“There’s a huge amount of old cock talked about the handling of old air-cooled 911s…” – Top Gear’s James May – Porsche Post (PCGB) February 2007
James May’s comment alludes to the Porsche 911’s reputation for being dangerous, even deadly, when driven round bends carelessly. True, drive a 911 recklessly and you’re likely to pay a heavy price, but drive it carefully and it’s not only safe, it’s incredibly rewarding. So what’s it like to drive a Carrera 3?
The first thing that strikes you when you slide into the driving seat of the car is how comfortable and supportive the tombstone style seats are, and once you’re sitting down, just how much room – legroom and headroom – there is. Long-legged six footers needn’t worry here about heads touching the roof or pushing the driving seat right back.
Getting the right driving position is really important. There’s no steering wheel adjustment and finding a good balance between those pedals sticking up from the floor, the steering wheel and the gear lever is crucial if you’re going to enjoy driving the car. For years I had the seat too far back and never really felt at ease with the car. Then I decided to sit nearer the wheel, making it much easier to change gear nicely and to apply both accelerator and brakes smoothly and progressively.
The next thing that strikes you is the dashboard with its rev counter taking centre stage: the simple elegance of the instrument binnacle with its five round dials and the mish-mash of other switches scattered all over the place. Even now, I still find it hard to remember where they all are and what they all do, but I don’t find the need to use many of them anyway, so it’s not a big problem.
Turn the key and the car literally bursts into life, an orchestra of spinning and whirring components combining to produce that unique 911 engine sound. And, of course, all this sound is coming from behind you. Then, engaging first gear (or reverse) you notice how heavy the clutch is and how clunky the gearbox can seem – you always need to engage the gears as smoothly as possible or you can find yourself fighting with the cogs. Likewise, when you feather the brake pedal for the first time it feels heavy, and it is – there’s no servo assistance on these cars, only the power of your right foot. This isn’t a car with power steering either and the front can feel surprisingly heavy at low speeds due to the drag from those big front tyres.
Get going, though, and you immediately notice how responsive the engine is to the accelerator and how easy it is to ‘feel’ the car – from here on, the car involves you in everything it does and the feedback from the steering and suspension is instantaneous. And it’s best to respond positively and immediately to all those messages being transmitted to you because as the speed increases and the engine becomes smoother and louder the car almost demands that you drive it faster.
The engine is incredibly responsive at all speeds but you do have to work the gearbox effectively to get the most out of it. Pulling away quickly from a roundabout or traffic lights you need to get into second gear quickly and from there into third. The Carrera 3 is well known for its cammy engine and once it reaches 4000 rpm it really starts to do the business – even today, few cars feel as stunningly quick as the Carrera in third gear, as it’s wondertful flat-six engine winds itself up to 6000 rpm and beyond.
Compared to most of today’s cosseted performance cars the Carrera is undoubtedly a demanding car to drive and you do need to keep concentrating, especially if you’ve become complacently used to driving with the comforting, life preserving backup of ABS, traction control, electronic stability control, airbags and all the other things that make driving in the 21st century so much safer than in the 1970s. The car remains thoroughly well engineered, though, and with its front and rear anti-roll bars keeping the car tight and sharp through the bends and those big all round disc brakes stopping it quickly and effectively there’s no reason for any but the most reckless of drivers to worry about losing control on public roads.
The engine is at the back, though, so you do have to take care with bends. However, unless you’re driving right on the limit (or just downright dangerously) you’d be extremely hard-pushed to lose control in the dry (in the wet it’s a different matter – but then it’s a different matter for any car). As with all 911s, negotiating bends safely means braking before you get into the bend, not while you’re in it, and then accelerating smoothly through and out of it. With all that weight at the back, though, sticking the anchors on suddenly midway through a fast bend is simply asking for trouble.
The Carrera isn’t all about sheer excitement though. The engine has plenty of torque and will pull powerfully and willingly from 1500 rpm in top. Even in fifth at 70mph, a touch on the accelerator pushes you back in your seat as the car responds immediately to the request for more power. In traffic the car toodles along nicely and, if you want it to, it will happily cruise sedately and comfortably with the children in the back, attracting gazes from passing cars while quietly dismissing the inevitable speed challenges from passing hot hatches and sporty (and not so sporty) BMWs, Audis and Mercedes’.
With the top off, the Targa version of the Carrera 3 adds a different dimension to the car’s already long list of plusses – open-air driving in a real sports car. True, the heater’s a bit hit-and-miss and the wind noise can be a problem, but who cares? And with that big rollover bar behind you, the car feels as safe as houses.