Passenger rides don't get more impressive than this
It feels like there’s a glitch in the Matrix. A glitch that the man sitting next to me is exploiting to a breathtaking degree. His hands and feet are moving with speed and precision, guiding our progress in deft yet direct inputs that can surely only be instinctual, perhaps even inspired. What my eyes are seeing is a surface so slippery that were I walking on it I would place every footfall with the care of a midnight adventurer in a strange house, wary of creaky floorboards. It’s a surface that shouldn’t allow the speed we are travelling at. Or, to be more accurate, it shouldn’t allow us to approach each of these bends with such speed and still make it through to the other side alive.
On second thought, I’m going to revise the glitch-count upwards by an order of one, because it’s not just the combination of speed and snow that is hard to compute, it is also the combination of speed and old 911 (for that’s what we’re in). Everybody knows that a car with six cylinders swinging around behind the rear axle is a car that must be treated with caution. Legend tells us that it must be respected, not cajoled, especially on a slippery surface. Yet like Hercules collaring Cerberus and taking it walkies, or Tiger Woods taming Augusta so that it looks like a pitch and putt, my chauffeur seems to have this SCRS (a Group B 911, no less) under his spell. The 3.0-litre flat-six is barking to his tune, the light nose snapping into turns where physics surely wants it to go straight on. Even as I sit and marvel, trying to make sense of it all from the security of a bucket seat and six-point harness, I know that this is going to rank as one of the great experiences of my life.
What I’m encountering is the witchcraft combination of studded tyres and the skills of a man called Richard Tuthill. We’re on a closed special stage in Sweden, one that he and various WRC teams use for testing. There is no room for error and this is my first trip down it, which always amplifies attentiveness. The grip afforded by a proper studded tyre, one with hundreds of 7mm daggers protruding from the tread blocks, feels somewhere between a gravel set-up and a slick on tarmac – probably, incredibly, erring more towards the latter end of the spectrum. It seems totally unnatural, particularly under braking, but the purchase these relatively skinny tyres can find feels like sliding down a polished parquet corridor in silk socks and then encountering carpet just as you need to stop and turn.
The man doing the turning – the affable, quick-talking, readily-smiling Tuthill – is a Porsche specialist. He has not only rallied 911s (amongst other things) but, like his father before him, also built plenty of them, including this one. He is attuned to their ways and wiles like very few have ever been. He understands how to get the best from them and how to generate speed from them both in the workshop and on a stage.
The car is beautiful. Finished in mint green (an official Porsche colour from the ‘90s) its Swedish owner (who is back at the stage start) has used it to compete in both races and rallies. It has taken both the Nurburgring and the North York Moors in its wide-arched stride. Putting out around 300bhp while sounding gloriously musically gruff, it makes a strong case for the one-car garage. Of course, mention Group B and everyone thinks of the turbocharged four-wheel drive monsters that closed-out the era, but naturally aspirated rear-wheel drive cars like the SCRS were some of the class’s equally intoxicating initial inductees. Tuthill tells me (later) that underneath, the SCRS is essentially little different to a ’74 RS. No huge advances were made, it was simply built to match the new homologation allowances, updated for the times with things like Turbo brakes and a broader-hipped SC shell. In many ways it would seem that it was a Group B holding solution until the arrival of the 959, but I know which I’d rather have. Such famous liveries as Rothmans and Bastos have graced an SCRS’s swollen curves, but in the snow this unnatural green with its black accents stands out perfectly.
Flat over crest and slightly sideways, revs flaring briefly before they’re checked by the tips of the studs scratching at the surface of the ice once more. A stab of acceleration, the engine loud in the silent snowy landscape. A forceful dab of the brakes (left footed) to wipe speed and turn the now dipping nose into the corner. Then there’s a pause as the car settles, the weight shifting, the pendulum swinging. Patience. Mid-corner there might be small movements with both feet, the left trimming the front, the right encouraging the rear, but it’s a silversmith’s taps compared to the blacksmith’s wallop that arrives as Tuthill opens the throttle properly on on the exit. 'It is such a priviledge to be able to drive a car like this on a proper snowy stage like this!' he says over the intercom, clearly enjoying every mile as much as me.
It’s a mesmerising dance between the solid snowbanks (hardened over the previous days and therefore unyielding, unlike the soft sort that can be leaned on in extremis) and as we reach the end of the road Tuthill dips the clutch, selects first, pulls the handbrake and points us back up the stage before accelerating seamlessly back into the snowy maze to do it all again the other way. He is adamant that 911s get a bad rep and they’re not as hard to drive as everyone thinks, but he is so finely in tune with these cars that I think that he might well have unfairly normalised his own staggering ability behind the wheel. Yes you can learn the technique, but as I ponder the passenger ride during my subsequent drive to the airport (a Rav4 has never felt more mundane) I’m certain that an Escort wouldn’t have required the same skill or work rate to get it down the stage. And I feel I can say that having spent the preceding two days driving 911s on a frozen lake just up the road (at the Tuthill-run ice driving school, Below Zero) and being the owner of a rally Escort.
It was an amazing experience and the good news is that you don’t just have to use my words to imagine all this, because we captured this passenger ride on film. Which you can watch right here: bit.ly/GroupB_911
And you can see my full video on the Below Zero Ice Driving school here: bit.ly/BelowZero_911