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Cruising through Germany in three generations of classic Porsche 911s

CLASSIC CARS

A classic Porsche ride

Test-driving three generations of vintage 911s offers a dramatic cruise through a car-lover's dream

This is what people mean when they say "living the dream." It's a postcard day in southern Germany and I have the keys to three generations of classic Porsche 911s.

It's time to see what the fuss is about. Prices for vintage 911s have doubled, tripled, quadrupled in recent years and only appear to be cooling off now. Collectors and speculators rejoice, but the prospect of owning one of the great sports cars is slipping out of reach for many enthusiasts.

A 1967 911 S in good condition, for example, was worth around $35,000 in 2007. Now, the same car will trade hands for $230,000, according to Hagerty Insurance. As an investment, that 911 vastly outperformed gold over the past 10 years.

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If it were real estate, a vintage 911 is equivalent to a detached three-storey Victorian in downtown Toronto. On a corner lot. These cars are hot property.

"There are so many 911 fans out there and if you look at the prices for classic 911s – it's almost crazy," says Dieter Landenberger, company historian at Porsche. "But there is a reason: the 911 is always very good value for money. You can drive it every day, even if it's 50 years old, no problem."

1981 911 SC Targa

Porsche’s 1981 911 Targa SC.

Well, there is a problem. My knees are slightly akimbo, on either side of the steering wheel. My shoes don't fit into the offset pedal box. And when I try to change gears, I caress the thigh of my passenger.

Porsche hasn't tossed over the keys to any of the hyper-valuable old 911s. We have a selection of – rightly or wrongly – the less desirable, almost-affordable models: the 1981 Targa SC, a 1990 Carrera 2 Cabrio with an automatic gearbox and a 1998 Carrera 4 Cabrio, first of the water-cooled 911s.

Each car is in mint, museum condition. Stickers on the doors confirm that these are, in fact, from the Porsche Museum's 600-plus collection of cars. [Link to "Destination" story on Porsche Museum.] I only have half-an-hour in each, so there's no time to waste.

The top on the Targa is so new it's too stiff to fold into the front trunk, so we leave it behind and drive into the Swabian countryside. The sun is shining, the sky is blue and the air-cooled flat-six sounds happy to be outside.

The 3.0-litre motor only makes 201 horsepower, but the car feels peppy, eager to putter away from a stop, building speed slowly at first. You can put your foot to the floor and not end up in jail with your licence suspended, unlike in the current 911.

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The reason 201 horsepower feels so good is because the car weighs just 1,160 kilograms, according to Porsche specs. I'm told it's good for 235 km/h on the autobahn, but I don't want to find out what that's like. At 120 km/h, the non-power steering gets disconcertingly light because of the rear-engine layout and questionable aerodynamics.

A three-point turn takes muscle, but once up and running, the SC feels light and delicate. A strong gust will push it around. The steering wheel is in constant motion, reacting to every rut and camber on the road. The suspension is soft by modern standards. The car rolls through corners, pitching back and forth depending on what you're doing with the throttle. Lift-off mid-corner and there's that famous, snappy Porsche 911 oversteer that makes roundabouts such a thrill.

For a moment in the late seventies, the SC was supposed to be the last of the 911s.

"At that time, the 911 was not this icon it is today," says August Achleitner, product director for the current 911 and 718. "[Porsche] did some investigating, but unfortunately – for some [company] guys – the customers kept buying the 911. They had to improve it again."

1990 911 Carrera 2 Cabriolet

The 1990 Porsche 911 Carrera 2 Cabriolet, left, and the 1981 Porsche 911 SC Targa.

In 1988, Porsche unveiled the third-generation 911, the 964. My test car is a time-capsule, a purple-on-purple-leather cabriolet that would've looked right at home in Prince's garage.

Inside the cabin, it's obvious the ergonomics haven't changed much. But under the skin, mechanical improvements make this car feel more modern. It has power steering, ABS brakes and the old torsion-bar springs have been replaced by coil springs at all four corners.

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The larger 3.6-litre motor has a deeper, baritone idle. With 247 horsepower, more low-end torque and a better-sounding engine, the 964 feels faster. It corners flatter, too, floating and wallowing less on the stiffer suspension.

The 964 is heavier than its predecessor, weighing 1,380 kilograms. Porsche quotes a 0-100 km/h time of 6.6 seconds, only 0.2 faster than the SC Targa, but that margin belies the big difference between these cars. Where the SC feels like a dainty classic, the 964 feels almost modern. It's a sports car you could live with every day. (Or, you could if you had the mechanics at the Porsche Museum to look after it for you.) No question which one I'd rather have: Purple Rain all day.

1998 911 Carrera 4 Cabriolet

1998 911 Carrera 4 Cabriolet.

For many diehards, the 996-generation marked the end of their love for the 911. Ugly fried-egg-shaped headlights and the switch to a water-cooled engine was, for some, enough to cause irreparable harm to the 911s reputation.

My expectations are low. The water-cooled 3.4-litre flat-six fires up with no drama and is quiet at idle. But the manual gearbox is crisp and precise, with short throws compared to the SC's horribly sloppy shifter. The ergonomics are vastly improved. There's room in the pedal box for regular-sized shoes. The 996 is a narrow car by modern standards, but you'll no-longer be flirting with your passenger on every gearshift.

Again, this car is heavier than its predecessor, weighing 1,450 kilograms. But the engine makes 296 horsepower and 0-100 takes a respectable 5.4 seconds. Electronic stability control is standard, but at road-legal speeds it doesn't feel needed. There's ample grip, thanks in part to the all-wheel-drive system. The chassis feels stiff and planted compared to the 964. Weight transfer isn't as noticeable.

I don't care how Porsche cools its flat-six engine, the 996 sounds glorious. Even this basic Carrera 4 feels quick. The rev needle zings up and above 7,000 rpm, by which point the motor sounds higher-pitched and racier than the 964. A GT3 or Turbo from this era must be spectacular.

Time is up, but it's clear the 996 doesn't deserve its bad reputation. Yes, it looks like a slightly-used bar of soap, but the ultra-smooth style is refreshing among the over-designed cars on the road today.

2018 911 Targa 4 GTS

2018 Porsche 911 Targa 4 GTS.

Getting into the current 991.2-generation 911, it feels massive compared to its predecessors. It's wider and longer. Visually, however, the family resemblance is obvious, despite the fact this car is almost 20 years younger than the SC Targa.

You sit lower in it. The driver is a smaller part of the car, in every sense. It can be just as tactile as the 964, but you have to get it up to extra-legal speeds and corner harder, work up more lateral G-forces to feel much of anything.

The 911 is – more than ever – a sports car you could drive every day. But the 2018 model, despite being the fastest and most luxurious, isn't the one I want to get back into. It's a tossup between the dramatic, tactile 964 and the speedy, oddly-beautiful 996. Either one will probably be a good investment.

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

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