Wednesday, 29 November 2006

The King is dead, God save the king

My 968 doing what it's best at...

Now my obsession with Porsche’s options list isn’t just the sign of an unhealthy mind; it’s been front-of-mind for quite sometime, and there is a practical reason for my interest.

I’ve been a died-in the wool Porsche-file for quite a few years. Well, 20 at least. And it was probably nearer 30 since I covered the wall of my bedroom with pictures of cars taken from magazines. In those days the awesome 911 turbo was the boss, and my Athena poster took pride of place.

Well maybe not so died-in-the-wool actually, as that would suggest I lusted after, and had owned, a succession of “Arse-engined Nazi slot cars*”, aka ‘real’ Porsches, (or 911’s). The Porsches in my life have tended to have been the front engined, water pumping type, starting with my father’s 924, and ending recently with my lovely 968 Clubsport.

In between, there was a 968 coupe, a 944 turbo, and briefly a 911/964C4. The latter beauty I imported from Hamburg, Germany, when the pound to Deutschemark exchange rate made that very worthwhile. For 6 weeks I ran the car everyday, revelling in the performance and ownership experience, and never walking away from parking it without looking back. Then some light-fingered bunch of scumbags relieved me of the car, the Thames Valley police proved no more effective than the Keystone cops, and most of the insurance cheque went towards building our house.

Of course, the fact that I’d offered up the insurance cheque for the house fund was an excellent ‘investment’. The rising property market and the fact we’d built or renovated two houses meant that 7 years later our equity has increased more than seven-fold. So when we down-sized and moved from the Thames Valley to the West Sussex coast, there was the opportunity to cash in my ‘investment’. My car-needs had changed too; instead of local runs to school and the office, I now wanted something suitable for the 60 mile cross-country weekly run up from Sussex. It also meant that 2 seats would be enough.

I did look at the usual suspects; fast Golfs, BMW’s and Audi’s, but I really wanted a rear wheel driver, and the BMW’s I tried suffered from tragic run-flat ride quality. I’ll admit that I couldn’t see how I was going to get too excited by the thought of owning one of these good-but-not-special-motors. I was also aware that my second ‘fun’ car was likely to moulder in the garage almost all of the time. Recent heavy r and m bills had done it no favours either. So maybe if I combined the house investment funds with the sales of my current daily hatchback and the fun car the field would open up a bit….

In short, I recognised it was my once-in-a-lifetime chance to own a new Porsche – even if it was the entry model.

So I arranged for Mrs SS7 and I to go to AFN in Reading to try their Cayman 2.7 demonstrator. It was a sublime drive. In-spite of what you read on the web, build quality appeared superb and performance was perfectly acceptable – and I was in a tight new car with a 14 stone salesman next to me. Perhaps motoring journalists just won’t get out of bed for less than 500bhp, but by my more modest standards it was quick, with a superb engine howl above 5000rpm.

Now I’m pretty well-paid as things go, but I also have a young family. So even the bottom end of the Porsche range represents a big chunk of money sitting in the driveway - it represents a more modest car and a pretty good extra annual holiday for the family. The ‘Save for a 911’ merchants could do with a better grip on reality. I did try a 4 year old 911 of similar value. It had the interior quality of a KIA and felt like a fast BMW to drive.

Rather speculatively then, I put an advert on for my Porsche 968 Clubsport. I wasn’t very hopeful, although the car was in superb condition it had suffered some accident damage in the past and was listed as Category ‘D’. This means it’s insurers had written it off as uneconomic to repair. It also meant that a lot of potential buyers would be put off and that its worth at least 20% less than an unlisted car. The 968 market looked very quiet with too many cars available and not enough buyers around. Then in an event of pure serendipity; the guy I’d bought the car from nearly two years ago decided his Boxster didn’t really excite him anymore, and what he really wanted was another 968CS like his old one… Within 72 hours we agreed a price and suddenly I had a clear run at a new Porsche.

But I still spent a couple of weeks prevaricating and generally worrying my friends as I vacillated between head and heart.

But on the basis that life’s just too bloody short and these opportunities don’t come around very ofton I thought “F*ck-it” and called my nearest OPC to confirm my order for a 2007 Porsche Cayman 2.7. Its due at the end of the year and I can't wait!


Friday, 24 November 2006

My mate V-Dub Phil

I wrote this a couple of years ago. At the time I found myself ‘between jobs’ and while looking around for gainful employment I noticed a Position Vacant ad in my favourite old car Magazine, Classic and Sports Car, for the post of Editorial Assistant. Feeling that a CV full of my exploits as a 40-odd year old Database bloke wasn’t really going to hook me an interview, I decided to create a couple of articles to illustrate my abilities.

