I’ve just received a lovely email from a long-term reader, who said he remembers well a piece I wrote in 2002 for 911 & Porsche World magazine. It was about me travelling to Germany to buy a Porsche 964 Carrera 4 for myself. It was nice to be reminded of it, as it was a thoroughly exciting trip (in more ways than one!). Here’s the text of the article – bear in mind it was written 15 years ago (where has the time gone?) so prices and attitudes have changed.
There’s something strangely addictive about 911 ownership. Colleagues have long put forward a strong case for the 944, and after driving one for a weekend I too was almost converted to the cause. But as soon as I saw my 911 again I couldn’t wait to get back into it. And driving it home, I realised that I was well and truly hooked. Good as the 944 is, it’s no substitute for the 911’s looks, feel, performance and not least sound. OK, so the 944 may well be the more practical car, but since when have sports cars been practical purchases?
For various reasons I very reluctantly had to sell the 911SC not long afterwards. It wasn’t very long, though, before I realised that without a 911 there really was something missing from my life, and I began trawling through the classified ads. Well, you have to keep up with what’s happening in the market, don’t you?
For a time I considered buying another SC. They are, after all, affordable, reliable and relatively cheap to maintain, but at the same time I’ve always had a thing about not wanting to buy the same model of car twice. A later Carrera 3.2 was another option, but somehow I’ve always found these to be rather less fun to drive than the SC, and to offer no real advantage (apart from the better G50 gearbox in later models).
What about a 964, then? Well, I’ve long hankered after a 964, liking its modern lines, its subtly updated interior (complete with half-decent heating system at last), and the overall feel of the car to drive. But I’d always been put off by a combination of price and the model’s (perhaps undeserved) reputation for being both unreliable and expensive to run.
The solution, of course, is to buy carefully and find an example that has had any problems (most of which relate to the engine) put right. That, though, means spending a relatively large amount of cash, which I didn’t want to do. Unless, that is, I followed the lead set by increasing numbers of UK enthusiasts, and opted for a left-hand-drive car from mainland Europe.
Now you can buy a left-hand-drive 964 here in the UK for as little as £12,000, but for that sort of money I could find only scruffy examples with incomplete service histories. I might, in other words, have been letting myself in for some very expensive trouble had I bought such a car.
You can understand, then, why I was so interested when a colleague returned from his fact-finding mission to Hamburg and told us that there he had found an immaculate example for only a few hundred pounds more. He put me in touch with the seller, a Dr Jöerg Walter, who e-mailed me photographs and details of the car, and even took the trouble to fax through receipts for work done.
And I must admit that it sounded very good. Finished in Emerald Green, with a black half-leather interior, it had covered just 121,000km (71,000 miles) from new. That alone is impressive enough for a 1989 car, but more important to me was the fact that the engine had been rebuilt – by an Official Porsche Centre – at a cost of some £7000.
Walter claimed that the car had always been garaged, and used only in dry weather. Further plus points included a set of 17-inch Ruf wheels with brand-new Bridgestone Potenza Pole Position tyres, Sport suspension, a stainless-steel sports exhaust, electrically heated seats (with fully electric adjustment on the driver’s side), clear indicator-lamp covers, a new TüV certificate (Germany’s strict equivalent of the British annual MoT test), and a full service history.
The only problem, of course, was that the car was in Hamburg, and I was in Oxfordshire. Such was my colleague’s enthusiasm for the car, though, that I figured it was probably worth the journey. Besides, I was sick of sitting in front of an Apple Macintosh all day, every day, and the thought of a mini adventure to Germany held a certain appeal (I know, I have a sad life…).
It was with the words of Robert Louis Stevenson in my mind that I set off on my journey. ‘For my part,’ he wrote ‘I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.’ And, boy, would I be doing some moving…
The simplest and quickest way to anywhere these days is by plane, and Hamburg is certainly no exception, but I had a strong hunch that I would be buying this car, and so I would need to bring it back on a ferry. I could have flown out and got the boat back, of course, but I had this romantic idea of doing the whole thing the old-fashioned way. It was, needless to say, an idea I was later to regret.
So it was that I found myself briskly walking the mile or so through the Oxfordshire countryside to Heyford railway station at 7am one cold December morning. I rarely travel by train, and I’d heard all the jibes about the parlous state of the British railway system, but soon I was pleasantly surprised to find myself sitting in a smooth, modern, comfortable carriage being whisked swiftly towards London in the company of a gaggle of commuters.
