Short but Sweet: R Gruppe Porsche 911 SWB Hot Rods

Here’s an interesting read for you: the first feature Jamie Lipman and I ever did in the USA from 2008. Was a minor disaster getting there and making this happen, but the end justified the means. R Gruppe Porsche 911 SWB Hot Rods shot in California.

Interest in the short wheelbase 911 has surged in recent years. John Glynn drives a pair of American beauties that make a convincing case for less is more.

Ah, California. In stark contrast to preconceptions of a concrete jungle, California is a state with personality. Away from the major population centres, amazing light and fresh Pacific air mingles with the blissful aroma of pine trees and vines to create a technicolour environment. No wonder they built Hollywood here.

I’ve come to the Golden State to attend the R Gruppe Treffen, an annual ensemble of early 911 enthusiasts from across the US and beyond. This year, the meet is centred on Cambria, a pretty little coastal town 100 miles south of Monterey. This is the site of the very first Gruppe get-together, ten years ago.

R Gruppe’s raison d’etre is to honour the intent behind Porsche’s Sports Purpose range: factory parts for adding that extra zing to to the pre-’73 911. This is a club for road trippers, not trailer queens. Some of these guys have travelled almost 3,000 ground miles to be here.

The present 911 uses some clever visual devices to connect it to the early cars, but the original short wheelbase (SWB) 911s remain the purest expression of Porsche’s masterstroke. Butzi’s vision is perfectly encapsulated by these crisp, strong little cars.

Jamie Lipman R Gruppe Porsche 911 2

The SWB cars were a proper handful in the twisties. Having tried 20-kilo weights in the front bumpers, Porsche eventually (and rather cleverly) lengthened the wheelbase. Rather than altering those classic lines, the engineers shifted the wheels back in the rear quarters, decreasing the pendulum effect and taming much of the oversteer which dogged the early cars.

Nowadays, a SWB 911 is a prized item. Built in relatively small quantities and long regarded as the runt of the litter, low values for SWBs meant many uneconomical restoration projects were lost to the ravages of rust. These days, a good SWB car really stands out.

The pair seen here are amongst the cream of the current modified 911 crop. Following years of RS and RSR replicas, the hot rod SWB 911 gets us back to basics. They are a reminder of what the 911 was once all about: exciting dynamics in an inch-perfect package.

Bob Tilton’s silver 911, known as Oph’eL’ia, began life as a 1968 911L: L as in Lux. The Lux featured similar specification to the 911S, with a less powerful 130 bhp engine.

Tilton's R Gruppe Porsche 911 Rear

Bob is one of my foremost Porsche heroes. His contributions to the Pelican Parts and Early S Registry Internet forums, on building a unique 911 whilst retaining that factory feel, have long inspired online fans of the modified Porsche.

Ophelia is Bob’s first 911. No real research was done before the purchase back in 2001. Bob wanted an early 911 and this was the one he liked the most. As the new owner learned more about the cars, he found that Ophelia was not quite as virginal as had been portrayed at sale. The flared arches, though in steel and a beautiful job, were not original. Nor was the engine, which had fallen out of a 2.2T. “I decided to turn a lemon into lemonade,” he tells me.

The graphic designer has since applied delicious aesthetic detail in his restorative and performance-enhancing alterations, and shared the information online, like a sort of Sports Purpose Godfather. Tales from Chez Tilton set me on the modification trail that eventually led to the purchase of my lightweight Carrera – there are few 911 guys I am more grateful to.

The featherweight 911R was an obvious influence on this eyeball magnet, but principal inspiration came from Alan Hamilton’s legendary 911T/R. Alan’s dad, Norman, was the Porsche importer for Australia and Alan’s T/R was a giant killer: a steel-panelled 911R, built to comply with Aussie race rules of the day.

T/R-inspired touches abound inside the 911L, such as simple trim with replica Scheel buckets and harnesses, TRE Motorsports roll bar, home-made rear partition, clock blank and tasty thick-rimmed Racemark steering wheel. The roof-mounted rear view mirror is a period factory feature, as are the ‘elephant hide’ dash insert and the purposeful ‘68/’69 external door handles.

Ophelia’s soft silver bodywork is broken by black graphics scanned from borrowed factory originals. Untrimmed screen rubbers, custom R-style engine grille, single front wiper, rare anodised door glass frames and aluminium rear bumper ends emphasise simplicity. The Talbot mirror is an uncommon ‘big W’ version, fitted with a $2 convex lens like the one on my car. 911 guys love a bargain.