This is one; it follows the model of a regular column they ran called “My Classic and I”, even to the extent that I used their usual word count. I based it on my friend Phil and his old Porsche 914 (although there’s some poetic licence involved; the early memories are my own).

Some weeks after sending the article off, I had a call from the magazine. The editor, James Elliot, had been so impressed by my pieces, that he invited me to spend a week their gaining experience, on the basis that if things worked out they’d be a job in it for me. Alas, in the meantime I’d started working as a contractor and the moment was lost. I also have to add that Mrs SS7 was not impressed by the idea of a life of worthy penury while I followed my dream.

Here is the piece. By the way; good writing is murderously hard. Each column took about 6 hours of working and re-working:

A senior executive in a major oil company has little enough time for hobbies, so you’d expect any classic resident in the heated garage block to be one of those over-restored Italian garage queens. Not so Philip *******, UK md of the **** oil company, whose garage contains the same Porsche 914 he’s owned for 15 years.

“At university in Leeds in the early 80’s I fell in with the VW crowd and I’ve never really moved on” he says. “Sure, I could afford a more valuable classic, but there’s something about the sound of the flat-four that rings all my bells, and allied to Porsche mid-engined balance and targa top fresh air, its an all time great”.

Phil’s family was not a motoring one. Early memories were of standing up between the front seats on family trips to the seaside in ancient saloons that smelt of old leather, hot oil and musty flannel head-lining. “My father had little interest in motoring but the first family car I really remember was an MG Y type, which would do about 60mph flat out on the then new M6”. The MG also provided Phil’s first accident experience; “We’d driven through a flood on the way home. My mother turned into the garage, which was at the bottom of a steep drive, and tried to brake, but the waterlogged drums didn’t.” She demolished shelving and stored household possessions at the rear of garage, but there was little damage to us or the car.”

The MG was disposed of soon after that to another family member, who later managed to run over the car’s bonnet after a spot of DIY. “The bonnet hinged in the middle like pre-war cars, and could be removed entirely”. Its replacement was a Ford Cortina GT with new-fangled flood resistant disc brakes, followed by various less memorable Ford and BMC family cars.

Phil’s first car, a Mini bought with holiday job money, ended its days in a ditch after demolishing a stone wall. A lack of comprehensive insurance meant its replacement would have to be defined more by budget than desire. “A flatmate went off travelling, and I inherited his Beetle. At the same time I started getting into Northern Soul music, and somehow the two seemed to work together.” There was a small group of like-minded types locally which linked up with others around the country. “We started to see Californian influences in how people were modifying Beetles, and before very long were into it ourselves”.

A series of cool modified ‘Cal-look’ Beetles followed, as funds allowed. “I left university, and started working for BP. The money was good, and it meant I could indulge”. The Beetles got more extreme, running with big bore engines, ‘slammed’ suspension, expensive paint and bodywork modifications. “I reached the point where the cars looked great, but were almost impossible to drive on our crummy British roads; they would simply leap from bump to bump, and I soon learnt you couldn’t steer when the front wheels weren’t touching the road”.

“I was aware of the Porsche 914 because people were using their 2 litre engines in Beetles”. Phil got talking to an owner at a ‘Run-what-you-brung’ day at Santa Pod. The offer of a drive around local roads followed, and within minutes Phil was hooked “After the Beetles, the Porsche designed chassis was a revelation, it went around corners like I couldn’t believe, and still had that lovely unbreakable VW feeling”.

Pretty soon the Beetles were sold, and a long search produced his 914. “I’d heard of someone bringing over a container load of Beetle parts from California, and that he’d also got a low mileage rust free 914”. A trip to Harwich container docks followed, and Phil’s first sighting. “It was in the back of a rusty container, almost covered in boxes’ of VW parts. It looked very Italian, but I can still remember the feeling of excitement I had on seeing it”.

Since then, Phil and the 914 haven’t been parted “Other cars have come and gone, but there’s something about the 914 that means I will never sell it.”

Like most 914 owners, Phil is often driven to defending his choice “I was disappointed that when Porsche launched the Boxster they claimed that it was the first mid-engined Porsche. Its almost as if they are ashamed of the VW influenced 914s, but the early Porsche 356’s were re-bodied Beetles and the 914 was a great success at the time, easily out-selling the MGB in the US market”.