The guard (are they still called that, or was he a customer services representative?) was a little nonplussed when I asked him for a one-way ticket to Harwich International (I’m not joking; that really is the name of the station), but after searching through a substantial volume he came up with an all-in price of £34.50, which seemed not entirely unreasonable.
From London’s Paddington station I made a quick dash beneath the city on the Tube to Liverpool Street, where I had just minutes to catch my next train, to Manningtree in Essex. You can be forgiven for not having heard of Manningtree; I certainly hadn’t. But its station really is a delightful place. Looking for all the world as if it had been lifted straight from The Railway Children (I looked around hopefully for a glimpse of Jenny Agutter), the Victorian building proudly boasted a ‘Ladies’ Waiting Room’ – complete with fireplaces – on each of its two windswept platforms.
After 30 minutes or so, though, the delights of rural Manningtree in sub-zero temperatures were beginning to wear thin, and my imagination was drifting away from attractive film actresses and more towards Captain Oates. (‘I’m going outside. I may be some time…’) I was glad, therefore, when a three-carriage train rattled in; and happier still when, 15 minutes later, we rattled no less noisily into Harwich International.
Not surprisingly the reality of the place doesn’t quite match that grand title. Clearly built by Josef Stalin during the 1950s, the concrete station nestles between a massive car park and a large container dock. The grim December weather didn’t help much, but I was thankful for an enclosed walkway that took me straight to the ferry terminal itself without having to brave reality for more than a minute or two.
The terminal was a slight improvement on the railway station and resembled a provincial airport, complete with coffee shop, newsagent and the inevitable bar, but without the people. In fact, the place I was going to be stuck at for the next four hours was quite deserted.
I wasn’t worried, though. There is something immensely satisfying about travelling, even it is just a short trip across England by train, and by now I was feeling quite relaxed, and ready to jack it all in to explore the world with a rucksack on my back. I settled down with another coffee and sandwich, and waited. And waited.
Desperate for something to read (I’d long before finished the so-called newspaper), I fished out the DFDS Seaways brochure and eagerly read about my imminent ‘Mini Cruise’. ‘A traditional maritime experience with all the comforts of a first-class hotel’, it gushed. ‘The à la carte menu offers the perfect setting for a candlelit dinner’. ‘At the end of an exciting evening you can retire to your comfortable accommodation for a good night’s sleep’. ‘And look forward to it all again on the voyage home’.
It all sounded very appealing. I did worry, though, that I might have looked a trifle odd enjoying a candlelit dinner on my own.
At long last it was time to board, and I joined the short queue to pass through the airport-style security checks. Bizarrely, car passengers are allowed to drive straight on to the ship without any of these checks; evidently travellers on foot are some sort of sub-species, and not to be trusted.
Once it had been proved beyond reasonable doubt that I wasn’t a terrorist intent on blowing up the Admiral of Scandinavia (although I was later to find the idea tempting), I was allowed to board what, with an all too short break in Hamburg, would be my home for the next 44 hours or so.
My recent experiences of sea travel have been on the massive super-ferries that cross the English Channel to France and the Irish Sea to, er Ireland. This wasn’t quite such a grand affair, though, but rather more like the smaller ships that crossed the Channel in the days before the tunnel made the ferry operators pull up their socks.
Still, the good news was that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was playing in the cinema that evening, followed by AI –Artificial Intelligence the following morning. I’d never experienced an overwhelming desire to see either back home, but they would certainly help pass the time.
First, though, I had a more pressing matter to attend to: my stomach. After making my acquaintance with my cabin with its en suite facilities (good job I didn’t want to indulge in the gentle art of cat swinging) I made my way to the restaurant deck.
A quick glance into the à la carte and smogasbord restaurants confirmed my suspicion that I simply couldn’t dine in either of them alone; most of the clientèle appeared to be the wrong side of 60 with a worrying taste in gold jewellery. So it was a quick curry and beer sans candles in the self-service caff for me.
Harry Potter was, it has to be said, a lot of fun. Although the cinema was by no means up to the multiplex standard to which we’ve become accustomed in recent years, it did have a certain charm. Yes, 17 years too late, George Orwell’s prophesy came true, and I experienced Feelies at the cinema. And, in Newspeak, it was ungood.
As the action built on screen, so did the movement, cumulating in wall-shaking crashes during the giant chess battle. The North Sea was giving us its all.
