Sometimes nostalgia isn't sexy until you've made a career of sampling a steady stream of supercars on the world's greatest race circuits. I'm not trying to make the most epic humblebrag ever, but if you're willing to listen I'll share a secret few automotive writers are willing to admit: car journalism can spoil you for simplicity. While I live for the thrill of driving dirty in the freshest Huracan Performantes, V8 Vantages, and 911 GT2 RSs, constant exposure to those increasingly astronomic levels of performance invariably begs the question: are we losing appreciation for the slower, simpler ancestors that propelled us into this golden age of horsepower? Or, put another way: does eating steak everyday make you crave a simple bowl of rice?
With those thoughts lingering in my transom a few years ago, I began the process of shopping for a personal car that could keep me in touch with the fundamentals of performance and soul - two forces that don't always occupy the same vehicle at the same time. I've always had a thing for air-cooled 911s, my last being a 1983 SC, a relatively crude but wonderfully over engineered piece of equipment whose whirring flat-six was robust enough to outlast the cockroaches. This time around, however, I was craving what many consider the ultimate air-cooled 911: the wide-hipped 993 series, the most refined, final generation of the three decades-long, radiator-free cars.
My first 993 test drive, however, revealed something I wasn't expecting from an air-cooled era 911 - an overwhelming sense of refinement. The engine was relatively quiet and the suspension, while responsive, was mostly cushy, making its personality seem better suited for long distance road trips, not razor's edge canyon carving. I still dug the 993's fluid lines (and those hips, oh those hips) but I missed the SC's edgier, involving rawness. At the end of the day I decided to take the plunge on a bone stock 1997 Carrera coupe and make a series of minimally invasive modifications to wake up its driving dynamics.
I've usually been a stickler for keeping cars stock, so I took this project on with a bit of care, choosing to infuse my new baby with personality via reversible, bolt-on steps. First up were the wheels. Though my 911 came with genuine Porsche Turbo Twist hoops, they weren't the lightweight, hollow-spoke types. After investigating aftermarket solutions, I settled on HRE. The Vista, California-based company has been custom fabricating wheels for four decades, and they brought that expertise to my car by starting off with a home visit involving removing the existing wheels to make 3D laser scans of the front and rear wheel wells.
By measuring the suspension and body's dimensions and clearances, an optimum width and offset measurement was created, and a set of 18-inch HRE R101s were CNC milled from a raw slug of forged billet aluminum. The bronze anodized wheels, though aesthetically quite different from stock, set off the 993's forest green metallic paint and clean lines nicely. They also filled the wheel wells perfectly, offering a stance that made the car look fast and poised, even at a standstill.
I chose to wrap the HREs in the latest Pirelli P-Zero rubber, sporty summer street tires equipped with Formula 1-derived features like a rigid compound in the bead for sharper steering response- exactly what I was looking for out of the Porsche.
Unfortunately Pirelli's Porsche-specific N spec tires weren't available at the time, but the standard P-Zeros were kindly installed at Pirelli's P Zero World facility in Los Angeles, where my 911 shared service bay space with curiosities like Phantom Drophead Coupes rolling on massive 22-inch rims and tricked out Range Rovers. Ah, L.A.
Next on the agenda was addressing the mushy ride, which was solved by ditching the tired old shocks in favor of a set of Bilstein B12 Prolines, which come bundled with Eibach coils. Though not fully adjustable like the popular, track-oriented PSS10 models, B12s do offer up to 40mm of ride height adjustability, which enabled my car to more closely resemble a Euro-spec setting.
Huntington Beach, California-based BBi Autosport handled the suspension work; coilovers were installed, the old control arms with worn bushings were replaced with OEM Porsche units, and Tarrett Engineering drop links were added to the rear.
The final mechanical goal was to pull more character from the exhaust note, which led me to Borla Performance Industries in Oxnard, California. Though company founder Alex Borla has strong roots to the Zuffenhausen manufacturer, including an early career stint as a factory Porsche test driver, much of their 21st century work was been focused on American muscle.
Wishing to develop an exhaust specifically for the 993, Borla reached out offering to use my car as a test bed for a new muffler system. With a background building exhausts for endurance races like the Baja 1000, where drivers loathe droning noises, it was easy to agree to the time commitment. After spending over a week with the car, they developed two options for me to choose from: one louder spec, and a more subtle but throaty variant. Back-to-back test-drives led me to the second, slightly quieter version.
Last, but certainly not least on my to-do list was the task of updating the Porsche's antiquated stereo. Accustomed to the conveniences of modern automotive infotainment systems, I sought a piece of hardware that could incorporate as many features as reasonably possible without cluttering up the dashboard with visual noise. The solution was, again, easy: Porsche's Classic Navigation system, a DIN-sized head unit designed specifically for old school P-Cars. Though its knobs look like they belong in something ancient, the system features a 3.5-inch touchscreen with navigation and satellite-capable radio tuning. A remotely installed mic offers Bluetooth phone calls, and music can also be streamed through the system.
Overall, these seemingly subtle changes had a transformative effect on the 911's personality. The relatively non-aggressive Bilstein B12s sharpened the handling without creating an abusively stiff ride, and the steering response was enhanced thanks to the fresh bushings on the new control arms. The Pirelli rubber, delivering far more reassuring turn-in and higher mid-level grip, also improves handling. Much of the ride compliance can also be attributed to the HRE wheels, which shaved approximately 9 pounds of weight per corner - a massive reduction enabling far easier articulation over bumps. The Borla exhaust's added growl lends some much-needed character to the exhaust note, offering a staccato pop during off-throttle deceleration, and an aggressive howl when laying into the gas.
Though the Classic Navigation system's screen is a tad small, the package manages to fit perfectly in the dashboard environment, while maintaining an OEM look. Also welcome is the functionality of hands-free calling and music streaming, making the 993 more livable during day-to-day driving.
Net sum? When I let go of the idea of owning a one hundred percent stock car, the series of relatively painless modifications amplified the aspects of the 993's personality that make it more viscerally involving to drive, making it a charismatic cruiser and a more soulful dance partner on winding roads, all through changes that can (mostly) be easily reversed if the call of historical accuracy beckons.