The 914 still gets regular use; “I drive it to work or meetings if it looks like an interesting journey. The clients and suppliers wonder who the guy in the old car is, and seem pretty amazed when it turns out to be the boss. I also get to field the inevitable ‘what is it?’ questions which help break the ice.”

Like so many people in high-pressure careers, Phil likes to get time off in the garage to relax. “After a week spent travelling, or in meetings, it’s great to be able to go into the garage and mess around with bits of metal. This winter I changed the hubs so I could run wider Fuchs alloy wheels from a contemporary 911. I also had to deal with the some inevitable corrosion, but for a 30 year old car its holding up well, tribute to the Germanic build quality. It should outlast me and even do for my son, although the idea of dropping in a larger 911 engine still appeals……”.

Thursday, 23 November 2006

Porsche Option Prices

Its a long story, but I've ordered one of these. In 'Carrara white'. Its a Porsche Cayman & its going to be built next month in that well known centre of automotive excellence, Finland.
Now even poverty model Porsche are not cheap. This is the 2.7litre entry level version and costs £36,200. Additionally, "discount" is not a word known to Porsche dealers (or Official Porsche Centres - OPCs), in fact I consider myself lucky to have been offered 'free' (hee hee) overmats.
In fact in the last 10 years, Porsche has recreated itself as the most profitable car company in the world. Evidence of this is the fact that they have just purchased VW - or at least a very large chunk of it.
You can see how Porsche are making money when you take a close look at the numbers on the options sheet. Now its easy to overlook the fact that Porsche obviously spend a lot of costly engineering money on the oily bits under the car you don't normally see, but a 'basic' specification car is really, really basic. It doesn't even have the sort of nice-to-haves you'd expect on a Toyota at 1/2 the price.
As a result, its very easy to get carried away with the options list, and before you know it, you've just added 20% or 30% to the price of your car. EVO magazine just tested a £36k Cayman 2.7 that had a £47k on the road cost. And they castigated it because it didn't have the (optional) close ratio 6 speed gearbox. The full size 997 is worse, someone I know added £18k to the basic £65k price of a new 'S'.
To give you some idea of what I mean; here are some choice selections from the Cayman options list:
  • Metallic paint: £570
  • New fangled windscreen wiper that goes on the back window (shock!): £250
  • Even more fangled air-conditioning that keeps the temperature where you set it: £308
  • A £300 SatNav system nicely fitted into the dashboard: £1921
  • A nice steering wheel with smooth leather that has controls for the SatNav: £471>
  • A little electric stop watch sitting on top of the dash and an additional bit of ECU mapping: £507
  • Seats which are leather (on the facings only) and not plastic: £729
  • Electrical adjustment for your leather seats: £1006
  • Some heating for your electrical leather faced seats: £269
  • Some more leather, this time on the centre console behind the gearlever: £563
  • I>Faux carbon-fibre trim around your speedo and your nice integrated sat nav: £903 >A nice stereo with lots of speakers: £859
  • Saving your friendly OPC the trouble of collecting the car from the factory (for two): £960
There you go, over £9k worth of 'extras' and they don't even deliver it to you door. I'd like to point out that I didn't fall into this trap myself and was pretty restrained. I'm also pretty sure the more expensive cars in the range actually make Porsche even more money, so at least on that level my cheap Cayman is better value than a new 997 Carrera turbo at nearly 3 times the price.
That OPC had better ease my pain when it comes to hand over the final cheque!

Wednesday, 22 November 2006


This is my first 'blog' entry. Its my write up of a road trip with Mikey to the famed Nurburgring in October - we both went in my old Porsche 968 ClubSport.

As you lot (the other CarListers!) didn't make lunch on Tuesday it seem I have to commit my thoughts on our trip to pixels!

Some of you will know, I've spent quite a lot of money on the car this year, and hardly had any seat time. My over-riding worry was that we'd get stranded somewhere in Belgium due to a (no doubt expensive) mechanical failure. Actually having said that, only the major engine internals that haven't received expensive attention recently :-(
In any event I washed the car, pumped up the tyres, paid £extortionate for the AA's top level European cover (Nordshcleife recovery explicitly excluded) and purchased a first aid kit/triangle/luminous vest thingy.

I didn't take any tools other than the car's limited kit. There really didn't seem much point in standing by the side of some Belgian road looking confused with an expensive ratchet spanner in my hand. Confused and a cell phone seemed enough of a plan.

I'd also downloaded the necessary maps and addresses into Doris-the-Sat-Nav. The early run to Dover was straight forward; we only stopped to fill up with 65l of Shell's finest V-Max Hyperpower as we'd figured les Frogs would be closed on Sunday. Waiting for the ferry, it was clearly going to be a bumpy ride, there were already white caps in Dover harbour. However by this time it was nearly midday and I was hungry, so a burger was just the ticket.