Tilton's R Gruppe Porsche 911 engine

Finding myself standing by Ophelia is a bit like being next to Jennifer Aniston in a supermarket queue. I don’t want to look too dorky, picking up on minor details never seen on screen, but I can’t stop staring. Imagine then, driving the thing.

“I’m kissing Jennifer Aniston” is what’s on my mind, as I pull away in a 911 that feels familiar yet remote, having watched it from afar for so long. A minute into celebrity make-out, I start noticing the nuances: early shift pattern to the 901 gearbox, supple support from the NML Depot seats and impressive solidity in a car that’s the same age as me.

Getting with the programme, I hit highway 101 and plant the throttle. Jennifer is booted out by the ruckus of a rebuilt 2.7 911S engine, rampaging through carbs and SSIs. John Holleran is the man responsible for tuning this motor and he has done a blinding job: it’s the quickest 2.7 I have yet enjoyed. Reworking the gear ratios has helped: close-knit lower gears max out the available torque, with a tall top for covering distance in comfort.

“When I first got the L,” Bob recalls, “I’d convoy with other Porsches, running 4500 revs at 60 mph. Constantly asking guys whether they also needed gas got old pretty fast. Regearing revolutionised the car’s usability.”

Tilton's R Gruppe Porsche 911 front

New gears were not the only transformation to hit this silver bullet; the suspension was redeveloped to give a tight yet touring-quality ride. Stiff sports suspension is no fun in a car that clocks up big miles on rough California highways during meet season.

Thanks to expensive SWB front suspension parts and their low service life, Ophelia’s front suspension is now almost all 3.2 Carrera. Bilstein Sport dampers control 19mm torsion bars acting on Carrera A-arms. A 19mm Weltmeister anti-roll bar hooks up via Smart Racing drop links. Turbo tie rods and 3.2 front brakes finish it off. Under the back it’s Bilstein again, with factory 24mm torsions and an 18mm anti-roll bar. Stomski monoballs are used in the trailing arms, with Neatrix spring plate bushes. On the move, this set up sings the world a song, in perfect harmony. Steering feel through the stock rack is hydraulically smooth, with fingertip feedback encouraging ever-tighter lines. It’s just peachy.

Bob’s choice of Fuchs is ace: deep 6s up front and Weidman 7Rs rear, spaced 1.5 inches. All are wrapped in Bridgestone rubber. The scotchbrite finish to the rims came from a conversation with fellow Grupper Chris Nielsen, owner of the impossibly attractive 1967 911 seen here. Imagine the reaction Nielsen’s sublime ’67 elicits in the R Gruppe parking lot.

Treffen is Chris’s first proper trip in the car, which has just had a major cosmetic overhaul. The PacWest posse have driven in from Seattle – 1800 miles away – and the classic little coupé hasn’t missed a beat.

Nielsen's R Gruppe Porsche 911 pair

A veteran of over 20 years of Porsche ownership, Chris bought this SWB last year, in his home state of Washington. It came through an associate of Nick Jeremica, a Pelican Parts forum regular who had sadly passed away some months prior. Nick had thoroughly sorted the car mechanically with help from specialists, but had run out of time to deal with the bodywork before fate dealt the final hand.

The engine had been built by Redmond European, on a ‘74 2.7 bottom end, with factory 9.5:1 pistons and PMO carbs. SSIs were present with a modified Dansk silencer, as well as hydraulic Carrera chain tensioners and a Carrera oil cooler. The transmission was rebuilt, with a Gard torque-bias differential fitted. Polybushed Carrera front suspension was fitted, with Elephant Racing adjustable anti-roll bars front and rear. A later steering rack was also installed, with turbo tie rods for good measure.

Having run the car for a while after purchase to ensure it was all working, dentist Chris set to the bodywork with all the unerring attention to detail you might expect, given his day job. Why can’t my dentists ever be this cool?

Rust was found in the usual places: sills, windscreen apertures, inner wings and so on. Every inch of corrosion was removed, and replaced with new metal. When even the best repair panels didn’t fit, he made his own. Not bad for a guy who has only been welding for two years. Once the rot was sorted, the car was prepped for paint.

“I have a great network of friends that give me ideas, teach me and encourage me to try new things,” says Chris. “When you look at what makes this car special: the paint, interior, gas tank etc, those are areas where friends helped me tremendously.” Though this is all to be applauded, he is heavily understating his personal achievements. For example, he shot the superb paint himself. Twice.

