The Ford Raptor has a problem: it’s monstrous. While it makes a lot of sense on the Baja Peninsula or bashing through snow outside of Park City, it makes no sense whatsoever in the city. For all of Los Angeles’s sprawl, it’s a city shockingly devoid of space. Designed around normal sized cars, not behemoth trucks, and with many garages and driveways designed 50, 60 years ago, LA isn’t ready for the Raptor.
I should know: I daily drove one for three years until I ditched it for being just too damn big. That’s not to say Ford hasn’t engineered some practicality into the thing; to the contrary, they absolutely have. In major cities—LA, New York, Boston, Philly, and DC specifically come to mind—the crumbling infrastructure has made a daily drive more like a jaunt down an off-road trail. Lazily applied patches of asphalt combined with potholes and wobbling expansion joints, no doubt thanks to fifty years of increasingly heavy cars, take their toll on your wheels, tires, suspension, and spine. Although parking a Raptor was even more of a pain in the ass than filling up the hot tub-sized tank with Premium every week, negotiating bad roads was always a pleasure.
Herein lies the dilemma: off-roading is typically the realm of trucks. Trucks do not have good dynamics. Trucks are big, ungainly things, meant for hauling large amounts of people and stuff. What do you do if you want the suspension of a baja truck to deal with the garbage roads of the city, but not the size or efficiency drawbacks? The answer, of course, is a rally car.
My first attempt at a rally car was a Ford Focus RS. But, as it turns out, the Focus RS is only a rally car from a powertrain perspective. From a suspension perspective, it was more like a covered wagon. Then, I spent two days in North Carolina with a man named Leh Keen who was doing very strange things with the Porsche 911.
Conventional wisdom says that if you raise a sports car four inches above its factory ride height and install knobby BF Goodrich KO2 tires, you will not exactly improve it. This is especially true if you listen to the opinions of commenters on Bring-A-Trailer. Leh Keen, the mind behind The Keen Project, disagrees.
Leh, a professional racing driver and lifelong Porsche enthusiast, has spent the last two years building the first fifteen examples of his Keen Project Safari 911. Back in 2016, I had the privilege of traveling to his weekend home in the remote mountains of North Carolina, to have a go in Safari #1. To call the experience transformative would be an understatement. On a closed, single-track road, a couple flaggers short of a proper rally stage, I learned a very valuable lesson: a car with great dynamics on the road will also have great dynamics on a loose surface, especially with the proper tires.
Although nervous, within 15 or 20 minutes I found myself doing huge slides in Leh’s personal car, a foot or two from very large, potentially very expensive pine trees. To my utter shock, the 911 turned in harder, rotated better, and oversteered smoother than, literally any rally car I’ve ever driven. Subaru STIs, even on the correct tires, were utter pigs by comparison. Furthermore, because of the loose surface, the “widowmaker snapback” one warns dentists about when driving old 911s at the limit is entirely absent.
On dirt, the Safari 911 made absolute sense; it was a pure rally car, except built entirely for fun and not for winning races. Even better was what happened when we got to tarmac: it was still a 911. That’s not to say it will be setting any lateral G-loading records, or even that it necessarily handles or steers as sharply as it did when it left the factory. It doesn't. However, the ride quality is superb, especially over uneven pavement, the eyeline is still that of a sports car, and you don’t really notice the extra height. Even if you did, looking out over those quad rally lights stuffed in between the pontoon fenders either makes you smile, or reveals you have no soul at all.
Fundamentally, it still feels like a 911, even if mildly numbed down on the road. The beautiful greenhouse, driving position close to the windshield and dash, the perfect seating position, the sound and feel of the engine and way it pushes you, rather than pulls you down the road like only a 911 can, even the effortlessness of a cruise down the road in top gear; all of this is still present here, despite the off-road modifications. Sure, it loses some of its track-worthiness, and I’m not sure it’s the perfect choice for a blast through the (paved) canyons, either. That's not why I bought it. I bought it to navigate the urban jungle on a daily basis, take on road trips, including skiing in the winter, and the occasional off-road jaunt. It’s nearly perfect.
To get to this point, Mr. Keen combines his creative ideology and sense of setup with a handful of extremely talented Atlanta-area subcontractors to do the physical work on the car. He can arrange a donor car, a “G-Body” 911 from 1979 to 1989, or you can provide your own. In my case, I had a specific need: the G50 transmission only offered from ’87-’89, as it has a much more direct shift feel than the 915 transmission used in earlier models. You also get an extra 200cc of displacement from the 3.2 “Carrera” engine over the earlier 911 SC models. My car, a 1987 two-owner Carrera with the optional Whale Tail, burgundy leather, air conditioning, and a sunroof, is a cleaner example than most start with. Most folks also get a full repaint, something my car, in a spectacularly '80s shade of Cassis Red, did not require.
