Restoring a vintage car is a serious labor of love. At times it may feel like an unrequited love, but a pure love, nonetheless. Not to suggest that buying and owning a classic car is akin to a romantic relationship; on the contrary, for some of us, it’s probably more similar to a religious experience. Regardless of the initial motivations for buying a vintage car, it’s easy to become so personally invested in the restoration that the car somehow becomes tied to your very identity. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if the experience of completing the project also leaves you a wiser human being.
Before owning a vintage car, I never had any expectations of auto repair as any sort of transcendent experience. As of a few years ago, what little car knowledge I had was gained from simply being around my father, my maternal grandfather, and my father-in-law (The Holy Trinity). I always loved old cars, but a motorhead I was not. Nevertheless, in my mind, restoring one might be a fun little project, the result being a “cherry ride” to take out for a spin whenever I felt the urge.
When I found a slightly forsaken, multi-colored 1975 Porsche 911S Targa California for just $4000, I was cautiously optimistic that this may just be the car to take me to the promised land.
Though the vehicle was a little worse for wear, the mechanics and engine seemed in good shape, which was the most important thing of course. I brought the car home and parked it in my garage. The very next day, I immediately got to work on ignoring it for the next two months, because OH MY GOD, WHAT DID I DO? I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT FIXING UP AN OLD CAR! Eventually I adjusted to the idea of this new task and decided that I should take my new ride out for a test drive as a first step. I also had to get it out of the garage because my wife was threatening to use it for overflow shoe storage if she didn’t see it move soon. The next Monday morning I pulled out of the garage and drove the 20 miles to work to see how it would handle on the open road.
The drive to work was comfortable and uneventful. The same can’t be said for the drive home. I was stuck in rush hour traffic, moving about a foot a minute, but I had removed the Targa top to take advantage of the lovely spring afternoon and was enjoying a gentle breeze on my face and a feeling of self-satisfied bliss, just before inhaling a white mist that smelled of scorched rubber and hellfire. Then I saw what appeared to be ghosts escaping from the engine compartment in my rearview mirror. (Porsche engines are in the rear, remember?) The temperature gauge was off the charts.
I pulled off to the side of the highway to let the engine cool down. I had no idea why it was so hot, but my gearhead intuition was telling me it had something to do with having removed it from the garage. I also knew that the engine was air-cooled, so I couldn’t be out of coolant. I waited patiently for the engine temperature to go back down to a safe level, and then pulled back onto the highway and made my way home.
THE GOOD BOOK
After making it back to my garage and notifying my wife that car hauntings are a real thing, I began exhaustive research to find out what may have caused the problem. As any seasoned mechanic worth his salt will testify, step one is always “Ask Google”. I searched “1975 Porsche 911S overheating for no reason. Is this seriously my life?” Amongst the results I found a person who appeared to be asking the same question on an internet forum all about Porsches. The forum was hosted by an auto parts retailer called Pelican Parts, and the forum was a treasure trove of knowledge and advice on owning and repairing vintage Porsches. I felt renewed knowing that I would have this font of wisdom to consult whenever problems such as these would inevitably arise. It became my automotive bible and something I always counted on to make sure I was on the right path.
THE STRENGTH TO ACCEPT THE THINGS I CANNOT CHANGE
The overheating issue, according to The Gospel of “BigWrench2439”, was a result of my car’s thermal reactors, which were a factory-installed feature on all 1975 911’s that originated in California. Apparently, California’s emissions standards in 1975 required that these vehicles have special add-ons to reduce emissions. Unfortunately, while they made for a cleaner California, they also led to overheating when idle, resulting in the slight inconvenience of melted engines.
The overwhelming opinion on the forums regarding the thermal reactors was that it was just a quirk of these cars that I’d have to get used to. Of course, some people found ways to either modify or remove the thermal reactors, but the process was by no means an exact science, and far beyond my level of expertise. Instead, I followed the advice of my fellow forum members, and learned to become more strategic about how and when I drove the car, doing my best to avoid sitting in busy traffic for too long. It wasn’t that difficult to do, and it also became a useful exercise in accepting the car for exactly what it was and learning to be adaptable.
