It's an unseasonably cool day in August, and I'm screaming down a twisty, two-lane road nestled in the driver's seat of a silver 1966 Porsche 911. The Porsche's owner is riding shotgun, shirt collar popped, trying to look nonchalant as I bring the revs up and shift into third. The trees blur.
"There are speed cameras up here," he says. "You might want to slow it down."
He's right, and not just because of the cameras. While it's tempting to let the Porsche climb past 80, you catch more of a used car's flaws driving at slower speeds, when the wind and engine noise can't mask the clunks, rattles, and shakes.
Judged with the cool logic of pragmatic transportation, the toad-shaped rocket I'm test-driving is a terrible option. It's finicky and expensive to fix, and it spews carbon like a coal-fired power plant. It has lap seatbelts with no airbags and weighs less than one-third of a Chevy Tahoe—a head-on crash is a game-ender. Yet it's stunningly beautiful and exactly what I'm searching for. I've drooled over the Porsche 911 since I was 10. Finally, I've found a way to fit the car into my lifestyle.
In spring 2007, my wife and I sold our Volvo and committed to public transportation. Since then, it's been no traffic jams, no mechanics, no gasoline, and no insurance bills. With the money we saved, I started a "hot rod" bank account dedicated to making driving fun. Public transportation is paying for my Porsche.
I log 20,000 miles a year commuting from my home in Baltimore to my job in Washington, D.C. I travel by train and subway. Fares (plus vacation rental cars, bus tickets, bicycle tires, and the occasional taxi) set me back around $3,100 a year—$6,000 less than Camry man. I stash the savings in my Porsche fund.
Like many Americans, I love to get out and drive. But in and around major cities, "driving" usually means idling in traffic while trapped in cars as utilitarian and uninspiring as washing machines. It's soul-sucking and dirty. It's also expensive. According to AAA, if I were to commute 20,000 miles in a Toyota Camry, I would burn through $9,100 a year in fuel and ownership costs that include insurance, maintenance, and depreciation. If a dash gauge measured money per mile, the needle would be pegged at 45.5 cents. And, according to Department of Transportation statistics, that much commuting would release more than 15,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A Prius cuts that almost in half—a green boost for sure, but nothing compared with pairing public transportation with weekend joy rides in a classic car.
Like many former teenage hot rodders, the cool quotient of my cars dropped as my education and career aspirations rose. I grew up in the 1980s, in a town an hour northeast of Detroit. At 16, I cruised the downtown loop on Saturday nights in a 1960 Chevy pickup my father and I painted red. Next came a 1963 Chevy Nova. At graduation, I drove a 1966 Plymouth Belvedere with 440 cubic inches under the hood and a posi-traction rear end—one of the fastest cars among many fast cars in my class. I loved these cars and think of them fondly, like high-school girlfriends, though each left me stranded on the side of the road too many times to count.
The collapse to generic wheels began when I sold the Plymouth for college tuition. It continued for the next 17 years through a haze of Volkswagens, Subarus, and a particularly horrible light-blue Chevy Cavalier. After we married, my wife and I owned two Volvos, both wagon-model icons of safe, dependable, vanilla transportation. The fine rumble of classic car exhaust continued to turn my head, but a gas guzzler didn't fit my lifestyle.
If bumper-sticker logic is taken for truth, gas-guzzlers shouldn't fit any lifestyle. Hot rods, like SUVs, mark the bad politics of the eco-unfriendly. The auto industry, happy to market the sentiment, has responded with fuel-sippers, hybrids, full-on electrics, and promises of even "greener" vehicles. But giving up your Prius and putting a hot rod in the garage may be the best thing you can do for the planet.