Jack Wood and Martin Spain were fortunate enough to sample a very special Porsche 911 recently. Here's what happened when Chris Harris let them loose in his pride and joy.
I’m sat at my desk, hard at work, when my iPhone pings. What now? I do have a real job, you know! Doubtless it’s something completely irrelevant. I unlock the phone and open Twitter to find a DM sitting there from @harrismonkey:
“I won’t be using the GT3 much in the next few weeks. Do you fancy having it for a few days?”
I have to check the phone twice to be sure I’m not imagining things. Yep, the message is still there and it still reads the same. Would I like to borrow a GT3? Hell yes I would!
Fast-forward a couple of weeks, and after a minor re-shuffle of the family vacation, I’m sat behind the exquisitely trimmed steering wheel of a Meteor Grey Gen1 997 Porsche GT3, as personally owned by Mr. Chris Harris, motoring journalist and Porsche fanatic.
Anyone who has ever borrowed an expensive motor, be it from someone you know or in this case, someone you met once a couple of years ago, will know the feeling of not wanting to look like a complete tool as you drive it away from its proud owner. I’m trying to see over my shoulder in order to reverse it off Mr. Harris’s drive without hitting one of the very substantial oak gateposts adorning his driveway. Issue 1: there’s a bloody great wing laughing at me through the rear screen. Issue 2: my backside is snugly encased in a Porsche Motorsport bucket seat, which ispreventing me getting more than a couple of degrees of hip rotation before my spine threatens to shatter. Wing mirrors it is then…
With those oaken jaws of death successfully navigated, I heave a huge sigh of relief only to be confronted with a rather wicked dilemma; do I give it a bootful of the loud pedal as I depart, knowing that the sound of the exhaust will bounce joyfully off the confining walls of this slumbering little village? Or do I trickle out through the lanes, hoping to lull the owner into a false sense of security? Knowing the owner’s passion for exhaust noise, I chose the former.
The first time I paused after those first frantic seconds of forward acceleration was about 40 miles later in deepest Herefordshire. The miles had flown past, almost literally, and my mind was awash with questions. How on earth did I end up sat in a GT3 overlooking blossoming cider apple trees in the middle of one of the most glorious springs of recent years? How is it possible to make six little vessels, configured in two opposing banks of three and filled with petroleum, oxygen and a few charged atoms, create a sound that tears at the air and your heart in such a ferocious manner? And, most pressingly, how can I ensure that this state of affairs becomes the norm for me whilst retaining both my dignity and my wife?
So began three days of motoring wonderment, consisting of B-road blasts, tunnel runs, a trip to North Wales, a car chase and argument with a hit’n’run driver (another story!), filming, photographing, gawping, grinning, laughing, skidding, overtaking, fist shaking, middle-finger saluting, GT-R baiting, more overtaking, meetings with friends, meetings with acquaintances, bike chasing, stop-light racing and general antisocial behavior.
By the time Monday rolled around and the GT3 rumbled back through that sleepy South Wales village and back onto the owner’s drive, there were the best part of a thousand fresh miles on the odometer, and every single one of them was seared into my brain forever. Well, maybe not forever, but for at least as long as it takes me to get my hands on my own chunk of Weissach motorsports magic.
As for Mr. Harris? What a gent. His reason for the offer of the loan? Karma. In 2009 I lent the then-fledgling (and sorely missed) Drivers Republic website the use of my Cayman S for a shootout article. Two years later and long after the need or want of any recompense, Chris offered me the use of his personal car as a thank you for that loan, completely out-of-the-blue. Karma’s a bitch? Not from where I’m sitting.
The Monkey GT3
There have been countless thousands of words written about the Porsche 997 Gen1 GT3 by far better writers than me, so I’m not about to rehash any of that. What sets Chris’s car apart from a regular, run-of-the-mill GT3, is a couple of choice modifications that have been made to this car under his ownership.
Internally, everything is standard-spec GT3, albeit with the addition of a pair of beautiful leather-and-Alcantara Porsche Motorsport bucket seats. At first glance, these seem to be rather at odds with the optional satnav and cruise control, but once snuggled down into them and with a few miles under your belt, the whole place feels perfect. The seats do a superb job in connecting you to the car, allowing you to concentrate on piloting what is a monumentally fast road car without having to worry about bracing yourself against the lateral forces that you’re bound to experience. A car with standard seats could only really distract from the experience.
Where this car really differs is in the chassis and the exhaust system. The exhaust is a full titanium system from Akrapovic comprising 100 cell headers and backbox, meaning that everything from the head to the tips has been replaced. To give you an idea of the weight saving of this system, Chris reckons that over 80kg has been cut from the weight of the car with the addition of the exhaust and bucket seats! What makes the weight saving of the exhaust even more pertinent is that it’s all from the very rear of the car, way out past the axle line. If a 911 has to lose some fat, this is the best possible place to lose it from.
And holy cow, is it loud! It is a fascinating noise. There really aren't any words that can do it justice. It sounds like a GT race car. That should be all I need to say, really. Is it too loud? I think so. Not for the road, although it did make heads turn everywhere I drove. On the motorway people were gawping as I drove past. In town, it was just rude, and on country lanes it had bikers and ramblers diving for the hedge when I was passing at little more than walking pace! However, I can't see how you would get on any circuit in the UK on a regular trackday with it as-is. It’s just too loud.
