CLASSIC REVIEW | Pretty much all you want to know about the Porsche 911 SC

16 April 2020 - 14:47
By Thomas Falkiner
A 1980 Porsche 911.
Image: Supplied A 1980 Porsche 911.

Built between 1978 and 1983 the SC is the “xennial” of the classic air-cooled 911 range. It's also partly the reason this legendary three-numbered nameplate exists today. Here Thomas Falkiner tells you all you'll probably ever need to know about this Porsche. 

What is it?

So in case you don't know, the SC was supposed to be the 911 swansong when it was launched to the press in 1978: one last hurrah for this venerable air-cooled, rear-engined sports car before it was replaced by the water-cooled, front-engined 928. Unfortunately for the 928 this never happened, as the SC proved to be something of an unexpected sales success, quickly outselling its more modern sibling by nearly 50%. These figures not only proved to Porsche that the world still wanted a 911 but were also a contributing factor to the decision by the company's then CEO, Peter Schultz, to keep said car in production.

It was replaced in 1984 by the 911 Carrera 3.2. 

SC stands for 'Super Carrera'.
Image: Supplied SC stands for 'Super Carrera'.

What does 'SC' stand for?

Many people think that “SC” is an acronym for “Supercharged”. This is incorrect. Others surmise that it stands for “Sporty Carrera” or even “Sexy Carrera”. These too are also incorrect. No, according to the Porsche website, “SC” actually stands for “Super Carrera”.

An 11-blade fan keeps the 3.0-litre flat-six motor cool.
Image: Supplied An 11-blade fan keeps the 3.0-litre flat-six motor cool.

I see. So I take it that there's something “super” lurking behind that rear axle, then?

Actually, no, not really. Automotive evolution usually brings with it an increase in power but compared to the model it replaced (the short-lived Carrera 3.0) the 3.0-litre boxer motor in the 911 SC actually churned out less - 133kW vs 148kW. This not only confused Porschephiles but also saw the world's motoring scribes scribble their pens in disbelief.

Fortunately Porsche saw the error in their ways and through modifying camshaft timing, tweaking the fuel injection system and upping the engine's compression ratio were systematically able to extract more power through the car's life cycle. In 1980 all non-US SC models would make 139kW at 5,500rpm. In 1981 this was upped to 150kW at 5,900rpm.

But to focus on power alone is to ignore one of this car's strongest traits - torque. One of the reasons why the SC launched with less muscle than its predecessor is because it had adopted a different camshaft design - one that endowed the boxer engine with a more tractable low-end as well as a much flatter torque curve. The upshot of this was a 911 that was not only easier to drive around town and in traffic, but one that also required fewer downshifts to extract performance. Early non-US models made 265Nm. In 1981 this was increased to 267Nm - with more than 250Nm available from about 3,800 to 5,300rpm.

You want performance figures? Well, at its evolutionary zenith, Porsche engineers claimed that the 1,160kg, 7.7kg/kW 911 SC could scamper from standstill to 100km/h in 6.8-seconds and reach a maximum speed of 235km/h. The standing kilometre was dispatched within 26.8-seconds. However SC owners will be quick to tell you that road testers of the time (Road & Track, Autocar, Car and Driver etc) were able to better these numbers.

A spindly gear lever operates the 915 series transmission. If it's cold don't rush it.
Image: Supplied A spindly gear lever operates the 915 series transmission. If it's cold don't rush it.

I heard that the SC doesn't have a great gearbox - true?

The 911 SC comes with a 915 series transmission that, depending on what forum you read, is either a misunderstood gem or a cantankerous mechanical anti-Christ. In reality the truth is somewhere in between. Derived from the competition-bred 916 gearbox used in the awesome Porsche 908 racing car, the 915 found its way into the 911 range back in 1972.

With that little history lesson behind us, let's get one thing straight: when cold the 915 is not a transmission that likes to be rushed. It will balk and it will grind. Hell, even when warmed through it does not take kindly to snap-shifting à la Vin Diesel in Fast & Furious.

It requires a slower and more deliberate approach to rowing through the ratios - not to mention a fair amount of mechanical sympathy. Many people do not have this automotive quality and consequently most of the SCs you are ever likely to drive will have gearboxes compromised from years of misuse and neglect. As such, the 915 is unfairly maligned. 

