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Sharkwerks Builds The 964 RS America Porsche Should Have

« We don’t build race cars” Alex Ross quietly muses to me before taking another bite of his fruit and nut bar. We’d just come up the face of a mountain via a demanding and technical 20-mile ribbon of pockmarked and rutted pavement, which had served to make that point blatantly obvious to me. This Guards Red 964 handled the drive in a way that felt distinctly uncharacteristic for an air-cooled Porsche. Compliance is the name of the game here, and what an intoxicating game it is.

We’ve reached the summit of what must be the greatest driving road in the county (I hesitate to say state) and parked up at the base of an observatory dome. We’re above the cloud line up here, isolated from the world. Recent wildfires north of the bay have blocked our view of the real world in all directions. It’s a Friday afternoon and everyone else is stuck at their desk. The air is still and with the ignition clicked off the silence washes in to hang over us like a fog. It’s a surreal feeling.

I flew hands alight and elbows akimbo on my way up the hill – dive into hairpin, fling the steering wheel 180 degrees, feed in throttle as needed, and float the steering wheel back. This process repeats itself seemingly several hundred times. I’m still moderately out of breath due to the combined altitude, physical nature of the drive, and my auto writer’s physique. Mister Ross, with whom I’ve driven a dozen times before, maintained himself cool and composed, despite the wild ride. Whether that’s a testament to my driving ability or the car’s ability to handle anything you throw at it, we may never know the answer. I’m kidding, it’s definitely the car.

Between slugs from a bottle of Smart Water and the second half of his snack bar, he tells me the tale of the Porsche he bought earlier this year. It’s a 1993 964 Carrera 2 that lived a long life on the road at the hands of countless unknown previous owners. They’d collectively driven the car serious distances, but luckily each of them cared for the car quite well during their ownership stint. The paint looks well taken care of, and the interior is more or less excellent. With 964 values ballooning, he picked up what is perhaps the last truly good bargain and set to work getting it right. I’m a fan of the finished product.

In day to day life, Alex is the marketing arm and one of the owners of Porsche tuning shop Sharkwerks. They’ve made a name for themselves in the Porsche world as having built nuclear-weapons-grade power from large displacement and turbocharged water-cooled engines. Whether for GT3s with 3.9 liter (and larger) high-rev engines, GT2s with over 700 horses of boosted power, track exhausts for 911R, or their everything-is-perfection Cayman GT4s, you’ve probably heard of their work. All of that said, it’s important to note that this is the car Alex wanted to build, an everyday Porsche for himself, not exactly a shop project.

I’ve driven time and again in Porsches too stiff or too low for proper usefulness. Often, when given the unlimited settings of a coilover suspension system, tuning shops and owners will select a setting that would be excellent on a freshly paved racing circuit, but falls on its face when dealing with California pavement several decades beyond serviceable. Not so in the case of Alex’s 964, which leverages the traditional Porsche rear weight bias for unparalleled traction without exhibiting the pendulum swing feeling inherent in most 911s. In this Porsche the engine isn’t a bully trying to drag you sideways by the back of your neck, it’s a young child tugging at your wrist, trying to get your attention.

Though the 964 chassis is often derided for being the first 911 to move away from the iconic torsion bar suspension design, it is inherently a more sophisticated design. In order to improve the car’s natural handling, Bilstein’s PSS10 coilover system provides a complete range of adjustability, and combined with a stiffer set of sway bars from H&R is more sophisticated still. Once all of that had been installed, the 964 was dropped off to Tony at TC Design for a quality daily-driver caliber chassis setup and alignment. Whatever type of suspension black magic Tony practices, it’s working.

Perhaps the keystone to this whole Porsche is the set of tires Alex chose. Were it not for Alex’s good friend Magnus Walker and his relationship with Pirelli, we would not have this sticky set of Trofeo R tires in proper Porsche 964 sizes. This is the tire Magnus recommends for serious canyon carving, and now I know why. I’m not sure how they’ve done it, but Pirelli seems to have found an alien substance that magnetically bonds to any type of road surface. There was absolutely nothing I could do to upset this Carrera 2’s chassis, up to and including abrupt mid-corner corrections to dodge my way around errant wildlife.

