Obsession, Thy Name Is Porsche

Mj 618_348_obsession thy name is porsche
Photograph by Peter Yang

You ever wanted something so badly that you didn’t know where to stop and ended up doing crazy stuff until you got it and then sat around scratching your head, wondering what the heck you were thinking in the first place? I’ve felt that kind of itch lots of times. For instance, I once had it for battery-operated handheld calculators from the 1970s, the ones with glowing LED lights, and wound up with 550 of them. These things happen. Most recently, I decided I had to own a Porsche – not a brand-new Porsche, such as you might associate with a hedge fund manager, but an old one, like from the ’70s. I was a teenager back then and fell in love with the car’s sleek lines, even though I couldn’t afford to step onto a Porsche showroom floor. I still can’t. But last January it occurred to me that with the country in an economic meltdown, maybe I could be of service to some poor slob who had just lost his job, his house, his wife, and his dog and suddenly found himself needing to unload his beloved vintage Porsche. I set myself a budget of $7,000 and went off to tell my girlfriend about it.

She was down in the basement messing with the laundry. “OK,” I was saying, “so the dude will probably start off at like $15,000, but with my knowledge of the Porsche marketplace, I’ll be doing some serious price bludgeoning.”

She stopped her folding and stood up straight. “What knowledge of the Porsche marketplace? You don’t know anything about Porsches.”

“Oh, yeah? First of all, you’re pronouncing it wrong. It’s Porsche, with an ‘uh’ on the end, OK?”

She started folding again. She said my karma was beginning to stink. She also said, “You better watch yourself,” as well as, “Shit, here we go again.”

“You don’t get it, do you?” I said. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime. I’ve been online. The market for old Porsches has tanked. Blood’s running in the streets. It’s like Baron Rothschild said. This is exactly the right time to buy.”

“Yeah, well, maybe for somebody. But that’s not the point. The point is you’d be far better served by buying a cow for charity from Heifer International.”

You see what I’m up against? I wanted to involve her in the hunt for my first Porsche. I wanted her to join in the fun and partake in the now-or-never realization of a dream I’d had since childhood, but clearly that wasn’t going to happen. I was on my own. The Porsche to own if you’re interested in a classic but still want a few modern amenities, such as comfy seats, a defroster that works, and a rust-resistant galvanized body, is an air-cooled 911 made from 1978 to 1987. They have that great sloped-roof styling that has made them the most recognizable sports car ever produced. Their engines are almost bulletproof. They haul ass. They turn heads. In all regards, they’re just about perfect.



This is not the Porsche I decided I wanted. What I wanted was the 911 variant known as the 912E. It was made for only one year, 1976, with only 2,099 of them built, with only 1,156 known to still exist; gets pretty damn good gas mileage for a Porsche, around 30 mpg; has the same sexy sweet body style as the 911 but cost $2,000 less when new ($10,750); was dubbed “the poor man’s Porsche”; and is despised and reviled by purists worldwide because it’s powered not by a Porsche engine but by a glorified VW-bus motor. “It’s a dog,” various Porsche experts and mechanics told me. And: “It’s crap.” “All looks, no balls.” “Do yourself a huge favor and fuggedaboutit or else you’ll be SOOORRRRYYY!”

I didn’t care. There’s something about the 912E’s unloved-orphan status that hit me hard and bowled me over. What do I need to go fast for anyway? I live in a small Rhode Island beach town, and the only time I ever really speed (I’m lying) is when I’m heading to the ocean to go surfing. And I certainly wasn’t going to put surf racks on a Porsche. Only a douche would do that. So for me, it seemed just about perfect. Plus, they’re about the cheapest classic Porsche going. I was pretty sure that my $7,000 could get me a real honey.

First thing I did was join the Porsche forums at Pelicanparts.com and Rennlist.com, and then I became a member of the 912E forum at 912bbs.org. I soon realized that I wasn’t going to find an E anywhere close to where I lived on the East Coast and that the hotbeds of 912E ownership were all on the other side of the country. That being the case, I was going to have to shop long-distance. I found two mashup sites that allowed me to search Craigslists everywhere, all at once. Then I discovered more sites, lots more – Autotrader.comHemmings.comThesamba.comClassiccars.com.

