The race driver’s other car
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The classic Porsche 911
What do professional racers drive when they’re off duty? Jensen Button may have a different answer — but Keith Sharp has a 1984 Porsche 911 in his garage.
His first foray into classics was with early MGBs, “which a lot of people scoff at, but I like them, and I’d own one again — they’re not performance cars, but very evocative of the 1960s era.”
Keith Sharp used to run the race-driver school at Pukekohe, and sold his Porsche 944 to get this 911. Picture/ Jacqui Madelin
Then he had a Porsche 944 he’d bought on impulse, a luxury sports car that got him interested in Porsche, “And the purists say you have to own a 911, so I sold the 944 and started looking for an air-cooled car.”
These were the real hairy-chested tail-happy 911s, and replacing air cooling with water in 1998 made those air-cooled cars a bit sought-after. “I saw this one on Trade Me. It was badly photographed, so I ignored it until one Saturday when I had nothing to do, so I called him. He also had a Cosworth Sierra — something like that — and his wife had told him he had to sell one.
“He’d done a lot of mods, put a short-shift kit in, Bilstein suspension, aftermarket torsion bars and a Motronic performance chip, he’d spent a lot of money on it. He’d have sold it if those bits were in the ad, and I had the feeling he didn’t want to sell it, so I made him shake on it. I went back the next day with a bank cheque and he offered to let me off the deal, he wanted to call it quits.” Keith didn’t, though.
“I felt a bit mean.”
When he says, “I bought it because I’m passionate about driving, it’s been my life,” he’s not kidding.
“I used to run the race-driver school at Pukekohe. I started a racing driver school with Formula Fords, and ran about eight Formula Fords. It morphed into an advanced driver school, now the National Driving School.
“When I sold it we’d trained over 30,000 New Zealanders — fleet driver training, corporate days. I was racing at the same time. I went from Formula Ford to driving an Alfa for Mollers in the Shell NZ saloon car champs, then Group A, Mobil 500 and all that. I was a Castrol-sponsored driver in a BMW M3, the golden era of motor racing, with top European drivers coming over.”
He ended up training test drivers in the US, then Australia, teaching the vehicle dynamics engineers to drive on the car’s limit, while still keeping enough brain power in reserve to evaluate the vehicle and deliver feedback once they’d parked up.
All that means he really does know what he’s talking about when he describes the appeal of owning a car like this: “Modern cars, you’re completely insulated from the driving experience. The development is to be applauded, and it’s one reason the road toll is coming down, but because I like driving I want to feel in touch with the road.This car is like that, it’s agricultural, it’s not easy to change gear, it’s a harsh ride, but you really feel you’re driving it.”
That said he hasn’t raced it, though he did race a 1996 911 for a while, the first car he competed in that he owned himself. And he doesn’t work on it either. He has a car to drive it, not for the joy of fettling it.
“All I’ve done is wash it,” and get the gearbox rebuilt by Peter Booth — “a fascinating man who knows all there is to know about Porsche” — as it was a bit notchy.
“These early 911s had the 915 five-speed gearbox, which was quite difficult to use, then Porsche designed a brand-new G50 gearbox [a Getrag, arriving in 1987]. The late ’80s car is easier to use, but that’s not the point for me. I’m not a masochist, but I want it to be a challenge to use. And this is a lighter gearbox — and weight is everything in a performance car.”
That said, “Your modern hot hatch would blow the doors off it.” Porsche claimed 6.3 seconds for the zero to 100 time for this 3.2-litre flat-six engine, as compared to 4.9 for today’s Golf R, or 6.5 for a Golf GTI. “But that’s not all of it, it’s the pleasure of driving it, and the character.”
This car started its life in Scotland, and immigrated to the South Island about 20 years ago, before moving north. It doesn’t get driven a lot now.
“I’ve never driven it further than the Leadfoot Festival, Sunday drives up round Woodhill, stuff like that. I keep saying I should sell it, I don’t drive it enough. You can’t just hop in it to pop to the dairy, it needs warming up,” though maintenance isn’t a problem if you keep on top of it.
“But my wife says if I sell it I’d moan about it. I’d regret it, like the guy I bought it from.”
Keith drives a more sensible Toyota for everyday errands. But every time he clambers aboard, he’s reminded about how good that relationship between car and driver can be.