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.
Science shows that cutting miles traveled by personal automobile is far more effective at reducing carbon than improving gas mileage. A car entirely unsuitable for daily transportation does just that. Cruising in a hot rod on occasional spirited jaunts is like savoring a real chocolate-chip cookie instead of gorging on a box of low-fats. A little bit won't hurt you. And it's good for the soul.
Giving up wheels as daily transportation may seem daunting, but kicking the habit is simple, at least in the city, where access to buses, subways, cabs, and bike paths make car ownership a sign of supreme laziness. On Saturdays, I ride my Trek 2.5 miles to Whole Foods and ferry groceries home in a large hiking backpack. Canned food and other heavy items go on the bottom. Tomatoes and peaches go on top. When it rains or snows, I take the bus.
If this sounds like a hassle, consider my friends with cars—their parking tickets, wheel boots, smashed windows, broken mirrors, and stolen goods. City driving is expensive, frustrating, and dirty. Yet even the most progressive Americans continue to pay the car tax for wheels they do not love.
In Risky Business, Tom Cruise's character comes of age with the help of a beautiful prostitute and a stunning car. For this rural preteen, the shark-nosed Porsche 928 that winds up in Lake Michigan was nearly as exotic as Rebecca De Mornay. And just as far out of reach. In 1983, a base model Porsche 928 cost nearly $40,000, the price of a nice house in my town.
A quarter-century later, however, many former dream cars, the Porsche 928 included, have dropped to the price of a good used minivan. Superb 928s now go for $10,000. A decent example costs half that. When something breaks, however, the fix will be expensive, if you can find a mechanic who remembers how to work on something so old. The struggle to keep a sports car as a daily driver has put many owners smack in the seat of a Hyundai. Classic cars are playthings, not transportation.
Some guys have both. They commute in air-conditioned cocoons with automatic transmissions and keep weekend convertibles under covers in the garage. Most of us, however, have to choose. And most of us make the wrong choice. When my Porsche fails, I'll rip it apart and fix it. If it sits immobile for a year, I'll get to work the way I always do—by train.
After two and a half years, my hot rod account holds $15,000. I should probably throw the money down on the S&P 500 or pay off my student loans. Instead, I've test-driven vintage Porsches across the mid-Atlantic, spent hours on the phone with owners as far away as Washington state, and missed sleep while trolling the Internet for "the one."
Sprinting away from the city in the 1966, vent window cracked, it's decision time. The car is the perfect Porsche for the $16,000 the owner is asking. But that's cheap for the model, and for good reason. A paint blister above the right rear fender exposes bad bodywork. Rust is bubbling up below the doors. Worse yet, the owner doesn't know how many miles are on the rebuilt engine.
It's a beautiful—but deeply flawed—version of my dream car. I pull the car into a subdivision, park, and take the passenger seat. The owner gives me a ride back to the subway. The hot rod fund continues to grow.