From the outside, you would be hard pressed to determine much has been done to this Porsche, and that’s the way I like it. Grabbing a few trim pieces from other models, Alex’s 964 has a unique look that will only be noticed by the Porsche cognoscenti. A set of chrome H4 headlight trim rings are a simple swap that makes a big visual difference. My favorite addition, however, is the simple RSR-style front lip spoiler. It took me several minutes of examining the car to even notice its presence, but the subtlety was noted and appreciated.

Big power is great and all, but when it comes to daily driver comfort Alex wanted something that he could exploit to its full extent on his way to and from the office. Having been a long-time Porsche fanatic, he also determined it’d been too long since he’d had an air-cooled car. When the right deal fell into his lap, Alex had to jump at the chance for this one.

>When I first opened the door I was happy for a unique set of tan Recaro sportster seats to match the stock tan carpet, but then was disappointed when I folded my 6-foot-2-inch frame into them. The seats are mounted in the perfect place for Alex, who is a bit shorter than I am, but are too far forward and too elevated for my figure. Were it not for the rare small diameter Momo-built Porsche Motorsport steering wheel and Rennline adjustable pedals, I might not have experienced the joy of driving this 964 at all. Even knowing that this is not a fault of the car, I still spent the whole time cursing the angle of my throttle ankle and ended the drive with a bruise atop my head where it contacted the edge of the sunroof surround.

Here in the good ‘ole USA we were never treated to the joy of the 964-generation Carrera RS, receiving the shoddy facsimile RS America instead. Our faux RS equates to little more than a standard C2 with a manual steering rack and a rear seat delete; no power upgrade, no lightweight flywheel, and no trick RS suspension. The proper RS wasn’t without its foibles, however, as the lightweight flywheel caused many owners to complain of stalling issues. Alex’s Porsche fixes that.

The goal for this build was to combine the RS sensibilities with modern drivability. That couldn’t exactly be accomplished with the nearly 30-year-old Bosch ‘barn door’ flapper box intake system as it reacts to throttle position changes the way a tortoise reacts to lettuce—that is, excitedly, but slowly. Working with a UK-based outfit called ST Systems, a complete Delta 400 plug-and-play ECU system was crafted to work with a modern MAP sensor-style intake tract. Combined with a set of larger fuel injectors, the Sharkwerks primary muffler bypass pipe, and a proper tune, the stock 3.6-liter has been given a new life with excellent throttle sensitivity and a 3.8 RS-aping 300 horsepower. It still uses fuel you can purchase from a pump in California, too.

With the engine sorted, reducing the weight of the rotating assembly was next in line. In this case, it was handled without opening the crankcase. The flywheel and pressure plate, a lightweight assembly cribbed from the now-iconic 997 GT3 RS 4.0, work with an un-sprung sport clutch disc to remove appreciable pounds from the end of the crankshaft, allowing the engine to spin up to redline much quicker. A huge improvement over stock, not to mention lighter (and stronger) than even the early RS was from the factory. Shifted through an FD Motorsports short throw, the gear-to-gear change is solid, notchy, and reliable.

With snacktime over, Alex and I climb back aboard and take off for more mountain carving. With coastal Pacific Ocean only a few dozen miles away, I have a distinct sensation that feels very akin to surfing. Incredible grip and the traditionally exquisite light and responsive 911 steering lend this 964 an ability to carve corners in a way that feels distinctly connected. That feeling when you’re slotted into a fresh swell? This 964 delivers the same.

