A Porsche 935 is basically all engine.
It is all engine, and then some more engine, and then more engine after that. You open the rear lid and think, No. This is wrong. That's a dishwasher, maybe, or a particularly randy sump pump. It does not look capable of motion. It looks capable of pumping out your basement.
Only it moves. It is an air-cooled, twin-turbo, mechanically injected six-cylinder originally drawn up by a bunch of obsessive Germans. In another life, these Germans would have been building perfect highways or flying men to the moon, because that is what Germans do when they get antsy. But they decided to go racing. Their creation won Le Mans outright (1979), Sebring six times (1978–1982 and 1984), and three 1000-kilometer races at the Nürburgring (1977–1979). Also every Daytona 24-hour from 1978–1983.
Contrast that with the slower, but still Le Mans-winning, Porsche 934, essentially a 1975 911 Turbo with more power and a few suspension tweaks. It was a less obvious insanity, if just as much a product of German overkill. Both machines rose to power when turbocharging was in its brutal infancy and the 911 was young and raw. They remain the peak of the car's hairiest days.
This is what happens when an ordinary club racer meets each. The experience wasn't always fast or pretty, because these cars weren't designed for ordinary people. It actually felt a little ridiculous, which is why we brought along a professional hotshoe for help. He laughed at us, but nicely, as you might laugh when the dog barks at the vacuum cleaner.
The main straight at Arizona's Inde Motorsports Ranch is long, uphill, and wide enough to double as a runway. That straight, two hours outside of Tucson, is one of the reasons we took our test to Inde. The other is Arizona's perpetually amazing weather, which lets you stand in the pits and not worry about rain while watching a red, 800--hp 935 tear across the tarmac. Which is what I was doing when the car's owner, Jim Edwards, walked over.
"How's he feeling?" Jim asked.
"He's okay," I said. "I think he likes it."
"I don't know anybody that's ever driven that car that didn't."
The 935's driver was Porsche racer Darren Law, COO of the Bob Bondurant School of Performance Driving and a four-time Le Mans veteran. We asked him to help lay down fast laps and offer feedback. Edwards brought a 934 and 935, a willingness to share both with strangers, and his crack support team.
These cars come from a heady time in Stuttgart's history. Both are related to the 260-hp, 3.0-liter 911 Turbo of 1975, Porsche's first turbo street car and a coarse speed grenade known for exiting the road backward when you pissed it off. Thirty-one 934s were produced in 1976 for the FIA's near-stock Group 4 class. Buyers got a 485-horse, 2470-pound, flared-fender 911 with a bare-bones interior, an aluminum roll cage, brakes from Porsche's 240-mph 917, and a 3.0-liter six with stockish internals. Two water-to-air intercoolers replaced the street car's air-to-air unit, and the suspension received stiff coil springs, augmenting the stock torsion bars. Much of the rest was ordinary 911 Turbo, including the electric windows and rear spoiler profile.
Here's where things get greasy: The street Turbo had a turbocharger the size of a large orange. The 934's was the size of a prize cantaloupe. While larger turbos usually offer more power, they almost universally bring greater lag—the time between when your right foot hits the floor and the car smacks you in the back. The 934 was essentially a more skittish 911 Turbo with hellish lag, relatively small rules-mandated tires, and nearly double the power. Derek Bell once called it a "nasty little beast." Most say he was being nice.
Still, on paper, the 935 was nastier. The early blueprint was simple: a 2.8-liter mechanically injected engine with heavily massaged innards; a massive KKK turbocharger; a locked (spool) rear axle for traction; new suspension geometry; a production-based steel shell; wide fiberglass bodywork; and between 550 and 650 hp, depending on boost. Curb weight was 2138 pounds, close to the class minimum for the FIA's liberal Group 5—at the time, the craziest production-based road racing on earth.
Loophole after loophole was exploited: stretching a rule regarding fender flares to chop off the car's headlights and reduce drag; double-layering bodywork to satisfy regs mandating the presence of stock panels. Early 935s gave FIA officials kittens, but they were technically legal, and no one could stop them from winning. Privateers soon began building their own cars. By 1982, most '35s extant—usually tube-framed, with twin turbos, greater displacement, and ludicrous power—weren't born in Porsche's factory. They were dominant regardless.
