The Porsche

May 1999…

As an anonymous male once said, “we are men; we are what we drive.” Well, I never believed it. Yet it seems I’ve always wanted a Porsche. I can trace it back to the middle 1950’s when I was about twelve. We lived in Northeastern Ohio, a mixture of farm country and small industrial towns connected to the automotive or machinery and equipment industries, tied to the economies of Cleveland, Ohio and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Cars were mostly basic family vehicles, ours being a ‘51 Ford, moving up to a ‘56 Oldsmobile later in the decade.  My pilot uncle had a gas consuming but great looking sloped back straight 8 Buick and another uncle, the rich one, had a Cadillac. An early favorite of mine was the Hudson Hornet. These were the cars of memory from my childhood. Sports cars were unknown to me except in the movies.

Then one day, our neighbor, a local CPA and father of a friend, came home with a British Racing Green MG TD, the classic looking one that looks like the venerable Morgan. Aware of the significance of the moment, I thought, “this is cool.” Over the next few years, Mr. CPA moved through a Triumph TR3, an MGB, a Jaguar XK120, a couple Austin Healy 3000’s, a Sunbeam Alpine (a fast car not remembered by many these days) and the best of the lot, a Porsche 356. While I thought Mr. CPA went a little too far with the leather gloves and the driving shoes, the neighborhood didn’t much mind the affectations and basically humored him about his impractical hobby. I loved the cars, got to at least ride in them, learn about them and dreamed that, one day, I might just have a sports car too.

I went away to college in 1960 and about the same time started following Grand Prix racing. I read all about Juan Fangio and paid attention to the doings of Graham Hill, Phil Hill, Jimmy Clark, Sterling Moss et al, and followed the circuit. I had been to small dirt track stock car races in Ohio and Pennsylvania, a lesson in local culture themselves, but was attracted to Formula 1 racing, although I’d never seen such a race.

My friend Terry’s black 57 Chevy with the Corvette clutch would beat anyone we knew in the quarter mile but I secretly wanted a Porsche. I kept quiet about it because of its absurdity.  And of course, one of the heroes of the age, James Dean, died in one in 1955. Thirty eight years later, the columnist George Will, commenting critically on Dean’s rising influence, even after his death, said:  “In Rebel Without a Cause, Dean played himself—a mumbling, arrested-development adolescent—to perfection.  Feeling mightily sorry for himself as a victim (of his insensitive parents), his character prefigured the whiney, alienated, nobody-understands-me pouting that the self absorbed youth of the sixties considered a political stance.” I’m sure George was right, although at the time Dean was just another celebrity, attractive because of what celebrity status brings along with it. (Not much has changed in this regard.) When he wrecked his Porsche Spider and died at the age of 24, my reaction far away in Ohio was, “that it was a stupid way to go; but at least it was in a neat car.”

In the summer of 1963, at a drive-in movie in Utah, I saw a light comedy called Love is a Ball with Glenn Ford, Charles Boyer, Hope Lange and Ricardo Montalban. I’m sure it would seem a corny movie today, in the age of Pulp Fiction and its imitators. Ford’s character was an ex Grand Prix racer who lived quietly on a boat on the French Riviera but is commissioned to take part in a con to teach a bumbling Ricardo Montalban how to drive so Ricardo can marry the rich girl.  As one can guess, Ford does the right and noble things and, in the end, gets the girl.  With one year to go in college in Southeastern Ohio, broke, no car or boat or girl, or the slightest idea of what I was going to do upon graduation, this was great fantasy. I also liked Rick, manager of Rick’s Café American in Casablanca; he didn’t get the girl but he too had secret qualities about him and an integrity and, underneath it all, a heart.  Such were the silly notions of a twenty year old—wanting to be like someone in a movie. When I was very young, I wanted to be like the cowboys Roy Rogers, Lash LaRue or Ken Maynard. When I was eight or ten, I wanted to be like Sugar Ray Robinson or Archie Moore or Rocky Marciano.  At twelve, I wanted to be like the pitcher Bob Lemon who said: “The two most important things in life are good friends and a strong bullpen.”  (I didn’t want to be like Yogi Berra who said:  “Baseball is 90% mental.  The other half is physical.”) At fifteen, I wanted to be like Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo. And so it went—I was a dreamer, observing movie and sports stars, trying to adopt what I saw as qualities of personality. One eventually realizes that this isn’t the way it really works. It’s all a part of growing up. You learn to become you.

