A glance at the gear knob’s odd lettering sends my brain scrambling. I take the advice not to use ‘L’ unless on a slope or in inclement weather, so I put my hand on the lever and pull it down to ‘D’. Handbrake down, and not knowing what to expect, I gently squeeze the throttle. The 911 trundles off the line. As the revs increase I go for ‘D3’ (and wonder to myself why Porsche omitted a ‘D2’), and tap off the accelerator slightly. It works. As I release the knob and continue accelerating, the car keeps pushing on.
The time comes to drive with a bit more enthusiasm, as any 911 encourages. With a heavier right foot I pull off from the line more briskly. It’s here that the torque converter raises its head, it feels like a slipping clutch, with the result that the busy revs and exhaust noise increase rapidly while the speed remains a bit pedestrian compared with dumping the clutch on a traditional manual. This over-revving continues as you move into ‘D3’ and ‘D4’, only settling down once up to a cruising speed. It’s here that the Sportomatic shows its positives, with a stab of the loud pedal resulting in effortless overtaking as the ‘slip’ pulls the revs up to the right spot on the torque curve. There is one thing I should warn you about – though it shouldn’t be a problem if you’re adhering to proper driving principles – and that is not to rest your hand on the gear lever. Doing this, even with the slightest pressure, results in the switch being depressed and the clutch coming into action. It isn’t only your hand that needs to be watched; a wayward knee might induce the same problem while you’re taking in the Porsche’s outstanding handling attributes on a mountain pass – not ideal to suddenly find yourself in neutral while powering away from the apex!
Around town it seems best to leave the old Sportomatic in ‘D4’ and let the torque converter do the job – it does mean that you have to get used to sounding like you are ‘windgatting’ while going nowhere slowly. The only way to fix this and to improve the acceleration time is to ignore the page in the manual about not using ‘L’ – in this mode the pull-off is more instantaneous and the engine revolutions seem to match the forward motion more accurately.
SEMI-AUTOMATIC UNDER FIRE Idiosyncrasies aside, the Sportomatic is a fascinating bit of technology and was the first step in the direction of gear lever-less Porsches. And perhaps to prove to the moaning ‘purists’ that the Sportomatic wasn’t just a decoy, Porsche took it racing prior to the production car launch in ʼ67. The chosen car was a factory 911R and the race – a gruelling 84-hour endurance at the Nürburgring known as the Marathon de la Route. In the hands of Vic Elford, Hans Hermann and Jochen Neerpasch the 911R Sportomatic proved not only reliable but also fast, and took the overall win. Love it or hate it, inventiveness and relative rarity have combined to make the Sportomatic highly collectable and desirable. And for those 1970s naysayers that felt there was no place for a Porsche that crosses both enthusiast and non-enthusiast borders, go take a test drive in a modern PDK-fitted Porsche – it’s mind-blowing.