Porsche Carrera RS

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As adept at crossing continents in a single bound as storming Le Mans, this Weissach icon may be the ultimate sports car. Can a replica be as good?

Words: Andrew Frankel. Photography: Ian Dawson

There are purer forms of motoring pleasure than howling across mountains in a 1973 Porsche 911 Carrera RS, but not many. A Ferrari F40 would be more thrilling, a Bugatti Type 35B more involving and a McLaren F1 far faster. But you can spot the flaw: these cars are not just unaffordable, they are unapproachable. And if you had one, would you actually use it? The same could not be said of the RS, the most sublime variant of the most iconic sports car of all time.

You could expend an ocean of ink on the legend of the RS, and many have. But actually I reckon it’s pretty simple: it’s the most complete sporting car ever created. Powerful words, I know, but allow me to justify them. The thing with the RS is that, whatever form your automotive interest takes, its designers appeared to have your interests at heart.

Let us say you’re an aesthete: then you’ll struggle to deny that, from the vertical air-dam at the front to the kicked up duck tail spoiler at the back, the RS is a visual masterpiece. These elements wouldn’t work on their own, but they combine to create a car of simple, breathtaking beauty.

Or perhaps all you want to do is make a lot of noise and go fast. Then you must believe that Porsche’s air-cooled flat-six never sounded better when sized at 2687cc and installed in the back of an RS. It spins so freely you wonder if it actually has a flywheel at all. And it’s quick: Paul Frère got one to 60mph in 5.5sec on his way to 149mph. And that was 33 years ago.

Maybe, in fact, your interest lies in the corners. Then you’ll rarely be happier than when cranked over in a quick curve, the RS’s steering wheel gently writhing in your hands giving you every last detail of every last bump in the road surface. And you’ll like the 911 challenge: only proper drivers will ever get the most out of an RS. It is not an easy car to drive, thanks to its unforgiving nature on the limit, but this is the sign of a thoroughbred. If you bother to learn its ways and drive it properly, it will never, ever bite. What it will do is reward the time you have invested in it with a level of driver interaction that is almost impossible to find these days.

Except you live in the real world. Your sports car must be more than just fast and beautiful, it has to be usable. And what sports car was ever more usable than this? Narrow enough to thread through city streets, capacious enough to take your shopping (and your children if you specify rear seats) and, above all, reliable enough to sit all day in heavy traffic or to cross continents without you having to worry about whether it will actually get there or not.

But no. You’re a purist. You believe reputations are made not on the road, but on the track. Well, was there a road car more successful in competition over a longer period of time than the 911? No sir, there was not. It was winning all over the world in general and its class at Le Mans and the Monte Carlo rally in particular long before it evolved into the RS. And in racing 2.8 and 3-litre RSR form it won the European GT Championship three years in a row from 1973-75 in a show of such utter dominance that if you found the results tables for each year, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were looking at a one-make race series. It also won the last proper Targa Florio in 1973 and the Daytona 24-hours in ’73 and ’75. There was no Daytona 24-hours in 1974 so the RSRs that raced in the US had to contend themselves with the Trans-Am and IMSA champion-ships, ending an era of Corvette domination. And it would doubtless have continued in similar vein had the rules not been changed to favour the Americans once more. It also came fifth overall and won the GTS category at Le Mans in 1975.

Together these factors perhaps explain some of the RS legend. But there is more to it; these cars are also incredibly rare. Originally, 500 were to be built to homologate them for racing, but these sold in a month. In the end, a total of 1580 were constructed, with less then 10 per cent coming to the UK in right-hand-drive form. Consider how many have been crashed or simply rotted away thanks to their ungalvanised body shells and you perhaps have an idea of their scarcity.

Herein lies the only serious problem of the 2.7 RS: the world has woken up to them and prices have sky-rocketed in the last five years. Back then you could have picked up a lovely 2.7 RS for around £35,000; late last year the owner of the example seen here turned down an offer of £85,000.

You may now be wondering why there appear to be two 2.7 RSs on these pages. The answer is simple: one is real, the other a fake. The question is, can you tell which one? 

The replica is a 911 alright, albeit it’s rather more blue-collar than blue-blooded, and it’s here because, so the theory goes, if it’s been done properly it should offer the vast bulk of the RS’s appeal for a fraction of its cost – about a third in this case. This one is based on a 1981 911SC, so it has a galvanised bodyshell and should be a lot more rot-resistant than the original.

Because the RS is now such an legend, and because imitation remains the sincerest form of flattery, RS-alike reps are becoming increasingly common. Autofarm makes lovely examples and charges accordingly while Paul Stephens puts his own spin on the genre with his RS PS Classic. The car we are using was converted about four years ago by someone who is no longer in the business, but was checked out and supplied by historic 911 rally specialist Francis Tuthill Ltd. “There are lots of good looking RS-reps out there,” says Richard Tuthill. “But many of them are hiding horror stories. Because they look so good, it’s easy to be fooled into buying a cosmetically convincing car that’s actually in a terrible state under the skin. The critical thing is the shell – if that’s OK, everything else is straight forward and affordable to put right.”