I didn’t get my first car until after college—a yellow 1957 Chevy convertible that would have been a pretty fantastic car if it hadn’t been for all the rust. I got it for only $600 though, so I couldn’t complain. I got a lot of practice with blown retread tires on that car; I learned to change them in about ten minutes. I next bought a Beetle. I would drive it through the rolling country roads of Ohio fast—pretending that it was my Porsche. It was…it was my poor man’s Porsche. I read somewhere that Paul Newman had a VW with a Porsche engine, transmission and suspension and he delighted in leaving other cars behind in his nondescript common man’s car.

In 1966, I was seeing a friend from college, Linda, who was a sorority sister of my ex girl-friend.  She lived in Cleveland and was working on her Masters degree in Library Science while I was banking money, post college but pre military, and not yet in a career enhancing job. Once we went to a sports car dealer, just for fun. They were introducing the new 911. The 356 was finished after seventeen years and 76,303 produced. The new car impressed me at the time—one who had been trained by proximity, if you will, to appreciate the refinements of foreign cars—refinements of image, at least. I was not a mechanic. But the price of it, or the beautiful Jaguar XKE, or most of the other sports cars, were well beyond reach.  It had a way of teaching one a little humility, one who could have been a snob. My Beetle was just fine. I could live.

Also, in 1966 the movie Harper came out. It starred Paul Newman, Lauren Bacall, and Julie Harris and the film ranks right up there with the best of its type. Harper drove a rough running Porsche convertible with a primer coated door that was as much a character in the movie as the fat drunken Shelly Winters. It was a well done film based on one of Ross MacDonald’s noir novels.  In 1968, Steve McQueen played in a police drama, Bullitt, with a San Francisco car chase sequence that is still the best (although some would argue for The French Connection)—Steve in his hot dark Mustang, being chased, then chasing the bad guys to their burning death. But his girl, Jacqueline Bisset had a Porsche. At age twenty-five, I especially noticed Jacqueline Bisset…and her yellow car.

Fast forward to the mid ’80s—years of keeping an eye out but without any commitment whatsoever toward owning such a car and following auto racing was a thing of the past. I had become practical and life had moved on. Marriage to Karen in 1970, two children (the politically correct number; just enough to replace us), a golden retriever, a station wagon, eventually a house with a pool in Southern California. The job was satisfying in a quiet way; I was running marathons. Our children, John and Elaine were growing, engaged in kid’s activities, and Karen was bringing balance to our lives with talent, hard work and love.  Wives (good ones, anyway) are like that; they smooth out the rough edges, they love us imperfect beings and teach us how to love. Life was good; it had meaning.

The vast majority of Porsches sold in North America are sold in Southern California.  They seem to be everywhere, if you’re looking, that is. Maybe that’s why I got interested or maybe I was just feeling pleased with myself. Or maybe it was the onset of a little mid-life crisis that I thought I would satisfy through acquisition therapy. In my forties, I used to joke that when I turned fifty I would buy a Harley Davidson, get fat, wear my shirt open to expose my hairy belly, and ride the streets like a mad man. The highways are filled with men in mid-life who have just bought their first motorcycle. It’s as if we males believe that this is the antidote to aging. It may not slow down the process but it diverts the mind.

