It was the year 2000 and I had the itch to get a vintage car of some sort. I had actually considered doing so for a few years. I remember at one point thinking seriously about an original Mini. I purchased a book about restoring them and was suitably discouraged when almost the entire book was dedicated to teaching the reader welding.
Whatever car I decided on I’d have to convince my wife, Debbie. She has always been willing to play along when I sought to rationalize my car purchases and this would once more be the case. I had always liked the concept of the Porsche 912 (a 911 with less power!) and had particularly admired the soft-window Targas. I’d been driving last week’s Jaguar XJS for a couple of years and our boys Josh and Peter were growing so naturally we needed a car with more room in the backseat. Being a rear-engine 2+2, the 912 actually has enough room in the back for two mid-sized adults as long as they’re not whiners. As well, Debbie and I missed the open air days of our Fiat 124 Spider. Yes, the 912 fit the bill nicely. When I explained all this to Debbie she immediately endorsed the idea as if it actually made sense.
My search for the right 912 was the first car search I conducted online. The internet had now developed to the point that it was possible to search nationwide beyond what one might find in print in Hemmings and such. I eventually found a 1968 Soft Window Targa in Irish Green at a vintage car dealer in Newport Beach, California. The five speed manual had covered about 98,000 miles. I located a California mechanic and had him perform a pre-purchase inspection. It checked out okay so I cashed in some airline miles and early on a Saturday morning caught a flight from Washington Dulles to Los Angeles. I went to the dealer, drove the car, made the deal (the cost was a little over $7,000) and flew the red eye home that same night. The 912 was shipped the following week. I was out of town when it arrived so I had it delivered to my Audi mechanic, David at AutoWerke. My wife drove it home from there and the following Saturday morning my son Josh joined me for my first official drive in what was now our Porsche. About a mile from the house it promptly died at a stop sign. Sigh. It turned out to be only a bad battery.
Most of us are familiar with the history of the Porsche 911. It was designed to replace the 356 and was initially sold in 1964. The 911 was both more sophisticated than the 356 and more powerful. The 356 had used a boxer four-cylinder air-cooled engine displacing 1.6 liters and making around 90 horsepower. The new 911 used a larger six-cylinder boxer engine, again air cooled, that originally displaced 2.0 liters and made 128 horsepower. Porsche sold the 911 and the 356 side by side in 1964 and 1965. At $6,500 the 911 was priced considerably higher than the 356 it replaced. As the plan was to phase out the 356 (the last ones were produced in the 1965) Porsche recognized that it needed a more modestly priced entry level model. The 912 was this model. It merged the 911 body with the four-cylinder 356 engine, a sheep in wolf’s clothing. The combination of the smaller engine and slightly down market content allowed Porsche to meet their price point. Its original cost was $4,700. Production of the 912 would continue through 1969 when it was replaced with the 914 which was itself produced through 1975. The 912 was resurrected once more for a single year in 1976 as the 912E. Like the earlier 912’s this one used a four-cylinder boxer engine in a 911 chassis, but it was a different engine, the fuel injected VW engine that had also been used in the 914. The 912E once more filled that entry-level need in the transition year between the 914 and the 924 which went on sale in 1977.
While the 356 had been available in cabriolet form, Porsche developed the Targa in anticipation of proposed safety regulations that would ban true convertibles. The Targa integrated a safety hoop to help protect occupants in a rollover incident. A removable roof spanned the distance from the safety hoop to the windshield frame. It was a folding vinyl-covered unit with a collapsing steel frame that could be stored in the Porsche’s front trunk. The Targa version of the 911 and 912 was first sold in 1967. While most Targas have a fixed glass rear window early Targas like mine have a zippered folding plastic window. These are the soft-window Targas and were the only type available in 1967. In 1968 the fixed glass hard-window Targa became available and was sold alongside the soft-window. While about twenty 1969 soft-windows are known to exist, they were the last and henceforth all Targas were hard-windows. Of the 30,000 912’s produced from 1965 to 1969 only 2,500 were Targas. This makes my soft-window 912 a rare beast indeed.
I am the third owner of the car which came to me with California blue plates. The second owner had purchased the car in 1971. On the positive side it came with twenty-nine years of service records and, being a “California Car” was fairly solid. The negatives? I don’t think the mechanics who had serviced the vehicle over the year were Porsche specialists. The car showed its age. It had been resprayed in the 1980’s but it was now faded and there was one large spot on the passenger door where the paint had peeled off. As well, there was bubbling paint covering rust at the tail end of the front fenders, common in these cars.