The only downside to this spectacular exhaust system - other than the eye-watering cost! - is that with this header and backbox combination, you lose the functionality of the switchable flaps that the standard system has, so it’s noisy all of the time. There is a solution, though. Akrapovic sell a "fuller" full system that includes titanium secondary cat boxes that are switchable and quell the noise in standard mode. Chris now has these fitted and reports that the result is near perfect.
Finally, the coup de grâce: the suspension. This was the real surprise of the car to me. The system fitted is a development kit from exe-tc. Chris has been working with them to develop a customer system based on the setup from the VLN cars they've been racing for the last 2 years. He wanted to create a system for a road car that he would want. Not what a bunch of geeks in a lab somewhere think he wants, but a system that works the way he believes fast road car suspension systems should work. Has he succeeded? Just a bit.
Everything on this car’s suspension system is fully solid. There are no rubber bushings, no poly bushing, just solid mountings on every link. It sounds hardcore, but it works very well. Yes, there is quite a bit of noise at low speeds and as a result it doesn't feel like a "production" car, but that just adds to the theatre of it. At walking pace you can hear the joints moving and knocking slightly, though this disappears once you pick up the pace. The guys at exe-tc are sure that they can eliminate most of this noise on the final system but even as it is, I could live with it very easily. Very easily indeed, knowing the benefits it gives once you get really moving.
The only way I can describe how the car rides bumps, grates, potholes and ridges is to liken it to a magic carpet. Only once I got home and drove the GT3 on roads I drive every day, roads where I know every dip, camber and divot, did I fully understand how good this system is. It isolates features in the road that crash through the suspension of my Mercedes and used to have the Cayman hitting its bumpstops. It never feels soft, but at the same time it’s full of delicacy and feel with clearly defined limits.
You can carry huge pace over roads that should have the car bucking out of shape, yet this never feels like happening. It’s a magical combination of exemplary ride quality and unshakable body control. I only had one small criticism: the car was being pushed around by blustery winds and was slightly vague at the straight-ahead position on long straight sections. That’s probably a geo issue, rather than a hardware one.
Single-way adjustable dampers
However, under load in a bend, it soaked up the worst ridges I could find like they weren't there. The way it controlled the body coming out of compressions or over ridges was immense. The dampers never needed more than a single stroke to have everything fully in check, no matter how harsh the feature or how high the speed. In the corners, I couldn't fault the setup at all, and this is still not a finished system!
What makes it even more attractive to someone like me is that Chris and the boffins at exe-tc have managed to compress all their expertise into a user-friendly single-way damper package. The thing I loved most about the Bilstein PSS9 system I had fitted to my Cayman was the ability to go from a fully-hard track setting to a more comfortable road setup with just a couple of clicks on a single wheel on each shock. Granted, it’s not a system that is switchable at the push of a button, but the result is so far beyond anything I’ve experienced on any road car that I think the ends more than justify the means. This really is a piece of automotive genius.
An eye-opening drive
I’m also fortunate enough to have experienced Chris Harris’s GT3. I’m still not entirely certain what possessed him to agree to lend me his pride and joy for a roadtrip to the Nürburgring 24 Hours race last month, but I’m very thankful he did.
Over the 7 days that I had custody of the Porsche, I drove it in just about every conceivable weather condition except for snow. It handled an early-morning sprint to Folkestone to catch our Chunnel crossing with aplomb, it ate up the miles crossing France and Belgium in the pouring rain in surprising comfort, and when the sun finally came out in Germany, it provided me with a drive through the Eifel mountains on my birthday that ranks in the top three drives of my life.
I could go on and on about what an amazing car it is, but Jack has covered almost all of the points I want to talk about! Instead, here’s a short story that illustrates just how versatile this car is.
The drive from Adenau in Germany back to my home in St. Albans, is approximately 410 miles. With a following wind, good traffic and a willingness to press on, this can be done in around 6 hours. My journey back from Germany took double that, thanks to roadworks, traffic and a broken-down train stuck in the Channel tunnel which resulted in a four-hour delay at Calais. By the time I drove off the train at Folkestone, it was dark and the UK Highways authority had inexplicably closed most of the lanes of the M20. I was tired, sweaty, grumpy and desperate to get home, yet frustratingly unable to unleash the pace of the GT3 to make up for lost time.
After what felt like an eternity, the traffic cleared as we left the motorway. Time to wake up and go home. I thumbed the ‘Sport’ button to unleash the full war cry of the exhaust, and nailed the throttle.
My passenger, who had drifted off to sleep as we crawled around the M25, suddenly snapped awake as I gave the GT3 everything along the back roads in the hope of arriving home before midnight. The Porsche shrugged off everything the appallingly-surfaced Hertfordshire roads could throw at it, and dared me to hold each gear a bit longer, brake later, turn harder…
It shouldn’t have been possible to drive a car that hard over those roads, and certainly not after a 12-hour cross-country trip, but such is the towering ability of the Porsche GT3, particularly with Chris's exe-tc suspension package, that we pulled up outside my house at 11.45pm, 15 minutes before the satnav predicted we would arrive, safe and sound – and wide awake!
I don’t think I’ve ever been so reluctant to return a car as I was when the time came to give the keys back...
- Martin Spain