There was a young lady of Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.
-William Cosmo Monkhouse
As I read this poem, I can’t help but think that the author must have been thinking of an air cooled porsche (maybe, even a pre-964 Turbo). For like the lady’s tiger, they have been known to have quite the appetite for the unwitting driver.
There are many things I love doing. Nothing, however, beats driving my air cooled wonder of the 80s, as St. Louis slumbers, in the Sunday morning chill. Of course, as anyone who is wont to ride on moody tigers will tell you, taking it slow in the begining, has its just rewards. While normally afflicted by pedestrians, bicycle people, dog people and their dogs, as well as people who, evidently, learned driving online, the streets of Clayton at daybreak are bereft of hurdles, as the engine warms up, and thus lubricates the gearbox. Unlike the rapid shifting of more modern cars, barely sneaking above the idle at 1600 rpm, this sleepy tigress needs to be kept in the revs to avoid lugging the engine.
When I first started driving air cooled rear engine cars, I drove them like modern cars. Moving quickly through the gears till I was in the highest achievable gear at the lowest rpm. Turns out, not such a good thing for oil cooled cars. Why, you ask? Well, it has to do with the fact that the engines revs circulate the oil. So, low revs mean low oil circulation, which in turn is bad for your engine.
Which is all very well, but what does that have to do with the “lost gear”?
I’m coming to that. I often wondered why Porsche stuck with 4 gears on the 930 for a long time. When you drive a five speed, you figure out exactly why. While first gear is punishing, and should NEVER be downshifted into, second and third gears are great to wind up the engine. But my favorite gear of all is: fourth. It is amazingly tractable and on the expressway, is all you will ever need.
To anyone who has not driven a rear engined air cooled car without modern accoutrements, this may not make sense. But, having power to the rear wheels, is paradoxically more reassuring than slowing down. Staying in the band between 4250 and 5250 rpm in 4th, feels like the car is being stuck to the road under the burden of Mjolnir’s fearsome force. In the few instances, where I have had to take it beyond the 5300 mark (to avoid idiots), I did not feel a lack of grip, but I fear my 35 year old brakes and 45 year old reflexes on skinny tires may be overmatched.
Which brings me to 5th. Why does it even exist?
When I took delivery of this beast, I drove it as I did my previous cars and frequently drove in 5th. Did not really enjoy it, and did not realize what I was missing by quickshifting through 4th. Speaking to the engine’s tuner, I realized the error of my ways, and haven’t looked back.
Today morning’s saunter in the wild, I strayed into fifth again. This time I could objectively feel the car feel light and jitttery, like a debutante at her first dance, despite running between 3500 and 4500 rpm. Downshifting back to 4, brought back the character, the firmness and reassurance. The tires seemed to cling harder as the cars claws seemed to reemerge.
To those of you, in 4 speed air cooled cars, lusting for the magic of overdrive, I would like to reassure you that it is completely overrated and unnecessary. It’s fine for a sedan or a daily driver. Not, these tigers.