When the now-legendary Porsche 911RS was introduced in 1973, England was a very different place to what it is now. We had just three television stations (with only some programmes in colour) fast food meant a Wimpy restaurant with waitress service, The Exorcist was causing a scandal in cinemas, Pink Floyd released The Dark Side of the Moon, and postmen were still driving Morris Minor vans.
And, crucially, there was no direct road route between the major cities of Birmingham and London. Today, of course, you can blast down the M40 motorway all the way from the Midlands’ industrial centre to the capital, but in 1973 you had to pick your way through various ‘A’ roads and hop onto the odd short stretch of motorway that had been built. Which wasn’t much; going south the M40 began at Stokenchurch in Oxfordshire and ran about 16 miles to Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire. However, by the end of 1973 the Tarmac was just drying on an extension that would take you from Beaconsfield to Uxbridge, thus bypassing the Gerrards Cross bottleneck. It wasn’t until 1991 that the M40 would run its full length from city to city.
In 2004 the M40 is an essential part of the UK’s excellent motorway network and links with the M42 which, in turn, joins to the M1, M5 and M6. Sadly, though, it has to cope with huge amounts of traffic at peak times, so congestion is commonplace.
Today, however, the motorway is clear as we head north to its source, just south of Birmingham. We’ve just collected a rather unusual 911 from Porsche specialist Autofarm, which is located a stone’s throw from the M40’s Junction 9 in Oxfordshire. The plan is to drive it south the length of the motorway but without actually going on it. In others words, make the journey as one might have done in 1973, when the 911RS was new.
This 911 draws on the legendary RS for inspiration but could never be called a replica – and Autofarm doesn’t pretend it is. Sold under the banner of Classic Recreations, the car is based on a 1986 Carrera 3.2 but has been rebuilt from the ground up with early-style bodywork to create what can best be described as an RS lookalike.
At first sight it’s very convincing. The heavy front and rear impact bumpers have been dumped and replaced with lightweight period replica panels, while the sills are also based on those of the era. The car’s finished in white, as all good RSes were, with Fuchs alloys and polished aluminium trim. A 1973 ‘L’ reg numberplate in black and silver completes the illusion.
Look again, though, and you can tell there’s something not quite kosher about the car. Instead of rubber rubbing strips on the bumpers, there’s just black tape, while the ‘Autofarm’ sticker on the rump looks plain cheap (I’m promised that later cars will receive proper embossed badges).
It’s the inside of the car, however, that really gives the game away – it’s pure 3.2 Carrera and, to be frank, rather a disappointment. Well, that’s my first reaction, but I soon change my view on this.
My first reaction on driving the car is one of disappointment, too. I was expecting one of Autofarm’s extreme machines, with a rorty exhaust, a couple of rows of thirsty downdraught carburettors, and rock-hard suspension. What I’m given, though, feels just like a 3.2 Carrera. In other words, rather ordinary by 911 standards.
So as we drive up the M40 to reach the start of our journey-proper, I feel rather bored. Still, I’m being kept on my toes by the single aluminium door mirror which, at motorway speeds, has an annoying habit of dropping down to give me a view of the passing Tarmac. Worse still is the fact that there isn’t a mirror on the passenger door, so I have to pay particular attention when passing slow-moving traffic.
But before long, we come to the end of the M40, where it mates with the M42, and head south down the A3400 towards Stratford on Avon – one of a number of routes you could have taken towards London in pre-motorway days. First stop is at a delightful old country garage in Hockley Heath, a pretty little commuter village. The garage looks as if it hasn’t changed for 50 years and, being sited in such an affluent area, it’s amazing it hasn’t been swallowed up by developers. An old man in a wheelchair is sitting enjoying the sunshine as we draw up outside. A younger chap – we presume his son – comes out in overalls, and isn’t at all fazed when we ask to take photographs. He just wheels his father inside out of the way and leaves us to it, as if classic Porsches draw up on his doorstep every day.
Next stop is Stratford, which attracts visitors from all over the world for the simple reason it is the birthplace of William Shakespeare. It’s a pretty town with quaint, wood-framed buildings, and a canal and river running through it. I can’t help but think, however, that many of the foreign tourists must leave feeling somewhat disappointed with the place – it’s plagued by traffic congestion. Of course, much of the traffic can be blamed on said tourists, but all the same it’s not somewhere I’ll be visiting again in a hurry.