Once I got used to the idea of having this imperfect form of transportation, and adjusted to its temperament, I began to slowly fix small items that were in need of repair. As happens with most people who get into car restoration, what started out as a plan to occasionally “tinker” with the car quickly turned into a different beast. Before I knew it, the aforementioned “tinkering” led to “fixating”, which is only about two doors down from “obsessing”, and eventually I found myself spending nearly every evening in the garage working on some different part of the car.
It became therapeutic, allowing me to unwind after a stressful day at work by focusing on a specific task. Sometimes my wife would come out to the garage and sit, and we’d talk while I worked. Other times I would just listen to music. I began to look forward to that time and it became an important part of my daily ritual and helped keep me balanced.
Much of the first few months, I spent on minor projects like stripping and re-painting the Fuchs wheels, repairing dents with Bondo, and sanding down small rust spots. Then I purchased a period-correct ducktail engine cover and installed it to replace the standard engine hood that had come with the car. Next, I re-sanded the entire body and primed it for paint. That period of gradual improvement was a huge confidence boost and showed me that doing at least a little bit of the good work every single day could result in big changes.
Once I was satisfied that all the minor body work had been completed, I made plans to get the car painted, and have new decals applied. I had driven the car occasionally throughout the restoration process, but once the paint and decals were done, I planned on driving it on a much more regular basis.
When I finally picked it up from the paint shop, I couldn’t believe how different the car looked from just a few months earlier.
SERMON ON THE MOUNT
Over the next year, I had several different impromptu repairs to make, from a broken brake cable to a collapsed rear shock. Perhaps worst of all was a blown woofer on my driver’s side door speaker, but I survived even that soul-crushing crisis to come out stronger for it. However, the greatest tribulation was still ahead.
Driving around, over, and through high mountain ranges is a daily occurrence for those of us who live in Hawaii. One fateful day on my lunch break, I took the H-3 Freeway across the Ko’olau mountains to pick up a package on the windward side of the island. I had made this drive before in my Porsche, so I wasn’t too concerned. On my way back to the office, however, I heard a loud SNAP – the gas pedal hit the floor, the RPMS wend down to idle, and the car rolled to a stop. By this time in my mechanical journey, I was knowledgeable enough to know that the accelerator cable had snapped.
Unfortunately, I had an important post-lunch meeting to get back to in the city and I couldn’t afford to waste time waiting for a tow truck or friend to rescue me. So I turned the engine off, sat on the hood of the car (The Thinker style) and pondered my options. I looked up at the giant mountain ahead, the winding ribbon of highway that disappeared into the clouds, and thought to myself, “What would BigWrench2439 do?” I knew what I had to do.
I turned the ignition back on and poked around in the engine compartment. I found the throttle assembly and opened it up to the point where the engine was above an idle but not revving too high. I searched for a stone to fit into the gap in the throttle so that it would give the engine a moderate but constant stream of gas, and then I got back in my chariot, opened the clutch, and let the brake off, as to let the car slowly roll forward.
While I couldn’t go beyond second gear, the car was still moving. The drive up the winding mountain road and through the tunnel took far longer than usual, of course, but once on the other side and heading back down I was able to coast comfortably back to my office. It was a harrowing tale, but one I’m grateful I still get to tell.
When I got the car back home, it was an easy fix, but not one that I could’ve done on the spot. Thankfully, all those previous experiences with the car had given me the faith that I could handle just about any situation the road could throw at me.
Eventually, life got busier between work and a new baby. I needed more time, and more money. Come to find out, (shocker) a 1975 Porsche 911S with overheating issues isn’t the best car for carting a newborn around. I sold the car to an excited buyer, and it ended up being shipped back to California where it had started its life four decades earlier.
Sometimes I miss the car, but thinking of it never makes me sad. No matter where it goes next, or where it ends up, I will always be part of its story. Just as I could see the life the car had already lived before I owned it, the new owner can see all the work that I put into it, and the next owner will see the work he puts into it. All those hundreds of hours of cleaning, sanding, repairing, driving, repairing again, have taught me so many lessons I’ll never forget. And perhaps most importantly, that car will always be part of my story.