I say unfairly because this particular 911 SC sports a completely overhauled transmission and it is, once up to operating temperature, most agreeable with a smooth, albeit long-throw action that will not intimidate anybody familiar with driving classic sports cars fast. It still requires a deft touch compared to modern-day gearboxes, granted, but this simply adds to the analogue feel of the car - each shift becomes a mini-occasion in its own right.

The SC instrument cluster is classic 911 with the tachometer taking centre stage.
Image: Supplied The SC instrument cluster is classic 911 with the tachometer taking centre stage.

The SC was big in the early 1980s - does it have an interior in keeping with the time?

I wouldn't say so, no. Popular culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s was characterised by computers and robots and 8-bit arcade games exploding with rocket-ships and astronauts: caricatures of a world embracing an exciting new digital dawn.

However, when buckled into a 911 SC, you don't ever get a sense of this, as its dashboard layout and accompanying amenities seem like relics from decades past. Which they are. The original Porsche 911 hit the streets in 1964 and from an interior design point of view not a hell of a lot changed until it was eventually phased out of production in 1989.

On the plus side, this means you get one of the coolest instrument clusters you could ever hope to look at with a massive centrally-mounted tachometer dominating proceedings. To the left of it you'll find gauges for fuel and oil level, oil temperature and oil pressure. To the right there's a speedometer and a simple analogue clock with a quartz movement.

Set in the middle of the dashboard is the radio (originally a Blaupunkt cassette deck) as well as one third of the SC's ridiculously complicated HVAC system, that uses a series of sliding knobs to control fan-speed and airflow.

I've owned this car for six years now and I still don't understand how the hell it all works. Want to make the cabin hotter? Well then you have to turn your attention to the space between the front seats where the heater control lives. Want to try to make the cabin cooler? Then you're forced to fiddle with the two rotary knobs sitting behind the gear lever that control the air-conditioning system.

And that's about it really. Aside from electric-windows, a curious two-speed rear window demister and a ciggie lighter, there's precious little else to tie the SC into the era of Greed and Excess. Which is maybe a good thing because it means that you can concentrate more on driving - what the Porsche 911 has always been about anyway.

Speaking of which ... what is it like to drive, is it fast?

OK, so let's get this out of the way - by modern standards the Porsche 911 SC is not fast. Quick, yes, but fast no. If a Volkswagen Golf GTI pulls up next to you at the traffic lights do not be tempted to take it on because you will lose. It will be embarrassing. Heck, at Joburg altitudes pretty much anything with a turbocharger will blow you clear into the weeds. 

In real-world conditions I would say that the 911 SC is on a performance par with the Honda S2000. My friend had one and, on the few occasions that we drag raced each other, the two cars were neck and neck. The Honda has a lot more top-end power but the Porsche has way more torque, which kind of balances things out nicely between them. 

Being an older car the SC lacks the NVH (Noise, Vibration and Harshness) insulation of modern vehicles. This means that even though you might not be travelling very fast, your senses are tricked into thinking that you are. In other words, 200km/h in a 1980 911 SC feels like 300km/h in a 2008 Audi R8 V8. I kind of like this feature because it means you don't have to risk imprisonment and/or a grisly crash to feel any sense of speed.

Driven in isolation on public roads I know and love I'd surmise that the SC is something of a Goldilocks car: not too fast, not too slow - just right. Anything quicker seems like overkill, unless you're going to attend regular track days, which I'm not because I own a racing car. 

Most people tend to concentrate solely on raw, point-to-point performance when analysing Porsche 911s and this is a mistake. Taken at a more sedate pace you'll find that these sportsters make excellent GT cars and the SC is no exception. On the few long-distance jaunts I've undertaken in mine, I've been amazed at how easily it gobbles up the miles. Fifth gear is reasonably long, which means that you can sit at 140km/h all day long at little over 3,400rpm. Even at 160km/h, that 3.0-litre motor is hardly breaking sweat. 

For a 40-year-old classic car a good 911 SC can reel in the horizon with the best of them.

Braking performance? In its day this Porsche model was praised for its newly servo-assisted anchors. Today though, you can certainly feel that the art of vehicular retardation has moved on. I'm not saying the brakes (282mm discs front, 290mm discs rear) on the SC are bad, but you certainly do need to look ahead a lot more than you do in modern cars and make provision for a longer stopping distance. Also, there's no ABS present, so if you do suddenly stomp on the middle pedal your cadence braking game better be on point.

And that lairy handling - won't it make a meal of me?

