Nobody told me it gets cold in Texas. Once I finally find my camping space and click the home button on my phone to illuminate the surroundings, the screen reads “4:00” in the godforsaken morning. The wind whips at my tent, biting my fingers as I assemble it. It’s only the third day of a 21-day drive across the country, and I’m already experiencing zombie-like exhaustion. Daylong stints in a Porsche sport seat saddle, combined with late nights, early mornings and a severe coffee deficit, are making this experience hell on earth.
Why am I doing this? I have to be in Atlanta for my little sister’s graduation, and I decided weeks ago, from the comfort of my living room sofa in Reno, that a simple six-hour flight was out of the question. In this moment, I hate the me who made that decision.
On the other hand, we’ve all been there, sitting alone in a three-seat row with fingers crossed. Boarding is nearly complete, and the door to the bridge has closed. A mother with an infant in her arms and a toddler wiping his runny nose on his sleeve in tow are heading your way. You’re stuck for six hours shooting across the country in a pressurized metal tube full of germs. No, that too, is hell. I trade one hell for a distinctly different hell.
Better to be out experiencing the world from behind the wheel of my 40-year-old, 160,000-mile, air-cooled Porsche 912E. The gray walls of an airport are no match for the vast open roads of America’s interstate system. People often joke about how the middle of the country is “flyover” because there’s nothing worth seeing, but they couldn’t be more wrong. The sensation of watching the terrain change before your eyes — there’s just nothing like it.
Instead of taking a flight from Reno, Nevada to Atlanta, Georgia, Bradley drove his 40-year-old Porsche.
Cars are built to be driven, I tell myself as the sun bakes down on as I slog eastward, forcing me to reapply sunscreen to my left arm several times each day. Around Kentucky the rains begin, leaking through an ancient windshield seal and quickly soaking the floor.
Weeks later, more rain and a steady drumbeat of rainwater tap out the time on my left pant leg as I run back westward through Iowa and Nebraska. I creep up to 8,000 feet above sea level, and the thermometer falls below freezing in Colorado. Every night on the road the sun unravels, replaced by a blanket of surrounding darkness. Cars are built to be driven.
The funny thing about cars is that they really want to run. When I traded cash for title, this Porsche had seen better days. It’d been tucked in the back corner of a small California warehouse for a few years with a dead battery and flat tires. Within a week of my owning it, the 912E received a new battery. A tank full of fresh 87 octane fuel and a replacement fuel pump relay was all it took to turn this Porsche-shaped piece of yard art into a driver again. After the braking system was overhauled, the tie rods replaced and a new set of tires installed, it was ready for prime-time daily-driver duty.
I tested the car through the winter months and into spring with short trips, slowly gaining confidence to venture farther from home base. In March, I dived into the deep end, entering the car in a 1,700-mile vintage rally. When that test had been aced, I knew it was ready for the big game. I’d done long-distance, cross-country tours before, but always in modern machinery.
My sister’s graduation is the perfect excuse for an overly ambitious, ill-advised, potentially deadly and definitely life-changing drive. Where are my keys?
So, how was the trip?
In the planning stages, I make sure to give myself time for something cool and interesting on each day; endless driving on the nation’s interstates in the slowest car from a brand known for high-speed cars isn’t generally a great time. So I visit a friend in Las Vegas and another in Scottsdale. The Petroleum Museum in Midland, Texas, home of the Chaparral collection, is not to be missed. A weekend of spectating races at Circuit of the Americas in Austin is a highlight. In Alabama, the Barber collection of motorcycles outside of Birmingham is a worthy stop. While in Atlanta, I have to give my 912 a tour of Porsche’s headquarters. BMW’s Zentrum, The Tail of the Dragon, the Gilmore Car Museum in Michigan, the Shelby collection in Boulder. Every day, something new.
The 912E performs better than could have been expected. A 21-gallon tank and an excellent 33 miles to the gallon make for long stints at the wheel. I’ll admit I am nervous about some kind of catastrophic failure early on, but by the third day that dissipates. Time with friends, family and hero-tier automobiles erases the thought. There is hardly a fear of not making my destination; every appointment made is kept. The car is nearly faultless.
The trip goes off without a hitch.
What good is a cross-country trip without some time under the stars?
No, really—how was the trip?
Louisiana claims an exhaust tip. Sea-level elevation disrupts the Bosch Jetronic engine tuning. Ancient wheel bearings chew up the front tires.
The car is quite simple to operate and repair, so I simply cut the other three tips free from the muffler and diagnose and seal a small vacuum leak. (The vacuum leak actually precipitates an engine compartment fireball when a spark-plug boot jiggles loose as I am spraying starter fluid.) Two Yokohama S.Drive 205/50R-15s are ordered from Tire Rack and installed while visiting family in Michigan.
Any air-cooled Porsche is going to be a bit cramped and uncomfortable for a long trip. Mine is no different. The Volkswagen-sourced Type 4 engine slung out back pounds out a drumbeat baritone exhaust note, and the broken muffler does little to quell the decibels. With just 88 hp under my right foot, I have a lot of time to think about the universe while ambling toward highway speeds. This car can sustain about 72 mph, which makes the big white “80 MPH” signs of Texas and Nevada intimidating. The factory-fitted sport seats provide excellent support, but the blown-out seat bottom cushion means the bolsters are poking at my thighs perpetually, insufferably.
This still beats flying.
Over three weeks on the road, temperatures range from an indicated 97 degrees in New Mexico down to an overnight low of 15 in Colorado, which makes camping each night an interesting proposal (though I do request one of the campground’s cabins the night it gets below freezing). The wild temperature swings are made all the better by the fact that the car does not feature any kind of air conditioning, and the heating system is middling at best. In a vintage car, hot days are hot, and cold days are cold. Pack accordingly.
One big lesson here:
You shouldn’t be afraid to use your old cars.
Life is too short to store your old cars. They demand to be driven, shared with the world. Across the country, I encourage friends and family to get behind the wheel and take it for a drive of their own. Their wide smiles when they hand back the keys make the whole trip worthwhile. Someone who’d never driven an air-cooled Porsche comments that it is an “old-school visceral sports car experience that rewards smoothness.” A friend in Ohio is afraid to properly thrash the old beast and punctuates the drive with laughter as I show him how I drive it.
Even my father, who has never believed in anything as firmly as his desire for American V8 muscle, cracks a smile when I take him for a ride through the old Georgia hills. Just rolling along at 70 mph for hours at a time, I see more thumbs up, smiling faces and phone cameras pointed my direction than I ever thought possible.
My Porsche isn’t perfect. It’s hardly a show car, but I bought the one I wasn’t afraid to drive. If I’d bought the world’s nicest example and parked it in my garage, how much would I actually enjoy it? Would sitting in a garage and staring at its shape bring me joy? Would a once-a-month dust-off for a cup of coffee be enough?
Though the seats provide about the same level of comfort, I’m glad I take my old Porsche instead of a plane. Instead of an 18-inch hole through which to view the world, I see thousands of miles of gorgeous countryside, watch a rose-tinted sun sink into the Gulf, witness the first peeks of morning wash over the Rocky Mountains. Instead of a 2-ounce pack of pretzels, I am treated to proper Southern barbecue, some exquisite spicy Cajun bites, hearty Midwestern fare and more than a few greasy-spoon breakfast spots with ads for local businesses printed on the coffee mugs. Instead of sitting silently, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, I lose myself in conversation with friends, old and new.
Perhaps best of all, I find out that I can. Live a little. Go for a drive. A long one. Visit hell. What’s the worst that could happen?