WINTER IN SCOTLAND IS AWAY TURF FOR A CONVERTIBLE PORSCHE. BUT WHEN ITíS A 911 SPEEDSTER, YOU TAKE YOUR OPPORTUNTIES...
O PPORTUNITY. IT ARRIVED as an ordinary press invite, if being asked if I wanted to join Porsche UK at Langley Castle, Northumberland, to drive its most focused open cars can rightfully be described as ordinary. The location piqued my interest as much as the cars. Northumberland was a quick dash to the Scottish Borders, to roads I drove frequently as a kid. The cars, and specifically a car, had a sizeable bearing, too, Porsche promising to have a 911 Speedster in attendance. Ever since the launch Iíd been looking for an excuse, absolutely any excuse, to drive it again.
It would be busy; the Speedster being used as part of a regular press event. Other people would want to drive it, rightfully so. Still, nobody would be mad enough to drive it through the night, right? Itíd be sat outside, idle, while everyone slept. A loose plan is formed: a border run, at night, on roads I love, to my old hometown, Edinburgh. A hook, not that it was needed: the Cannonball restaurant by Edinburgh Castle Ė a Cannonball run if you like Ė which, coincidentally, is located at 356 Castleview, a number thatís significant if you know your Speedsters.
Photographer Richard Pardon is game, though an injured back, not to mention too fine a hairstyle to ruin with a woolly hat means heíll be following in a Macan.†Preparations are scant. I pack thermals, hat and gloves, and drive the 400 kilometres to Northumberland to collect Porscheís last hurrah for the 991 series 911.†Iím knackered, itís cold, and thereís talk of rain. Even so, Edinburghís only 160 kilometres further north, via sensational roads, and Iím in Speedster 305 of the 1948 built. With the roof down.
Itís a curious specification, this car. The seats are electrically adjusted every which way, but nobodyís checked the option to heat them. Usually Iíd happily do without warming. Indeed, the Speedsterís a car best experienced with the standard Sports buckets where warmed buttocks arenít even possible. Thereís no Sport Chrono, either, while the headlights are the standard items, rather than Porscheís Dynamic Light System. Like seat heating, theyíll be missed tonight, as their ability to turn night into day would no doubt have been useful.
There are stars in the sky above as we leave one castle to drive to another. Itís dark here, but itíll get more so.†Kielder Water and Forest Park isnít far, and itíd be remiss of me not to take the Speedster through it. Kielder might be familiar if youíve watched rallying, ĎKiller Kielderí more often than not dictating the result of Britainís round of the World Rally Championship back in the day. As a schoolboy I used to rush home from school to watch VHS recordings of Mikkola, Blomqvist and Vatanen wrestle Group B monsters through Kielder, and, latterly, the likes of McRae, Burns and Sainz, in the Group A cars that replaced them.
Kielder has a fearsome reputation, one thatís not lost on me as Iím driving through it in a part-composite-bodied car with more than 370kW going to the rear wheels only. If it was dark leaving Langley, itís on another level of inky blackness here. The headlights do their best to light the road ahead but their reach is limited not just by the freakish darkness, but the road itself, undulating, twisting and turning as it follows the busy topography that defines this part of Britain.
Apparently Kielder Water is to my right, not that I can see it, the sat-nav screen informing me itís there. The road highlighted alongside it is single track, with passing areas. Itís damp and cold, yet the Speedsterís Dunlop Sport Maxx Race 2 tyres are finding bite,†giving incredible traction in difficult conditions.†Here, the visceral element of the Speedster is raised to new levels. Iím feeling my way down the road, my eyes transfixed and focused within the limited reach of the headlightsí beams, the available grip communicated through the steering wheel and the seat. Thereís more purchase than Iíd anticipated in such conditions.
Itís just three degrees, and the traffic on these roads is usually forestry and agricultural, with the inevitable detritus flung from their off-road tyres creating a slippery sheen between rubber and tarmac.
Itís perhaps not the obvious environment in which to drive a limited-series, deliberately compromised, focused open-topped car, then. Speedsters are more likely to be spotted in glamorous hot spots, under the summer sun, if driven at all. November, heading towards the Scottish Borders, is the absolute antithesis of that. Yet it works. In fact, the vast, dark solitude of Kielder reveals ever more about the Speedster; the delicate poise on offer from its chassis, the remarkable grip, the huge traction and, yes, the sound it makes. I recall the magnificent naturally aspirated 4.0-litre flat-six making a sound that had the capacity to permeate your soul on the launch event in Sardinia, but here, without any background interference, itís on another level altogether.
Thereís a familiar flat-six backing track thatís not so different from any of Porscheís naturally aspirated GT offerings. It plays a slightly different tune, though, and not just because youíre hearing it without a muffling roof, firewall, and glass between it and you. The exhaust is instrumental, literally, in the different tones emanating from behind me. The particulate filters, a necessary evil in these more environmentally conscious times, play their part, though they do little to mute it, this engine with huge character of rousing voice.
The thin, lightweight construction to offset those filtersí additional mass creates differing frequencies within the exhaust; this a flat-six that has a metallurgic, dare it be said, Italianate, zing to its pitch.