A gaggle of squirrels, the odd cow (seriously), and even a family of wild boars conspired to interrupt our traverse down the other side of the mountain. Thankfully for me (and for the wildlife), the car was fitted with a Brembo Club Race big brake kit at all four corners and a good set of pads with serious rotor grabbing power. This kit was chosen primarily because it fit behind the stock 17” Cup-style wheels, and provided a decent decrease in unsprung weight, but the braking power was certainly welcome. Pedal feel remained excellent for the entire drive, as likely the larger swept area of the rotors helped keep brake cooling a non-issue, even with heavy, repeated, and sustained downhill braking. I did find the full floating rotors squeaked almost constantly as the rotor ring moved on its bobbins, but the kit was well worth the minor inconvenience.

As with any 25 year old car, especially one with nigh on 200,000 miles clicked over on the odometer, there are bound to be minor faults. This 964 is no different. In addition to the brake noise, the power steering system groaned after only a few miles of rapid steering wheel movement, and the sunroof is permanently stuck in the closed position. With as good as the rest of this red beast is, a few transgressions can be forgiven, I think.

With a little over 100 pounds removed from the car and a bit more than a 10% power bump, this is a serious 911, far more deserving of Porsche’s RS nameplate than the America was. Rolling back down to the bottom of Mt. Hamilton, I exclaimed to Alex how much fun his daily driver was to drive and how great a job Sharkwerks had done with it. In his familiarly humble and surprisingly quiet manner, Alex said simply, “Porsche did most of the work, we just f****d it up a bit”.

 
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SharkWerks

It is incredible to think that SharkWerks is only just over a decade old. Already a household name in the international Porsche industry, their tuned cars and products regularly reach as far afield as Europe, the Middle East and Australia – and what’s even more phenomenal is how this envious global following has been cultivated through the hard work of just four people.

Regular readers of Total 911 will, of course, be familiar with the breathtaking ‘Sharkafied’ Porsches created by Alex ‘Sharky’ Ross, Joan Wood, James Hendry and Dan Kennedy, each creation hailing from the humble SharkWerks premises in Fremont, California. But how and why was the company formed in the first place?

James, who cofounded SharkWerks with Alex, tells me the story of the company’s beginning during my tour of their nautically-themed headquarters: “I met Alex back in 2004. We were both Porsche owners and weren’t happy with what was available in our area in terms of performance tuning,” he says, “so we quickly decided the reasonable thing to do was to start our own business to put that right.”

SharkWerks was born in 2005, just in time for the 997-generation of 911 to begin reaching dealer showrooms. Not long after, these same new 997s would find their way to Fremont for tuning, and the tradition has continued through every Turbo, GT and Rennsport release since, right up to and including today’s 991s – with owners known to have driven their new 911 straight from the showroom floor to SharkWerks’ front door.

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Needless to say, the focus at SharkWerks has always been towards the water-cooled Porsches thanks to the big power gains their flat six engines offer, with every variety of 996, 997 and 991 variants tuned to improve outright performance as well as driving experience.

However, it is the turbocharged cars that offer the greatest performance gains, and this is an area close to the heart of Alex ‘Sharky’ Ross in particular. So nicknamed because of his lifelong obsession with the fearsome elasmobranch fish, Sharky grew up in London, England, and has fond recollections of the mesmerising 930, complete with that appropriately named whaletail.

This obsession with forced-induction Porsches would follow him to America, culminating in the purchase of a 996 Turbo in 2001. He continues the story: “When I first got it, my friend (at the time) Dan and I were looking at ways to get more power and race people at the quarter-mile track in Bakersfield.”

“From stock to tuned we were quickly able to go from 12 seconds to 11 seconds. That part was relatively easy. By 2004 I had met James at a local shop and he was interested in helping me get more serious with modifications to try and get the car into the 10 seconds.”

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“There weren’t many folks showing up to the racetrack with 911 Turbos but we stuck at it and, admittedly, it was a somewhat short – some would say juvenile – but nevertheless fun way to test and tune.” This hunger for more testing and tuning led to Alex’s 996 Turbo securing the National Hot Rod Association’s street car quarter-mile record at 10.5 seconds – a record that stood for well over a year.

The blue touch paper had been lit and now others were talking. Alex continues: “I couldn’t really continue to have meet and greets on my garage floor at home, so James and I started up a small shop. Our friend Todd at EVOMS also gave us a nudge, inviting us to line up with his shop 996TT at the drag strip in Arizona for a double attempt to get to 9 seconds.”

