Or, I Owned an Aircooled 911 Targa for a Year and It Didn’t Suck
As a child of the 1970s and 1980s, the big, impact bumper (or “G-body”) Porsche 911 has always been on my automotive wish list. Unlike many purists, my personal favorite among the Coupe, Targa, and Cabriolet body styles has always been the Targa. There’s just something about the often-imitated combination of open air motoring, big rear glass, and that unmistakable middle-of-the-car hoop that makes me randy. After years of talking myself out of buying one of these iconic machines (I mean, look in the dictionary under “German Sports Car” and this is what you’ll find) as prices seemed to escalate exponentially year over year, I finally pulled the trigger on this 1988 Carrera 3.2 Targa with 227,000 documented miles about this time last year.
What’s that you say? What in the world was I thinking buying a high performance European driving machine with mileage only about 10,000 miles short of having driven to the moon? Well, I tell you… Unlike a lot of the low mileage garage queens you see on the likes of Bring a Trailer and other collector car sites, this car had been driven. But beyond that, it was a west coast car and came with a corrosion free guarantee, as well as approximately $60K worth of service history starting from 1989 that demonstrated regular, caring maintenance right up to the engine and transmission rebuild just 5,000 miles prior to my purchase. I paid more than a project car, but considerably less than concours. Sure, it was a bit of a gamble, but my goal was to not lose money owning it – not to make a huge profit. Kind of a savings account on wheels, but at current interest rates.
My favorite color for an early (“long hood”) 911 is Irish Green, and for a G-body like this is Platinum. When I first found this car, I was a little turned off by the comparatively ordinary Guards Red on Black color scheme, but I ultimately decided to go with my gut on the mechanics of the car while also keeping in mind that there is a reason that “resale red” is a thing. I have to admit that the color grew on my during my ownership – it really is classic for this vintage, and goes very nicely with the black trim and the black center Fuchs alloy wheels – optional (but more common) 16 inchers on my car versus stock 15s. Also, despite the miles, the partial leather interior was 100% original, right down to the crack-free dash. It was most definitely loved.
So loved was it, that when I listed it for sale in the Porsche Club of America classifieds the longest-term owner of the car reached-out to me and sent me this photo of the poster that still adorns his wall. It turns out my Targa had been his dream car as well, and he put over 150K miles on it. His priorities had changed and he had to let it go, but sure enough this was the same car that he identified on a whim by description, mileage, and ultimately confirmed with the VIN. The love for the car was and is strong, and he made me understand some of the fanaticism that surrounds these things.
There were really only two things I wasn’t super thrilled about when the car finally arrived: the AC was broken (big surprise – “just needs a charge”) and it came wearing an M&K aftermarket exhaust with catalytic delete. The former did require an overhaul of the AC system – which I had done – but I ultimately decided to live with the latter. The car came with the factory exhaust and valance with the tailpipe cutout in the right place, but the system in place made a really good noise, and differentiated my Targa some from the others at Cars & Coffee (remember those?), club drives, or just on the road. It droned on the highway, but that’s really not where this car is in its element. On the back roads – or better yet driving through a long tunnel – it was delicious.
This isn’t the first Porsche I ever owned, and it wasn’t the fastest. My last P-car was a 2000 Boxster S in Speed Yellow which – despite the same size motor – could blow the doors off the 911. Such is progress. My problem with the Boxster S was that it really didn’t offer any challenge. An aircooled 911 takes some skill to drive fast: the pedals are heavy, the tail is heavy, lift-throttle oversteer can kill you, there are no traction controls or antilock braking nannies, and the act of driving it is a balance of using all of the controls concurrently to extract the best driving experience out of it. The Boxster, on the other hand, is so comparatively refined that it is simply too easy to drive it too fast. Sure, I like a super-fast “point and squirt” car as much as the next person, but I also like a challenge. The Boxster would have been an excellent commuter, and I’ll probably buy another one some day because they really are among the best handling sports cars *ever*. I’m kind of partial to the 2004 550 special edition in GT Silver on Cocoa leather.. But I digress.
So, I bought one of my dream cars. How was it?
Here’s the thing: it was brilliant. Maintenance during the year consisted of oil changes, a valve adjustment, and the aforementioned airconditioning repair. I also replaced the battery twice, but that was due to a bad battery and wasn’t the car’s fault. The driving experience in these cars, as implied above, is highly analog. It’s like a powerful go kart. The fact that this car had mildly lowered suspension made it look better on the road, but if anything made the ride a little worse. Handling, as they say, can be tricky. The throttle is more your friend in these cars than the brake – and that is a hard dynamic to embrace if you’re a heavy brake user like me.
I also appreciate the simplicity of the car. Keep in mind that this is the evolution of a car first introduced to the world in 1964 – so even this now-32 year old car represented 24 years of development and improvement when it was new. However, it is remarkably DIY-able, especially compared with Porsche’s modern water cooled mid- and rear-engined offerings. Ask me how I know.
I also like cars that can be largely rebuilt from the ground up using a parts catalog and a credit card. I have a lot of experience with Mercedes-Benz’s support for classics, and was pleased to find similar with Porsche – although as is the case with Mercedes, sometimes the price for a 911 part outweighs the need to replace it. I debated replacing a cigarette-burned driver’s door cap the whole year I owned it, but never took the $450 leap because it just wasn’t that critical. Your mileage may vary.
If I have any complaints about the car, it goes back to the Targa issue. On one hand, for an open car designed int he 50s and 60s this one is amazingly free of cowl-shake. Granted, my field of comparison includes Alfas and Fiats. Still, it is a very solid car. On the down side, with the top on you get wind noise anywhere over about 40mph. Talking to other owners I found this seems to be endemic to the cars, although I have heard rumors of quiet ones. I suspect those folks may be hearing impaired. But that’s somewhat to be expected. There are two other basic issues related to the Targa top: First, it’s big and bulky. Yes, it does fold, but people tell you not to because repeated folding of the top will wear it out faster. Even if you don’t mind doing that, it is a pain in the rear to take off and put on. The other issue is annoying wind buffeting with the top off. Add these together, and in terms of driving experience I’d have rather had either a Cabriolet if I wanted open air or a Coupe if I wanted a closed car. The Targa accomplished neither totally successfully. I still love the look, but if I buy another 911 it will be either of the other body styles – depending on the specific car, price and my mood on a given day.
At the end of the day, I would gladly welcome another vintage aircooled 911 to my fleet. This car treated me just fine from a financial perspective, and left my care having returned a hair more than I had invested in it. The way the 911 market is looking at present, the sale price was a little bit of a gift given there has been some drop off over the past year. Don’t get me wrong: it was still a bargain to the new buyer (who was surprisingly a dealer) from a dollar perspective, but will need to find future homes with enthusiasts for whom maintenance and care outweigh total miles driven.