It sounds more exotic, more distinct than any of Porscheís flat-sixes before it. Thatís likely to become the norm as derivations of this engine and exhaust are fitted to future 992 GT3 and RS models, but for now, itís unique, and utterly captivating, signalling for miles around that thereís something special out in the dark.
That sound alone would be enough to have anyone wringing it out to its stratospheric 9000rpm redline at any opportunity, but combined with the unerring linear force that accompanies it, itís an adrenaline hit thatís impossible to resist; all the more so as itís orchestrated by one of the finest manual transmissions to feature in any car. The six-speed íbox is derived from the acclaimed 911R, and the shift quality is in the realms of otherworldly. Itís quick and light, yet thereís delicate precision across its gate. Itís pleasingly, reassuringly mechanical in its action. Add a clutch thatís beautifully weighted, and a brake pedal that you can feel has been honed to provide the perfect platform to roll off to blip the accelerator to rev-match when downshifting, and the Speedster is as immersive as driving gets. Auto blip? Who needs it?
It all seems so natural. The Speedster feels like it is hard-wired to my limbs, its interaction and physicality a reminder that, good as paddleshifted, electronically controlled transmissions are, nothing beats the pleasure of driving a good manual. The Speedster is a brilliant sports car. In fact, thereís a strong case to call it the best.
Kielder is vanquished, the sign for the Scottish border briefly illuminated in the headlights as, somewhat predictably, clouds fill the sky and the rain starts to fall. The roads widen, delivering more expansive tarmac no longer meandering quite so haphazardly, their flow more predictable, sight lines greater and the route not so heavily punctuated by big stops, sharp crests and tight switchbacks.
As brilliant as the Speedster has felt through the darkness of Kielder, the border roads better suit it tonight, at least in these sub-optimal conditions with the rain hammering down and plenty of standing water. Throw in an organic mulch of autumnal leaves littering great swathes of road tunnelled by the overhanging branches of Scotlandís plentiful borders woodlands and Iím busy behind the wheel.
Even with the weather continually deteriorating thereís no need, or desire, to stop and put the hood up. Velocity prevents precipitation from reaching the Speedsterís interior, even when sense, speed limits and the desire not to wake up sleeping locals, drop the numbers through the occasional, quiet Scottish village. The mileage on the signs for Edinburgh drops as the capital gets ever closer. Thereís traffic now at the cityís fringes, and the lights to ease the flow, which is fine if youíve a roof above your head. Even so, the familiarity of driving through my home cityís streets open to the elements is one thatís enjoyable, albeit in a masochistic way.
Itís after midnight, and with unnecessary but enjoyable diversions included, there are 180 more kilometres on the Speedsterís odometer. Thatís a number that many of its 1947 siblings might never see roll under their wheels, such is the obsession with delivery-mileage, limited-number Porsches. And thatís a genuine tragedy. The hour dictates empty streets, the castle, our needless destination, ahead. Somewhat serendipitously, Castleview is backlit in a Speedster-matching red, the hood thrown up to prevent the interior being wrecked by the now punishing rain.
Pardonís memory card sated, thereís a brief discussion about pressing on towards the driving nirvana that Scotland promises further north, but the Speedsterís needed back early, and that rain is turning to snow on the higher ground. Good as those Dunlops have proven, Iím not sure snow is in their remit. Reluctantly, then, the 911 is pointed south for the return leg, deviating off the route thatís brought us here, because every road in Scotland is worth exploring.
Scotland and the Speedster deliver the same intoxicating highs, this carís engagement forestalling fatigue and proving a stimulating, exciting and involving companion on familiar roads made difficult by record-breaking weather where a monthís rain has fallen in a day.
As I escape the confines of Edinburghís suburbs, the roof is dropped back down again. The Speedsterís at its best when itís driven as intended Ė even if, when Porscheís GT department boss Andreas Preuninger conceived it, he might not have had exactly the road trip or conditions Iím experiencing in mind. That itís so capable, so relentlessly quick and composed, so damned enjoyable, too, is testament to their good work in building it. Key to that is its interaction; the need to actually drive it properly, and the heady rewards that come when doing exactly that. Every one of the 1948 should be driven and enjoyed in such a manner.
Everyone should have the opportunity Ė even if itís just the once Ė on some old, favourite roads.
The Speedster is a brilliant sports car. In fact, thereís a strong case to call it the best
Model Porsche 911 Speedster
Engine 3996cc flat-6, dohc, 24v
Transmission 6-speed manual
Max power 375kW @ 8400rpm
Max torque 470Nm @ 6250rpm
Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4562/1852/1250/2457mm
0-100km/h 4.0sec (claimed)
PORSCHEíS HARDCORE SOFT-TOPS
The brainchild of US importer Max Hoffman, the 356 Speedster was built from 1955-58 and sold a healthy 3676 units. Range from factory comprised 44kW Speedster and 56kW S.
The 159kW Carrera Speedster of 1989 featured a sharply raked screen and humped tonneau cover. Build split between rare narrow body and more popular ĎTurbo Lookí wide-arched cars.
Porsche built 356 versions of the 997 Speedster in 2011. Buyers received a 300kW 3.8-litre atmo six, a sevenspeed dual-clutch íbox and a choice of Pure Blue or Carrara White paint.