Sad but true, we both made it about an eighth of a mile as he grenaded his transmission and I lifted the heads on the motor on the same run. No, we didn’t get into the 9 seconds, but a bond was born that day. We all went home and learned from it. That really kicked off the engine-building programme on those cars and laid the foundation for what we do nowadays.”

“At that time, James and I were also dabbling with going to private track days, and corners started to become more interesting. Setting up these understeering AWD cars to handle better was another fun challenge. I think that by living, driving and testing these cars in all sorts of scenarios we got a good gauge for what works and what doesn’t.”

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“Testing, tuning & R&D’ing on our own cars is a philosophy we still have today. We don’t trial and error on customer cars and once we have gotten our cars to what we feel is dialed, true and tested, then we release parts, kits and packages.”

As you can see, SharkWerks isn’t merely a trio of businessmen looking to profit from California’s thriving Porsche 911 sub-industry. Far from it. These are drivers who love cars, know a lot about how they work and where they can be bettered, and are ready to help those who want in on this knowledge, particularly when it comes to a car with Zuffenhausen’s prancing horse affixed to its nose.

Even better, it quickly becomes apparent during our visit that Alex, James and Dan are all convivial, affable guys who enjoy what they do immensely. Adept at discussing the most intricate Porsche engineering details, they’re not afraid to share their sense of humour with you either, advocating a genuine family-like atmosphere unlike anything I’ve ever experienced at a specialist.

However, a customer isn’t paying for charm, so what of SharkWerks’ products themselves? Again, only excellence reigns supreme. SharkWerks’ most famous work comes in reengineering Zuffenhausen flat sixes, often involving an increase in capacity using their own tooling.

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Their 3.6 to 3.9-litre conversions on the 997.1 GT3 were groundbreaking from the outset (Alex, James and Dan marketed this long before the factory RS 4.0-litre, don’t forget) and this set the benchmark for further adventures with the Rennsport’s Mezger heart.

The pinnacle of this came in the form of the brilliant RS 4.1 – based on the factory 3.8-litre 997.2 GT3 RS – our cover star of issue 122 and undoubtedly one of the greatest 911s we’ve ever had the privilege of driving. It really is that good.

Away from all-out engine tuning, SharkWerks stock a range of their own bespoke parts for customers to buy individually. And, when they’re not making their own performance products, SharkWerks are working with others of a similar repute in the industry.

As such, their list of partners is enthralling, with the likes of EVOMSit, TechArt, Werks1, Tubi, RSS, Cargraphic, Brembo, Bilstein and HRE collaborating to cover every possible dimension of Porsche performance tuning. Dan, a friend of Alex’s and who has worked at SharkWerks for eight years, underlines the importance of SharkWerks’ parts arm, particularly with regard to international business.

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He tells us: “Export is a huge part of what we do. About 25 per cent of our products go to the Middle East, 25 per cent to Europe and the rest currently goes to the Far East.”

Interestingly, SharkWerks split their upgrades down differently to other tuners, too, giving more flexibility as to the individual needs of each car, as James explains: “We don’t offer stage tuning as such as it’s arbitrary, instead we offer areas of tuning in suspension, engine and the like.” Whether it’s turbocharged or naturally aspirated, SharkWerks’ ten years of experience means that they are well versed at getting the very best from a Porsche 911.

And what of the future? Well, Alex is keen to keep it in the family, so to speak. “I don’t ever see us growing or expanding into anything else. We’re a tight-knit, family-run operation and quite resistant to change, PDK, more buttons and driver aids! I think after ten years we’re starting to feel old and grumpy perhaps?”

I mean, do we really need 28 different flavours of 911, not to mention 12 Panos, ten Cayennes et al? I hope Porsche settles down a bit and re-focuses on making fun driver cars,” he says. If it doesn’t, this will no doubt turbocharge the ever-growing appeal behind what SharkWerks are doing with Porsche’s icon, all the way from the tranquillity of that premises in Fremont.

