As PJ O’Rourke most famously dubbed it, the Porsche 911 is one hell of an “ass-engined Nazi slot-car”. Having debuted in 1963, the icon celebrates its 50th birthday, as do many traditional 911 owners en route to the dealership for a mid-life crisis purchase.
Of course, there are two types of 911s: those built up to 1998, and those mass-produced afterwards. The former are the air-cooled cars: carefully crafted machinery with the precision-built guts of a Swiss timepiece. The latter are the water-boxers, cleaner running, more powerful, faster, and kinda blasphemous, depending who you talk to.
Given that Porsche no longer makes air-cooled cars, buying one is quite a good investment. They no longer really depreciate, and in certain cases have started skyrocketing in value. Air-cooled 911s are also, for the most part, tough, simple, durable, and long-lived. Buying one sets you apart from the moneyed elite as a man of taste and breeding, just as a previously-enjoyed IWC pilot’s chronograph is ever so much better than some hubcap-sized Hublot.
But: buyer beware.
1. Know a guy
Like your timepiece, your haircut, and your tailor, expert advice is sometimes needed. Older 911s are living, breathing things, and you certainly shouldn’t be asking the guy at Canadian Tire to do your pre-purchase inspection.
Rear-main seals sweat oil. Things go ping, sproing, tick-tick-tick, and chuffle; some of these noises are perfectly okay, and some are not. An expert 911 mechanic is hard to find, and many of the best are privateers, operating out of their own garages. Yes, the dealerships are still repositories of knowledge, but seeing as it’s been fifteen years since the last brand-new air-cooled porker darkened their doors, you need a specialist.
How to find him? Get on the grapevine. Porsche club members can be snooty, but most are welcoming, and if enough of them will vouch for a given guru, that’s your guy.
2. Stay off Craigslist
Craigslist is a great place to buy a (probably stolen) bicycle, or a futon of dubious cleanliness. It ain’t a great place to buy a Porsche.
While estate sales and so forth will show up from time to time, finding the right 911 requires a hunter’s patience and networking. Many of the best cars are in the hands of owners who aren’t necessarily ready to sell—it’s a bit like marrying off your kid. Making connections through local meets and clubs is a great way to show you’re not some punk who’s going to cheap out on repairs, but a connoisseur; a curator holding onto a piece of art for the next generation.
3. Friends don’t let friends buy Tiptronic
Just no. Porsche pioneered the manually-shifted automatic, and with the PDK dual-clutch, they’ve almost got it perfect. However, you might as well buy a Ducati with training wheels.
On average, air-cooled cars burn a litre of oil every 1000kms or so. People who don’t know this don’t top up their precious fluids and, well, ka-boom.
Chain tensioners can be a problem. Vario-ram failures are not unheard of. Dealing with fuel injection issues can occasionally require throwing a sacrificial virgin into your local volcano. These cars have their quirks.
That’s why you want one with a laundry list of servicing records, a meticulous pedigree showing that your thoroughbred’s had all its shots and is passed by the vet. This is the sort of thing you should keep on hand too, when it’s your turn to sell.
5. Which Year?
All of them. No really, from 60’s to 90s, every 911 has its good and bad, and the prices can range all over the map. Some will swear that a decent 911SC can’t be beat for cheapness, while others will point out that a late-90s 993 is the best for long-term value.
Really, the best rule of thumb is to set your budget and then buy the best-condition car you can: there’s no point in trying to resuscitate a basket case. Even if it’s a bit of a stretch financially, and you end up not driving the thing as much as you though you would, there will come a fall day when you awake early to find the air crisp, brittle with the promise of winter, though the sun shines.
On that day, you’ll finally understand the legend, and it’ll all be worth it. Just don’t lift in the corners—somebody else is going to want their turn next decade.
Brendan McAleer is a freelance auto-writer based out of North Vancouver, BC, and a member of the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada. His work appears in BBCAutos, Road&Track, Autos.ca and elsewhere. Follow him on twitter @brendan_mcaleer.