Porsche‘s “factory entry” because we were both reporters–he writes for Canada’s National Post–and motorsport was new to him. I think he liked it, but his head wasn’t always in the game. An example of this occurred during Leg 5, when I was driving the very fastest. (About 75 percent of the way through a long stage of 25 miles, the trip computer’s average speed function had us at 135 mph.) Sometime that morning, we came to a hilltop crest indicated in the navigational road book and got a sliver of air. Then I held on to the car through a right-hand kink and took a dart through a downhill left-hander leading to a bridge. With spectators and houses along the road and small waves flobbering the beach, the potential for destroying human life, real property, and one stud automobile was immediate, and yet this was the moment Distractible Dave chose to instruct, “Look at the jugs on that woman!”

Establishing such efficient teamwork had taken all week. At first, the concept of teamwork had seemed unattainable. To employ another word used in a special sense by Newfoundlanders, Distractible Dave was a real blather. “Try the Gillette Atra Turbo razor,” he said. “Use echinacea for your cold. Why do the CBC news readers say ‘kilo-MEET-ers’? Nobody says that–it’s ‘ki-LOM-eters.’ Have you ever noticed how the back of an Aztek looks like a garbage truck?” He told all about how hockey great Tim Horton, cofounder of the nationwide doughnut chain, died in a Pantera. He had me explain about the Pantera. And why the Jetta is so popular with thirty-year-olds. And why the Camaro and Firebird died. He explained to me the Canadians’ love of doughnuts. One of the first things he described–for everybody waiting at a coffee bar–was the problem he’d once had with his bladder during a traffic jam. He narrated a previous experience with participatory journalism, in which he was gored by a rodeo bull. When he drove the 911 Targa during a transit stage, he smeared sausage stick against the horn pad while explaining to me how sausage sticks had really taken off in Canada. He explained how Canadians prefer coffee “double-double”–with double cream and double sugar–and what offended response that imperative will get you in jolly old London. But, eventually, he managed to bear down on the road book’s tulip diagrams, and I gained complete faith in him, also growing to like the guy in heaps and bunches.

Aside from the meteor-shower driving, really the most interesting part of the week was hearing the responses of Newfoundlanders upon their first exposure to the 911 Targa. Michael Gosse, sixteen years old, of Portugal Cove, hadn’t even been bothering to study for his driver’s license. His mother’s Mercury Topaz was hardly an incentive. “I’m too lazy to read the book,” he said. “The book is, like, that thick. Had something like that [the 911 Targa] now, be out trying to get me license every day.” Was it his idea of a cool car? “Somethin’ like that. Likes Vipers, too.”

Meantime, the 911 Targa provoked a running commentary wherever we stopped. “She’s new, isn’t she? How much?” (About ten times the price of some houses in depressed outport towns.) “Oh, look at this trunk in the front of ‘er!” Skepticism being a Newfoundland trait, one crusty character said, “With our sea air, two years, and this would be a rust bucket.” I mentioned the galvanized body panels, which lead Porsche to offer a ten-year anticorrosion warranty. “Don’t mean nothin’ around here.” We also loved the encouragement at the starting controls–one starting marshal had the Canadian flag on both cheeks–or as we tore through corners, with people exhorting, “Give ‘er, b’y!”

These commentaries were exceeded in interest only by what the Newfies had to say about themselves. Lisa Cakes, the Carmanville- Noggin Cove correspondent of the Gander Beacon, advised her readers that the Targa would come through Carmanville: “People will be able to watch from Rayfield Hancott’s garden and the area in front of Shawn Angell’s hang out.” (Newfies, as it happens, go around with surnames such as Smallwood, Noseworthy, and Pickersgill.) “How are you enjoying Newfoundland?” they kept asking. “We can only understand a few words you say,” I’d answer. I quizzed His Worship, Saint John’s mayor Andy Wells, about the cod fishery, which is closed, and how it’s being replaced economically by the previously unexploited shellfish resource. “Knowin’ our track record,” he said, “we’ll be shaggin’ that up, too.” Yet a contradictorily high self-opinion also prevails. “A Newfoundlander can put an ass on a cat” is an expression that pops up frequently, including on young Ken Batstone’s fast and furious Civic, which crashed during Leg 1; an all-night effort, led by the strivings of a local welder who paused only for a drink of water, resulted in this motto being scrawled on the roof.

Casualties during the week? Targa New-foundland president Robert Giannou’s official car, a Chrysler Concorde, threw a rod; Jonathan Fryer slid his ’65 Sunbeam Tiger through a gully during the prologue; the Jaguar X-type pace car, borrowed from a local dealership, was written off on Leg 1’s very first special stage; Michael Salter’s valuable 1955 Austin-Healey 100S spun and was struck by Stephen McCrory’s ’70 Volvo P1800E; and Jack MacDonnell plowed his Datsun 280Z into a sea wall, putting himself in the hospital overnight. I was pleased to have driven within my own limitations and brought the 911 Targa back unscathed.

As much as I learned about myself and about the car during the Targa Newfoundland, and as thrilling as the adventure was, the moment I remember best is from one of the humdrum transit stages, when, at a country store, Edison Wiltshire was pouring tea into the radiator of his ’51 Citron Traction Avant and extolling the virtues of tannic acid. A couple of old laddioes solemnly looked on. If they found anything absurd in seeing Wiltshire treat his radiator this way, they were keeping it to themselves, but hearing me say, “Next thing is, it’ll want to stop for biscuits,” one fellow became all comical struck, the surprise of it catching him sharp and nearly moving him off his feet. Getting a Newfy all mirthful like that is pretty rewarding. Then we slipped back into the 911 Targa, of which they’d never seen the like, and gave ‘er good.