Most sensible people staggered out of the cinema, but stubborn old me sat it out to the bitter end. After all, Rabys don’t get seasick; my grandfather was a ship’s pilot, and his father was a captain. Both were coxswain of the local lifeboat. But then they didn’t have Harry Potter to contend with.
As the credits rolled I struggled out of my seat and was surprised to find that I felt distinctly, well, seasick. I walked unsteadily down the corridor and the scene was distinctly post-apocalyptic. Passengers wandered aimlessly along with blank looks on their faces, not caring if they stepped in pools of vomit. Others lay on the floor, groaning with despair. Children (and some adults) wailed mournfully.
Doing my best to avoid the diced-carrot casseroles and pavement pizzas, I stumbled out onto the deck, only to be hurled back against the door by the force of the wind. I’ve seen some storms in my time, but this really did take the biscuit.
Once I found shelter from the wind, I focused on Orion’s Belt up above, took some deep breaths, thought how disappointed my ancestors would be in me, and soon felt better. Surprisingly, only three other passengers had the foresight to be in the open.
I finally made it back to my cabin and crawled into bed. I was tired, but sleep was hard to find. My stomach felt like it was hitting the upper bunk each time the ship’s bow crashed down off a wave, sending shudders through the superstructure (and no doubt through many of the passengers, too).
I lay there listening to the drone of the engines, and was vaguely puzzled when they suddenly stopped and all went quiet. I suppose this should have worried me, but I must have drifted off to sleep because the next thing I knew it was morning.
After failing to master the skill of taking a shower in a swaying, two-foot-square cubicle which also contained a toilet and washbasin, I ventured out for breakfast. An announcement over the public-address system explained that the ship was running over three hours late because of ‘bad weather’ (yeah, tell me about it) and the fact a passenger had had to be airlifted off the boat during the night. That would explain why the engines were cut, then.
The previous day I’d overhead a passenger say, in all seriousness, that ‘Oh, it’s all fjords on the way to Hamburg.’ Now, with an ‘A’ level in geography under my belt I guess I should have known better, but I was still kind of disappointed to walk out on deck to be faced with, well, very little really.
Put crudely, the River Elbe is just around the corner from Holland, and you don’t need an ‘A’ level to know that Holland is distinctly lacking in fjords – or, indeed, anything that looks even remotely like a fjord. So the last three hours of our journey was spent sailing past countless dykes, wind farms and, well, bugger all else.
It was, then, a huge relief to see the lights of Hamburg hove into view at long last. It was hard not be excited as I realised that the entire raison d’etre of my trip was probably standing somewhere down there on the dockside.
I was one of the first off the ship (there was quite a scramble to escape) and passed painlessly through customs and out to the car park, where I was immediately hit by sub-zero temperatures.
Directly in front of me was the 911. I walked over to it and looked around, looking suitably lost, and a minute or two later a figure appeared out of the darkness. ‘Are you Phil?’ Jöerg Walter enquired in near-perfect English (which was a relief, because my German is non-existent). After exchanging pleasantries we got on with looking at the car; it was too cold to hang around.
I soon realised that Andrew Everett had got it wrong. This car wasn’t good, it was near-perfect. The deep-green paintwork looked stunning under the xxxx lamps, with the exception of a slight scuff on the front bumper, and a couple of very minor dings. The interior really was like new and I couldn’t fault it.
But the pièce de resistance had to be the engine bay. You could eat your dinner off this motor; it was spotlessly clean, and without a sign of oil seeping from it. It was much the same story in the luggage compartment: the original toolkit, first-aid kit, warning triangle, space-saver wheel and compressor were all present and very correct.
The history I’d already seen because Walter had faxed it through to me, but none the less I went through it all again, with Jöerg translating. I was pleased to hear that in addition to the engine rebuild the car had recently received a new clutch, and the dual distributor had been updated with a vent to prolong the life of its rubber belt (see page xx).
Walter had kept the original exhaust system, and that was wrapped up and sitting on the rear seats, while the original amber indicator lamps were similarly cocooned in the luggage compartment. All were to be included in the sale.
I had, of course, been fairly certain that I was going to buy the car, knowing that Everett is a good judge of such things, and this all confirmed in my mind that it really was a good purchase. Because of this, Walter had already arranged to have export plates fitted to the vehicle, so all that remained to be done was to strike a deal and for me to transfer funds from my bank to his. A few minutes on my mobile phone sorted that out.