This rep, despite appearances, is mechanically all SC, not that this is a bad thing at all. Its 3-litre engine is known for its near indestruct-ibility and offers 204bhp compared to the RS’s 210bhp and slightly more – and more accessible – torque: 197lb ft at 4300rpm compared to 188lb ft at 5100rpm. Better still, SCs can easily be tickled up to RS output with a pair of triple-choke Webers and a freer flowing exhaust. And there’s not even much difference in weight: a genuine lightweight RS should weigh 960kg, but most are Touring models converted to look like lightweights and will come in somewhere between that figure and their original 1075kg. The SC, meanwhile, weighed 1160kg before its heavy impact resistant bumpers were removed, its interior stripped and its seats replaced with lightweight buckets, so it probably now weighs something similar to what a RS Touring weighed then. On paper it should be able to stay with the RS… But what about reality?

I climbed into the RS first because, well, you would, too. The driver’s seat offers a fabulous view: one large rev-counter dead ahead, red-lined at 7200rpm, all other dials displaced to the side-lines. Ahead the wings stretch forward, pointing the way up the mountain road ahead. As speed builds, all the eccentricities of this era of 911 contrive to make this a drive like no other. The floor-hinged pedals, super-light yet ever so informative steering and the slow, rather vague but inimitably 911 action of the gearlever are key points of 911 recognition.

As, of course, is the way it goes. By 2006 standards, this entirely stock RS still feels quick, which is surprising until you realise that, in fact, its power to weight ratio is not dissimilar to that of a brand new Cayman S. And the snarl of that engine, so smooth, so pure and yet so savage is something that lives on in the brain. But it is the precision with which the car steers, coupled with its diminutive dimensions that make it an outstanding road car, even by modern standards. You can drive it down lanes at speeds you’d never consider in a modern, wide-bodied 911 for fear of snagging it on something coming the other way. And the way the steering talks through your fingers makes you realise just how numb and unresponsive modern steering systems are.

And it is entirely faithful unless you’re stupid with it. Snap the throttle shut while on the limit through a damp 70mph curve and I don’t doubt it will go flying off the road – which,  incidentally, is all you’d deserve. But if you respect it, keep your foot on the throttle and trust the steering to tell you what to do, the RS will never let you down.

It was with a sense of trepidation that I stepped out of the RS into the replica. It looked so convincing that it took the owner of the RS to point out the one area, common to almost all RS replicas, where its body differs to his. It has something to do with the rear wings and, for now, that’s all I’m saying.

Inside the view is predictably similar, but the sound is not. The 3-litre engine is gruffer than the 2.7, and not quite so rev-happy. But the biggest contrast is the manner in which their power is delivered: while the RS needs to be kept between 4000-6500rpm to do its best work, the SC engine does it all at least 1000rpm lower down the scale. It makes the car easier to drive hard but you lose the searing howl of the RS motor at high revs so ultimately it’s less rewarding.

It’s also not quite so delicate to drive, though you always have to be careful not to ascribe to an entire genre of car the characteristics of one example that may or may not retain anything approaching factory chassis settings. But in this case the replica felt firmer than the RS, a shade grippier too, but less communicative. Its gearbox was not quite as slick as that in the RS but its brakes were considerably better.

Looked at objectively, all the cards lie in the replica’s hand. It looks so good it’s my very great hope that a reasonable number of you will still be wondering which one it is. It’s at least as quick as the RS in a straight line and quicker through the corners and under braking. And a properly sorted replica like this costs about one third of the price of the real thing.

But there’s not much place for objectivity in a tale like this. However great the replica is, it is and always will be at best a clever fake. But the RS is the real deal, and while it is only slightly but significantly better to drive, it has a sense of occasion that no replica, however good, could ever match. It is authentic, it is one of the few and it is a masterpiece. 

But what I will say is that if your funds won’t stretch to an RS, a properly executed replica is not only a damned good substitute, no proper Porsche person will turn their nose up at it. As Steve Kevlin of the Porsche Club of Great Britain told me; “these replicas can be great cars and we welcome them to the club.”

So how can you tell the replica from the real car? It’s all in the rear wheelarch: the vertical edges of standard SC rear arches are even from front to back; those on an RS are slightly tapered. 

Which is which? I’ll spare you trial by magnifying glass: the real Porsche 911 Carrera RS is… orange.

Competition success

1973

European GT Championship

Targa Florio

Daytona 24-hours

1974

European GT Car Championship

Trans-Am and IMSA Championships

2nd overall in Safari Rally

1975

IMSA Championship

European GT Car Championship

Le Mans class win