The first thing most friends did when I showed them pictures of this US trip was point at Chris’s car and ask: “what grey is that?” Answer: mostly Ferrari, the rest is secret. The colour scheme is a big success, but it did not come easy. After a week of prepping panels, the first shade was sprayed and immediately rejected. First sight in daylight got the thumbs down, and the body was stripped for a second attempt. This time, the new colour worked a treat. The stripes were added (love the plain roof) and Chris called it done. Until he bent the engine cover that is, and had to do it again.

Chris Nielsen's Beautiful Bonnet

The paint quality is a big part of what makes this car unique. Though Chris did wield the spray gun himself, we must also credit Dan Sathern, his mentor throughout the process. Were it not for Dan’s guidance, the finish would be nothing like as special.

The luggage compartment was taken back to bare metal, sealed, primed and painted. It was then that Bob posted pictures of his freshly refurbed underbonnet, done entirely in Satin Black. Chris fell out of love with the factory finish, and took his back to bare metal again, before redoing it, Tilton-style.

Back in the offline world, Chris called in a favour from a friend and metalworking genius: to copy a genuine steel 911R fuel tank, borrowed from another buddy (the tank build is worthy of an article all on its own). More than a hundred man hours later, the finished article took pride of place under the hood. A hand-built extended sender from North Hollywood Speedometer tells the driver what he needs to know.

Upholstery was the area where Chris understandably felt he needed most help. For primo results, he went south of Seattle to Jamie McFarland, famous for his work on American muscle cars. It was a very good move.Nielsen Interior

Chris had always fancied a car with red trim, so leather was ordered in Jaguar Classic Red. New door panels were fabricated which incorporated elements of both ’67 and ’68 design. The driver’s door was fitted with a custom pull to match the passenger side (left hand-drive drivers’ doors did not originally come with a handle) and the whole lot was wrapped in red. The finished product is superb.

The car was carpeted using RS-style square weave with the edges bound in black leather. The finished effect is excellent. Excellence continues through the custom parcel box, fitted perfectly around a TRE Motorsports roll hoop with a Nielsen-made detachable harness bar. The whole assembly is trimmed to sweet perfection.

TRE also supplied a pair of ST seat shells, in which differing densities of foam were built up to give the right shape and squish factor. Proper D-type headrests were fabricated and fitted, before they were all stitched up. It is impossible not to love this, but don’t try it at home is Chris’s advice. “Building them yourself is almost cost prohibitive. It works out cheaper to buy them complete.”

The dash top was retrimmed in black leather, radio and ashtray apertures were filled and the inlay in red. North Hollywood refurbished the gauges and Mister Nielsen fitted two new ones, showing volts and outside temperature. A Rennshift gearshift found a home, as well as pukka 912 mats and a beautiful Momo Monza steering wheel, complete with 911R-style horn button.

With the car trimmed, over 40 hours went into machine polishing the paintwork. The result is a reflection sharper than a NASA telescope. Euro light lenses were fitted, along with Hella fogs and repro Cibie hood lights with very cool covers. The exterior brightwork was rechromed, and the wiper arms refinished in satin. Deep 6 Fuchs refinished by Chris round it all off exquisitely.

Treffen Gruppe

Driving the masterpiece is a treat. Nick Jeremica’s work has paid off in spades – this car is keen. Suspension is firm but not hard, and the seats are great. We are carrying some weight: the big tank is nearly full, with two guys and a complete set of touring tools on board, yet the velvet engine pulls effortlessly.

The noise is epic: big PMOs sucking through scratchbuilt tea strainers, while the whizzy bottom end blows out through a custom sports muffler. No prizes for guessing who sorted both. The gear ratios have a track bias, so are maybe a little short for longer drives: Chris is looking forward to tweaking these details over time.

Catching up a few days later, I find they have both been at it. Chris has fitted new wheel bearings and a clear fibreglass engine shroud, while Bob has been toying with fitting Cibie hood lights on the wings. A perfectionist is never content.

In his book Simplicity, lateral thinking guru Edward de Bono says: “an expert is someone who has succeeded in making decisions and judgements simpler, through knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore.” Bob and Chris are not only experts, they are trendsetters in modern-day 911 thinking, and these exceptional cars are important references for enthusiasts around the world.

By sharing their stories online, who knows how many others they have helped through some tricky times, whether by keeping up flagging motivation, or inspiring new ideas for old cars. I know I speak for lots of us when I tell both how much their efforts are appreciated. I can’t wait to see what’s next!

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