Jörg was off to a Christmas party, so I bade him farewell and joined the queue of cars waiting to board the ferry back to England. There was some confusion among drivers at this point because you had to leave your vehicle and walk to a small office to get your boarding pass, a fact that wasn’t made at all clear. It all seemed very unlike the Germans.
I turned up at said office with the paperwork for the car and was promptly asked for the car’s registration number. Ah… I tried to explain that it was endowed with temporary export plates (like they’d never seen anyone exporting a car back to Blighty) and looked through the various bits of paperwork to find the details.
Unfortunately, the woman behind the desk didn’t speak much English, and I was beginning to wish Dr Walter hadn’t had to rush off to a party (the thought of which suddenly seemed very appealing). Luckily, though, the driver of an Audi A8 behind me in the queue stepped in to translate.
It was finally decided that a number which appeared on one of the documents was the one required, and that was copied into the relevant paperwork. Needless to say, when I returned to my car, the number on the export plates was totally different to that on the papers, but no-one seemed to notice – or care. And I certainly didn’t.
Sitting in the dark and cold waiting to board, it was hard to find any way to enjoy my new purchase. It was too dark even to see it, for a start, and the handbook was in German (not surprisingly) so I couldn’t even sit and read that. And as for German radio stations…
Eventually, after an hour’s wait, the line of cars began to move slowly towards the ferry. After two hours I gingerly drove onto the upper car deck. The deckhands directed me between some rusty saloon and a Ford van. The poor little 911 really didn’t look at all at home as I glanced over my shoulder at it before disappearing up the stairs for another 22 hours at sea.
After a quick bite to eat I decided to resist the pleasures of the on-board cinema this time around, and instead turned in for an early night. I slept like the proverbial baby and woke late the next morning to find that, once again, we were being buffeted by a storm.
I was soon out on deck and was delighted to see we were passing closely between two oil rigs. My delight was short-lived, however, as my beloved hat blew off and went flying back towards one of the rigs. If any oil workers reading this picked up a blue yachting cap, then it’s mine, OK!
It was another cold day, so I went below and simply sat looking out of the window, watching the waves crashing by. It was thoroughly agreeable, although I was most disappointed to hear that the bingo had to be cancelled due to bad weather…
The time passed relatively quickly coming home, but when the announcement came for car passengers to return to their vehicles I was at the front of the queue. Despite knowing I’d be stuck in the car for a while yet, I was eager to see my new toy again.
As I was sitting in the driver’s seat waiting, there was a knock on the window. It turned out to be a chap who reads the magazine and owns a new 911 Turbo. We had a quick chat and he at least seemed suitably impressed with the new 911 & Porsche World project car.
At last it was my turn to drive down the clattery ramp and back onto terra firma. Now it’s long puzzled me that you can travel between countries in mainland Europe without seeing a customs officer, but come into the UK and you’d think the European Union has completely passed us by.
For some reason I was apprehensive about being pulled over in customs – which seemed likely, because mine appeared to be the only vehicle disembarking with export plates. There was no reason to worry, of course, because I was confident that all my paperwork was in order, but I guess it’s the same paranoia we all feel when being followed by a police car.
To my surprise, though, I was waved straight through customs and, I believe for the first time, this 911 was being driven on an English road. If you think I was ecstatic at driving my new Porsche at long last, you’d be wrong. Much as I’d like to paint a romantic picture of man and machine in perfect harmony, driving into the sunset with the musical throb of the 911 delighting the driver’s eardrums, I can’t.
The fact of the matter was that I was tired, hungry, the weather was murky and cold, and I was heading toward the notoriously busy M25 motorway at 5pm on the last Friday before Christmas. In other words, everyone would be driving home for Christmas. The only good news was that Chris Rea wasn’t singing about doing the same on the radio.
My gloom was to be unfounded, though, because the M25 was incredibly quiet, a fact that also confounded the BBC’s traffic reporters, and I got around it and onto the A41 through Aylesbury and beyond without once being stuck in traffic.
I was still tired, though, and the incessant drizzle made visibility poor, so I was extremely thankful finally to pull into my driveway. The 911 – looking rather less clean than when the good doctor handed me the keys – was safely cocooned in my garage, and I headed inside to have a couple of beers in front of a roaring log fire. There’s no doubt that travelling is fun but – just occasionally – getting home can be just as good.
After the fun of travelling to Hamburg to buy my 911, I was naturally eager to get the thing on the road so that I could enjoy it.
I had already been in touch with my local DVLA (Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency) office in Oxford, which was remarkably helpful. All I had to do, it seemed, was fill in form V55/5 and return it with the relevant documentation – of which more later.