In order to make the 3.2-liter engine a bit more lively, I had the folks at BBi Autosport in Huntington Beach install a light flywheel and clutch assembly, SSI heat exchanger headers, a Dansk vintage-style muffler (All Keen Project Safari 911s use this), a Wevo Short Shift Kit, and a Wavetrac Limited-Slip Differential. They also went through the fuel and ignition system, flushed all the fluids, changed the filters, and updated many of the fittings and hoses.
From there, the car goes on a truck to Keen in Atlanta. First, Bryson Richards and his team at Classic Livery of Atlanta get down to bodywork. They install the signature rally light pod, painted to match, and rally-style front and rear bumpers. The bash bars and skid plates are functional, and give the car a menacing look in the rearview. Classic Livery also handles the interior, which for me, means Cobra GTS Classic bucket seats, RS lightweight door cards, and a Prototipo Wheel, all trimmed in burgundy leather, burgundy carpet, and City Bus fabric.
Yes, actual city bus fabric. Some folks say they want a crazy interior, but what they really mean is tartan or houndstooth or something. I live for an aggressive interior. We kept the original dash and door uppers, as they were in mint condition, as well as the black leather headliner, equally mint. The rear seats are (optionally) deleted, and a vintage-style four-point roll bar is welded in. Since the car is meant for daily driving, Clarion hooked up one of their M508 single-DIN head units with USB charging and Bluetooth, some 6.5 inch coaxial speakers for the door cards, and 6x9 inch speakers for the rear decklid.
From Classic Livery the car goes to Goldcrest Motorsports, who handle the installation of the Elephant Racing Safari Suspension and do the final sorting of the whole package before it's delivered to the customer. Because Keen focuses on a period-style build wherever possible, the suspension is not a full coil-over conversion. Rather, it retains the torsion bar-style rear suspension, just with better, long-travel shocks, different swaybars, new ‘PolyBronze’ bushings, and of course, the BF Goodrich K02 tires (the same tires used on the Ford Raptor) mounted on (American-made) BRAID RSR-style 16-inch alloy wheels.
The idea is to find a balance between off-road performance and street drivability; remember this is meant to be a daily driver with off-road capabilities; it’s not a racecar or a trophy truck. And that’s not just for me—Leh uses his personal Safari for airport runs, six-hour round trip drives to his weekend house, and to go to the grocery store, then also to hit the trails in the woods when he wants to get a bit sideways, an area where the Safari 911 particularly excels.
If there are any downsides, they are minimal in comparison to having one of the coolest and most practical daily driver sports cars around: the tight ‘rally mirrors,’ a standard part of the Keen Project package may be great for sailing the car in between trees at 100 mph on a stage rally, but they make parallel parking a nightmare, even with the convex ‘bifocals’ attached to them. And because of the lightened flywheel and aftermarket Steve Wong chip, the car doesn’t particularly like to idle when ice cold. Without the inertia of the stock flywheel keeping things rotating, it will die if you simply press the clutch in while driving, rather than gently returning to idle. The only real solution for this is to warm the car up for five minutes or so before the first drive of the day.
I absolutely love driving my Safari 911. Although I have yet to do any real off-roading (Leh recommended a few hundred street miles, then a thorough once-over to make sure everything is nice and tight after installation, before doing any real abusive driving), this is the most fun petrol-powered city car I’ve ever driven. Like a Raptor, speed bumps are best taken at full throttle; the car skips over them like a stone. Potholes need not be avoided, and dips in the road become jump opportunities. There’s some additional body roll along with the extra travel, but the handling remains predictable and the manual steering, direct. With the reduced rear grip of the off-road tires, it’s even possible to get predictable, mild oversteer at fairly low speeds, on tarmac. I’ve parked it up on curbs, driven it over downed trees in the road, and taken driveways straight on that would require gnashed teeth and sweaty palms in a stock height 911. And the whole time, I’ve never for a second felt like I wasn’t piloting a performance-oriented 911. It’s got the sound, the response, the look and feel you want from a Porsche, just pointed in a different direction and cranked up to 13. I even watched as the valets shifted a Bentley GT a few feet over, so I could have front row parking at Mastro’s.
This, not the Nurburgring-tuned Ford Focus RS, is the urban rally car experience I’ve really been looking for. While the rest of the world gravitates toward SUV’s, trucks, and luxo-crossovers to deal with modern urban and suburban driving conditions, the pervasive attitude is that cars are dead, and if you can’t beat ‘em, to just join ‘em, with something like a Macan Turbo, as much of a luxury rally car as you can buy today. Well I think you can beat them, have your air-cooled cake and eat it too. Universality, thy name is Keen Project Safari, and it’s the perfect go-anywhere, do anything sports car for today’s urban jungle. It’s the best of air-cooled, the best of Raptor, and the best sense of humor, in one vintage 911-sized package.