It was exciting. I was on to something new, and it felt big. For one thing, I was learning a whole new cool vocabulary. A PPI is a pre-purchase inspection, which is what you should get before buying any old car. Ducktails and whale tails are all types of 911 rear spoilers and are pretty cool, but, sadly, they were never offered on the 912E. Fuchs are the wheels that most Porsche fans like, though I prefer steel wheels with hubcaps for a more retro look. Swepco is the only oil to use in an old Porsche transmission, and the guys can wax rhapsodic about it, as in, “I really like what Swepco did to my tranny!” and “I love Swepco’s color!!!”

I spent the next several weeks – four hours a day, sometimes six, sometimes more, though it pains me now to say how much more, so I won’t – perusing ads and marveling at some of the Porsche-selling bozos out there, like the guy who wrote in his Craigslist post, Porsche black whit black top red gut the car is a convert top works great there is no cuts on the top the clucth is find every thing works or more info call this numbr. Yeah, right – hold on, where’s my checkbook? But mostly I spent that time jawboning on the phone with sellers, getting excited about what I heard, then dropping $200 to $400 on PPIs, five of them altogether, that invariably led to the discovery of things like deal-killing rust or an engine that wasn’t a 912E engine at all.

This one fellow I hired to look at an E in the potato fields of the Pacific Northwest did his inspection with me on the phone but spent most of his time palavering with the seller. At one point he said to me, with the seller snorting in the background, “Hey, didja know that someone in the Netherlands is willing to buy the car sight unseen? Didja know that?” I ended the call and started writing him an e-mail that contained lines like “I’ve got to say that your inspection and the way you handled it was totally unprofessional and bordering on worthless” and “I could go on, but I won’t” and “I’m thoroughly disgusted.” I hit send, screamed about two dozen obscenities, stormed upstairs, threw myself on the couch, and began wringing my hands like some kind of fruitcake.Two months later, still nothing had turned up, and I was on the phone with a seller named Ed, from Florida, asking him why he was selling his car. I really enjoy asking people that, hearing their stories. It gives me a chance to sympathize and soften them up. One old guy said he’d just bought his 912E and hadn’t known it would be nearly impossible to drive a five-speed with a wooden leg. But most of them were economic hard-luck stories, like Ed’s. “Tough times,” he said. “I got hit with some real high alimony, so I got to sell my assets, because I got to look like I’m broke. Divorce is brutal, man. She’s even put my kids against me.”

“I hear you, man,” I said. “Been there myself. Tough times.”

“What’s that? Yeah, okay, well let me tell you about my Porsche,” he said. “My Porsche is an original mint car. The two front seats were re-covered with genu-wine leather.”

“Nice,” I said.

“All the necessary upgrades have been done – and I have all the receipts.”

I leaned back. “Oh, wow. Really? That’s fantastic.”

“It’s got the original paint, except some fucker got me in the parking lot at the movies, and some spiteful bitch keyed the left quarter panel. It really is a sweet car, though. And, hey, those front seats, they cost me $1,550 to redo.”

“Man, it just sounds terrific,” I said.

I left the office and found my girlfriend sitting on the couch, her head tilted, looking at me. “You know what I’m really getting sick of?” she said. “It’s you flirting with all these sellers. All your phony ‘terrific’s and ‘wow’s and ‘fantastic’s. Seriously. It’s like you’re trying to pick up a girl at a bar.”

“Now, listen – ”

She blew some hair out of her face. I could tell that some big-picture statements were on their way, and I girded for their arrival.

“OK, so you’ve worked really hard to put a kid through college and lost a lot of money in the crash and left maybe $1 million on the table dumping that apartment in Manhattan because you thought New York was going to descend into chaos during that stupid Y2K problem thing. I get it. You think you deserve it. But from the yoga perspective, this attachment to objects is totally crazy.”

“Now, listen – ”

“It causes suffering. It’s one of the world’s biggest imbalances. For months you’ve been searching, and so far the end result has been nothing. Honestly, I feel like there’s so much more you could be doing with your time.”