We hurry away, then, and take the A422 south-east. This quiet road boasts some wonderful views over the Oxfordshire countryside and has a mix of fast straights and winding bends up and down hills. It’s perfect habitat for a 911 and, at last, I begin to enjoy my steed for the day. To criticise this car for not being extreme enough (which I was doing, at the back of my mind) would be to miss the point of it. This has been designed as a tool that can be used everyday in comfort and is, as I’m discovering, a perfect touring car. It even has air-conditioning, for goodness sake (although Autofarm stresses this is unusual).
The high-backed 3.2 Carrera seats are supremely comfortable, which is more than the ‘correct’ 1973 items would have been; a fact which is aided by the relatively high-profile tyres which give an excellent ride quality. Handling is never going to set the world on fire, but because the suspension has been rebuilt with new bushes and Bilstein dampers, the car’s better round the bends than your average 3.2.
A truer RS replica may well be ultimately more fun and satisfying along this great road, but the Autofarm car is a more rounded option that allows you to enjoy the 911 experience while at the same time having the comfort required for easy long-distance cruising.
The market town of Banbury is next, a place that has been transformed by the M40. In 1973 it was a sleepy and remote place, but its central location coupled with its proximity to the motorway has ensured that it’s thrived in recent years to become a bustling centre of modern industry. Indeed, it claims to be the UK’s most profitable business location. The downside of this success, though, is more traffic congestion, but the 911 is just as much at home in traffic as it is on the open road – another advantage of not tampering with the 3.2 Carrera’s DNA too much.
There are no high-lift cams to upset the low-speed running of the engine, and it purrs away happily as we negotiate the busy streets and pass the famous Banbury Cross on our way out of town. At this point we have a choice. We can take the A4260 down to Oxford and then pick up the A40 to London, which in 1973 would have been the logical route. However, we’re only too aware of Oxford’s traffic problems, so instead we take the little-used B4100 back-road to Bicester.
Bicester is another market town that has felt the impact of the M40. However, it’s not weathered it as well as Banbury and appears to be little more than a mass of housing estates, some rather hopefully called ‘villages’. Another misuse of that name is the Bicester Village retail outlet centre which sucks in people along the motorway from as far away as London and Birmingham, simply to indulge in the 21st century religion they call Shopping.
Moving swiftly on, we take the B4011 towards Thame. This is another great road that lets us stretch the 911’s legs. I’m beginning to like this car a lot. Ignoring its appearance, it must drive like a brand-new 3.2 Carrera would have done. Indeed, this pretty much is a brand-new car. For its Classic Recreations, Autofarm takes a good example of an original car – in this case from 1986 so it would have a galvanised bodyshell – and rebuild it from the ground up. And because the work is all lovingly done by hand by Autofarm’s technicians – who are all true Porsche enthusiasts – the result is arguably better than when the car left the factory all those years ago. The finish of the paintwork is spotless, while the doors, boot and bonnet all close with satisfying ‘clunks’, and not a single squeak or rattle emulates from the bodyshell, even on this bumpy road surface.
We pass through Thame, another pretty market town which since 1973 has been enveloped by housing estates, and finally hit the old A40 trunk road. By now, our stomachs are beckoning so we stop at the village of Postcombe where there’s a pub called England’s Rose. This establishment has probably changed little since 1973, except for one thing – its name. It was rechristened in memory of Princess Diana. This doesn’t really interest me, but the excellent toasted sandwich and chips certainly do.
An elderly couple sitting outside the pub are similarly impressed by the 911. ‘Ooh, that’s lovely, I bet it’ll do over 100,’ says the lady with a smile. Indeed, it will, but her reaction is interesting – if we’d turned up in a brand-new 911, I doubt she’d have been as friendly. In fact, I doubt she’d have spoken at all, dismissing us as two rich toffs. And, crucially, that is part of the appeal of an Autofarm Recreation – everyone loves classic cars, but a lot of people hold a grudge against owners of expensive new cars.
