My first old car
I bought my 1982 Porsche 924 in April 2021. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, during lockdown, making some proper income after leaving grad school, and working at a fully remote job, I thought it might be a good time to dive into a longtime dream of mine.
Although I had never heard of the Porsche 924 before, I first saw one for sale and absolutely fell in love with the photos. I learned that the 924 was “bottom of the barrel” as far as the Porsche marque goes, but in a weird way that made it even more attractive to me, for reasons I’ll go into later. Of course, most importantly it meant a 924 was affordable.
Buying the car was a strange experience for me. Knowing so little about what I was diving into, I made the purchase on a gut feeling.
Dreaming about owning a vintage Porsche 911 for many years now, this felt like the first concrete step I took in the “classic” car life. It required a very substantial investment: the cost of the car, a first set of tools, the inevitable cost of parts, the space of a massive brick in my 1 car garage, and most of all, untold hours of time — all to service a deeply impractical hobby with little real-world benefit.
I felt visceral fear and anxiety that I would fail at achieving a dream. But almost as a snap decision, I decided that the pride of making the attempt would be worth more than the pain of failure. This still remains to be seen.
To get my Porsche 924 on the road, I would have to do a number of repairs. The first was replacing a rusted fuel tank with a refurbished replacement fuel tank. On the 924, this requires dropping the exhaust pipe, detaching the rear axles, dropping the transmission, and finally removing the fuel tank. Having never removed a bolt on any car before, this would be trial by fire.
I rented a U-Haul pickup and auto trailer, dragged my 924 back home, and with a bit of help I rolled it into my cramped garage.
In the evenings after signing off of work, I grabbed a socket wrench and crawled under the car.
In the early 70s, Porsche (actually an engineering consultancy firm) was hired by Volkswagen to develop a sports car. By reusing components that were mass-produced for use in VW and Audi vehicles, the prototype was economical. But in the midst of an oil crisis, VW decided not to invest in a new sports car, leaving the designs with Porsche.
This new design was radically different from the vehicles that had made Porsche famous. Porsche cars had engines in the rear, but this one had the engine up front. Porsche engines were air-cooled, but this one was water-cooled. Porsche cars were known for performance, but this one had a rather meek engine previously used on an small Audi truck.
For all of the aforementioned reasons, Porsche cars were distinctive, while this one was similar to every other economy car on the road. But for whatever reason, Porsche adopted the new design into their lineup and dubbed it the 924, a successor to the Porsche 914.
Although it was a successful commercial product, the Porsche 924 was never respected by the Porsche community. With the later introduction of a 924 turbo, and eventually the 944, Porsche committed to this paradigm-shifting design, and those models gained more appreciation. But as a result, most 924s simply languished. Including the one I bought.
It took a few months, but I eventually got the fuel tank replaced, and the car running.
Driving it for the first time gave me shpilkes. An initial feeling of ecstatic pride rather quickly gave way to nervousness and anxiety. It wasn’t running well at all. The engine ran weakly. Driving without plates or registration on a public road, the engine sputtered out (thankfully it started back up). It became obvious that I was far from done.
I replaced the fuel filter, changed the spark plugs. I got a new battery and a proper hold-down for it. As I struggled to do these basic tasks, I kept driving the car on the short street in front of our house. Once, in 2nd gear, the car jerked and just died. Panicked, I tried to push the car the fifty or so meters back into my driveway. Neighbours I had never previously spoken to saw me struggling, and offered to help me push it back. That was a stressful little episode! Afterwards, I realized it was because the battery got slightly disconnected. What a disaster.
After a few more tweaks, like fixing the broken odometer (a common failure for these cars), I became somewhat confident that it might be able to drive short distances. So I towed it to a local mechanic seeking the safety certification necessary to get license plates. I knew it didn’t run right, but at least it ran, and without it trapped in my garage, I could more easily show it to mechanics.
The certification failed. A number of flaws were identified: seized brake calipers, poorly installed brake lines, a radiator fan not running, rusted and disintegrating suspension parts, and more. Lifted on the hoist, light was shined on the amount of the rust under the car.
The mechanic said my 924 probably needs a full restoration, but he asked, is it worth it?
Why do I even bother? What can possibly be so appealing about old cars? I am not really a car fanatic: I am very happy driving a 2010 Toyota Corolla as a primary vehicle; I even believe that public transit is more important than new roads. But there is something about the sight of an old car on the road that I have always deeply admired.
Part of the appeal is engineering simplicity and the pure analog experience. Not only do these old cars not have built-in navigation, they don’t even have anti-lock braking, or power steering. There is a beautiful minimalism in a vehicle that was designed not necessarily for comfort or luxury, but simply for driving.
Another part of the appeal is the economy of keeping an old car on the road. Like all machines, these cars wear out over time, and most will end up in junkyards. Doing the necessary maintenance and replacing parts as needed is an affront to the prevailing “discard and replace” attitude of our consumer culture.
Finally, old cars hark to a bygone time. To me, an old car is an ambassador to its decade, serving as an emblem of the prevailing social and political attitudes of the time. Robbie Pyle describes the experience of driving an old car as “time traveling,” making the car itself the time machine.
As someone who has lusted over the Porsche 911 for years, watching their prices climb ever upwards has been demoralizing. It feels like an old 911 is a status symbol, and with their incredibly distinctive design, it makes a lot of sense. But to me it feels like it has lost some of what makes it “classic”.
But as the ugly duckling of the Porsche brand, the 924 does not signify affluence. Instead, to me it crosses the threshold into an “old economy” car. It is a car that is loved for its own sake, rather than for the sake of external status.
The naturally aspirated (non-turbo) 924 has a relatively simple engine and lacks many features designed for comfort. By retaining much of the engineering minimalism I described earlier, this also makes it somewhat easier to work for a beginner like myself. As I foray into old car ownership, it feels like a great place to start.
Above all, I think it looks stunning. The body is sleek, contoured, and geometric. Unlike the iconic and distinctive 911, the 924 is understated and humble. Most fun of all, it has pop-up headlights that will ensure you never forget this car is from the 1980s, a time long before smartphones and the internet became ubiquitous.
In getting the chance to pursue this dream of mine, I am deeply thankful for a lot of things. First of all, YouTube. For almost every task I need to accomplish, there are step-by-step instructions, often times specifically performed on a similar vehicle. But most of all, I am extremely lucky to have a life situation where its feasible for me to undertake this huge investment of time and money. The primary cause for this opportunity is privilege that I never earned, and I’m certain that many people who meet or exceed my passion never get the chance I am taking now. I support political efforts to reduce inequality primarily for the reason that I believe it should be a luxury for no one to fulfill one’s dreams.
But I am not sure if I’ll succeed in my project. It has become clear that my 924 is not in great condition, and it might not receive sign off on a safety inspection without a level of continued investment that would be infeasible for me. At the moment, I feel closer to the feeling of failure than I do to the feeling of success, and that is difficult to face up to.
Despite that, I am pressing on. Every day I’m learning new things about how these machines work. And even though the process of taking the car apart and putting it back together has a lot of stressful moments (in particular, broken or stuck bolts), I feel an unreasonable amount of satisfaction whenever I make any kind of progress.
It is intimidating to pursue a dream, because failing at it means the loss of a part of what has shaped you. But for now, I’m proud of myself for trying, and I haven’t failed yet.