I stamped my foot impatiently. “Hey, would you listen to me for a sec? I think I just found the car. In Florida. Come on, see it. It’s up on the screen. The seller got screwed by his ex so he’s got to dump it. Right this way.”

I left. She didn’t follow. I knew she wouldn’t. I sat down at my desk. I wasn’t interested in that white car, being keyed by a spiteful bitch and all. But I felt like I had to say something.

A few minutes later, she poked her head in. “Honey, can you please give it a rest?”

I guess I could but I knew I wouldn’t, so I didn’t, but I told her I would try. And that’s when I really started to go off the deep end.I tend to think that this kind of thing could happen to anybody who is passionate about anything. Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler, Kim Jong-il, Malcolm Forbes, Neil Young, and Phil Collins, for instance, with their love of, respectively, fantasy paintings, 18th-century German furniture, Daffy Duck cartoons, Fabergé eggs, Lionel model trains, and Alamo memorabilia. One day you’re sailing along, thinking you’re a fine fellow of perfectly moderate appetites, the next you’re being keelhauled by the dark side of desire. That’s what happened to me with those 550 LED calculators now sitting in the basement and leaking battery acid all over the place. You get bit by a bug and start desiring to the exclusion of common sense. You let yourself go. You skip breakfast. You wear your bathrobe all day. You forget to feed the dogs. It’s midnight before you know it. You’re taking the laundry downstairs only to buy yourself a little breathing room from your royally pissed-off significant other. Your eyes dry out because of all that time spent studying the object of your fascination, so you go to see an eye doctor, who prescribes $30-a-pop Restasis eyedrops that do nothing. You go to see your internist, too, who says you have an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder and ups your dosages of Zoloft and Wellbutrin, and that does nothing, either. The pressure to obtain begins to mount, especially when it’s being thwarted, to the point where it becomes unbearable and you’ve got to do something, anything, to find a little relief.

In my case, what I did was make the lunatic decision to buy a 1976 BMW 2002 – a distant also-ran on my dream-car list – that I found one day on Craigslist, two hours away. I thought maybe it could see me through the tough times, so I got my pal Mike to drive me over. The seller, Bill, was big and bald and had a ton of tattoos and goose-stepped around the car, saying, “OK, the sunroof doesn’t work, the doors don’t lock, and the hand-brake is kaput, but otherwise, yeah, cherry and, get this, being a California car originally, no rust. Can you believe it?”

It was twilight. I poked around.

Mike said, “Hey, looks clean to me.”

“Me, too,” I said. The price was $4,500 in the ad. I said to Big Bill, “How’s $3,750?”

Grinning, Big Bill hemmed and hawed like it was killing him and came down $250, to $4,250.

Right then I remembered a negotiating tactic I’d heard once: When an opposing party counters your offer, the best move is not to up your counter to his counter but to cut it, cut it deeply, to show you’re ruthless and not to be trifled with. Only, Big Bill was exactly that: big and nasty looking. I took another route, one that I felt sure would throw him for a loop and tilt the deal my way. I upped my offer by $3 dollars, saying, “$3,753,” and gave him my best game face.

Mike turned away, snickering.

Big Bill rubbed at his chin. “Yeah, right. $4,250. Like I said.”

Frankly, that threw me for a real loop. He didn’t change his price at all. I didn’t know what the gambit meant, but I knew I’d better act fast before he did something weird like jack the price back up to full asking.

“Deal,” I said.

“Sold!” he said.

And off I drove, home to my mechanic, who gave the car a once-over, asked me why I hadn’t done the smart thing and gotten a PPI, listened to my answer (“I don’t know”), shrugged, and presented me with a list of work the car needed – $2,000 worth. I groaned and said, “Yeah, okay, but no rust, right?” He looked at me with his eyes bulging. “You kidding me? It’s full of rust!”

