Romance with a Porsche 356C
By Sam Low
The road drops away through
scarps of red earth hedged by tall Eucalyptus trees. To the left, the
view swings wide - an expanse of sea and rocky shoreline framed in the
sun's shimmer. To the right, cliffs of sandstone push aggressively against
the pavement - spitting small pebbles onto its surface. Completing the
pro-forma drive through San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge and
beyond the trendy Mill Valley, Karin and I acquaint ourselves with our
"new" 1964 356-C Porsche coupe as we follow Highway One toward Point Reyes,
one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Only thirty odd miles into
the trip, we have named her - "La Pooka Negra" - a combination of Hawaiian
and Spanish which means, literally, the "black hole." The name is given
to banish our worst fears. We are not rich. Pooka is a thirty-year-old
sports car. We hope the decision to buy her has not been a foolish one.
Pooka is ours after a long and difficult search. A few weeks earlier,
Clark Anderson had called to report having inspected her. "It's like being
in a time machine," he enthused. "When I first saw her I thought I had
stepped back a quarter century. This car appears to be only five or six
years old." Clark is a Porsche savant and professional appraiser. I took
his call in my film editing room three thousand miles away in South Natick,
Massachusetts. I pondered the wisdom of buying an antique sports car "sight
unseen" amidst the wail of race cars reaching a high tremolo on the main
straight at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. My editor was playing back
a scene from our film for the PBS science series, NOVA, on the sophisticated
world of IndyCar racing. The Porsche Clark described seemed too good to
be true - 58,000 documented miles, all original, tight engine and suspension.
"I haven't seen one like this for a long time," he reported. "We should
put a deposit down on her right now." For two years, I had been looking
for an original 356. Now the decision to buy hung as Clark waited on the
other end of the line. "Let's do it," I told him. With that choice, I
let go of three other cars that awaited my inspection during a trip planned
in early December. The San Jose car sounded better. Still, I had not seen
her. Had I made the best decision?
On this first day together, the answer seems unequivocal. Her body is
tight, the engine throaty and persistent, and as the road sweeps beneath
the pleasing swell of her fenders I put my doubts aside.
THE ANCIENT LAND
We reach Olema near the entry to Point Reyes. The town is a throwback
to an earlier age. Its general store and quiet main street remind us of
Vermont villages of decades past. We seem to enter a time warp. The road
runs southwest along the shore of Tomales Bay, the surface expression
of a vast rift in the earth, the San Andreas Fault. The folded hills,
sag ponds and gentle ridges on each side of the road are the creations
of geologic uplift. Thousands of feet beneath us, two tectonic plates
the size of continents struggle to slide past each other. Against the
immense friction that binds them, they accomplish movement, an average
of some two inches a year. This migration is not always smooth. When the
pressure builds sufficiently the plates lose their bond and slip. In 1906
this pent-up energy propelled the Point Reyes Peninsula 20 feet to the
North in an instant. In human terms, it was a horrific expression of nature's
hidden processes, the deadly earthquake that destroyed most of San Francisco.
But in the framework of geologic time, it must have been a routine planetary
ripple. But as two New Englanders in Northern California, we are constantly
reminded of ancient forces that dwarf our own presence. In my imagination,
the road before me seems to teeter on the brink of a hidden crevasse.
THE TIME MACHINE
Amidst the timeless splendor of this land, Pooka becomes a time machine,
taking us back to an era when driving was a more primitive pleasure and
even heaters could not be taken for granted. Karin mops condensation from
the inside of the windshield so I can see the road. There is heat enough
for this part of California, but we are glad this is not our native New
England in winter. An older and more sensual thrill of driving envelops
us. Unlike modern cars - all Macpherson struts, parallel links and coil-overs
- Pooka is connected to her tires with swing axles and trailing arms.
A modern Porsche dives into a corner with precise turn-in and imperceptible
body-roll. Pooka sweeps and bows. The effect is a graceful lunge into
the turn followed by a sweet moment in which she takes a set and establishes
a gliding arc - reminding me all the time where her engine sits, of her
penchant for a strong bias of momentum to her rear bustle. Earlier in
the day, we had celebrated Karin's birthday. Now, the years seem to slip
away as we follow the almost abandoned coast highway.
Taking the route toward Point Reyes, we wend through moors where raptors
hover effortlessly on the sea winds. Red-tailed hawks and kestrels hunt
the valleys. Few cars pass. During the year, almost eight million visitors
trek the thousands of acres of parkland here. But now, in the drear of
mid-December, the human tide has withdrawn, leaving the place to us and
a few other souls. At Limantour Beach we stop to wander the saltwater
marshlands. It is an elemental scene, home to large flocks of ducks, buffleheads,
northern shovelers and American widgeons. In the tidal flats we find blue
and white heron, sanderlings, willets and sandpipers. We seem to slip
back to a time when wandering Miwok Indians foraged the natural bounty
of this land. To the west, the horizon begins to merge with the slate
gray sea, storm clouds are scudding toward the marsh.
As we depart, the storm gathers strength. Pooka sits in the wind-swept
parking lot. Even here, in the fog and rain, her looks stun me. She is
a poem of compound curves - the shape that I fell in love with as a teenager.
Her bodywork swells over the rear tires, and sweeps inward with tumblehome
- suggesting the sweetest lines of sailing ships - only to gradually compose
themselves, reverse and swing up into the coach roof. From any angle,
Pooka's shape suggests the delight of a French curve. Under the clouded
sky she manages to catch the light. She glows. She shimmers.
