1968 Porsche 911
Three new variations appeared during 1968: two for Europe, one for the United States, and both part of a Porsche 911 updating designated "A-Series." America's model was the Porsche 911L, replacing the standard issue just after the start of the model year. The L stood for Luxus (luxury) and attached to what was basically an S with the normal-tune engine.
An upmarket move, it sold for $600 more than the previous year's 911, with some of the increase reflecting modifications to meet 1968's new federal safety and emissions standards. Outside, all '68 U.S. Porsches were distinguished -- if that's the word -- by add-on side marker lights, again per Washington edict. Why Porsche didn't simply integrate them within the wrapped taillight and parking-lamp clusters isn't known, though this would be done later.
German police used Porsche 911s for high-speed pursuits in the late '60s.
For all this updating, Porsche 911s were still far from perfect. Plug-fouling afflicted even the base model (though not as severely as the S), and a switch to Weber carbs didn't completely cure the jetting and adjustment bothers of the old Solexes. Bosch WG 265 T2SP sparkplugs helped some, but the '68 L met emission limits with an air-injection pump at the exhaust manifold that produced rough running and backfiring on deceleration.
It was a makeshift solution for Porsche and another one that would not last. In fact, the factory later made amends with a retrofit kit comprising revised jets and readjusted accelerator rods.
Announced in Europe during 1967 was a surprising new Porsche 911 option that went to America for '68: Sportomatic, Porsche's first automatic transmission. Devised by Fichtel & Sachs expressly for the United States, it was, said Car and Driver, a throwback to "Detroit's bizarre efforts at clutchless shifting that died a merciful death in the middle Fifties."
That description was apt, as Sportomatic was another semi-automatic transmission: specifically, a four-speed Porsche manual gearbox operated by a three-element hydraulic torque converter with a single dry-plate clutch.
Road & Track described it this way: "The converter is a 'loose' one, with a stall speed of 2600 rpm and stall torque ratio of 2.15:1; its oil supply is common with the engine's, adding 2.5 qt. to that reservoir. The clutch is disengaged by a vacuum servo unit that gets its signal from a microswitch on the shift linkage; thus, a touch on the shift lever disengages the clutch. The gearbox is the usual all-synchro 4-speed unit but with a parking pawl added."
Gear ratios differed considerably, though. The Sportomatic's first through third were all numerically lower than the manual four-speed's, while its fourth was slightly higher. Its final drive was numerically lower, too. With that, a Sportomatic L was slower off the line than its manual counterpart but almost as fast all-out. Helping performance was a very high converter efficiency of 96.5 percent.
Driving with Sportomatic took practice. As R&T explained: "For all normal acceleration from rest, D (2nd gear) is used. The converter lets the engine run up to 2600 rpm immediately and...gets the car moving briskly, but noisily...A direct shift to 4th at some casual speed will be the usual upshift. For...vigorous driving, the Sportomatic is just like the manual 4-speed except that one shifts without the clutch...We found that the best technique was to engage 1st gear, let the clutch in (by taking the hand off the stick), 'jack up' the engine against the converter while holding the brakes, and release the brakes to start."
The technique was a little hard on the transmission but good for 0-60 in 10.3 seconds and a standing quarter-mile of 17.3 seconds at 80 mph. Car and Driver did better: 9.3 seconds to 60 mph and 16.8 seconds at 82 mph in the quarter. "There's absolutely no trouble in shifting," the magazine asserted. "Just grab the lever and move it. No matter how fast you do it, it's impossible to beat the clutch or the synchronizers."
In effect, Sportomatic was a compromise answer to the penchant of U.S. drivers for lugging along in high gear at low revs, thus fouling plugs and otherwise loading up engines. It was also perhaps a nod to the American preference for easier drivability than previous Porsches offered.
Where the 911's high torque peak meant lots of manual shifting, R&T found that Sportomatic allowed one to stay "in 4th gear down to ridiculous speeds like 20 mph and still accelerate smartly away with traffic. The 911 engine likes revs, and the converter lets it rev." Unhappily, it also made for more engine noise, which R&T likened to that of "a GM city bus."
Viewed objectively, Sportomatic was a typically well-judged Porsche response to a perceived need, and it didn't much hurt performance or mileage. Yes, declutching by mere touch was disconcerting (one wag suggested putting burrs on the shifter, to be removed after 500 miles), but drivers grew accustomed to it.
Still, it wasn't the sort of thing most Porsche fans could endorse, and by the early Seventies, demand for Sportomatic in the United States was practically nil. Regardless, the option would be available to special order all the way through May 1979.
Though "unhappy" with Sportomatic in its March 1968 road test, Car and Driver was pleased to note the adoption of 5.5-inch-wide wheels for all Porsche 911s. "Racing seems to have improved the breed here, and Porsche, which stormed off with the under 2-liter championship in the '67 [Sports Car Club of America] Trans-Am series, has obviously paid attention to how they accomplished that. Ride harshness suffers, but what the hell."
Though C/D liked Porsche 911 handling more than ever, it warned first-time pilots to "approach [the car] with great respect."
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