Porsche 911 road trip: Targa 4 GTS meets its analog ancestor

An old friend's old Porsche is finally on the road, alongside its great-great-grandkid.

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When my old friend, Rick Alborg, decided to resurrect just about the worst 911 you can pick in smog-conscious California, it became our obsession. We planned on taking it on the Targa California, a classic car rally, and running around the abandoned gold-mining towns in the Sierra Nevadas. It was also a welcome distraction from law school, to be sure. The 1976 911 Targa, though, had other ideas.

The ruddy brown Porsche had been cursed with a suite of medieval emissions control devices — specifically the thermal reactors — to satisfy California's then-new smog regulations. It caused the dissimilar metals inside its 2.7-liter flat-six to fight with each other. Moreover, it hadn't run in years, but what do you expect for rusty Sentra money?

Being a Porsche, the factory service manual assumed the car's previous owners had meticulously maintained it since new. Ha! The Bosch fuel injection system was so far out of whack we couldn't even baseline it. I was thankful for every mystifying minute of it, since being squirted with gas in the eye was preferable to reading any more about criminal procedure, and as a bonus we learned how to curse in German pretty well.

We never got the 2.7 running. A forensic tear-down much later turned up a warped case — the crank bearing journals were off kilter, locking the crank tight. That work was well more than the thing was worth, so it became a fancy West German boat anchor. Rick found a guy getting rid of a 3.0 SC engine, a much better unit. We saw it run, and it ran great. After putting it in, it immediately pulled a couple head studs and puked 11 quarts of oil on the road. This is the life of the owner of a project Porsche.

A tale of two Porsche 911 Targas

Years later, my friend had moved to Hawaii and back, I'd moved to Seattle, Detroit, and back to Seattle. Somehow he'd found the time to get it running properly. For a car I'd wrenched on for so long, having never driven it, the idea gnawed at me. Those road trips, those rallies we'd talked about ... we could do 'em now. There had to be some good roads around Lake Tahoe, right? Considering I'd lived in Northern California for so long, I was surprised I didn't know.

When Porsche offered me a brand new 911 Targa 4 GTS to test, the whole thing fell into place. I'd drive his car, finally — the first Porsche I'd ever worked on, but one of the last I've managed to get behind the wheel of — on the high roads of Alta California. And also, it'd be a good insight into how the 911, and the Targa specifically, have changed over the years.

Consider the modern 911 Targa's wild folding top, a metal origami ballet of almost comical complexity. While putting it down reveals an open area between the windshield and the throwback stainless roll hoop, not much about the rest of it resembles the original.

About that: Targa, actually an Italian word, means "shield" or "plaque." Most famously, it's half of the famed Targa Florio's name. That race, which lent its name to Porsche's removable roof to memorialize a series of victories by Porsches, translates to something like Florio's Trophy — and in fact, there was literally a metal plaque given to the winners instead of a cup, made of bronze. So it's fitting that the roof panel between the stainless-clad roll hoop and the soft rear window looks a bit like a medieval hide shield.

road traffic, young woman sits in a Porsche Targa with opened sunroof, birds-eye view, aged 20 to 30 years - 17.03.1973

The Targa top itself, a complex sandwich of metal, burlap, vinyl, and other materials, is predictably fiddly on an older car. It's supposed to fold up and stow in the frunk, or out of the car if you need to carry anything larger than a purse, but only the bravest owners of vintage Targas tempt fate. And getting it on and off is a fiddly effort as well, lining up pins and pulling levers. You can see why anyone with brand-new 911 money couldn't be bothered, and wisely, they're not. Push a button, and the rear window lifts up, and the top flips into the back. The most stressful part is making sure there's nothing behind you for that rear window to bash as it cantilevers behind the car.

The top isn't down much on either car this trip. A summer road trip to Lake Tahoe sounded great on paper, but the Sacramento Valley, usually warm, is broiling this week. It's well over 100 degrees, and we're sweltering in the shade and chugging water. The A/C in the modern Targa is cranked, and we're doing OK. But at these temperatures, open windows just let the hot air dry you out. My friend in the old car is a trooper, but it's obvious the cooler air at 6,000 feet can't come soon enough.

So we book it, climbing to beat the hot, stagnant valley air. The 3.0-liter, now (relatively) oil-tight and healthy, isn't as quick to respond as a modern engine, but it's a strong and torquey motor. It only has about 2,600 pounds to haul around, with about 190 horsepower out back — think NC Miata with 20 more horsepower but a lot more torque. Next to the modern Targa, it's small and light, and yet it has a solidly planted feel. Everything takes a bit of deliberate effort, from getting a shift right (the gearbox wasn't the most precise when new, and this one could use some bushings) to overcoming the inertia of a very heavy flywheel. Once moving along, it's thrilled to run and has a surprising reserve of power for passing. In the heat, up a serious grade on Donner Summit, the old Targa doesn't flinch.

