05 February 2007

Reflections: Of Youthful Exuberance and the Search for Speed.


This past weekend Your Humble Scribe (YHS) was engaged in fleet maintenance of the various assorted vehicles assembled under his garage’s roof. Whilst pausing between oil changes (and silently cursing the designers and engineers who placed oil filters cheek-to-jowl with exhaust headers) he gave reflection to the variety of speedmobiles that have graced said premises over the years. Some were mightily beloved, a few less so, but only one ever earned the qualifier “The … From H377” Ah yes, that beast, the ’86 Porsche 944…

The Test Drive

Sometime back in the Pleistocene, before the scriblets were either born or out of knee breeches, YHS had the pleasure of owning/operating a 1st generation RX-7. Actually, this was the third in the line – the first having been procured in P-cola (Hey, what is flight pay good for if it isn’t for the care/feeding of a sports car?) and meeting an untimely demise while YHS was on his first deployment. Story for another time. The current version was a ’84 GSL-SE – top drawer with the 13b rotary that scared a few more horsepower out of the fuel-injected squirrels under the hood. Lovely car that like its predecessors, tended towards a “happy tail” (“Loose” in the NASCAR-vernacular, “Oversteer” to the string-back gloves set) and being a pleasure to drive at 6 or 7/10ths. Which was fine except that we wanted to find and test that demon that lived on the other side of the 80 mph marker (for you young ‘uns, speedos in the 80’s were restricted to 80 mph with the evil double nickel prominently displayed) and in that realm, loose was not good…

Being a freshly minted (not frocked) O-4 at this point and a few months into his first major staff job at CNAL, a serious case of sports car envy had smitten our hero. See, the office he worked in (headed by Fox Fallon, then just off his D-CAG tour) was heavily populated w/post command O-5s who were driving all manner of Porsches, BMWs or Mercedes’. The only other “JO” in the office, the CNAL LSO, tended towards SUVs, so somebody had to hold up JO honor, such as it was. The opportunity presented itself in the form of a Guards Red ’86 944 Turbo, a true beast, though not of the 930 variety which was stratospherically out of YHS’ price range, not to mention his bride’s, umm, indulgence (more on that later).

So, ‘twas a bright summer’s afternoon when the Scribe wheeled his gleaming steed into the Porsche dealer’s lot up on the Peninsula (playing hooky from the office – it *was* shore duty…) and after the usual exchange of pleasantries and banalities (“How fast have you driven?” “See the wings? I fly off carriers…”) off we went. Wasting no time upon joining the mere mortals in northbound I-64, our intrepid hero wound the tach up and started moving like a shark, no, verily like unto a barracuda through schools of fish, a broad smile upon his lips. Said reverie was quickly broken…

“You might want to check your speed”

Glancing down our poet-driver noticed the needle of the speedo buried well north of the noxious double nickel – in fact, well nigh double, the double nickel. About where the “80” was on the US-spec speedometers.

“Rats.” “Forsooth,” he thought. (No, it was something else, but we’re family friendly here).

Throwing out the drag brakes, he sought to get down to something less than “Go to Jail – Do Not Pass Go” speed when, of course, there appeared the duty, unmarked (naturally) Crown Vic going opposite. Checking six, he noticed brake lights and opted to make a rapid exit of the interstate. Several turns down, “shady” two-lane blacktops gave him the ample opportunity to sample the impressive handling (read: cornering) capabilities of the steed and he was mightily impressed. Dial in where you wanted to go and it went – no muss, no fuss, and no unexpected occurrences of the tail stepping out on you. Like you were on rails. The salesman, the whole time, was secretly enjoying himself (later found out he was an ex-Eagle driver from Langley-way and doing this only as a temp). When satisfied the trooper was not to be found, our crew headed back to the dealer with several lessons learned – primary of which was: Do not buy a red Porsche – when combined with the Scribe’s self-avowed lead foot it could prove lethal – to insurance policies and bank accounts.

