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Friday
Jul142017

An Enigma Wrapped in Carbon Fiber

By William G. Sawyer, Contributing Editor

All photos © Motor Classic & Competition Corp.           

The Carrera GT began as a V10-powered Le Mans racer known as the 9R3 that was cancelled to pay for the Cayenne SUV that made certain the company was financially sound.Military buffs are aware of the Enigma Machine, the tool the Nazis relied upon to encrypt sensitive messages. Sixty years after World War II the Germans designed another Enigma Machine, this time a motorized version that has, to date, failed to achieve its rightful place in the pantheon of modern day supercars.

In 1998 a Porsche GT-1 was victorious at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a race I was fortunate to attend. It marked the last time the Stuttgart team contested the top class for 16 years, despite rumors of a new Le Mans contender under development. That car, designated the 9R3, was originally to be powered by the 3.2 liter twin turbo flat six of the GT-1. Considered overweight and underpowered, Porsche engineers replaced it with a V10 Formula One engine Porsche designed but abandoned in 1992. Enlarged to 5.5 liters and modified for endurance use, it was intended to debut in the 9R3 in 2000. Corporate necessity closed the project down after only 2 days of testing when management deemed that all spare cash and engineering talent be devoted to readying the Cayenne SUV for production. It proved to be a prescient, unpopular decision, credited with saving Porsche from financial ruin.

A stout 612 hp stuffed into a carbon fiber chassis and featuring a suspension designed for the race track.But this was Porsche, a company unlikely to allow SUVs to dampen their sports car passion for long. A re-bodied 9R3, clad in body work meant to emulate the 718 RS Spyder of the early Sixties, was an immediate success when it debuted as the Carrera GT concept at the Paris Show in 2000. It didn’t take long to decide to reward Porsche enthusiasts mortified by the move to SUVs by building a near-race-car-for-the-street with a portion of those Cayenne profits.

The Carrera GT — Project 980 in Porsche-speak — debuted in 2004. 1270 cars were produced before production ceased in 2007. 664 made their way to the U.S., while a further 31 cars were sold in Canada. The Carrera GT was as different from its chief rival, the Ferrari Enzo, as the original Nurburgring is from Rome’s Via Veneto. The Porsche held true to its race car roots, an analog solution in a world enamored with computers. Devoid of paddle-shifters and electronic stability control, the Carrera GT is a demanding mistress, one capable of embarrassing a ham-handed poseur as he pulls away from a night club in full view of his A-List friends. The low rotational mass of the drivetrain, including a clutch the size of a personal-size pizza, tricks inexperienced drivers into either stalling or spinning the tires, an unforced error that that triggers traction control and will also shut the whole thing down. It’s best to ease off the clutch while avoiding the gas, letting the car creep away before adding throttle; not easy during the day-to-day stoplight grand prix. Otherwise you risk frying a clutch that will set you back $25,000 to replace. An inattentive driver may also learn that the dearth of electronic nannies makes it possible to over rev that magnificent 612 hp. engine, turning it into an expensive paperweight. That miniscule clutch and dry sump allow the crankshaft to sit a mere 3.9 inches above the carbon fiber floor. Incredibly, the 6 speed manual transmission actually sits lower than the differential. Thanks to that low center of gravity and carbon fiber chassis, the Carrera GT exhibits zero body roll, just like the race cars it was designed to compete against.

Beech wood shift knob pays hommage to the legendary 917, while the rich terracotta leather plays well against the contrasting trim.With all that going for it, why does Hagerty estimate Carrera GT values at $460,000-$746,000 depending on condition when its chief rival, the Ferrari Enzo, commands $2,250,000-$3,000,000 according to the same source? The unforgiving nature of the analog beast is one reason. The calculator on your tablet is easier to use than doing math in your head, and labels you as a techie rather than a Neanderthal, even though you know better. That shouldn’t impact decisions much since all but the most dedicated enthusiasts are unaware of the Porsche’s driving characteristics, and most collectors limit their driving to loading the car in a trailer on the way to the next show.

The clean, unadorned bodywork may be another reason. The design team led by Harm Legaay — a man known to campaign the vicious Shadow Mk. I Can-Am car in vintage racing — created a classic, elegant design that likely doesn’t appeal to the Hey-Look-At-Me crowd, despite a rear wing that deploys above 70 mph. But the real reason may be outright panic instilled by apparently unnecessary law suits.

Porsche’s top level performance cars have an unfortunate reputation as Idol Killers, following the deaths of two popular movie stars behind the wheel of their cars. Celebrity deaths attract the press like buzzards to carrion, and reputations are made by headlines, not fact.

The first accident, back in the Fifties, claimed the life of James Dean, who was surprised when a car pulled off a side street in front of him while he drove his 550 Spyder to a race up the California coast. The most recent occurred when Paul Walker perished in a Carrera GT driven by friend and partner Roger Rodas. Excess speed may have contributed to both accidents, although the Walker car may have been riding on its original nine year old tires. Porsche was later exonerated of responsibility in the Walker accident, but an endless string of appeals is likely. An earlier lawsuit, filed by the same lawyer as the Walker case, was more successful, resulting in a $4.5 million judgement. Ben Keaton and Corey Rudl perished during a Ferrari Owners Club event at California Speedway when Keaton smacked a concrete barrier while avoiding a Ferrari entering the track at a reduced speed. What most don’t realize is that the brunt of the responsibility was assigned to the Ferrari Owners Club and California Speedway, with Porsche assessed a mere 8% of the blame, equaling $360,000 of the multi-million dollar settlement.

Rear 3/4 view accentuates the length of the rear deck.Our reference vehicle is a 5,000 mile 2005 Carrera GT available from Motor Classic & Competition  in Bedford Hills, NY. Its metallic Basalt Black finish works well with the elegant Terracotta interior, and it’s sure to stand out in an endless sea of GT Silver Carrera GTs at the next car show. (Other available colors included Fayence Yellow, Guards Red, and Seal Grey.) It also sports the beech wood shift knob that pays homage to the wood knob of the venerable Porsche 917. An, if you’re lucky enough to see a Carrera GT in person, ask the owner to show you the “smugglers” compartment where valuables can be hidden out of sight. It’s doubtful you’ll find it on your own.

Porsche built a worldwide following building cars that reward drivers who seek the opportunity to thumb their noses at the laws of physics, and have the skills to get away with it. The Carrera GT carries on that tradition, earning it a place in the Virtual Collection.


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