Which is actually rather bizarre when you consider that the car we’re driving today is worth about the same as a new 997-model 911 Carrera. So for similar money you can be loved in a classic or hated in a modern 911.
Stomachs happy, we bid farewell to our admirers and continue on our way. We skim close to the M40 so make a slight detour and stop on a bridge running over it. I’ve never until now fully appreciated the noise that motorway traffic makes – after five minutes the roar becomes unbearable. I lean against the railings for a moment and ponder all these people driving under me, cocooned in their little metal boxes. The motorcar is a strange thing; it’s basically a means of transport and for perhaps 90 per cent of the people I’m watching, that’s all it is. Yet for the remainder it’s something to love, cherish and covet. They’re the people who buy Porsches, and it’s a small percentage of that minority who will understand the appeal in spending over £50,000 on an 18-year-old car that has been made to look even older. As I said, it’s a strange thing.
But perhaps not as strange as the stories associated with West Wycombe, which we pass through next. Inside the hills above the quaint town are West Wycombe caves which were excavated in the 1750s by landowner Sir Francis Dashwood, partly to give work to the locals, but mainly to provide a meeting place for his notorious Hellfire Club, which enjoyed orgies and satanic rituals. Sadly, such activities are no more, so we continue on our way, hurrying through the depressing High Wycombe and keeping on the A40 which is running parallel to the M40 at this point.
We stop for some photographs and I’ve time to admire the 911 from the outside again. My favourite view is of the rear, with the wider than standard tyres making the car look squat and aggressive. And under the engine-compartment lid is a real treat. OK, it’s pretty much a standard 3.2 Carrera engine, but it looks brand-new. Amazingly, this engine wasn’t rebuilt before it went in the car (it had covered only 60,000 miles and was deemed to be in good fettle) but every ancillary, bracket, screw, nut and pipe has been either cleaned, refinished or repainted. Surely no Porsche engine ever left the factory looking this good.
The next town we come to, Beaconsfield, undoubtedly has more than its fair share of people with enough money to throw into indulgences such as rebuilt 911s. The place is classic stockbroker belt, full of large houses owned by wealthy people attracted by the proximity to London and the rural feel of the unfeasibly wide main street. It’s a pleasant place and the 911 catches the attention of women wearing black sunglasses and driving black 4x4s with even blacker windows. Maybe they’ll be on the phone to their long-suffering husbands in London, asking them to pick up a Porsche on the way home…
Speaking of expensive properties, we see plenty more as we pass through Gerrards Cross, an area which, like Beaconsfield, has benefited greatly by losing the bulk of the A40 traffic onto the motorway. And from there it’s a short hop to our journey’s end at Uxbridge; who’s only redeeming factor is that it’s right at the start of the M40 and so easy to escape from.
And so we escape from the 1970s and return to 2004, joining the thousands of commuters leaving London and travelling back to their country and pseudo-country homes. It’s funny that, with modern communications, we still have to travel from our home in place ‘A’ to our office in place ‘B’. Instead of governments trying to tax us out of our cars and onto public transport (that couldn’t cope if we all suddenly decided to use it), perhaps it would be better to encourage at least some of us to work from home. That way the country could return to 1970s levels of traffic and those of us with nice cars could enjoy using them when the fancy takes us.
The quick blast up the motorway back to Autofarm at Oxfordshire confirms in my mind that this a great touring car. It’s relatively quiet and refined, comfortable and has the conveniences of air-conditioning, occasional rear seats, electric windows and a sunroof. It just needs a 1970s-style radio cassette player so I can listen to The Dark Side of the Moon. Actually, on second thoughts, make that a modern CD player, please.
The country’s changed a lot in 30 years. Pessimists will say it’s gone downhill, but I don’t think so. Yes, there’s been a lot of new development, but that’s given us new homes, offices, factories, shops and restaurants. The England of the 1970s was still suffering from the postwar years. We had a useless telephone system, our food was the laughing stock of the world, and our motorway system was disjointed, to say the least. Today, most of us have broadband and mobile phones, eating a good meal out is easy, and the country is well served by an integrated – if rather overused – motorway network.
And most importantly, we can now choose between a brand-new 911 and a superb recreation of a classic one. What more could you want?