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Midnight Ride

October 1973 — We turn left and head east on Imperial Highway, away from the ocean: two Porsches, one a canary-yellow Coupe, the other a dark-blue Speedster, out for a late-night ride. To our left, lit up like a city, is Los Angeles International Airport. To the right is El Segundo, asleep for the night, and an oil refinery that never sleeps. There are few headlights out at this hour, and the freedom that is so much a part of the open road is palpable even though these are city streets we are traveling. I’m in the yellow Coupe with Charles. Rob is alone in the Speedster. They are my brothers. With my two other brothers who also drive Porsches, we are a Porsche family.

At the next intersection is a filling station, where we pull in. The station attendant approaches but my brothers are quicker. They each take a nozzle, plunk it into their tank, and begin pumping. With hands in pocket, the attendant eyes us with detachment. What does he think of our bare-essential Porsches? He takes our money and we’re off again, northbound on Pacific Coast Highway. A jetliner taxies on the runway up ahead. We dip into a tunnel beneath the runway and fill the enclosed space with the metallic blare of air-cooled engines. Seconds later we emerge on the other side experiencing a kind of decompression. A high-rise hotel passes by on the right, followed by a block of storefront windows that mirror our cars. The traffic signals are green as far as we can see, and stay green all the way to the Lincoln turnoff, which changes to red as we approach. This is where we head back toward the ocean, but first we must wait out the light.

Wait. What’s this? Another Porsche stops beside us, a dark green 914. “It’s the new two-liter,” Charles says. The two-liter? Our Porsche is an older 356, which like Rob’s came equipped from the Stuttgart factory with a one-and-a-half liter engine. That is decidedly not the case now. Charles’ 356 has been considerably modified, the displacement increased to one-point-eight liters, updated with special rods and pistons, a tricked out camshaft, over-sized intake ports and valves, tuned exhaust, and carburetors tweaked for maximum fuel-air flow. In other words, Charles’ Porsche is quick—quicker than Corvette quick, quicker than-most-anything-on-the-road quick. What of the Porsche two-liter purring beside us? “We’ll get him,” says Charles. I look past him to the shadowy profile seated inside the green Porsche. Is he aware of us? Of course he is. He’s in a Porsche. And we’re in a Porsche.

The light changes. The 914 Porsche moves out easily, as do we, heading side-by-side into the cover of darkness. The 914 picks up speed. So do we. More speed from the 914. We match him. Then, bang, he’s off like a shot. CharIes makes a tremendous effort at pushing his right foot through the floor. Fifty, sixty, seventy miles-per-hour register on the dial. We catch the 914 and move past at the rate of a fast walk—eighty, ninety, one-hundred miles-per-hour. The 914 falls well behind. He’s backed off, beaten. Charles bears down on the brakes, cutting speed to a legal 35 m.p.h., for the next town scrolling into our view. We crawl past car lots, liquor stores, markets closed for the night, another filling station. I turn around and see the headlights of Rob’s Speedster beside those of the 914. The few signals stay green. The lights of town run out and we enter darkness again. The road ahead swings downhill through two long curves, toward Marina del Rey. In the far distance shine the lights of West Los Angeles and Hollywood. Speeding down off the hill has all the sensation of an airplane coming in for landing. At the bottom is another signal. It’s green, and turns red as we approach. Nuts. We slow to a stop and wait. And wait. Where’s Rob? And where’s the green 914? I look out through the rear window and see two pairs of headlights fast approaching. The light changes, we turn left, and the 914, going straight, speeds by us.

The next road is narrow and rough. Rob follows us through the turn, guns past us, and the next thing we see are his two red taillights. In two-shakes we’re hard on his tail, in three we’re beside him, in four we’ve passed him. It’s as easy as that. Rob’s Speedster, with its factory-stock engine, is no match for Charles’ maniacally maxed-out engine.

Ahead is another turn-off. It will take us to the backside of the airport and on to El Segundo. I can’t see the turn, but Charles knows the road and already is setting up for the turn-in. We swing left, then right, slam up a steep hill and crest the bluff above the Marina. Another left turn and we’re under the lights of another town. There’s a laundromat, another liquor store and gas station, dry cleaners—a tableaux of store fronts and street lights that is soon behind us. In darkness again, we’re somewhere between the end of the airport runway and the Pacific Ocean, in a lowland of sand dunes and high grass. We crest a rise where Charles pulls over. We climb out and meet Rob. The ocean air is cool and wet and smells of kelp. Except for waves breaking on the beach, it’s absolutely still.

Charles lights a cigarette. “How’d you do against the 914?”

Rob, dressed in an old Army jacket, frowns. “He got me.”

“Yeah?” says Charles.

The roar of a jetliner bears down on us to shatter the silence. The big plane lifts off and soars high overhead. “Remember the jet that went down after takeoff?” Charles asks.

“No,” says Rob.

“Ditched in the ocean; it was several years ago.” Charles looks at me.

“Really? I never heard about it,” and wonder if Charles is merely making small talk, or hoping for some reaction, astonishment perhaps, disbelief, something, anything to get a rise out of me. He’s been doing it to me for years.

“Yeah, it took off, and came down about a mile out—no survivors. You remember, don’t you, Rob?”

Rob says nothing. He too lights a cigarette. Another jetliner, all lights and noise, rushes at us, lifts off and soars overhead. In a few seconds the jet is out over the ocean, climbing, climbing into the night. Charles and Rob talk intently, and I wonder why I came. Oh, I love their life of cars and hair-raising rides, I just don’t want to be a part of it anymore. As much as I’ve modified my Volkswagen, made it quick, it’s not a Porsche. I’ve decided I don’t want a Porsche. I want to finish college; get on with my life.

Charles and Rob are intensely competitive, and at the moment Charles has the upper hand with his super-quick yellow Coupe. Rob’s Speedster is the car they sometimes race in weekend club events. He’s forever swapping out engines, and tonight has been caught with a stock engine that cannot beat either the green 914 or Charles’ Coupe. No doubt it’s eating at him, but I’m sure he’ll get over it.

- END -

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