The Joy and Agony of Driving a Radioactive Isotope, an Old Porsche

It’s funny how at one point in my life, any car I owned that wasn’t under dealer warranty was too risky for me to have as a daily driver. I would trade in a car after only one year of owning it if I put so many miles on it that the warranty was up. Getting to work was so critical, I felt anything that jeopardized the prospect of making it was unacceptable. Definitely funny how life changes. That strategy cost me a small fortune. And it was very easy to justify it at the time.

My life is a bit different now. It’s not that I don’t have important places to be and that it is any less important that I get there. But there is now a different equation in play. It also matters how enjoyable the journey is. Not that it was never a consideration – I like nice cars – don’t get me wrong! But the economics now cannot be as utterly ridiculous as they once were, at least in magnitude. The economics now have a more healthy balance of risk and cost. That is the big shift. I’ve learned that allowing for a bit of risk is not only less expensive, but it can also add some enjoyment and richness to a life that has erred to the side of being too predictable. And boring.

So I now daily drive a car that is rather akin to a radioactive isotope. It’s a 1986 Porsche 944. It’s old. And unstable. The analogy between car and radioactive matter is that in both cases something is either already broken and getting worse, or about to break. It’s just a matter of time.

Now, you may think I’m fairly certifiable at this point. And I don’t think I have much to dispute your claim. But I will say that driving has gone from a fairly enjoyable event to being a very consuming and concentrated pursuit. I can’t take anything for granted anymore. When I drive, I’m intently listening to the mechanicals of the car to continually assess the condition of the car. My mind is always trying to diagnose the maladies that I can already hear. Even the simple things on normal cars are very different than on old cars. I have to turn off my turn signal indications manually after executing a turn or they stay on, rather like a motorcycle. But only for left turns. I recently determined that my motor mounts must be rather perished and in need of replacement due to excessive vibration. It’s taken me three months to diagnose it. My first day of really driving my car in the rain allowed me to see that I’ve got about 6 major points of water ingress into my cabin beyond the one major one I’ve already repaired! There is a leak that puts water right onto the driver’s seat! And there is quite a nasty creak each time I execute either a hard left or right turn (probably steering tie rod ends which I have in hand to replace soon).

Driving has become a very conscious act now. One that always has a sense of occasion. One that is never to be taken for granted. One that is to be appreciated as a success each time I arrive at my destination. What is comical is that the act of paying attention to my car is now everything for me that it seems most people have worked so hard to prevent! Lexus and Toyota and Honda have built a brand around eradicating these concerns from life! And I used to be at the far end of that extreme (in some ways, at least, having never owned a car from any of those brands).

I’ve always loved the act of driving. But I’ve not fully understood what it means – and probably still don’t. But I’m getting closer each day. My crazy car is bringing me to enlightenment.

I don’t even have a working speedometer! Talk about needing to pay close attention to nuance and detail! I’ve had to benchmark my speed at certain RPMs in certain gears, often via the helpful signs police departments leave on the side of roads that have radar speed assessment built in. I can tell you that I’m at about 30mph when in third gear near 2,000 rpm. 40mph is fourth gear at 2,000 rpm. 70 is fifth gear at nearly 3,000 rpm. Depending on which wheels and tires I have on. The different circumferences change all these numbers yet again. Do I miss knowing my speed? Is it “dangerous” – as one police officer once told me? Race cars don’t have speedo’s. It doesn’t seem to create more crashes, mysteriously I’ve found that I really don’t need one either. When was the last time you were really in tune with the real mechanicals of a car this intimately?

I have yet to decipher the climate control system in my car. At first glance it looked rather simple. A dial with a blue dot (must be “cold”) and then numbers between 18 and 30 (temp in Celsius maybe?). There are a couple of sliders that have graphic blocks under them that go from dark to light that must regulate the amount of airflow in two locations – up and down maybe? All this sounds logical, but when the dial is set to the blue dot and it’s cold out, the heat still comes on. Seems illogical, but funny enough it feels right too. So right in fact that I’m rarely tempted to educate myself on the true function of the dials and knobs. As long as it’s working, who cares? Giving up control to karma like this is not my norm, for sure, but it does have a good feeling to it.

But I must accept that the half life of my little isotope is, in fact, limited and that it will give up the ghost in a serious way at some point. My last PCA track day saw 944’s break in each of my run groups. And a recent SCCA RallyX video showed a 944 on a trailer home after the timing belt broke – that won’t buff out. I’ll certainly be more than a little sad if something major happens soon. And I’m going to fight to make sure it won’t happen any time soon. And I do hold out some irrational hope it won’t happen to me. But I do have to respect the mortality of Copenhagen, the blue 944. She is very unlikely to last forever. Like the Chinese proverb, though, “person who thinks they have no disease die tomorrow, person known to have one disease live forever.” I know Copenhagen is far from indestructible. And that may save her for a long time to come.

In the meantime, I’ll be doing tie rods soon. And motor mounts. And sunroof seal. And constantly thinking about when to do the next oil change. And worrying about the next timing belt change and tension adjustment more than any 996 owner worrying about an IMS bearing ever has.

But I’ll have these thoughts to rattle around in my head every time I turn the key. And it will drown out many of the other superfluous things in life that constantly vie for attention.

As a driver, I don’t want it any other way. If a half life is all I get, I’ll take it.

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