1 August 2012

A mile in His Shoes

Will the world really end when the most diehard Porsche and Corvette drivers swap rides?

 

Many of us are automotive gadflies, our shifting fancies dictated by the latest eBay listing. One month it’s Triumphs, the next it’s early Audi Quattros. But certain cars inspire commitment, a brand of long-term devotion that spawns communities of single-minded enthusiasts whose loyalty is akin to that of diehard sports fans. And just as a Green Bay Packers fan wouldn’t don a Bears jersey, there are legions of Corvette owners who couldn’t imagine themselves behind the wheel of a Porsche 911—and vice versa. What would happen if you took two gurus from the rival camps, figures indelibly associated with a particular vehicle, and put each of them behind the wheel of the alien machine? Would either become a convert to the rival camp, or would the experience merely reinforce lifelong predilections?

To find out, we convene at St. Louis’ Gateway Motorsports Park with all the right ingredients for this grand experiment. Representing the two sides of the Corvette-911 divide, we have a freshly restored 1970 Corvette LT-1 coupe and a coveted 1973 911 RS. For our drivers, we’ve recruited Corvette authority David Burroughs and Porsche expert Reid Vann, each ready to try on a new automotive identity. For a day, anyway.

Burroughs is the man behind Bloomington Gold, the Corvette certification process he founded in 1978. Gold Certification rewards cars that epitomize a factory-correct condition for their year. Sure, swapping your LT-1’s rubber bushings with polyurethane replacements might liven up the steering feel, but such minor modifications can corrupt the time-machine experience delivered by an original car that has its original flaws intact. Thus our representative Corvette rides on bias-ply tires and features a few pieces of historically accurate misaligned trim. “Every nut and bolt’s been turned on it,” says owner Mike Walter. “It’s back to the way it should’ve been from the factory.” Typically for many Corvettes — which quickly went from new car to used car — Walter’s LT-1 has virtually no documentation. It was simply a well-maintained old car with one repaint a friend found on a used car lot in Nebraska.

Standing at the other side of the philosophical chasm, Reid Vann is the proprietor of Reid Vann Luxury Import Specialists, St. Louis’ oldest independent Porsche service and repair shop. Vann can glance at a seemingly pristine 356 Speedster and instantly call out all the areas where a restorer deviated from stock. Just as Burroughs is a human database of Corvette information, Vann doesn’t need Google to know that Stuttgart built 1,583 examples of the 911 RS, of which 200 were Lightweight models.

Fortunately for us, Vann brought one of those 200 cars, chassis number 9113600891. Vann’s RS was originally a street car before joining the German Rally Series and undergoing a full RSR conversion. After its race career ended in 1983, the Porsche sat dormant until a 2010 restoration returned it to street trim. (Well, mostly. It still has the 2.8-liter RSR motor.) With each car freshly restored, the creaks and groans of time and mileage won’t pollute the essential experiences delivered by Porsche and GM four decades ago.

We’ve got two legendary cars and a racetrack to ourselves. As long as we avoid putting any fresh paint on Gateway’s walls, this has the makings of a great day. With the RS and LT-1 dormant in the paddock, Vann and Burroughs do a walk-around and discuss their expectations and preconceptions. “I don’t expect the Corvette to be of a piece, the way a Porsche is,” Vann says. “I expect it to understeer.” Burroughs, who’s well acquainted with the iconic status of the 1973 911 RS, replies, “I’m going to be disappointed if it isn’t as good as I think it is.”

Once the RS is warmed up, Burroughs straps in and pulls onto the track. The inherent strangeness of the 911, the idiosyncrasies that Porsche owners eventually take for granted, are manifest everywhere to Burroughs’ fresh set of eyes. “I can’t get used to this clutch pedal,” he says. “The pedal is 20 degrees off from the longitudinal axis of the car. And the floor-hinged pedals take some getting used to. The safety belts I don’t care for, either. The shifter isn’t bad, it’s just in an unfamiliar spot. It’s not a car that I feel immediately at home in.”

As Burroughs feels his way around the cockpit and the car’s performance envelope, he begins to brake a little deeper and carry more speed into the corners. “This car’s got a nice feel,” he says. “The steering is better than a Corvette’s, and I like the upright seating position. I fly airplanes, and I like being up close to the windshield and controls. The brakes are wonderful. But the throttle feels stiff. It’s hard to modulate at low speed.”

Then there’s the fact that this is a German-market car, thus some of the gauges wear inscrutable German labels. Burroughs peers at a gauge labeled “oil druck” and says, “I have no idea what ‘druck’ means. But I have two and a quarter of oil druck.”

Burroughs pulls back into the pits to ponder his Porsche experience, and now it’s Vann’s turn for Corvette wheel time. Vann is a St. Louis local who knows every line on this track, so from the first lap he’s comfortable exploring the Corvette’s limits. Which, to his surprise, are unexpectedly high. “You have to anticipate turn-in and get it to take a set,” he says, pitching the ’Vette into a long double-apex sweeper. “But the faster you go, the better it feels. You don’t have to be careful of what gear you’re in, because the torque’s right there. I’m used to having to row a lot more.”

