We enjoy our virgin foray on ice with Below Zero Ice Driving at the helm of an air-cooled Porsche 911.
SWEDEN - During winter in northern Sweden, temperatures drop to -20ºC, causing large lakes to freeze solid. Some folks drill holes in the ice and go fishing. Others ship over classic air-cooled Porsche 911s to offer you the world’s most unique driving experience – welcome to Below Zero Ice Driving.
Air-cooled 911s were built from 1963, finally making way in the late 1990s for cars with water-cooled engines, which produced more power with lower emissions. Many enthusiasts think air-cooled 911s represent the epitome of pure Porsche motoring, with their characteristic raspy engine note, engaging character, distinctive bug-eyes, classic silhouette and relatively low production numbers.
In recent years, prices of air-cooled 911s have risen dramatically, with the rarest variants changing hands for well over half a million dollars in overseas markets. Whilst these models are as rare as hen’s teeth on Singapore shores, even ‘plain vanilla’ air-cooleds trade for more than their modern water-cooled brethren here.
Of course, some feel that such precious Porsches should lead their lives in secure isolation as garage queens. And then you have UK-based Tuthill Porsche’s approach: every winter for the past ten years, the leading air-cooled 911 specialist has been shipping historic rally 911s to Scandinavia to be used as Porsche intended – driven on the limit with gusto, and on ice no less. In contrast to the many classic 911s in Singapore that spend their days “going from kopitiam to kopitiam”, as one bemused classic car collector put it, Tuthill’s ‘Below Zero’ instructors encourage you to push yourself and its cars to the limit.
My group of three has booked two cars, and is given the use of mechanically identical 1981 911 3.0 SC coupes, rally-prepared in Tuthill’s ‘Challenge’ specification: fully seam-welded body, uprated 260bhp engine, strengthened suspension with increased ride height, reinforced gearbox, limited slip differential, racing seat, bespoke exhaust and roll cage.
The cars are devoid of power steering, anti-lock brakes, traction control, carpets or insulation; the only concessions to comfort are factory power windows, although this will become irrelevant as the day progresses and the windows freeze in their partially open positions. We must look strange strapping ourselves into the four-point racing harnesses in ski outfits and thick gloves, but without cabin heaters, the car interiors are as cold as the surrounding woods.
The short drivers’ briefing ends with an enthusiastic “don’t be gentle, it’s a rental!” – setting the mood for two fantastic days of driving. We start with a slalom exercise on rally tyres with 3mm ‘button’ studs, in order to acquaint ourselves with how the cars behave with barely any grip on the ice. Our jovial instructors teach us how to use small steering inputs and big stabs of throttle to change direction, drift around cones, and control our slides at delicious angles.
After an hour, we graduate to the first of several ice tracks ploughed through the snow that blankets the lake. Before long, we’re pushing too hard and running our cars off the track, jumping onto adjacent snow banks and leaving ourselves stranded. Each car carries a walkie-talkie with a call button that summons a rescue vehicle to tow us out of the snow and back on the track, like magically resetting a real life video game with an unlimited number of lives.
In the afternoon, we are treated to tyres with 7mm studs, which increase traction levels and speeds. We are put on a longer and wider track, and asked to push even harder than in the morning. Indeed, whilst the cars now go much faster, out of control slides become easier to correct. The day ends all too soon, as the sun begins to set and darkness descends on the peaceful lake.
The next day, our instructors let us loose on longer and more challenging tracks, part of a network of about 15km carved out on the lake. Almost immediately, we’re pushing our limits, and cars are going into snow banks with alarming regularity. Surprisingly, the Below Zero team isn’t precious about its Porsches, telling us we’re not trying hard enough if we don’t go off once in a while. It would be easier to bruise your ego than to damage a car by driving into snow, and such is the camaraderie between the drivers and the crew that everyone is focused on driving and having fun, so getting stuck in the snow elicits laughter, rather than frustration.
We soon learn that ice driving is all about weight transfer, as hard acceleration shifts weight to the rear wheels, causing the car to push forward in a straight line, whilst going off the gas or braking shifts weight forward, causing the car to turn as angled front wheels find purchase. A well-timed stab on the throttle can then force the rear to break traction, swinging the back of the car around in a wide arc as you drift around a bend.
Whilst the effects are more pronounced on ice, the techniques of actively shifting weight between the axles, of being ultraprecise with your steering angles and carefully timing your inputs all apply to road driving, or even the occasional B-road blasts in Malaysia and Europe.
Below Zero is the only ice driving company in the world to offer air-cooled 911s, and they seem crazy to do so, given the values of these cars. With the engine weight hanging behind the rear axle and devoid of modern driver aids, classic 911s are notoriously difficult to drive fast, even in the best conditions. However, they lend themselves well to ice driving, where every steering or throttle input you make is accentuated and changes in surface grip are instantaneously telegraphed back to you, constantly challenging you to find a balance between delicacy and assertiveness.
There is a narrow window in which you can match your inputs with the pendulum effect of the rear-engined layout, inducing long slides through sweeping bends. Get it wrong and the car will spin around. Get it right, and you have one of the most rewarding driving experiences around.
Unlike some manufacturer-led ice driving experiences, Below Zero focuses on getting you to have fun, as well as maximising your seat time in the cars. Once, when we drive back to the rest area to get some air, our instructor admonishes us and tells us to keep going (“the harder you drive, the warmer it gets.”). We pause only for driver changes and lunch.
Our cars end up being driven every minute from the start of the day to the end of the afternoon, and perform faultlessly despite their age and relatively tough lives. It’s easy to see why 70 per cent of Below Zero’s clientele comprises repeat customers. The chance to drive rally-winning motoring icons to the limit in safety, combined with the satisfaction of getting a lap just right is a potent combination, enhanced by the team’s focus on ensuring you have an amazing experience. This year, we were on the lake for two days.
Next year, we’re going to do three... STORY TERENCE FOO IN SWEDEN; PHOTOS TERENCE FOO / BELOW ZERO
[For more details, visit www.belowzeroicedriving.com]
This feature first appeared in Top Gear Singapore #36 (March 2015)