While it's true that a classic air-cooled 911 demands a different driving style (think slower into corners and faster out of them), I personally don't think they deserve the tail-happy reputation they've long been burdened with. Maybe in the wet, sure, but in the dry, riding on modern performance tyres, I've never felt like my SC has ever wanted to pendulum me arse-first into a wall. Suspension and geometry set-ups is also crucial on these cars. If not set within Porsche's exacting specifications they will feel vague and loose and dangerous. Again, this is probably where all these tales of woe originate - through ill-kept examples. So if you're going to drive a classic 911, make sure everything is dialled-in as it should be.

With everything sorted the 911 SC is an absolute joy to drive, thanks to that wriggly, feelsome steering and a level of chassis feedback that modern sports will never be able to replicate. You're aware of all road sensations inside this Porsche and, as such, it makes you feel like you're part of the machine - as terribly cliched as that may sound.

There's also that lovely realisation that you're in charge of your own destiny here. With no driver aids, the only thing keeping you out of the next crash barrier are your reflexes and instinct. An old Porsche makes you feel alive. It removes you from our overly policed and sanitised world. It wants you to ignore your phone, step up to the plate and accept some responsibility for your actions. And in the foul year of our lord, 2020, I really like that. 

The classic 911 silhouette was made for moody backdrops and dramatic IG filters.
Image: Supplied The classic 911 silhouette was made for moody backdrops and dramatic IG filters.

Can you drive a SC every day?

If you want to, sure. In fact I often find mine a whole lot nicer to drive around our streets than some modern cars I get on test, because the ride is so darn spiffy - Porsche did a good job at making the SC sporty but not crashy. Also those relatively high-profile 16-inch tyres absorb asphalt imperfections so much better than the low-profile equivalents that grace modern day performance cars. Around town the 911 SC is a comfortable place to be.

There are a few things that count against it, however. Like that seriously substandard AC system (even when new they sucked) that will do little to combat sweat on hot summer days. Since all old 911s run a lot of caster, the SC is something of a handful when manoeuvring at low speeds. The 915 gearbox is a royal pain in the butt when stuck in stop-start traffic (the shift between first and second and back again has never been its strong suit), while fuel consumption tends to run eye-wateringly high. In an urban environment it takes careful shifting and a lot of restraint to break 13l/100km. Bank on 15l/100km to be the norm. Cruising on a highway at 120km/h will see you whittle things down to about 10l/100km.

Mechanically speaking, the 911 SC feels incredibly robust for what it is. Mine has never overheated in traffic or protested to any prolonged use. In fact, I would say that not using these cars on a regular basis is much worse for them than driving them too much. Find a good one, keep it well maintained and it should be as reliable as anything else out there. 

Parts availability is excellent. Porsche Classic and OEM suppliers will have everything you need. Just be warned - some bits and pieces can be expensive.
Image: Supplied Parts availability is excellent. Porsche Classic and OEM suppliers will have everything you need. Just be warned - some bits and pieces can be expensive.

Finally, are they expensive to run?

They can be, yes. You must understand that many of these cars are now 40 years old and parts of them will be in need of refurbishment. If not now, then in the near future. Things like the engine. And the gearbox. And the braking system. And the suspension system. And various parts of the complex Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection system. Buying a Porsche 911 SC is one thing, but being prepared to look after and pay to maintain it is quite another. 

Luckily spares are widely available from both Porsche Classic and other OEM suppliers. You can literally get anything for them - and I mean anything. The only caveat is the cost. Some bits and pieces are surprisingly affordable (a clutch for example), while others can be ridiculously expensive (anything that lives inside the gearbox for example).

Consequently I'd recommend routine preventive maintenance and regular setting aside of money to deal with the things you're inevitably going to have to either fix or replace. This may feel like a burden, but I find improving and fixing up my car bit by bit to be incredibly rewarding. Each step takes it closer to how it used to be when it first left the factory. And, hell, whatever you spend on maintenance you should see back if you ever decide to sell. 

I guess it comes down to how much you want to own and drive one of these cars. For the money you can buy much newer, faster and easier to live with sports cars fitted with all the modern-day luxuries such as satellite navigation, Bluetooth and heated seats. I'll bet a lifetime worth of free pints though that none of them will eclipse the brand cachet, heritage, quirkiness and seat-of-your-pants ownership experience that the SC offers. If you're willing to make some sacrifices then go for it. If not, then I'd say get something else.