So, being the bright, rational lad that he is (was), the Scribe settled on a dark blue 944, same vintage and only a few thousand more miles on the odometer. Previously mentioned bride was less than thrilled (who, btw, still does not know about the above adventure, unless of course, she reads this. In which case – “Hi hon – the statue of limitations has run out, you know…”). Utterly perplexed at the giving up of a trusty, reliable and fun to drive steed for a brutish, snorting beast with a heavy clutch to boot, her final words on the subject were along the lines of “Well, I hope you won’t have any problems with it…”

“Have you ever danced with the devil by the pale moon light?”

Well, the Scribe arrived at the office later that week, new (relatively new) 944 in tow to suitable murmurings from the powers that be and high-fives from the other O-4s (another victim had checked aboard in the interim). Life, as they say, was good. Which, said feeling, lasted exactly two weeks. Just long enough for a leak to develop in the upper radiator hose requiring replacement. Mentally figuring the cost for a new set of hoses and flush/fill, YHS calculated something on the order of ~$200 or so (Porsche labor had to be higher than Mazda labor, but hey, such is the burden of owning/operating prime German engineering…). Later that morning, the cropper came due in the form of a phone call estimate from the pirates, err, service writer. $789.

“Gadzooks” he exclaimed, forcefully, whilst arising from his desk. “This be highway robbery!” (Well, that approximates what was said) “Surely the warranty will over it, right?”
“Yes, if it was the oil cooler that failed.”
“It wasn’t the oil cooler that failed, it was the gaskets”
“Because it was the gaskets, the warranty will not cover it” (gaskets were explicitly mentioned – lesson learned)
“… …”

Turns out that the water-cooled oil cooler had a nasty tendency for its gaskets to break down and either transferring oil into the coolant system or coolant into the oil system. The former required a new cooler, hoses, flush/fill – the whole nine-yards. The latter – a new engine. “Fortunately” this was only the former. Later that eve, said news went over like the proverbial lead balloon, made all the worse by the gleam in the bride’s eye as she knew she could have said “I told you so” and been perfectly justified – but drawing out just desserts even more by the withholding thereof.

“Life,” they say (whomever ‘they’ is) “is not a journey to the grave with intentions of arriving safely in a pretty well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming ... WOW! What a ride!” Life with what was becoming “The Porsche From H377” (TPFH) was, umm, colorful. Mechanical idiosyncrasies were constantly re-defined. The car had to be parked 24 hours before the engine could be worked upon w/o burning oneself (basically zero-clearance w/in the engine bay). The design of the windshield washer pump outlet was such that since it sat at the end of a long moment arm, was especially susceptible to vibration and breakage, mandating installation of a new pump (at $125 each) roughly every 6 months. Since part of YHS’ job required quarterly trips to Tinkertown (aka Tinker AFB, OK) home of the larger, less sophisticated version of the E-2, he became a regular at the world’s largest Porsche junkyard which lay just outside the back gate. Many was the time he watched with a certain venomous glee, another piece of vaunted Teutonic engineering arriving on the end of the hook, to be unceremoniously deposited in this final resting place.

The ultimate nail in the relationship’s coffin came some few years later when he had returned back in the fleet (this time with the Seabats of VAW-127). Just like the domesticated animal (read: cat) that senses just how far they can push their presumed human masters and then back off, the 944 had behaved itself for some few months. Warily sensing something was up, YHS took it in early for the major service that entailed removing/replacing the camshaft belts. See, one doesn’t screw around with camshaft belts for if they go, the bill would be mighty and the dictum from She Who Controlled The Purse to be rid of the beast. Once and For All. If YHS only knew…