It seems I still had my sea-legs though as although the voyage was 'challenging' the burger stayed down. Mikey looked a bit green as did quite a few of my fellow passengers, several of whom were leaning against bits of ship for support. I spent the voyage reading the paper and wondering if I should perhaps have put the dampers on full hard, but I couldn't recall seeing recommended English Channel settings with the instructions from Koni. A shame really, as the boat was powered by two 8000hp engines and it would have good if the skipper had been able to give them some berries ;-)

I figured I'd let Mikey orientate himself on the easy bit on the motorways, so after waiting for him to stow the 50kgs of camera gear he seemed inseparably wedded to we were off. Its always a bit weird being driven in your own car, but I was quite happy to sit with Mikey and Doris doing their thing while I drove the music. It had appeared the carefully selected CD's I brought with me didn't suite M's taste though. How was I to know he didn't like Baroque or Cajun?.

After travelling through France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Belgium and Germany we finally arrived at the Eifel. I demanded we go straight on the the Nordschleife entry area. It was hugely busy, and we ended up in the overflow overflow car park. When we'd confirmed the dates back in June, we didn't know there was a German bank holiday on the Tuesday, or that the circuit would be open for 3 straight days. As a result the place was about as busy as it ever gets as people used it for their last Ring w/e of the year.

Around 1/3rd of the plates were from the UK, 1/2 were local, and the balance were Dutch, Belgian & Scandinavians. There were several large groups of bikers too but the Ferrari count over the whole weekend was zero. The chair of the Essex branch of the FOC says that's because they all own their own circuits, but the Ronmeister said "They break here". I would say that unless you know what you're doing, your £130k 430 would be a red rag to a bull for any local with a stripped, caged & slammed Golf.....

My first impressions were much as Michael's; the place is a zoo.
I'd only 'driven' it on the PS2 before. While it slightly helped corner recognition, it was useless for figuring out corner speeds, and the effect of the topography was huge. And sitting in the spare bedroom at home in front on the PS2 screen doesn't prepare you for the mental and physical assault on the senses the Nordshliefe delivers either. At several points you can't see much of the track as it disappears above the top of the windscreen; at least half of the corners are blind so you can't see your line on entering the corner, and most of the corners come in complexes, so the line depends on the final section and works back. The speed differentials are also huge, the 'big' CSL's, GT3's & the Ring taxi were probably doing 60mph more than us as they came past on the quick bits, and turning into a corner with Sabine showboating in the M5 in front of you is also not something you find on the A286.

I appreciate that encountering a slower car is pretty frustrating for faster traffic, but most of the guys were pretty good even when they encountered you on-line. As on sane German roads, the rule is overtake on the left. Almost everyone did this, even into a right hander. A couple tried their luck up the 'wrong' side, and the next day one Audi did have to make a quick decision either to hit my Alfa or brake as he tried his luck up the inside of a right hander.
While the experience was pretty intimidating, there is a sense that its 'big boys rules' out there. Clearly if you're only 10% off the pace you'll have a lot less traffic coming past, so in that sense faster-is-safer. Unless you're being a real dickhead you won't upset anyone, but hesitate for a second and they'll not give you any more space than you really need as they fly past. I suspect Mikey was being a little too cooperative for his own good! We both agreed that the level of concentration needed was huge, which I expect explains the fact that all the following week whenever I closed my eyes I could see that bloody stretch of tarmac curving away between the trees in front of me!

Next days at the Ronmeister's (aka Ron Simons, 'Ring' guru) 75 Experience. It seemed the briefing was mostly about putting the fear of God into us. Clearly they don't know what kind of nutter is going to turn up and slam their tatty Alfa 75 into the first stretch of Nordschleife Armco they find, but I think they probably laid it on a bit thick. However we were given a list of the 10 corners to be really wary about, and where to use the wet line. The latter was just too much to take in at our stage of knowledge, and anyway it was easy to see where the dangerous corners were, because that's where the locals were all spectating...

One thing I was surprised to learn was that there are markers for turn-in and apex. These are faded white circles about 30cm in diameter. The Ronmeister told us that if we're going too fast to see them, then we're going too fast.

Here's one like ours:

1991 ALFA ROMEO 75 Twin Spark, Price: £450
Features: 98,000 miles GREEN Saloon Full Description: Glossary of Terms 2.0, H reg. 98000 miles, Green, excellent condition, all service records.