Vann’s gear-rowing habits surface on the front straight, when his hand reflexively drops to the shifter to find fifth gear. Except, of course, Corvettes only had four gears until the C4. “I’m so used to having fifth gear,” he says. “But this redlines at 6,000 rpm and mine redlines at 7,300 rpm, so you don’t have to shift as much.”

Off the straight and back on the infield road course, Vann notices that the Corvette’s styling serves a functional purpose. “From a racing standpoint, you know where your fenders are,” Vann says. However, the LT-1’s combination of unassisted steering and a front mounted V-8 make for an on-track workout. “It takes a lot more turns than the Porsche, lock to lock,” Vann says as he muscles the ’Vette through a tight corner. “There’s some understeer there on that slow corner.”

Initial impressions out of the way, Vann and Burroughs hit the track simultaneously. It’s evident even from pit lane that their comfort levels are increasing, as the cars carry a little more speed with each lap. Soon each pass down the straightaway is a glorious event — the 911’s RSR flat-six wailing, the LT-1’s solid-lifter thunder reflecting off the adjacent wall as the cars blow past. The idea had been to take it easy, 70 mph or so, but when you put two guys on an empty track with two cars like this, well … they’re not exactly racing, but they’re definitely playing, two kids with the keys to their own amusement park.

Eventually, the cars pull back onto the infield and Burroughs and Vann emerge to talk shop. We raise the hoods for motor-ogling purposes, and Burroughs’ well of Corvette expertise momentarily preempts his Porsche critique. The sun is hitting the LT-1’s gleaming chrome air cleaner and sending a veritable laser death ray toward the upright hood. “Does anybody have a towel we can put over the air cleaner?” he asks. “The sun will reflect up and burn the paint on the hood.” That sounds like a lesson learned the hard way.

The ’Vette’s pristine paint saved, Vann and Burroughs launch into a discussion of the merits and drawbacks of one another’s chosen chariots. “In a way, the comparison’s skewed, because the Porsche’s a factory race car,” Vann says. “The Corvette is still a street car, which accounts for the body roll.” Burroughs protests the “street car” assessment of the LT-1. “This is a hybrid,” he says, “a high-performance street car.”

Vann concedes that the Corvette’s composure in the corners was better than he’d anticipated. “I was surprised at how well the Corvette handled,” he says. “On the big sweepers and the bankings, I went 85 or 90 mph and it felt good. Though if you got it on a track and had to chase a Porsche, after five or six laps you’d overheat the brakes.”

Both guys agree about one thing. “The Corvette has a much more positive shifter,” Burroughs says. “You can really bang the shifter into the next gear. With the 911, I had to be tentative and really think about it each time I shifted.”

Vann points out that the layouts of the two powertrains directly affect the shift quality. “In the Corvette, you’re sitting right on top of the transmission, where the Porsche has a linkage to the back. But you bring up a good point. This car has the Porsche synchros that’ll lock you out of a gear. You’ve got to feel the pressure, hesitate, feel the pressure and it slips into gear. But if you try to push through that resistance, you’ll wipe the synchros.”

In its racing days, Vann’s RS was always fast, always competitive, but bedeviled with mechanical problems, including transmission woes. Perhaps in the quest for light weight and speed, Porsche pared down certain components a little too far. The Corvette had a different market and different goals, and was built to survive the harsh treatment expected from a gleeful new owner. “Chevy builds the Corvette for people to go out and beat on it,” Burroughs says. “And if you break it, it gets fixed at a Chevy dealership.”

The Porsche’s gearbox is emblematic of the RS’s generally steeper learning curve. Vann says, “On my first or second lap with the Corvette, I thought, ‘I’m surprised at how fast I can go already. I could get to like this.’” The Porsche, on the other hand, requires a driver to solve its riddles before unlocking its speed. “I was slower in the Porsche because of the things that I’m not acclimated to,” Burroughs says. “I think if I could drive it for 10 hours or so and get to know it, I’d really like it.”

But would he like it enough to forsake V-8s and plastic bodywork for rear engines and oil druck? And would Vann ever conclude that he needs more low-end torque and less lift-throttle oversteer? Well, probably not. But each guy did get a peek behind the curtain, a chance to understand why the Other Car engenders a horde of devoted followers. The Corvette has its V-8 power and soundtrack, its knockout styling and accessible dynamics. The 911 takes an austere path to performance, favoring light weight over horsepower. “It’s a rapier versus a sword,” Vann says. Then he glances over at the ’Vette and adds, “Or a club.”

What’s incredible is that the essential personalities of the Corvette and 911, as expressed in these two high water marks of the early 1970s, are intact today. That kind of consistency of purpose, executed over decades, is the reason why people like David Burroughs and Reid Vann can base careers on their favorite cars. Their commitment is enabled by that of GM and Porsche, which stuck to their respective formulas even when critics challenged the obsolescence of rear engines or pushrod V-8s.

And that’s why the rival machine represents an intriguing temptation, even for guys with deep loyalties. Burroughs regards the Corvette and 911 RS parked side by side on the infield, their drivetrains emitting the metallic pings of cooling metal, and says, “If you told me at the end of the day that I have one more ride and asked me which one I want, I’d say either one. I’d take either one of them.”

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