A tale of two Porsche 911 Targas

The new 911 Targa 4 GTS, despite obviously sharing a lineage and a basic layout with the '76, could not feel more different. It's stunningly, breathtakingly quick — it'd be a legitimate supercar a decade ago — thanks to a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter flat-six making 450 hp. More important, it has over 400 lb-ft of torque available way down low. The torque band is wide and flat all the way from just over 2,000 to over 5,000 rpm, and peak horsepower is 1,500 revs beyond. It's a powerhouse with a bit of lag and a lot of compressor whine, and walks all over the old Targa, from any gear and in any situation, just like you'd expect. I'm not here to run circles around my friend, but I do it anyways, for a laugh.

The 40-odd years between these two Porsches becomes really apparent when you push the Targa 4 GTS hard. Yeah, it's an order of magnitude quicker, and has vastly more grip thanks to all-wheel drive, modern tires, Porsche Active Suspension Management, and rear-axle steering. And it responds instantly and aggressively to any input. While the old 911 is satisfying to operate, there's a bit of distance between your command and the way the machinery responds. It feels mechanical, analog. The GTS removes this buffer entirely. Fire off some synapses and it seems like the car responds at about the same time the nerve signal reaches the limb that was going to make a move.

It makes hitting a rhythm on a backroad with wide sweepers an experience rooted entirely in instinct. You just react, and the car responds. Considering its limits and the speeds involved, it's an adrenaline feedback loop. It's intense and fun, but it's also fully absorbing. I lose track of the older Porsche on each of these jaunts, lost in my wake. Letting Rick catch up gives me a chance to hydrate and relax from the laser focus it takes to drive the GTS like it wants to be driven.

Hopping back into the older 911, the first impression is that all the inputs take a pleasant deliberateness compared to the GTS. It's solid-feeling, well-crafted, and has a feeling of heft belied by its light weight. And it feels planted, rooted, in tight corners in the mountain roads off the freeway near Truckee. The new GTS is more transient, lighter on its feet. Thanks to that four-wheel steering, turn in is sharp as a whip-crack, and there's no way to sanely explore the actual limits of adhesion. At the expense of feeling less distinct — there's nothing around that utilizes the muscle memory needed to master a classic air-cooled Porsche — the new 911 is telepathic. Think, and the buttery shifter finds the right gear across the 7-speed pattern. Clutch uptake seems to conform to your innate requirements.

We park the old Targa and hop into the GTS together, to give Rick a sense of what 40 years of evolution's done to his beloved '76. It's a good place for two car nuts to confer, quieter inside but more dynamically dramatic than the subtler older car. From a performance and comfort perspective, it's no contest. Porsche's relentless zeal for improvement doesn't stop at performance. There's not really much room to knock the GTS — it does everything well. The seats are phenomenal, coddling but supportive. Set the PASM to "Comfort" (note: still awfully stiff, but acceptable for a sports car) and plop the powertrain mode in "Normal," and it'll cruise until you need it to scoot. Everything's just a couple of button pushes away, including infinite headroom.

What it trades away, for all this competence and athleticism, is a bit of specialness. Buyers can have it all, and expect as much — and the GTS really delivers. It's no disservice to the GTS to point that out. It's hard to fault the way something you could drive every day, in every situation, can also make your passenger's eyes bug out if you give it the beans. As much as I love Rick's old Targa, it'd be a hard sell to daily drive it.

A tale of two Porsche 911 Targas

The basic difference is this: you conform to the classic 911's requirements. You have to become sympathetic to it, to drive it well. You learn it like you learn an instrument, or how to dance. The newer car conforms to you.

But humans are sentimental, and I'm no exception. The GTS hasn't hurt me, for one. The '76 has scraped my knuckles, spat gasoline in my eye, nearly dropped its old engine on Rick's head. It has a history of being temperamental, and a longer history of not running at all. I've driven a lifetime's worth of classic Porsches this past year, so outside of the '76 simply being an old project car, a classic 911's idiosyncrasies make its charms burn brighter and its flaws turn into charms. It takes a little more work to get the reward out of this old Targa, but that makes every rev a triumph, and likewise every corner.

Rick splits off somewhere near Vacaville on the way back to the East Bay. He threads the old Targa through some traffic to goose it past us. It's a final thrill, to see the car that spent so many years immobile in Rick's garage thrum past us, Rick grinning like he stole the thing. After a wave, there's a quick pang of sadness before realizing we've got the GTS for another few hours. A quick dance across the pedals and we're in fourth, sliding into the left lane just in time for the turbos to spool and the GTS to hunker down and hustle. We're smiling now, too.

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