But at least the pressure was off to buy a Porsche. I could relax a little. I had something to tinker with, keep my mind busy. In fact, I told my girlfriend the Porsche hunt was over. I now had an old car and didn’t need another. I learned how to tune the 2002’s Weber carb. I built some old school–looking roof racks. The household lightened up, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. But then I had a genius idea, the kind of idea that obsessives the world over would doubtless applaud and bow down to me for. I gave my girlfriend the car. “Here, take it. I know you like it – it’s yours.” She was thrilled, and I felt free to go back to my hunt for the perfect 912E…and to drive the BMW whenever I wanted. Win-win. I love that.I never really stopped to ponder why I wanted a Porsche so badly, as opposed to, say, old Daffy Duck cartoons. Sometimes I think it may be because when I was a teenager, I once went for a hot ride in a Porsche with a buxom blonde far out of my league, and the way she shifted up through the power curve really sent me. I’ve never forgotten that. But it probably has more to do with unresolved childhood issues of some sort, or maybe a general sense of emptiness, mixed with an impressionable mind that had once been held captive by Porsche’s crack advertising team in the 1970s. I remember one bit of copy that went something like, “Porsche. It will always be more than you’ll expect.” Like me one day, I remember thinking – yeah, like me.

This also plays into something I recently read about collecting in general: “[It’s] a basic human instinct; a survival advantage amplified by eons of natural selection. Those of our ancient ancestors who managed to accumulate scarce objects may have been more prone to survive long enough to bear offspring. Even today, wealth correlates to longer life expectancy – and could any form of wealth be more basic than scarce, tangible objects?” Like a classic Porsche? Then again, I have no idea why I so preferred the timid-underdog 912E to the hirsute, virile, roaring 911. I could speculate that it’s because I grew up only to become what I expected, nothing more, always, and consequently feel that I don’t deserve a 911, but that kind of negative self-talk gets you nowhere, so let’s move on.

One day in late spring, I tallied up what the hunt for my first Porsche had cost me so far: $1,300 in prepurchase inspection fees, roughly $100 in books and related media, $40 in insurance co-pays for visits to doctors, numerous conversations with my girlfriend that otherwise would have been pleasant, and approximately 1,100 hours of my life. It had all happened without my really being aware of it. I began to tremble. Fortunately, an end was in sight, in the form of a lovely brown 912E that had recently come up for sale on one of the classified sites.

It was owned by a guy named Hugo, in New York City. He wanted $14,000 for the car, but it would come with a number of extras – including a spare set of original 15-inch Fuchs wheels – that I figured I could sell off, bringing the adjusted total closer to my price range. I offered him $13,250. “That works,” he wrote back. “I want someone who will care for the car, and I think you will be the right person for that.” I sat there, numbly looking at Hugo’s response.

And then, for the next two weeks, Hugo and I exchanged e-mails about the upcoming swap of car for cash. I took my girlfriend out to dinner and toasted the end of the hunt. I ordered new seat covers for the car. I bought a radar detector. I began stocking up on microfiber towels and other car-care products. On a Friday, I went to the bank and took out $13,250 in cash. On Saturday morning, I packed my bags and got ready to leave. In the early afternoon, the phone rang.

“Hey, it’s Hugo. Listen, I’m not jerking you around, but I’ve got a guy coming in from Long Island right now to look at the car and buy it for full price. If he doesn’t buy it, I will let you know.”

It took me a moment to comprehend what was going on. Then I said, “But Hugo, we had a deal. A deal! Didn’t we have a deal?”

“Yeah, but how do I know you were going to show up? Have you ever bought or sold a Porsche before? No? Well, it’s full of dreamers who have to sell their stamp collections to get the money and then they don’t show up or they show up and try to pick you apart and nickel-and-dime you and – ”

“But I’ve given you no indication whatsoever of being that guy. I’ve been completely straightforward. We had a deal. My bags are packed. I’m out the door. What you’re doing is wrong. It’s just wrong.”

“Don’t try to guilt-trip me, man.”