Add £1000 for suspension, another £400 for a cage,£200 for a cheap seat/harness and £150 for pads/fluid and I suppose you're somewhere near €3500 excess, although that does assume you're going to reduce the thing to scrap metal!

The Alfas felt like a bag of bolts driving up to the circuit from the workshops. Each had a dished wheel & column extension to bring the wheel closer, but this also raised it up a lot. And as the race seats were on the floor the driving position felt pretty odd at first. The 'Christmas Tree' of warning lights showed the usual Italian sense of humour when it comes to automotive electrical components and we were told only to worry if the car lost all oil pressure or started to "Shmell bad. I mean even worse than they shmell right now".

The rear transaxle layout may have helped the handling balance, but combined with weak synchromesh, under-engineered shift linkage & thousands of miles of unsympathetic use, and it was pretty difficult to find any gears at all. I found a very gentle approach combined with a big blip helped, but dear reader, you will appreciate doing this in the wet coming into downhill blind corner with Michael Schuwbacca and Ferdy Hansolo 1m from your boot is a different kettle of bolts...

Apart from that that Alfa's were pretty friendly. An asthmatic 130bhp or so isn't as much of handicap as you'd expect although it would have been nice not to be passed by a bloody Vauxhall Meriva on an uphill section!* Downhill at the 'ring, especially in the wet, you'd soon get up to scary speeds with a dead engine, so a knackered Alfa was plenty. Much depended on the tyres your particular bag of bolts came with. Ours had the monkey-with-the-umbrella rain-masters and held on fine, even when the Pirelli equipped 75 in front of us was sliding gently sideways towards the Armco.

There were two instructors in addition to the Ronmeister. Ours, confusing also called Michael, was a local in his 50's. He claimed to have done 1200 Ring laps. I reckon he either miscounted or he was a slacker; allowing for 30 years driving that's only 40 laps per year. Later that weekend we found one wide-eyed Brit who'd done 40 over that week-end. I suspect he still sees that bloody road every time he blinks.

Following Ring-Michael in his red-hot stripped Audi (actually a bog standard A4 Tdi Avant) it was clear he knew his stuff. But he didn't do the commentary we enjoyed over the radio from the Ronmeister, and at times it was difficult to tell which gear and braking point he was using. It became worse when you were 2nd or 3rd in the Alfa 75 chain. Then you were trying to watch Ring-Michael, the two novices in front, the track, the white circles as well as dealing with Michael Schuwbacca and Ferdy Hansolo doing their main-beam thing in your mirrors.By far the preferable result was when you were first in line & although I did try and gently push in, Mr Be-too-nice-to-everyone-Hinchliffe was more reticent.

The lack of laps on the Monday was a real pain. At that point I'd driven 4 laps, (1 in the 968), at a cost of £550 and 1400 road kms. I know ending up in the morgue ruined the biker's day, but frankly he should really have showed more consideration. At least we got another couple of hours the next day, but if I had an issue with the 75Experience it was the lack of track-time. Make sure you that if you take the course, you do it when there's a full day after an evening briefing, and hope the bikers stay on. Of course it does help if your co-driver decides he'd rather take pictures than drive!

I also suggest that the best time to do the 75Experience is when you've already got a few (probably 20+) laps under your belt already. You'd be at the point when "Take the wideline at Adenau Forst in the wet" was actually meaningful advice. Of course, if you can get your 20 laps in on a quiet day without the Schuey & Ferdy show you'd be a lot better off. Up to then the only sensible approach is to drive like a B road that you haven't seen before. Of course, because we've old f*rts we know this. If you're 21 you don't, hence the accident rate amongst younger f*rts.

I'm thinking of changing the 968. A change of circumstances mean it'll probably just live in my garage. But any replacement/s will have to be up to a Ring trip, and I reckon the RMA days (when the Ron-Meister is also in attendance) would just about be a perfect high intensity motoring experience. Something like this would be perfect:

The final laps we ran (again in my 968) were damp/drying. This is when the 'Ring really bites - there's more grip in the wet most of the time and the car slid in a number of places. And I was really worried by the '"just one more lap" syndrome - because you always bin it on the last lap.

So after more tentative driving we made it, and after a final wander around the car-park headed off for home. We did take the scenic route for 50km's, the highlights of which were a couple of overtake's around the outside of open corners - where you could see the road for several kms. Trying a stunt like that in the UK would bring instant road-rage from the victim, but the locals didn't seem to mind.

Anyway, I've got the sticker and now have nothing to prove!
*my excuse is that I was being held up by the others.