Life is full of dilemmas. Catholic or Protestant. Labour or Conservative. To be or not to be. Tea or coffee. Frankly, it’s a wonder we can make it through the day.
But for the classic car enthusiast none of these thorny and weighty dilemmas surely quite ranks against the ultimate decision: E Type or 911? Or put another way, make your move: are you E Type or Porsche?
Why, in a world where the choice between latte and capuccino is a daily source of panic for millions, should your preference between two sports coupes really matter a jot? If that is your view, stop reading here. What comes next really ain’t for you. Your coat’s in the hall buddy.
The cat vs Teuton debate matters because if we stop pondering it for a single minute, 60 short seconds, an entire classic car industry falls on its face. The moment that we enthusiasts stop, well, being enthusiastic about our choices is the day we ought to pack it in and watch paint dry.
So, that’s clear then: this stuff damn well matters. It’s a part of any right minded car-lovin’ man and woman. And no two cars encapsulate the issues at stake quite like the 911 versus E Type debate.
On one level, if you just like cars you probably like both. I do. But of you hanker after one, go to owners club events for them, buy the magazines got them, then it’s a different story. You’re one or the other and your love of one probably precludes your love of the other. In all probability, it may well leach into hatred.
All of which is odd because to the uninitiated the 911 and E Type do the same job: move their occupants from A to B, probably via C, quickly and enjoyably. With space for luggage. And fairly comfortably. They may look different but they are the same.
Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Donald Sayer and Ferdinand Porsche both started with a blank sheet on which the words ‘sports car’ were undoutedly written. But that’s where the similarities between the two cars end.
The E Type was a successor to a long line of sports and racing cars, which meant that Sayer could draw on not only some decent off-the-shelf engineering but also the wisdom of an experienced team. Consequently the E Type was sophisticated but not advanced, combining a big output, heavy engine up front with clever aerodynamics and proven suspension. The E Type was a modern evolution of a conventional approach to sports cars.
The 911 began in an entirely different place, a placed named ‘Beetle.’ The 911 was born – via the 356 – out of Beetle underpinings because nothing else was available. The car’s genius is that it turned these awkward beginnings into a a proper sports car. But not one anyone in Britain would recognise. The engine was in the wrong place. It was too small. It was more aerodynamic in reverse. Sports cars had big bonnets to cover their big engines and cruised rather than cornered. Those were criteria ably and fully nailed by the E Type.
To be a 911 enthusiast you had to prove yourself – you had to survive its remarkable ability to make 911 shaped holes in hedges. You had to be a driver. Whether making a considerable effort to master the shortcomings of a strangely designed car qualifies as real driving rather than stubborn perseverance probably depends which side of the debate you sit on.
I have driven exactly comparable versions of both and I understand the dilemma. We have a 1969 Series 2 E Type coupe on our hire fleet as well as a 1969 2.2 911. The E Type is dramatic, from its acres of bonnet past its tiny doors to its svelte tail. Few cars ooze presence like an E Type. The theme continues inside, with a characterful ‘design-free’ dashboard over which the bonnet curves away. The dashboard is characterful but in no way practical. The E Type is quick but nobody would accuse it of being the last word in on-road finesse. The steering is heavy, the brakes dismal, the suspension rollypolly. You can go quick in an E Type but it requires quite a lot of effort.
The 911 does everything differently. It is a good looking car, albeit helped by the shape’s sheer time in service, but not actually dramatic or beautiful. It is as practical as a Beetle with big doors, big seats and a dashboard on nodding terms with the word ‘ergonomic.’ In the Porsche, you feel, someone has really thought about all this. If anyone did think about the design of the E Type’s interior, it was probably at 4.45pm on a Friday.
The Porsche immediately feels sensible and functional, despite its barmy engine set up. The engine sounds like an angry wasp, the pedals are ridiculously offset but it’s immediately comfortable, the switchgear and dials are intelligently to hand and the gear shift is precise and clear. On the move the clutch is light and the steering informative and well weighted. Everything about the Porsche screams consideration and engineering. It’s all better than the E Type. But initially it feels boring.
Whereas the E Type plays its trumpcards early and adorned by flags and bunting, the 911 performs a more rearguard action. For the first few miles you’d be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. There’s no drama. It’s not even very quick. But the little Porsche works its magic. After a while the sharp steering and limpet-like handling urge you to push a little harder, to brake a little later, turn in a little harder. I’m not a B-road hero but no other car I’ve driven pats you on the back and says ‘go on’ quite like the 911.
Of course, it’s this little black dog that has put many 911s through hedges over the years. And it’s true, the rear engine constantly threatens to decisively curtail the whole experience. But be sensible and wary and there is magic in mastering a car that simply defies the laws of physics.
That said, while a drive in a 911 is hugely rewarding, it doesn’t surpass the E Type. For sheer drama the E Type is unique. It may not perform as well as the 911 but who cares when it looks this good?
So there it is. Two sports cars separated by a common goal. They really do have little in common: one looks amazing, one goes amazingly. We’ll still be debating their merits and reading about them in 20 years time. And it’s that enthusiasm that keeps the world spinning. And me in a job.