Christmas Eve was cold and blustery that year. A pending deployment had thrown the Seabats into a frenzy of maintenance activity and since YHS was a PMCF NFO(Post Maintenance Check Flight –aka “Stunt Mole”) and notorious flight hour hound, he had volunteered to take the last flight which was a PMCF “C” (everything, including engine shutdown/feathering op check was to be done). In typical fashion, the crew briefed and waited for the plane to come back from the high-power. And waited. And waited. Launch time slipped one, then two, then three hours and the natives grew restless. Finally they launched and proceeded to the Hummer track to see what was what. By the time they returned, the spaces were virtually deserted except for the few maintenance personnel who remained to take the crews debrief. Having rather more to debrief than the front end, our intrepid scribe finally left the squadron spaces later to arrive in a cold, dark windswept lot. Looking ahead to the prospect of a warm hearth, home and pre-Christmas day meal, YHS turned the key to start the beast on its homeward journey.

At which point the beast performed the mechanical equivalent of extending the middle digit and refused to start. It wouldn’t even turnover.

Cursing under his breath, he headed inside the hangar to call for a tow. Of course, the hangar entrance was locked. The SDO, no fool, had hightailed it when the last of the crew had departed. This also being pre-cell phone age, the Scribe was left to walk the near mile over to the exchange and find a pay phone to call for a tow.

Flight suits are interesting creations. Designed, with appropriate layering of course, to protect one’s valuable skin from the flash of a fireball, they perform miraculously in the cold, biting wind that characterized Breezy Point during a Norfolk winter. Not. Said flightsuit readily transmitted, if not magnified, the icy cold of the wind. Not unlike dealing with flying razorblades.

The tow finally showed (2 hours later) and as he met his bride in the dealer’s lot for the ride home, he allowed as he would foreswear the touted joys of Teutonic engineering again – and in his best Chief Joseph said “I am tired of fighting.... from where the sun now stands, I will fight no more.”

Once again, the pirate’s call came although this time; they were forced to eat it. All $3700 worth of cylinder head rework, valve train replacement, etc. By this time though, the Scribe, much tired of dealing with this beast and knowing no one would partake, knowingly, of its presumed pleasures, resorted to fervent pleas to the Great Spirit of All Things Automotive to remove this pestilence from his sight. Preferably with no harm to the supplicant’s body in the process. Alas, it appeared the Great Spirit had other things on His mind and YHS settled into a daily routine of curses and remonstrations with said beast. Until…until the Friday before leaving for a 6 month deployment the following Monday. Whilst stopped and awaiting traffic to clear to make the turn off the main road into his neighborhood, TPFH was struck a might blow from behind by a mere Mazda Protégé (the Scribe is nothing if not a connoisseur of irony), destroying both vehicles in the process. Recovering from the shock of being hit, YHS exited the car, shaking granules of glass (from the rear hatch) from his personage, ascertained the driver who hit him was OK and turned to inspect TPFH. It was a mess, with its butt shoved well up to where the shoulders would be. Surprisingly, there was no leakage from the just filled gas tank. About that time it began to rain (who said the Great Spirit of All Things Automotive was bereft of humor) and who but the bride should appear. Taking in the whole of the scene – TPFH with its rear quarters shot to heck and gone and the Protégé destroyed from the firewall forward, the first remarks were “Was it your fault?”
“… …”

In view of the pending deployment, USAA dispatched an assessor post haste, who, the following day, pronounced TPFH to be D.O.A. In due course the beast was carted of to a well deserved thermal fate where today it exists as razor blades, dishwashers or electric toasters -- YHS knows not. What he does know is that each of those have given him fits since that time, making him wonder…


Before the beast was carted off to its just end, YHS prized the enameled Porsche emblem off its nose and today, keeps it and a handful of broken valves (they make great paperweights) on his desk at home as a talisman to ward off any resurgent desire to sample Teutonic engineering again. Since that time, the speed demon has been assuaged with a variety of American iron, the latest being a ’07 Mustang GT ‘vert, which sits warmly ensconced in the garage. A much beloved beast, she has the approval of the bride as well, who also enjoys taking the steed out to stretch her legs. Alas, the youngest Scribette, who has just garnered her Learner’s Permit, has a misguided notion that the steed will be hers to play and frolic with. Heh…