And so down in flames went the deal, leaving me feeling burned up and tooled over. I fired off an e-mail to him, calling him “a calculating arrogant self-righteous nincompoop” and saying stuff like “You sold out your word and your bond for $750. $750! Good God, man, is that all it costs?” and “If I were your mother, I’d say, ‘Shame on you, little Hugo. Shame on you and your greed.’ ” I couldn’t see straight. I was furious. And I was still furious a week later, when I saw an ad for his car again appear on the internet and realized his full-price deal must have fallen through. I didn’t even smile at the just comeuppance. Instead, I dropped Hugo an e-mail and began bargaining with him for the car again. But I wasn’t me now. I was a fictitious guy named Mike. As Mike, I was going to make a deal and then never show up to consummate it. I offered Hugo $12,225. He wanted a phone number. I ignored the request. He came down to $13,000. Then he came down to $12,800, or $450 less than I was willing to pay him originally. And suddenly I found myself hatching a plot to buy the car for real. I e-mailed Hugo agreeing to his price and telling him that I was a college student in Colorado and couldn’t come pick up the car myself but that my father could. Then I called my pal Mike and asked him to play my father in the deal. He would go meet Hugo and give him the money. I would tag along, as a friend, but would pretend to be a mute, so Hugo wouldn’t hear my voice, which is pretty recognizable. Mike couldn’t stop laughing.

In his next e-mail, however, Hugo said he wanted to speak to me and asked again why I wouldn’t give him my phone number. He also wanted to know why I couldn’t take a few days off from school and come pick up the car myself. He also wanted to know why I had asked so few questions about the car and yet seemed to know so much about it. He wanted to know all these things. I started freaking out. He was getting suspicious. I wondered what Kim Jong-il or Phil Collins would do in my situation, then decided to back out and e-mailed him a note saying he had made the deal too complicated and I was no longer interested. In his final e-mail to me, he said, “You are one of 3 things: a scammer, a dreamer and time waster, or someone trying to proxy buy my car for someone else. I think it’s the latter so piss off…’Mike’ or Erik or whoever the fuck you are…You clown.”

I sat there looking at this. I was humiliated. I felt sick. I was trembling again – I’d gone too far. I turned off my computer. It’s staggering how things sometimes work out, though. Three weeks later, I was in Houston, sitting outside the house of a guy named Brian Southwell, who owns a small chain of restaurants called Southwell’s Hamburger Grill. He’s a big-time Porsche nut too and is friends with every other Porsche nut in Houston. Almost every evening they congregate at his place in the 102-degree heat, open up lawn chairs, pop open some cold ones, and talk about all the Porsches arrayed in front of them, ranging from late-’60s 911s to the most modern ones, costing well over $100,000. Brian himself owns eight Porsches, including, until just a few moments ago, a bright blue 912E. That car is now mine. We’d been corresponding about it for several months, ever since he first put it on the market, for $26,000. It was a beauty, one of the best, most original, most decked-out 912Es in the country and far beyond my means, and I told him that. He commiserated, then put it up on eBay. It received a high closing bid of $17,100, but the reserve wasn’t met, so it didn’t sell. Southwell was fine with that, because those eBay guys were crazy; one fellow showed up to look over the car and wanted to trade it, right then and there, for a Tiffany lamp. This really ticked him off, so he wrote me an e-mail telling me to name any price I wanted for his car, and it’d be mine, to hell with eBay. I offered him $15,000. Even though that was more than twice my original budgeted amount, I couldn’t insult the man – I’d done enough insulting as it was. My karma was in trouble, and it was time to start making amends, and I thought I’d start by throwing a reasonable amount of money Southwell’s way. He took it. And here I was, sitting with him and his Porsche-owning boys, now one of the boys myself, happy and hoping it would last.

Several months have passed, and the thing has begun eating me alive. It needed a valve adjustment, new shocks, an oil change, new spark plugs, new spark-plug wires, a new distributor cap, a new air filter. The pedal cluster had rust and needed to be restored and rebuilt. The shift tower and linkage had to be rebuilt too, with new bushings installed all around. The bill came to $3,737, meaning that so far I had sunk $18,737 into the car, which was, in fact, $737 more than my girlfriend earned last year. I kept that to myself, however, and marched blindly forward. I bought some steel wheels, for $375, to get that cool retro look I wanted, but then realized that I’d bought the wrong steel wheels, so I stacked them up in a dark corner and bought another set of steel wheels for $425. Sometimes I wondered what the heck I was doing, but mostly I tried not to think about it. I’m pretty good at that. It’s a talent I have. I love my car. I’ll love it a long time.

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