First, though, I had to get the car MoT tested. It had recently passed the German TüV test (their equivalent of the MoT) so I figured that I’d have no problems. There was one thing to do first, however, and that was to fit right-hand-drive headlamps. The existing units dipped to the right – in other words into the eyes of oncoming drivers in the UK – which would lead to an MoT failure.
A call to Simon Butterworth of Porsche parts supplier Porsch-Apart confirmed that good, used headlamps were hard to come by, so I splashed out £170 plus VAT on a pair of brand-new ones. And I must confess that I’m glad I did. They really do look nice and fresh compared with the existing items (although those were by no means bad).
Fitting the new headlamps took only minutes. Each old unit comes straight off after you remove the single screw holding the bezel in place, and you then simply unplug the cables. It’s then just a case of plugging in the new unit and refitting the bezel. The lamps needed aligning, of course, but the MoT station could do that.
I was able to book an MoT with my local garage on the Saturday morning before Christmas. As I predicted, it sailed through the test with flying colours once the headlamps were set up correctly (at a cost of £8 for labour). And the garage was happy dealing with a car that didn’t have a UK registration plate; they simply wrote the chassis number on the certificate, which is perfectly acceptable.
The DVLA also wanted to see a certificate of insurance, so I arranged a classic-car policy with Aon (xxxx xxxxxx). That cost me a very reasonable £450 with a £100 excess and a limited annual mileage of 6000 miles.
At this point I was ready to send off the paperwork when it occurred to me that I’d no idea what registration number I’d be allocated, other than it would be an age-related ‘G’ plate.
I’ve never been a big fan of so-called cherished plates, but I couldn’t resist logging on to the DVLA Sale of Marks website at www.dvla-som.co.uk. Here I found C4 PFR (Carrera 4, Philip Francis Raby; get it?) for sale at £399 including an £80 transfer fee and VAT. Editor Horton later described me as a ‘complete tart’ when he saw it on the car, but quickly changed his tune when I told him how much – or, rather, how little – it had cost me.
The paperwork for the cherished plate came through just after Christmas, and I added this to the pile of stuff to send to the DVLA. Form V55/5 was straightforward to fill in, and I also sent the MoT and insurance certificates, plus all the German documentation (the DVLA simply asked for all the paperwork relating to the car). A cheque for £160 was also required for the yearly Vehicle Excise duty. All this was duly sent off by Special Delivery (I couldn’t bear the thought of it being lost in the post) and then I waited.
It was frustrating to have the car in the garage but not be able to use it, so when a letter arrived from the DVLA I eagerly ripped it open. To my dismay, though, all my documentation had been returned, together with a letter saying that I’d omitted to enclose the £25 registration fee. Why hadn’t they just phoned me and saved a couple of days?
So it was back to the post office with another Special Delivery. To the DLVA’s credit, however, the completed paperwork was back with me by return of post, so my 911 was now road-legal.
Well, almost. I still had to get number plates made up for it. I had this done at the local Halfords superstore and was very impressed. Regulations that came into force in September 2001 mean that plates now have to conform to a new British Standard.
A standard typeface must be adhered to (contrary to popular belief, there never was a standard font in the past), and there are strict rules for the spacing of the characters, too. What’s more, the name and postcode of the manufacturer must be displayed at the bottom of the plate.
This is where Halfords came up trumps. Instead of this information being in black it is, in fact, just lightly etched on the plastic and is hardly visible, leaving a clean, uncluttered number plate. To keep this neat appearance I attached the plates to the car using sticky pads sold by Halfords for just this purpose, rather than using unsightly screws.
Once I’d attached the tax disc in a suitably discreet holder (on the left-hand side of the windscreen, where it’s supposed to be), the 911 was ready for the road. That’s not the end of the story, though. The insurance company insisted on a Thatcham-approved immobiliser being fitted to the car, so I had to have that done by a local car-electronics specialist at a cost of some £150.
Also, the car’s handbook was, of course, in German and of no use whatsoever to me because I’m completely inept when it comes to foreign languages. I was, however, able to obtain a brand-new English-language edition for my exact year and model for £22.95 from Porsche book specialist Gmünd Books.
One final task that still needs to be done in anglicising the 911 is to swap the existing kilometre speedometer for one calibrated in miles per hour. In the meantime, my mental arithmetic is being tested to the limit as I multiple the readout by 0.62.