The mid-week long read: when the going gets tough

Preparing a classic 911 for the ultimate test of off-road endurance

3y ago

Versatility is a 911 cornerstone. Despite being built for the road, the mid-Sixties air-cooled original soon stamped its authority on the international race scene. Here was a car whose motorsport DNA could turn daily commuter into weekend wunderkind, and a famously gradual evolution thereon would underline the sheer rightness of that initial idea; a simplicity and integrity of design and construction that would, for many, never be bettered.

Today, amid thousands of acres of dense pine forest and meandering ribbons of gravel in the lush hills of southern Wales, Richard Tuthill and his team are about to illustrate the point. Side-by-side in the morning sunshine stand a pair of 1973 911s, cars almost a half century old that could hardly look fresher or more fit for purpose. Albeit a purpose unfamiliar to your regular vintage 911.

Tuthill Porsche has been preparing 911s for road, race and most notably rallying purposes for almost fifty years. These two cars, run by the Swedish motorsport charity Race4Health, are about to take part in the East Africa Safari Rally Classic, an event without parallel on the competition calendar. Over 3,5000km of driving, 1500km of which is on full-chat rally stages, all of it unseen across the rocky and arid plains of Kenya and Tanzania.

For Richard and his small Oxfordshire-based team this will be the culmination of months of rigorous preparation, a finely tuned exercise in management, engineering and racing acumen honed through decades at the coal face. Each Tuthill 911 goes through over 1000 hours of labour to get it to this stage, with the body shells alone demanding 300 hours of strengthening for the brutal endurance test ahead.

The cars are comprehensively stiffened and reconfigured to manage such essential upgrades as a quick-release gearbox, two spare wheels up front and a bespoke wiring loom for the complex ancillaries. The underside benefits from massively increased protection and a vast 150mm of ground clearance over and above a standard car. Glass is dispensed with everywhere allowable for both safety and lightness, ventilation is improved and – a stark reminder of what lies ahead - bull bars are fitted to that pretty and vulnerable front end. Fuchs alloys remain the wheel of choice, still the best ratio of low weight to strength after all these years, shod in gravel stage specific 15inch Dunlop tyres.

On board it’s the bare bones of 911 necessity, Sparco buckets, deep-dished Momo steering wheel, welded full roll cage, twin fire extinguishers and a flurry of bespoke dials and switches the full length of the dash. Inside and out these cars are a hugely impressive, almost intimidating sight, their exacting bespoke build a masterclass in function over form that somehow finds glorious form regardless.

But surely the demands of the Safari rally would still be too much for any car of this vintage? And especially for a 40-year-old air-cooled engine design? Richard is almost evangelical in his ability to dispel any misgivings: “I am a bit biased but really, nothing can touch a 911. I can’t imagine what this was like in 1973 because it’s still relevant now. And the fact that we’ve got no water in an early 911 is an absolute blessing. It’s one less thing to worry about – their cooling is very, very efficient. And they’re lightweight and simple so are absolutely made for the job.”

Besides which, it’s the sheer scale of the challenge that appeals to Richard and his international field of privateer clients, all determined to conquer one of the great mountains of motorsport. The cars will take a hammering of unprecedented proportions, of that they are all too aware, and they will, barring the worst, get bent back into shape.

“Last year,” Richard recalls,” at the service area on Stage 4, one car turned up having had a huge roll. Five minutes later the next turned up missing its front left wheel – and this is the morning of Day 1. Now you can’t prepare for that, but we’re a great team, we’ve got great guys who just get on and fix it. So the cars were underway again within half an hour and they all finished the rally. You just deal with it.”

It still seems like a daunting proposition for the teams and drivers. Battling extremes of heat and humidity with no support beyond what they have brought with them, 60-odd entrants in a melee of Datsun 240Zs, Ford Escorts and Capris alongside innumerable 911s, will do the equivalent of a full WRC rally every two days, but they’ll do it all unsighted.

“Modern rallying,” Richard explains, “where you do recces and prepare pace notes is a very different sport. It’s a commitment, but it’s a different type of commitment. These guys can read the road beautifully and when you sit with them there’s another thing you see: they don’t hurt the car.”

One such driver is rally legend Stig Blomqvist, who won in East Africa with Tuthill in 2015. Despite becoming WRC champion in 1984, victory on the Safari had always eluded him. Even in his Seventies the chance to drive the Classic in a 911 was too much to resist, and the significance of victory at last was undeniable: “He’s a driver who’d been trying to win the Safari for ever,” remembers Richard. “Although he’s a quiet man anyway, at the end of the final stage three of us met him and he had a tear in his eye – he was choked. It meant an awful lot, and that’s saying something for a guy who was world champion.”

For many Tuthill is synonymous with the Safari Classic and it’s easy to see why. On a quick loop of the Welsh gravel stage the tribe witnessed a staggering turn of speed and agility that belies these cars’ age and extolls the virtues of their remarkable rear-engine traction. Their strength, reliability and agility is what makes a 911 the go-to car for professional and amateur alike – allowing them to maximise both the driving experience and their chances of winning. As the car swings around a tight off-camber hairpin, spraying fist-sized lumps of gravel through a mighty rooster tail of dust, Richard is calmly enthusing from behind the wheel: “The 911 is still the best car for the job. There’s more of them on any rally we go to than any other car. And history shows that once you understand the 911, there’s no greater car to drive.”

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