We set out for the Russian River 40 miles to the north. The coast road
is sleeted with wind-driven rain. Where it bends along the shore, we watch
huge rollers wash against long strands of beach and spring high into the
wind over jutting outcrops of ancient lava beds. Further on, Highway One
threads through lush valleys cropped close by mixed herds of sheep and
dairy cattle tended still by the descendants of Swiss dairymen who settled
here a hundred years ago. They thrived right into the 1970's when new
health regulations pinched an already slim profit margin and their farming
way of life was threatened. Then a remarkable thing happened. With urban
blight encroaching on the bucolic peace of the northern coast, a coalition
of hippies, farmers and environmentalists banded together with State and
Federal officials. They created parklands, zoning restrictions and established
subsidies for the farmers that preserved the vintage beauty of the valleys
through which we now pass.
THE RUSSIAN RIVER
The Russian River empties to the sea just south of the town of Jenner.
We follow it inland, climbing steadily up the Coastal Range amidst Firs
and Redwoods. In the shelter of this primeval forest, there is not a breath
of wind. The rain falls straight down. Each drop plummets through a canopy
of trees. Its fall is first broken by Douglas Fir, then Spruce, Eucalyptus
and oak, and finally Laurels and Camellia bushes. Moss grows everywhere.
Chimney smoke from dilapidated shacks pumps into the windless air and
rises slowly, pummeled by the rain.
We reach the broad plateau country just outside of Forestville. The land,
now deep green, seems to swell under the gentle caress of fog and rain.
We find our first vineyards and head for Sonoma-Cutrer where we are met
by Robert Rebuschatis, "Rebo," who gives us a two-hour tour. "What fascinates
me about wine-making is the way that you can get such different tastes
from the same grape by coaxing it from variations in sun, rain and soil,"
he tells us. Sonoma-Cutrer focuses on Chardonnay, producing three quite
different vintages. One is Cutrer Vineyard. "The soils where the vines
for this wine are planted is mostly compacted volcanic ash from ancient
eruptions of nearby Mount St. Helens," Rebo tells us. The two other wines
- Russian River (the least expensive and hence our favorite) and Les Pierres
(the high-priced variety) are grown on entirely different terrain. Les
Pierres is planted in soil littered with small pebbles and river-rounded
cobbles, the detritus of eons of geologic action. The land proved difficult
to cultivate. But here the struggle to survive was even more selective,
leading to vines with narrow trunks and spindly root systems. The Les
Pierres vineyards produce tiny grapes the size of chickpeas. But they
are rich with taste.
THE BEAUTIFUL DREAM
At the end of day, we drive back to Olema where we have reserved a room
in a cozy Inn. I decide that Pooka has earned a new name. She is now "Pooka
Bella." "Bella" is Italian for beautiful. Reaching back into my Hawaiian
ancestry, I fashion a new gloss for the word "Pooka." It becomes the legendary
void from which Hawaiians envisioned their gods had created the world.
It is a period before human time, an infinite space which only the dreams
and visions of shamen can conjure. She becomes, more poetically, "the
I ponder our brief voyage. There is something similar in the story of
the vineyards and the pleasure of joining again with our time machine.
The wine we recently sampled gains its character from soils fashioned
by eons of nature's inexorable proceedings and the tender hand of its
cultivators. I find myself moving backward through layers of human history
as I consider Pooka's ancestry. In 1948, amidst post-war hardships that
would eventually lead to his death, Dr. Ferry Porsche realized his life
time ambition to create his own car. By 1964, this sleek black automobile
in which we now ride represented the highest evolution of his vision.
The next year, a new car would replace it, the 911, which would become
one of the best performance automobiles that modern technology can fashion.
But Pooka embodies something of the beginnings of this evolution that
appeals to us. Here is a car that is fun because of her limits - her improvident
allocation of weight, skinny tires, rudimentary suspension and tiny engine.
Asked to accelerate, she patiently takes up the task with a growl. Cornering
is more like skiing in the old fashioned Arlberg style with wooden skis
and loose-heeled leather boots than with modern high-tech skis, quick-escape
bindings and form-fitting plastic foot gear. Pooka's Spartan cockpit encloses
us. The metal dash seems Zen-like in its simplicity. Strange yet familiar
odors surge into the living area with the stream of air warmed simply
by passing over the engine's manifold. This is a car that is fun to drive
at sixty and a thrill at eighty. She is elemental, direct, naively blunt
like a country girl who has never learned to take on airs.
For a time, following the darkening road back to the Inn, Karin and I
fall silent. Pooka's engine purrs, her lights seek out bends in the road.
We enter the vast and empty canyons leading inland from the crowded freeways.
Only a few miles from the suburbs, the dark of the Parklands envelops
us, pressing around the cockpit. All that exists to calibrate my sense
of time is the simple glow of Pooka's dash instruments, the winding country
road and a ribbon of light. Deep beneath us, continental plates move imperceptibly
against each other. In this frame, human time means little. It seems even
possible that it is 1964 again and I am 22 years old. The woman who sits
next to me is yet to be my wife. We commune without words, silently reliving
the dreams of our shared youth. The road opens before us, an adventure
now experienced simultaneously in the present and the past. For a few
moments, the subtle mystery of human knowledge and memory merge with Pooka's
gentle exhaust note as we drive toward the Inn at the end of the road.