Which brings us back to Jim Edwards's Coca-Cola-liveried 1984 Fabcar-Porsche. This car was commissioned by Sebring winner Bob Akin and constructed by Fabcar, the Indiana shop that designed the first Grand-Am Daytona Prototype. A 3.2-liter, 2060-pound weapon, it borrowed heavily from the outlandish 935s of Germany's Kremer brothers and the factory's "Moby Dick" Le Mans racer. Porsche people call it the "last 935" because it essentially closed the book on the car. It also qualified on the pole at the 1984 Daytona 24-hour and hit 218 mph there. The two K29 turbos in its rump call to mind a bull elephant with a hormone problem.
Law, having driven the car earlier in the day, went out before me to warm it up. It took two of Edwards's mechanics to start the engine. The guy at the rear stood with his legs splayed, the car's turbos parked halfway between his shins. He primed the engine with his right hand and worked the throttle with his left, yelling at the man in the cockpit, until the engine roused and settled into a nervous, 2000-rpm yell of an idle.
Three laps after Law strapped in, he was on it. The car flung onto the back straight emitting an odd whistle, and then time compressed, and this vaguely 911-shaped thing vaulted to the horizon. Moments later, I caught Law jumping a curbing in third gear, one wheel four inches in the air, the car flitting sideways before ripping up the front straight and slam-flicking over the next rise.
A 935 does not move. It simply evaporates from one place and reappears in the next.
A while later, I crammed into the red car's cockpit, folding in behind a sea of steel tubes and a Freightliner-size angled wheel. The upright windshield reveals no fenders, and the car just kind of disappears. You're left with the distinct feeling of being a hood ornament on a 200-mph piece of construction scaffolding. If I said I was calm, I'd be lying.
Before heading to Inde, I called a few drivers and asked them what to expect. Bobby Rahal drove Edwards's red car in 1984; he said it was "easy." A vintage-racer friend with 935 experience later heard this and was incredulous, calling the car "not a very sanitary device," adding, "understeer like you wouldn't believe unless you got on the gas early when, oh shit, you went from no power to way too much." Rahal's voice had the laconic glassiness of a man picking out socks. ("I mean, I don't think you'd want to hit anything in one, but …") It was all a little unnerving.
Coincidentally, that describes what happens when you first mat the gas. As a 935 builds boost above 4000 rpm, your brain dismantles itself. The horizon warps up to your face in this nonlinear, rubber-band fashion, giving you the distinct sensation that someone is gradually stretching your ears around the back of your head. Any major throttle change brings around three seconds of lag. For safety's sake, Edwards's crew limited me to 0.7 bar of turbo pressure—you adjust it via a soup-can-sized knob on the dash—or around 700 hp. It was still ridiculous. Full boost gives close to 900 hp at around 8000 rpm. It's likely enough to rip faults in the earth's crust.
Astonishingly, you get used to the power. As a tool, the 935 feels almost disarmingly simple, and while the engine has a learning curve—brake, back on the gas, exit the corner with the wheel straight, leap three counties—you sense that the car wants you to figure it out. The unboosted brake pedal is always there and never heavy; the foot-tall shifter feels like the handle on some kind of planet-sized circuit breaker. The nose moves around at triple-digit speeds, but as with any old 911, you just let it move, because if it's not moving, you're probably driving like a little girl. Screw up your throttle timing and the car chucks sideways moments after. Above everything is this chest-rattling combo of engine growls and whistles, an industrial furnace gone kazoo.
Law, naturally, was unfazed. "Any time I get in it, I just want to go faster," he said. "From a power standpoint, it's as good as anything out there. A modern RSR is more compliant over bumps, but it's got great grip, and it's stable. It's work to drive and you have to think about it, but it's easy."
That word again. I guess it felt easy. But only on a smallish track, in the five laps I got before parking it, wary of growing too comfortable.
