By BRENDAN MCALEER
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, July 20, 2018
CHOLAME, CALIF. -- At the junction of Highway 41 and Highway 45, a tattered, ramshackle roadside memorial flutters against a barbed wire fence.
Further down the road is a proper marker, made of a square steel encircling a tree, but this makeshift collection of objects is the actual spot where James Dean died at the wheel of his Porsche, more than sixty years ago. Listen close, and maybe you'll still hear the rasp and rattle of an air-cooled engine.
Of course, this being California, a bystander need not wait too long to see a old Porsche zipping past.
The United States's third largest state is replete with them; in California, finding a parking lot without a Porsche in it is like finding a menu item that doesn't come with avocado. The state animal is the grizzly bear, but it might as well be the rampant stag of Stuttgart.
Steeped in oily history, littered with racetracks and obsessed with the car, California is the true spiritual home of Porsche enthusiasm. Records might be set at the Nurburgring, but it's the people out here who keep the brand from completely turning into a numbers-only company. Exhibit A: the track-focused 911 GT3 has a worldwide take rate of around 25 per cent manual and 75 per cent dualclutch; in the United States, the figures are twothirds stick-shift and one-third PDK. The cars are made in Germany, but they've got California soul.
Saturday morning and a pack of Porsche fans is clustered around a 911SC, its front trunk open to reveal a cache of donuts and a stack of maps. This is the Professor Run, a free morning rally held in the winding canyon roads around Los Angeles, starting off at the well-travelled Angeles Crest highway.
"You get cruises in Canada, too," says Ian Corlett, who's here with a very unusual 912. "But the difference down here is that they're happening all the time."
The "Professor," a lanky gent resembling a bespectacled Jeff Goldblum, lays out the rules of respect for the public roads. The scrum breaks up and there's a scramble into all kinds of Porsches, aircooled or newer wasserboxers, with a couple of interlopers such as a Karmann Ghia and a Mustang GT350 mixed in.
Corlett and I head for Angeles Crest separately. A Vancouver native and voice actor who spends about half the year in Los Angeles, he's had a string of 911s, but stepped off the new car treadmill a few years back. His 1966 912 came from the factory with a buzzy air-cooled flat-four, but it leaves the parking lot with a whisper of electrons. I follow in a modern Boxster S.
Before we get to the electrified 912, a word on the Boxster. Now prefixed by the numbers 718, by which Porsche hopes to draw connections to a historic racing car, the switch to four-cylinder power for the Boxster and Cayman hasn't pleased everyone. The new engines have the power, but they can't match the old flat-six versions for sound quality. The fours are also worse at returning real-world fuel economy figures, which was supposed to be the point. There's a little too much Subaru STI in this car.
However, permit me to argue that the Boxster and Cayman should always have had four-cylinder engines. Budget constraints led to the Boxster sharing parts with the 996-chassis 911, but Porsche's previous model history always had an entry-level product with a four-cylinder offering, from the 912 to the 914. Porsche now considers its used program to be the entry-level way to get into Porsche ownership, but imagine if some of the company's notoriously huge profit margins were sanded away for their smaller models. If the basic $63,700 Cayman was repriced to start just past where a fully loaded Nissan 370Z leaves off, there'd be a lot more people in their dream cars and not a single one would be bothered by the fourcylinder engine.
As it stands, this Boxster S is astonishingly quick on canyon roads and has a manual gearbox to keep the driver involved. Happily, everything I've just said about the new car, I can now say about Corlett's '66 as well.
With an electric motor and Tesla batteries swapped in, Corlett's 912 has roughly triple the power of the gasoline-powered original and weighs the same as a contemporary 911S with a full fuel tank. The conversion was sorted by EV West, based just north of San Diego, which added in regenerative batteries and placed the battery pack to be easily upgraded as technology improves. Current range is a little above 200 kilometres and the car corners flat, boosting out of the turns on a wave of electric torque.
This is perhaps the future for classic Porsche fans, after the last gallon of gasoline has been placed in a museum. In the meantime, purists would be well served to drive down to the Petersen museum, a huge flamesurfaced building on Miracle Mile in the centre of L.A. Here, the feature display is called the Porsche Effect, and it includes rarities and greatest hits.
Among other machines, there's a 1956 Porsche 550 Spyder in the lobby, utterly original and perfectly preserved. It's a twin to James Dean's ill-fated machine.
Other cars in the display range from a one-of-three 1939 Type 64 - the very first Porsche - to a podium-winning 919 Hybrid from the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The Petersen's Porsche display is open seven days a week, and will continue through January of 2019, and includes an optional tour through some of the cars they've got tucked away in their underground vault. However, this is a special weekend, one where history can be seen in the wild.
As the sun drops into the Pacific, bathing the hills and the coastal highways in a golden syrup, you can see why Porsche has such a following here. Endless roads and sunny days to drive them. A deep well of heritage and passion for the brand.
And above all else, a community that's wide and varied and seems to have a place for everyone. No rebels without a cause.
Just people who love to drive.
This Porsche 356 Speedster, converted to electric power by EV West, fits in perfectly in environmentally conscious California.
BRENDAN McALEER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Whether you are driving a Porsche 718 Boxster, left, or an electric-swapped 1967 Porsche 912, the German auto is perfectly suited for California.
PHOTOS BY BRENDAN McALEER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL