Stranded at the side of the road is never a good feeling, especially when you’re dealing with an unfamiliar and seemingly phantom electrical problem. I’ve driven my 1976 912E about 25,000 miles since I purchased it in August of 2016, and it’s been absolutely faultless in all that time. It’s a little finicky sometimes, but has never left me stranded. That is, until last weekend.
Last weekend, I attended the Driving While Awesome! Coastal Range Rally, which is an awesome point-to-point enthusiast rally with no timing or scoring. It’s been lovingly referred to as ‘Summer Camp for Big Kids’, because it’s three days of driving with about 100 of your favorite car friends. As with last year, I brought my trusty 912E for a weekend of awesome driving on awesome roads. This time, however, it briefly failed me.
Here’s what happened, and how we managed to pull out of it unscathed
Thursday morning I drove over to SFO, from my home base of Reno, Nevada, to pick up my co-driver Adam Hove -who flew in from San Diego for the event. I80 crosses the Sierras at over 8600 feet above sea level, and the snow was coming down inch after inch. The road was closed to all drivers without snow chains. Luckily I had a set in my Porsche’s Mary Poppins-esque front trunk, so I chained up and kept rolling. A few hours later I was parked up at SFO waiting for Adam, arriving just minutes after his plane landed.
That night we checked into our lodging and scooted into town for a relaxing coffee and a chat about what we were looking forward to in the coming three days. Once caffeinated, we climbed back aboard the good ship Porsche. That was when the problems began. No matter how long I would crank the car over, it would not fire to life. My 912 wasn’t particularly low on fuel, but it was on a slope, so we tried to rock the Porsche while cranking to see if the fuel pickup wasn’t working. The fuel pump was certainly running, but it was dark and our capacity for diagnostics was minimal.
Before tromping down the street to pick up a fuel can and a few extra gallons, I remembered that I’d brought a can of starting fluid, so we squirted a few dabs of that good juice into the intake trumpet, and my 912 fired to life. Hmmm, curious. The Porsche has been running finicky at low altitude since I got it, which I think is related to a vacuum leak that I have yet to trace down. It’s usually no more than a minor inconvenience, and had never caused anything like this. Oh well, time to motor on. By the end of the night, the non-start issue had evaporated. The Porsche fired like normal, and didn’t need starting fluid again. I bought a nearby AutoZone out of their stock, just in case.
Friday went off without a hitch, with maybe 10% of our stops for the day requiring a bit of starting fluid to get the little 2-liter rumbling and spitting to life. The roads were great, and the weather was chilly, but dry. We were having a riot giving this car the full beans. We’d started the day in Hollister, California and wound our way down some of the greatest driving roads the state has to offer to get to Paso Robles for our overnight stop. We went to sleep happy and tired that night. The camaraderie between rally attendees was stellar, and I was getting along great with my co-driver (which doesn’t always happen).
Saturday started with another cold but great day ahead
I handed the keys to Adam and had intended to let him drive for much of the day. We hopped across the Carrizo plain out to Soda Lake for a group photo, and then it was a short section up and down the twisty and curvy Highway 58 from Santa Margarita to McKittrick before lunch, so I requested the keys back for this section, one of my favorite driving routes. I was winding my way up the 58, pulling hard in fourth gear at 4500 rpm, hounded by one of the Sharkwerks cars behind, trying to keep up with a friend’s hot Carrera 3.2 ahead, when it happened. As we rounded the final corner of the uphill section and the road flattened out to the plateau before winding down again, the tachometer dropped to zero and the engine conked out. Fear gripped my soul tight as I coasted to the side of the dusty lonely road.
As happens when your Porsche breaks, a million possibilities flood your brain, and it’s impossible to think straight. After a half dozen other rally participants pulled over to help out, we set about attempting to diagnose the issue. There was a fuse burned out, but it was totally unrelated. We tried the starting fluid, and the 912 would stumble to life momentarily, pop, fart, and stumble back to slumber again. It was a curious case. Time for a test light.
We first set about checking that there was power to the coil, which there was. When we tested that the spark plug wires weren’t firing a spark, a pair of extremely kind women offered up the new spare Bosch coil from their 356. The new coil didn’t fix the issue, it would still stumble to life, then pop a bit and die again. Dejected, I began the process of calling AAA to get the 912 towed into town. There was one bystander who could get one bar of signal to his cell phone, and the call was placed.
Most of the folks who had stopped were saddling up again to rejoin the rally, leaving me to my flatbed truck fate. I said my thank yous and goodbyes and some of them helped push the Porsche to a more tow truck-friendly site. A few offered up snacks and bottles of water for our wait, and we settled in for the long roadside wait. One incredibly kind soul, fellow automotive writer Jason Cammisa, offered to stay behind to wait with us for the tow truck and continue diagnostics as long as we had nothing better to do.
Once it was down to just Jason, myself, and co-driver Adam, we set to work. We used a test light to see if the fuel injectors were firing, they were not. We swapped and re-swapped the ignition coil to no avail. We checked and re-checked the distributor cap and rotor, both in great shape. Figuring the worst, that the 912’s EFI computer had fried itself, we got a little down in the dumps for a bit. None of us had really much experience with this primitive mid-1970s mix of mechanical ignition and electronic fuel injection.
“Well, the only spares I brought are an ignition rotor, a set of points, and a set of spark plugs. We could just replace parts to see if it makes a difference,” I offered. We ruled out spark plugs, as all four wouldn’t go bad at once. The rotor seemed in good shape, but we replaced it anyway with no change. Enter the points. None of us had dealt with points before, but we quickly jumped in to figure it out. By putting the Porsche in gear and rocking it forward, we could see the curve of the distributor shaft and where the points follower should be riding. Even at the maximum point, the gap wasn’t separating at all. Problem found, lets get it out of there!
The follower is a little piece of delrin-like plastic that rides on the distributor shaft to push the points open and closed four times per revolution. The follower on the old set of points had bent over to the side, and wasn’t giving enough of a gap to create the spark. The points trigger is also what tells the computer to fire the fuel injectors, which provided us our confounding no-fuel issue. While none of us had any experience of how to set the points gap, the old hot-rodder’s addage of using a business card clamped between the two sides to set for optimal spark was ingrained into our collective brains.
Once the points were replaced and the ignition system was buttoned up again, we held our collective breaths as I climbed into the driver’s seat and hit the starter again. Ruh-ruh-ruh-pop-poppity-pop-brrrrrrrrrmmmmmmm. The Porsche fired right up and settled into its familiar uneven choppy idle. That was the biggest relief I think I’ve ever felt in my entire life. Jason urged me to get the 912 on the road as long as it was running, and we would stop in the next town to see if everything was running okay. I shoved the lever into first, and rumbled onto the pavement with trepidation. After about a mile of motoring, the Porsche felt stronger and more confidence inspiring than it had all week. As the weight eased itself off of my shoulders, I placed it on the accelerator. Jason followed behind in his Mercedes 190E 2.3-16v at a generous pace.
I had intended to call AAA to cancel the truck coming to pick us up, but we actually met the drivers coming down the hill. I waved at them, they waved at me, and we both pulled over to discuss the next steps. They were happy my Porsche was intact, we shook hands, and they went back to the shop with a fun story to tell. It probably cost me one of my AAA tows for the year, but it was worth it to not have to suffer the humiliation of seeing your vintage car sitting backseat on a flatbed.
The three of us, in two low-power German creations, caught up to the tail end of the rally participants as they stopped for lunch in Lebec once we’d found our way to the 5. For the rest of the day, and through Sunday, the Porsche ran flawlessly, giving us another day and a half of incredible roads with some incredible friends. For the second year in a row, CRR has proved to be among the best automotive events on my calendar. I’ll certainly be one of the first to sign up next year.
Once the rally was over, we were about 5-hours south of our starting point, so we still had quite a lot of driving ahead of us. Instead of just succumb to the boredom of the freeway, Adam and I decided we hadn’t had enough fun yet, and detoured down State Route 9 to Skyline Drive for a run up to the famous Alice’s Restaurant, then a sprint down LaHonda back to the highway. We stayed in San Francisco that night at a friend’s house, and I dropped Adam back at SFO. It was a whirlwind weekend, but one that I wouldn’t trade for anything, perhaps even because of the breakdown, rather than in spite of it. We got to experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows of vintage car ownership, and thankfully we were able to fix it and get back on the road without too much kerfuffle. Here’s to another 25,000 trouble-free miles.
[Some photos provided by Keiron Berndt]