The sound of a 911

There’s more to the sound of a 911 than the flat-six engine, says Total 911 contributor, John Boggiano.

During a chat with my friend Brian the other night, the conversation wandered to a small ‘911 taster’ that I created for him many years ago. At the time, 911 ownership was still an unexplored world for him, while I had owned my 964 Carrera 2 for a year or two.

Slowly but surely, Brian had begun to understand that a 911 offered things that just weren’t available to the owners of cars like MR2s (which he had at the time, as did I before buying the 964). He was gradually starting to appreciate that there was a lot more to it than the driving and the polishing; that owning a 911 engendered a feeling of deep satisfaction on many levels – the sort of satisfaction that can make car ownership a completely fulfilling experience, rather than a shallow, superficial one. There is no car I know of whose character can sink its talons deep into your soul the way a 911 can. Once smitten, there is usually no escape – for the rest of your life, the sight or sound of a 911 just does something to you; something good. Before long, the inevitable happened and Brian caught the illness himself: it was time to seek out his own 911, his own four-wheeled soul mate.

Dealers’ stock up and down the country was scrutinised and nit-picked. Countless hours were spent determining the best colour and specification, the best year and the most relevant options. This is a process that takes time – it is not something to rush. Its importance is best illustrated by the fact that it is the only occasion on which I have ever known Brian not to rush…

As time went by, I sought to keep his mood buoyant by passing on small gems of the experience that was to come – snippets of the satisfying life that was just around the corner, bite-sized chunks of 911-insider knowledge. During this period, I was at some time out in my garage just fiddling about with the 964 in no particular manner; tightening the odd screw, cleaning away a tiny mark or two, checking that everything worked, lifting and lowering the electric rear spoiler and so on, when an idea came to me – I would record some of the fascinating noises that this unique car can create. To this day, I don’t know which of us got more pleasure out of that process: it was the creation of an aural exploration of what makes an air-cooled 911 special. If all this sounds quite bizarre, you’re reading the wrong column. In the wrong magazine.

I presented it to my friend as a collection of 20 or 30 isolated sounds on a cassette tape (those were the days…), each numbered and with a randomised chart with the noises’ identities listed so that he had the challenge of matching sound to description. I’ve already told you, if you’re not feeling this, you’re reading the wrong magazine: feel free to leave anytime.

All this must have happened something like 14 years ago – and it’s three years now since I sold my 964 – but each and every sound is still so clear and fresh to me that I can hear it right now. What other car could have provided such a feast for the ears? None that I know of – and I wasn’t barrel-scraping to provide them either.

The gentle ‘chunkle-chunkle’ of the fuel flap popping open. The ‘zzzziiiiizzzzz’ of the rear spoiler going up and down. The ‘click’ of the door handle trigger. The ‘hummmm’ of the little fan in the cabin-temperature sensor. The unique ‘clack’ of a door closing. The ‘beep-beep-beep-beep’ of the immobiliser. The ‘squeak-click’ of the glovebox closing. The ‘ggggrrrbbbbrrrrr’ of the sunroof motor. The ‘thwunk’ of the boot lid being closed. The ‘hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm’ of the wiper motor. The ‘kerchack’ of the resonance flap just prior to starting the engine. You get the idea.

The important thing is that these sounds each comes from a different musical font. It’s an audible documentary on the way the car came to be; a sonic history lesson in 911 evolution. No car that was created ‘as-is’ could sound this way. Each of these sounds derived from a component or system created and developed in complete isolation from the others and then slotted into the existing 911 soundscape. The result is a total automotive sensory experience of unrivalled richness.

And it doesn’t stop with sounds. We could look at the smells or the tactile sensations, too. The stimulating scent of a hot air-cooled engine; all smoky oil residues and heat – or the couldn’t-be-anything-else aroma of carpet/leather/who-knows-what when you open the door and climb in. What about the feeling of all those different types of switches: the pull/push ‘boiled sweet’ trio in the centre dash, the fiddly ones nestling between the instrument faces or the chunky jobs by the gearlever? The solidity of the window switches juxtaposed with the fragility of the mirror joystick. The ‘Why is it a not just a switch?’ dial for raising that rear spoiler. Wonderful! There is so much variety and richness of sensation.

Truly, these things are from an era now long since passed. Nowadays, switchgear is all matched, all mass-produced. You don’t get Bakelite, plastic, metal and wood all performing the same job now. Neither do you get five separate instruments where one module will do a better job of informing, nor switches that you can’t even see. What you do get, is consistent quality, consistent effort of operation and a feeling of total integration. And that’s a really, really good thing. It’s progress.

But it’s never going to make anyone smile, as I am now, just to think of it all.

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