Opinion: Is there any hope of today’s 911s becoming maintainable classics?
Planned obsolescence is a phrase calculated to send terror through the heart of any old car owner. The thought of a beloved old classic stuck in a garage for want of some vital part seems harsh, and is the reason why some folk change their cars on a regular basis.
While car makers nominally provide a spares backup for any model range up to ten years after it has been discontinued, some unlucky owners can find themselves abandoned far earlier than that. Spares are a valuable business when there are numerous cars on the road, but it’s a hard-headed one, and carrying a warehouse full of obscure widgets for a rapidly diminishing vehicle fleet is a quick way of losing money. In practice, you’ll get common service items for many years, but a failure of a more obscure bit such as an ABS brake pump might leave you stranded. And what happens if the company disappears overnight, like MG Rover or, more recently, Saab? The Rover/MG business was taken up by XPart, a company owned by Caterpillar Logistics Services, which you might have thought would be well versed in the business of getting obscure parts to stricken diggers round the world. Yet, there have been issues at times, as the firm understandably bridles at the thought of tooling up for a handful of obscure parts.
Rik Twinam, the mechanic who looks after my family’s cars, says that on the whole the situation regarding the availability of service parts for old cars is pretty good. “I’ve never really had a problem,” he says, “although some Rovers have been difficult, and I’ll be interested to see what happens with Saab post-bankruptcy.”
So what about your soon-to-be classic Porsche? Porsche Classic is an arm of the company dedicated to supplying classic parts for 911s back to the first 901 model and beyond.
“It works as a front-office operation,” explains Nick Perry of Porsche Cars Great Britain, “which advertises itself as a supplier of parts for classic cars. But it also works as a back-office operation, so you can go into any Porsche dealership to order a bit for a classic Porsche, and it will have a Porsche part number and come through the normal channels just like any other part.”
Josh Sadler, Managing Director of Porsche specialists Autofarm in Oxfordshire, says, “The spares situation regarding classic 911s has been exemplary – it’s very different from the situation 30 years ago,” he says, but adds a note of caution. “The air-cooled cars are so simple, but the later cars might be beyond the scope of the average DIY mechanic, and then you get into the problem of electronics, which have a life.” He cites the Porsche 959, which had complicated electro-mechanical devices such as the adjustable, speed-dependent damper valving, or the special anti-lock brake system. Some of these devices will deteriorate, so it isn’t just a case of holding onto the part until an owner needs it. “Rubber seals go hard and plastics go brittle,” says Sadler, “and you might get to a situation where the bean counters say ‘This is silly, we aren’t going to stock this anymore.’”
Sadler also says that as more 911 models are introduced, the sheer amount of parts becomes a nightmare. Even the air-cooled cars have a huge parts back-catalogue. At the 1993 launch of the Porsche 911 993 model, then chief engineer, Paul Hensler, told me that the only part shared by the new model and its 1963 forebear was a crankshaft oil-seal, which shared the same part number.
Look under the bonnet of the current 991 model or its 997 predecessor, and you’ll see a restorer’s nightmare of electro-mechanical systems, valves and plugs. Even the wiring loom has its own unique connectors. Yet, there is hope for those hoping to keep a modern 911 long enough to hand over to their grandchildren. For a start, the high-quality units used in a modern Porsche are likely to remain trouble-free well beyond their service lives. And when – or if – problems do arise, there are often ways round the problem without replacing the entire sealed unit. Once a problem is diagnosed, there are often repair kits available through a network of specialists. A recent example of this is the expensive electronic stability program unit on Golf-derived models, which has a mixed reputation for reliability. At first, VW would only replace the unit completely, which left a big hole in the pockets of some owners, but various specialists such as Sinspeed (http://www.sinspeed.co.uk) have offered a service of meticulously dismantling the sealed unit and replacing the faulty brake pressure sensor to get owners back on the road at a reasonable price. Some of the hardest electronics to replace are the earliest Electronic Control Units (ECUs) from the Eighties.
I’ve recently acquired a big-bore Moto Guzzi v-twin for my Triking three-wheeler. Its first-generation Magnetti Marelli ignition unit is now obsolete, and has an iffy reputation for reliability. Tap it into a search engine, though, and there’s a choice of three different modern alternatives – none cheap – but all better made and easier to fit and adjust than the original.
“Where there’s a will there’s a way,” says Rik. “After all, BSA hasn’t produced a motorcycle for almost 40 years, and you don’t find owners grubbing about for parts, do you?”
In the end, it’s the quality and exclusivity of the 911 that means the current breed is likely to be relatively simple to keep on the road. Even if Porsche doesn’t carry the parts, there will be an army of parts suppliers, refitters and specialists who will think their way round the problems.
We used to joke that if you wanted to take your 911 to the moon, you could simply go to Weissach, point out the relevant part numbers, and they’d present you with a rocket-propelled 911 and a big bill. It’s likely to be the same in the year 2052.
“Certainly sir,” they’ll say, “We have the parts on the shelf, now how do you intend to pay?”