Instead of a Harley, I bought a book: “The Illustrated Porsche Buyers Guide,” just to do a little research; nothing serious, just looking. I studied it, learned all about the various models from the early days of the 356 variations, the Speedster, the 912, the 914, all the 911’s.  I went to new and used car dealers. I learned that if you look like you can afford one, the bored staff at Porsche dealers are quite happy to go for rides, so I drove 944’s, 944 turbos, 928’s and 911’s all over Southern California for a couple years. It was great fun ripping through Beverly Hills at 90 mph or on the back roads around Riverside. I remember one dealer telling me that I obviously knew what I was doing. I thought, “nice sales technique, even if it’s a lie.” I checked out ads in the Orange County and Los Angeles papers, and talked to people who repaired them. I investigated; I did my research and eventually settled on wanting a 911 coupe, a 1979SC or newer, depending on what I could afford. I didn’t want any of the other models. I was hooked on the 911.

Around 1988, at a Pasadena dealer, I drove a 1983 red 911 with 40,000 miles. It was a clean car and priced within the realm of possibility. I offered something close to low Blue Book and, of course, they were asking high. After playing the negotiating game for a while, we were $1,500 apart and I walked, expecting that since it had been on the lot for six months, they would call. They didn’t. They probably figured that if this guy can’t part with an extra $1,500, he isn’t man enough to own a car like this. As each day passed, I felt the weight of it lifting off my shoulders. How stupid could I be? I had two kids not yet driving, college education’s to finance. We were doing okay but…I quickly came to the realization that this was not meant to be. God must have been looking out for me.

In subsequent years, relieved of any obligation to continue the quest, we watched. Karen would tell me as we drove the freeways:  “look right; coming up on the right.”  (People pass in any lane in Southern California. We’re not very disciplined.)  I’d comment that it was a nice one or I would admonish the owner for obviously not treating such a possession with respect, following the philosophy that if you are going to own something like a Porsche, it’s your moral obligation to take care of it; otherwise get rid of it. Call it my stewardship model. Yet through most of the 90’s, I didn’t want one. My friend Chuck had a white 911 Targa with low mileage that mostly sat in his garage. He figured it was time to sell it. He’d had his enjoyment, so he sold it to a lawyer who about wet himself when he picked it up. I didn’t even make a move for it. I was cleansed.

In 1998, I borrowed the company’s Panoz Roadster, a limited production car produced by Danny Panoz, the race car builder in Atlanta.  (The company I work for has a division that makes the aluminum body panels for the Panoz so we got a ‘company car’ for services rendered.)  I’d almost forgotten how exhilarating driving a high performance car can be.  The Panoz has a great sounding Ford Cobra engine, does 0-60 mph in about 4.5 seconds, has gorgeous lines and is totally impractical. But what a joy to drive! At about $60,000, and given its complete lack of utility, it’s for someone who already has everything including a lot of silly money around. Either that, or it can be a company car.

Also in 1998, Porsche introduced a new version of the 911. While the attractive Porsche Boxter had been on the market a while and it was selling well, the 911 was still the ultimate Porsche. But after thirty-four years and a production run of 401,232 air-cooled 911 models, they were converting to a water-cooled engine (as in their race cars) and offered subtle improvements throughout. The traditionalists bristled but the test drivers quickly reached the conclusion that you couldn’t go back—everything was better. The new 911, internally known as the 996, was being touted as possibly the finest sports car in the world.

Oh shit…I started reading about it in magazines. I read reviews on the internet. I went to a dealer. I sat in them. I drove just one. Just to get my head around it. I read about all kinds of other sports cars and concluded that: (1) The Dodge Viper is the ultimate babe magnet but I was looking for a better tennis backhand and a good nights sleep. (2) The Mercedes SL’s are for people of status with a lot of money who want the world to know it, but I don’t have that much money or status. (3) The Jaguar XK8 is elegant and refined but it’s also a little pricey and Karen will confirm that I’m not elegant or refined. (4) The BMW’s are basically sedans and the two-seaters are cute but I’m not into cute. (5) The Acura NSX is rare, which by definition, means problematical. (6) The Corvette is less costly but it has a big butt. (7) The Mazda Miata was also cute. (8) The Ferrari, the Lamborghini, the Aston Martin, the Lotus—all are pretty ridiculous in price and ownership cost. Like some people, they would be ‘high maintenance’ and therefore, financially and psychologically beyond me. All this made the 996 Porsche sound like the logical choice for ones driving needs, but of course, this is not about logic. The Porsche carries an image that tells the world its owner not only appreciates highly engineered performance cars, but also that he will not be tamed! Right. I’m about as tame as you can get—completely domesticated, not likely to become feral man.