I got out and felt slightly proud for conducting myself like an adult. Then I sat down and thought long and hard about the car. Five minutes later, I realized my hands were twitching.
Strike that. Easy is a stretch.
At the risk of stating the obvious, a 934 doesn't move like a 935. The '35's engine bay is an orgy of loopy science; the rear lid on Edwards's 934 hides two intercoolers, a flat fan, and something that looks a lot like a production motor. Plus an air intake big enough for the Titanic.
By late 1976, some 934s made as much as 580 hp. Edwards's car won its class at Le Mans in 1977 with Frenchman Bob Wollek. There is a plaque on the wheel that says as much, albeit in German. As the mechanics warmed it, it sounded like any other turbo 911, chuffy and congested.
Still in street clothes, I lowered myself into the cockpit and sat there, thinking. The car felt bigger than the 935, but not by much—the tiny pillars leave you just as exposed, with full view of the front fenders. The dash screamed Seventies 911, with its center tach and vintage heater controls. And then I grabbed a tube and lifted myself out, staring at the spindly roll cage. The relatively tiny racing slicks were suddenly obvious.
Law took the car out for a few timed laps, came back in a little sweaty, and compared it to a NASCAR stocker—soft, rolls a lot, a big compromise, still hauls. I put on my helmet.
"The 935 is really progressive," Law said. "It just comes up through the rpm and pulls hard on the top, but the 934 is dead on the bottom. It feels like you've got 150 hp, then you've got 500."
After the 935, the '34 felt comfortable and familiar. I spent the first lap doing acceleration runs, playing with the turbo lag and the four-speed's wandy, long-throw shifter, evaluating just how long the car would wait before hiking up its skirt. It varied with load and rpm, but basically, if you nail the gas immediately after braking, you have to breathe out of it at the end of the corner, right when full boost hits, to keep the rear tires from turning to vapor. Get it right, it's an ordinary 911 with God's boot up its ass. Get it wrong, you spend a lot of time clenching various body parts. And anything less than full commitment just feels suicidal. If the 935 reacts immediately and seems infinitely adjustable, even as its tires slip, the 934 just wants one thing from you always. And it will accept nothing less.
Caught up in the engine's kick, I once reached for a nonexistent fifth gear at the end of Inde's straight. The pavement there is rippled, and the 934's wheel oscillated, the nose shaking with it. The paradox registered: too much engine, but I still wanted more. On my cool-down lap, I noticed yard-long rubber streaks in a few corners from Law's lapping. (Him, coolly: "Oh, yeah. The tires got hot.")
The 934 recalls the 911's early years, when the car demanded patience and understanding, not politely requested them as now. You climb out of it feeling barely man enough. And yet, if you later watch a pro sliding one around, as I did, you find yourself thinking, What is wrong with my life that I don't own a turbo Porsche?
Here's the catch: As you may have gathered, I am not Bobby Rahal or Darren Law. (Endurance-racing legend Hurley Haywood once said I "wasn't bad" for an amateur, but that's hotshoe-speak for "I've had a nice time playing passenger on a racetrack, but this wasn't it.") Still, one thing remains: Every vintage 911 I've touched has been a sweetheart. These two are no exception.
Admittedly, that may not tell you much. But the glory here is how these cars let you glimpse the possible. You give them what you've got, and they hint at what the greats make them do. At seven-tenths, a 934 or 935 seems friendly, the slide-happy front tires and light-switch power tolerable. But if you pay attention, you catch whiffs of the other side, the old world where Le Mans is run at night and in the rain, where the Porsche Curves and the Mulsanne Straight regularly kill people when they screw up.
The ancient cliché applies: The men who first drove these cars must have been extraordinarily free of imagination.
Law had never driven a 935 before, and he seemed to prefer it. It was a better, more rounded tool for competition, he said. Me, I'm drawn to the 934. It appeals to a romantic part of my personality that believes fast cars should put up a fight. Above all, it illustrates the most enduring lesson from the 911's first 50 years: The difference between great cars and merely good ones is that the great have enough soul to negate their flaws. Sometimes you just have to keep your foot down to see it.