My goal in having a collectible car was always to have a solid dependable car that could be driven any time for entertainment whether that meant using it for weekend errands, motoring to an outdoor café on a sunny day or attending car events. So, beginning in 2002, a bare metal restoration was begun to make sure the 912 would be around for a long time.
I asked around for recommendations for a shop to do this work. Eventually I was referred to one and, as if often the case, when I visited and met the owner not only was I evaluating him, he was evaluating me. While most of the shop’s restoration work was post war American cars, on the day I first visited they were finishing up a sweet little Renault Alpine A110. The shop’s owner and I bonded discussing the diminutive French sports car before us. As I was not in any hurry the owner and I agreed that my car would be worked on as time permitted between other projects with more pressing deadlines. The hope was that this might save me some money. While this made sense at the time it would ultimately prove a poor decision for both of us.
Like many restoration projects mine was one of creeping commitment. It turns out, of course, that California cars have plenty of rust. They just hide it better. Here’s a partial listing body repairs:
- Both doors re-skinned
- Front fenders repaired
- Headlight buckets repaired
- Floor panels replaced
- Rear deck lid and rear panel replaced after accident damage uncovered
I was also responsible for a portion of the commitment creep. The 1968’s were the only year of these early cars with side marker lights and I didn’t like them so more metal work and they were gone. The seats and carpet were redone. Bumpers, wheels and other trim were re-chromed. The correct deck lid grille was acquired. The door panels were a little ratty and, it turned out, unique to 1968 models and difficult to find. I finally located another set and we combined the best parts from each set for a good result. The rarest thing of all seemed to be the dash padding. I found and purchased two. I acquired the correct Blaupunkt radio with FM, AM and shortwave band from Germany. I spent way too many hours on ebay making Meg Whitman wealthier than she already was. New shocks and period correct tires? Yes, please. Brake calibers were rebuilt and zinc-coated to match the day the 912 left Zuffenhausen.
A garage was built for the day the 912 would be returned to me.
In the middle of the project Tony, who had been doing the bulk of the metal work, left the body shop. Fortunately, his replacement, Joe, quickly got up to speed and carried the project through to a sympathetic completion.
When it came time to put the engine back in the guy who had taken it out, and whom I had engaged to rebuild the twin Solex carburetors, was forced to admit he had somehow lost them. I acquired another set and had them rebuilt by a gruff but knowledgeable Solex guru in the Pacific Northwest. They came back to me looking like clockwork mechanisms from the Victorian age.
The shop would bill me monthly and over time the monthly amounts seemed to increase. The owner and I recognized that part of the reason for the escalating costs was the very fact that the car was being done between other projects. With apologies to lawyers and CPAs (and I am a CPA who long ago worked in public accounting) here’s how that works. It’s tax season and you have thirty or so tax returns in various stages of completion. You open the file for one of these. It takes a few minutes to wrap your head around where you are in the project. You can do a little work, but you’re still waiting for information from the client. You close the file and bill a little time to the client. Rinse and repeat.
The shop owner was a reasonable guy and took his share of write downs, but at the end of the project in 2004 I added everything up and stared at the total – the number that shall never be spoken. The good news? If medical science continues to advance there’s an outside chance I may live long enough to break even, the time value of money notwithstanding. More importantly, the car is lovely.
Driving a 912 brings a smile to one’s face. Despite its modest power it doesn’t feel particularly slow. The rear engine means the unassisted steering is light but with good tactile feedback. Weighing less and being less powerful than the 911’s of the same era the 912 is nimbler. It’s difficult but probably not impossible to evoke snap oversteer. It cruises comfortably at highway speeds and is entertaining on twisty back roads. In the early Spring the roof comes off and the rear window is lowered. Debbie and I keep it that way until late Fall. We don’t drive it a lot during colder months, but when we do we dress warmly as the only heat is that passively channeled to the interior from the heater boxes that surround and capture the hotness of the exhaust manifolds.
In the years since the body restoration I’ve continued to make small improvements. This Spring I will tackle the only major item left – the engine. While everything attached to the engine has been rebuilt or replaced the original engine, now with 105,000 miles on it, has never had a full rebuild. The Other Michael and I are dropping it in April after ski season ends. What could possibly go wrong?
Next Week – My first new car ever!