Karen and I talked about it.  Our son John was settling into married life in Colorado and Elaine was doing well in school and would be finishing in 1999. She was saving her money and was looking for a house to buy. We were making money, had money. I’d received a nice bonus.  My friend Jay was in the industry and knew the general manager of a dealer in Toledo, Ohio. There was an allocation for cars and they sell at a premium in Southern California. Jay could save me about $5,000 and have it shipped directly to my house in a closed van via Reliable Carriers, a special freight service that transports antique or other expensive cars as if they were race horses.

On October 29, 1998, I put $1,000 down on a 1999 Ocean Blue Metallic 911 Carrera Coupe with a 6-speed manual transmission, savanna beige interior, for a February 1999 build.  I joked that it was the cheap 911—few extras, all of which add considerably to the price of the car. Karen and I never told anyone, not even our kids. (One exception: Later in January, I told Barbara, a behavioral scientist/consultant friend who someone once referred to as “a hummingbird in heat,” during a lunch with Karen in Palm Desert. Barbara, who thinks of me as one who, even at this advancing age, is learning to explore the other dimensions of his personality, saw this as a liberating act by someone who follows his head a lot more than his heart. I love it when she talks like that!)

I had done it. So I needed to justify it to myself. I came up with a David Letterman list. The top 10 reasons I am buying a Porsche:  (10) There are no cup holders.  (9) While I may never go 175 mph, it’s nice to know I can.  (8) While the world is into large SUV’s and pickup trucks, a Carrera is just big enough to hold all the material possessions that are important to me. I’m actually simplifying my life. (7) It’s a good investment, I’m sure. (6) It’s cheaper than a beach house or a condo in Vail.  (5) There are no monthly dock fees.  (4) It’s less expensive than a psychiatrist.  (3) Peer pressure; whenever I even mention that I like Porsches, friends tell me that I should buy one.  (2) If I wait until I can truly afford it, the nursing home will take my license away.  And the number one reason? (1) It’s really not my fault. The devil made me do it! (When I wrote that $1,000 check, I could hear Geraldine, a.k.a. Flip Wilson, saying: “the devil made me buy that dress!”)

I don’t smoke, gamble, take drugs, or chase loose women. I drink wine but moderately, with meals. I eat right and exercise. I don’t fly airplanes, golf, hunt, fish, raise horses or show dogs. I don’t own a motor home, or a vacation home or boats or off road vehicles.  My diversions are inexpensive and more constructive than destructive.

My father died on June 23, 1998 and I’ve been through the self generated arguments regarding the capricious use of hard earned money. My father was conservative and most pragmatic and would have told me, as he did when I went to Peru in 1981 to hike the Inca Trail:  “This is not an act of a responsible family man.” One of my father’s great qualities was that he would make his point and let it go. He would confront you and you then knew where he stood, but he wouldn’t make you pay for it the rest of your life. I wonder though…is this just another act of rebellion? I suppose it is easier to misbehave when your father is no longer around to pass judgement—when you know you won’t disappoint. In many families and friendship circles, who you are, is exactly who they want you to be. If you decide to become someone else, you are a threat to the structure of the relationship. Does buying this car mean that I become someone else?  What will it mean to my family and my friends?

One of my critical questions is this: After I get this car, will my penis grow larger? If I “Drive West on Sunset” as in the Steeley Dan song, will the “Babylon Sisters” give me a more measured look, if only to think of a bigger take?  Moving about the world, will I now have sex appeal?  When I pull into the Esmeralda Resort at Indian Wells, will they park the car out front with all the other upscale cars, thinking of me as special?  Would Anna Kournikova or Pamela Anderson notice me climbing into my car and wonder, who is that? Is this what I want?

