The day I nearly lost a 911

I finally found the car and learned a lesson: Probably best to keep a sports car on pavement

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It is now quite a few years ago that Porsche had its American headquarters in Reno, Nevada. With so many of its customers in nearby California, and from the perspective of corporate taxation, the move from New Jersey probably made sense. 

However, it didn’t take very long for German executives to tire of the even longer flight time and extra plane changes from Stuttgart, so they up and moved the USHQ next to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport and its convenient international flight schedule. 

Although I was based in Detroit, where I was managing editor at AutoWeek magazine, I thought it was pretty cool that a German sports car producer picked the Wild West for its American offices. I believed that automakers, especially their top executives and marketing departments, needed a perspective other than the limited views provided through the windows of offices in southeastern Michigan or metropolitan New York City. 

There are amazing things to see in the American Southwest, and a 911 cabriolet is a great way to experience them | Larry Edsall photos

OK, I’ll admit it, I also liked that Porsche was located in Reno because in 1996 it meant I got to drive a 911 convertible from Denver to Reno, and I’m admitting here that at one point on that drive I thought — no, I truly believed — that both the car and I not only were separated, but lost.

AutoWeek was one of many publications owned by Crain Communications. Each year, the managing editors from those publications gathered for a couple days of meetings and to discuss and to seek solutions to problems shared across the spectrum of publications as diverse as major-city business journals, trade journals including one for the car-wash industry and another for tire dealerships, and even one aimed at auto enthusiasts. 

In 1996, our meeting was to be held in Denver, and would end a few days before the Trans-Am racing series finale in Reno. Always willing to make a sacrifice for the company, I suggested that I could attend the meetings in Denver and then drive over to Reno, where I could do a story on the National Automobile Museum (formerly the Harrah Collection) and cover the race. 

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One day I was surrounded by French motorcyclists, another day it was a huge herd of sheep

Of course, I needed a car for the drive and — wonderful coincidence — it turned out that Porsche had a 911 cabriolet in its Denver press fleet that it needed to have returned to Reno. Unselfishly, I volunteered to handle the delivery, and immediately got out my road atlas to plot a route that would disdain the most direct route on interstates in favor of twisty 2-lanes and sensational scenery.

I remember the smell of fresh-cut wood as I passed logging trucks climbing across the Continental Divide and the road that snaked alongside a spectacular river gorge as I crossed Colorado. For part of a day in southern Utah, I drove along with a group of more than a dozen French motorcyclists, and while we didn’t speak the same language, we shared the joy of seeing such gorgeous scenery with no roofs over our heads.

My memories of Nevada involved driving across the vast basins, slowing to a stop in a town where the Porsche became surrounded by dozens of dusty sheep being herded by ranchers on horseback, and my surprise when, so far from the ocean, I drove past a U.S. Navy weapons-testing base. 

I also was surprised to finally reach my hotel room in Reno, only to open the blinds and discover a loud and live Bob Dylan outdoor concert.

Yes, I remembered to close the gate as we returned to pavement

But by far the most memorable of my experiences from that trip occurred back in southeastern Utah, where I visited an ancient Native American site that was open to the public. Afterward, I stopped at a local pottery shop, mentioned my visit to the site, and learned of another just a few miles away.

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The store owner explained that when I saw a certain sign, I should turn around and drive back maybe a quarter mile and find a gate. Open the gate and, he said, looking out the store window and seeing the Porsche, drive back on the sand-and-rock trail as far as I found comfortable in such a car, and then park and hike back maybe another half mile or so until I reached the edge of a canyon. There, he said, I’d find small tower-style ruins known to local residents but not on any tourist maps.

This structure, built by ancient Native Americans, was what I’d come to see

I need to mention here that this was before I owned a cell phone or any sort of GPS device. 

I found the sign, did a U turn, saw the opening in the fence and drove in. After perhaps 3/8 of a mile, and not wanting to jeopardize getting the sports car stuck out in the middle of nowhere, I parked the Porsche, grabbed my camera and a windbreaker — it had started to spit rain — and started walking. Maybe a quarter-hour later, I saw the ancient structure perched at the edge of the canyon. It was an awe-inspiring sight — and site — though I wondered why Native Americans had picked this location for their building. 

I took some photos and, as I turned to walk back to the car, I realized that my path from the car had not been straight and that, well, I was lost. 

And if I was lost, so was the Porsche.

There was a similar structure on the other side of the canyon

Years earlier, I’d been a Boy Scout and knew enough not to panic but to stop and think about my predicament. I knew I had turned south off an east-west road and that I needed now to find my way north. Problem was, it had rained enough that any tracks I left in the sand were gone and the thick clouds also blotted out the sun, so I couldn’t use its location to determine directions.

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But I also knew I was within maybe 3/4 of a mile of the paved highway, so I stood still and listened, hoping I might hear a vehicle on that road. I thought I heard what might have been a vehicle. And then another. And finally another, and by now I was convinced the sounds were all coming from the same direction.  

I figured that must be the road, so I started walking that way. I also tried to follow the highest points along the way in hopes of spotting the parked Porsche. 

Finally, fortunately, there it was. Soon, and much to my relief, we were back on the road. 

I may have lost the 911 for an hour or so, but at least I didn’t get it stuck in wet sand

In Reno, I returned the Porsche. But it wasn’t until I was safely back in Detroit that I sent a thank-you note to the Porsche press department. With the note I included a photograph of the car from that day in Utah. It showed the cabriolet, which obviously was not on pavement.

As you might expect, I received a telephone asking for more information about my off-roading adventure. After all, 911s were not designed for unpaved adventures. 

I came clean, admitting that for a half-hour or so, both the car and I were lost, but adding that, obviously, we both had found our way back home. I also promised that never again would I take any Porsche off pavement, and except for the time I spun off a race track in a Boxster, I kept that promise, until I got to climb behind the wheel of a Cayenne, a Porsche that was designed for both tarmac and trail.

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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

5 COMMENTS

  1. GREAT GREAT GREAT read! Thanks Larry. As far as losing or misplacing a car, it happens whenever I go to Walmart. 1996 – seems like yesterday. I was also a Boy Scout, but that’s another story. Too bad the industry didn’t have key fobs with the emergency horn button……

  2. Thanks, Andy. And I’m not sharing the story about searching for 45 minutes in a shopping mall parking lot to find the Camry press car I’d parked one day. It was gray, just like seemingly every other Camry in metro Detroit!

  3. Love the story. That is what make life so much fun, Getting lost and then finding yourself, and in this case, the Porsche too. I can almost smell the fresh rain and hear the crunch of the sands as you gingerly drove that trail. Thank you for sharing Larry!

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