Photos: Sandra Beigun and C Agostino Rizzardi
At first glance you might be mistaken for thinking that this is just some normal desert buggy with Porsche-shaped panels draped over it, but no, this is actually a seriously well-developed 964 that has more in common with the iconic Dakar winning 959 than any buggy, and owner Agostino Rizzardi has put a serious amount of work into it.
The story starts 20 years ago when Agostino bought a Mazda 323 to compete in Italian hill-climbing events with, an experience which infected him with the incurable virus of motorsport speed. After a few years break for college and then to start up his winemaking business, in 2008 he again had time to restart his latent motorsport passion.
“I didn't have enough money for a Ferrari but in Italy you can be forgiven for driving a Porsche. Although it's German with its shape and style it definitely has the Italian spirit and so I bought a beautiful 993 Supercup. It had been well used before me but was a very reliable car and I did a couple of hill climb championships in it, with some pretty good results… But it was always rallying that I wanted to do, so I looked for another car, and ended up buying an ex-Jimmy McRae 964 4x4. It was an amazing machine, 1100 kg, 6-speed, four-wheel-drive, 380bhp, and nobody else had a car like it so it always stood out, which was something else I loved about it.”
But in 2011 he had a new desire. Short little gravel rallies, as fun as they were, weren’t quite the ultimate challenge Agostino was looking for so he started thinking about the big marathon African rallies. And whenever he watched videos on Youtube he kept seeing the amazing 959 with the Rothmans livery winning in 1986. “At first I thought about pulling the McRae car apart and making some desert-racer prototype out of it, but when I went back to the garage to think about what I could do I realised that the car is really a piece of art so instead cannibalising it, I decided to start a new project from the ground up.”
“So the third car I brought into the garage was a 1989 911 964 road car. When Porsche used to race in the desert they used it as a big test for their parts and so basically the 959 was the test bed for the engine and transmission of the 964, so I knew that the drivetrain from the Carrera 4 was going to be reliable for what I wanted.”
The first job, obviously, was stripping it down to the shell. A cage was put in and took out the interior to make it a rally car, which even though was still basically a road car, he decided to race in Tunisia. All that was modified was the reinforced shock and spring mounts. “It was a 6-day event and we were competing with people who were practising for the Dakar and they were laughing at us every day because the suspension only had 10cm of travel… so the fact that we got 4th overall, not just in class, was pretty amazing. But as good as the car was, it was absolutely destroyed. The body had pretty much come apart, as well as all the suspension parts. But with the result it was clear what we could do with a proper car so I looked around for someone who would be interested in doing such an unusual project, and found Loris Calubini of Jolly Car. He won the Breslau 10 years ago so was really experienced with hard off-roading and has done a lot of races in Africa too. He looked at my plans, smiled and said that we could make something really interesting. And that's how the year of building began.”
So, the first thing to do was Google lots of diagrams of Dakar cars like the MINI and the Mitsubishi MP13, cars with the twin shock wheel set up, and take measurements. 25 to 30cm of suspension travel was needed so the A-arms had to be as big as possible. But no one had done anything like that with a Porsche before so everything had to be designed from scratch.
Once the first design was done the car was taken down to Tunisia to test… and it lasted about 200m because it was all wrong. “We learned some good lessons there though!”
The engine is a 3.8 vario-ran system. It is the last of the air cooled engines made by Porsche. This was chosen because it has lots of torque and that's much more important than power to get you out of the sand. The only thing they changed was the camshafts and the addition of a Microtec ECU. The ECU is a great improvement because it only has three wires and as a lot less complicated than the original, something else that makes the car easier to service.
With the 80cm tall tyres they needed a completely new gearbox though, with much, much shorter ratios... and the 964 has a very complicated gearbox. A company in Australia called Albins Gear was the only one that had a catalogue for things like this as they make off road gear to fit anything in off-road racing. It was a very big job but Agostino is very happy with it because after 25,000km it's still as good as new.
The crown and pinion are specially made by an Italian company as well. The ratio is also much shorter; 4.62 compared to the standard 3.
“The body panels are all carbon-kevlar and I love the way the flares look. From certain angles I can see something of the 959 in it which I really like. Of course the car is a lot, a lot wider than the original, 40cm wider in fact so it stands 2 metres wide from the road going 1.6, so we had to make our own suspension system, driveshafts and joints and this is basically what makes the car so special. It took a long time to get right because it's an original design of ours that needs to work in quite an extreme way. The earlier designs were fabricated from tubes but now the A-frames are CNC, laser cut box sections and the joints are buggy style, designed for a lot of movement.”
“And all this makes it a wonderful car to drive. If we are on a dry lake bed we can get up to 190km/h and in the desert sand it handles like a little boat on the river. Amazing. Jumping as well. When a front engined car lands all the weight bangs down on the front axle and the rear can kick up. In the Porsche it is the opposite. It lands on the lightest end first so in the rough terrain it's very quick. It's also very comfortable because the seats are angled at 110° not 90 so that I can fit not banging my helmet on the roof. It’s quite tiny inside but am always driving it with a smile and for me that’s actually the most important thing. If you get out after a 500km long stage where you’ve drunk 6 litres of water because it’s so hot and you are still smiling… that’s what I want in a car.”
Once it was decided that the design of the car was how they wanted it they decided to work on tuning it and taking out all the weakness so entered the Tuareg rally. “Actually competing is always much better situation than to just test. On every stage we were out leading but every day we didn’t finish because of one problem or another. But it was a great test because in the service every night we had a big program of improving what we had, not adding anything new. We had five different sets of suspensions that we tried, looking for the best one because we were looking for reliability. The car you need for the desert races isn't really one that goes fast, it's the one that doesn't break.
So now after the testing we’ve done in the smaller rallies I think we’re is ready for the ultimate challenge, which for this car is the Africa Eco Race. It's a 6000km event over nearly 2 weeks on the old African route from France down to Senegal through Morocco and Mauritania. It’s a totally different event to anything anyone of us in the team has done before because it’s just so long and tough. But with all the destruction testing we did in the other rallies we know now which parts we need to change and when, which is probably the most important thing for a serious team on a marathon rally. For example we know that a clutch will last 4000km, the shocks will last 3000km, the A-frame joints 3000km… so we can have a scheduled services through the rally and have two mechanics working on it for 10 hours through the night to check everything, even when there is nothing wrong with it. The biggest issue right now though is finding a good sponsor because getting the parts, the team and service trucks together is a very big project.”
The car is ready for AER but so is Agostino. He got asked by his friend to drive a Unimog truck in last year’s Dakar… and finished 3rd in class! “It was a good experience, but I’d choose the Porsche to drive every time!”
Fingers crossed that while the motorsport world is focused on Argentina and Bolivia for the Dakar there will be a Porsche battling for honours in the wastes of western Africa… for the first time in 30 years!