I certainly don’t need a Porsche. And it ultimately has nothing to do with deserving. My mother didn’t deserve to get MS. My Aunt Peggy didn’t deserve to get Alzheimer’s. 138,000 people didn’t deserve to drown in Bangladesh on April 30, 1991. Why then would I deserve a Porsche? Many years ago, during an interview with Humphrey Bogart, someone asked him why he thought he was worth so much per picture. He cynically answered:  “Because I can get it.” Deserving is an inappropriate characterization. It implies a rational system of justice in the dispensing of good and bad fortune.

I don’t think wanting it, then getting it, will make me happier. I’m already happy, at peace in more ways than I can describe here, except for my angst over my self indulgences, my complicity with evil. Evil isn’t a word used much any more.  We live in a culture that finds comfort by renaming it. This isn’t new.  As Aaron said over 2,000 years ago: “Gee Moses, it’s just a little golden calf and you haven’t even been around. It’s really no big deal,” or something like that. Today, everything is relative and okay as long as you feel strongly about it, are really sincere. It’s the spirit of the ageZeitgeist. I make the assumption that the Porsche is just another form of idolatry and it is different from a wine collection, or a library of cherished books, or a family heirloom. It is so because it’s more ostentatious, more symbolic of greed and materialism and it represents a rather highly visible form of self gratification.  God suggests, or rather commands, us to do otherwise. Jay Leno was recently interviewed regarding his attendance at a benefit where he commented: “I don’t think God is too impressed with all my cars and motorcycles so I guess I should be doing some good in the world.” Sounds like good old fashioned guilt to me. And I admire him, at least, for admitting it. We are here to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Well, it all seems to be under a little strain here!

I want the car but I want it privately, to share it with Karen, with a few close friends, our children. I picture Karen with me on lonely highway 62 where there is a 90 mile stretch paralleling I-10 between Twentynine Palms, CA and Parker, AZ.  The last time we were on it, in September, there were only three other cars. We could make that trip real fast, although I understand that high speed driving in the desert can have a deleterious effect on an expensive paint job. I see us in Sedona, AZ and at my in-law’s cabin in the mountains just south of Flagstaff. I see us taking the scenic route to Denver to visit John. I see us on the Pacific Coast Highway, heading up through Pismo Beach, Morro Bay, Cambria, to Big Sur, Carmel and points North, experiencing the beauty of God’s creation and the pleasure of doing so in Stuttgart’s creation. I see myself on those same quiet rolling farm country roads in Ohio, where years ago, I drove my VW, pretending it was something else. I see my children wanting to borrow it for some special occasion. I see the answer being gently, “no.”  I hopefully won’t see myself at the police station reporting a stolen vehicle.

At home, I mostly see it in the garage being pampered. I don’t plan to flaunt it. Surely my friends will see it, know about it, and think their thoughts, as when anyone does something radical. And my whole life says this is radical. Yet somewhere back in my childhood, over forty years ago, I decided that having a Porsche was important and that if I were ever blessed with good fortune, I’d own one. Whether I like it or not, I know that it reflects something of who I am.

On May 3, 1999, my new 911 Carrera Coupe was delivered to our home in Riverside California. Upon first seeing it, aware of the significance of the moment, I thought,  “this is cool.”  Aware of the significance of the moment, I also said a little prayer.

Epilogue: I still own the Porsche, which has only 34,000 miles on it. Living in the mountains now, it is garaged and covered all winter long, with a trickle charger on the battery. I’ve driven it very fast on two occasions, both on highway 62 in Southern California—not a good road to speed as I did, by the way—the road undulates and one cannot see sections of it as you fly over a hill. I drove this road once at 130 mph and another time at 140 mph. I slowed down the second time when Karen hollered, “that is enough!” The telephone pole’s looked like a picket fence as we blasted by them. The car gripped the highway like I’d never experienced. Also, on a 4000 mile loop around the West, Karen and I cruised the back roads across Wyoming, Idaho and southern Oregon at around 100 mph. It was great fun. I seldom do that any more…but I still have my moments…thinking, “this is cool.”

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