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Top five Porsche drives of 2015 – Lee’s picks

The past twelve months have been exceptional for Total 911. In the year we hosted our inaugural Total 911 Awards, we also got behind the wheel of some truly exquisite 911s in our bid to provide you with world-leading Porsche journalism across our website, magazine and digital specials.

While that may sound a tad self-indulgent, it goes without saying the biggest delight we have here is sharing our experiences at the wheel of such great steers exclusively with you, our fanatical Total 911 readership. So, here’s the top five Porsche 911s I’ve had the pleasure of steering this year:

5) Porsche 911T 2.0-litre

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Surprised? So was I. Back in issue 127 we got behind the wheel of the first and last 911T to chart the evolution of the first entry-level 911. By the end of the test, I actually found favour with the short wheelbase, 2.0-litre variant over the (slightly) more contemporary 2.4. To get the 911T moving, you have to live in the final third of the rev range, really wringing its neck to get anywhere near ‘fast’.

The best thing is, this sensation can be achieved well within legal speed limits on the road and, complete with the early T’s ‘dogleg’ first gear and a cool rasp on induction from the carburettors, this classic 911 has bundles of charm. It’s no daily driver but the thrill of driving the first T was only bettered by four other Porsches for me this year.

4) Porsche 3.2 Speedster

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Speedsters: you either love ‘em or you don’t. I’ve long found peace with this 911’s altered silhouette and am fascinated by the degree of engineering that’s been plied into making this car aesthetically pleasing and practical to own (have you ever seen the brilliantly-shaped door glass on an air-cooled 911 Speedster?).

Our group test of every Porsche Speedster in issue 129 made for an exciting comparison along the Sussex Downs, but the 3.2 Speedster was the one I was most enamoured with. Despite not drawing on the original 356’s spartan-inspired interior as with the later 964, the 3.2’s more agricultural approach to the 911 was most enchanting, complemented of course by that amenable G50 gearbox. It’s the perfect boulevard cruiser.

3) Porsche 991 GT3

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Thanks to the 2014 recall (we won’t talk about the 2015 recall just yet) I didn’t get the chance to climb behind the wheel of this latest GT3 until summer with our head-to-head test with the 997.2 GT3 RS in issue 131.

The wait was well worth it: the 991 GT3 is a sublime machine that’s blessed with breathtaking pace and exquisite poise – not to mention that ungodly exhaust howl every time the crank spins up to 9,000rpm. Feeling unshakable through corners, the 991 GT3 feels unlike any other 911, so much so that its performance remit feels almost omnipotent at times.

2) Porsche 997 GT3 RS 4.0

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I should start by saying the 997.2 GT3 RS is possibly my favourite 911 steer, ever. We’ve been lucky enough to jump into one many times in recent years at Total 911, on both road and track. Compared to the 991 GT3, it’s the thinking man’s race car, dictated by a peaky engine, manual gearbox and passive rear axle. As shown by our head-to-head in issue 125, the 997 RS 4.0 is a masterly evolution of the 3.8, benefiting from increased torque low down in the rev range, tweaked aero for improved downforce, and a stiffer chassis courtesy of rose jointing at the rear.

Far more than merely a low-numbers automotive mural, this is an outstanding performance weapon that’s surprisingly tractable on road, too. I can fully believe Walter Rohl’s claim that he commuted to work in his RS 4.0 test car every day for six months. Unbelievable – and there’s only one Rennsport that’s better.

1) Porsche 997.2 GT3 RS 4.1 by SharkWerks

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Slightly controversial, I know, but SharkWerks’ brilliant take on the Gen2 997 GT3 RS (which, as I’ve just said, is one of the best ever performance 911s in my view) is comfortably my number one drive of 2015. SharkWerks’ RS 4.1 was our cover car of issue 122, so I know it had good form ahead of my visit to California in September, yet the sheer intensity of its driving experience was beyond captivating.

Throttle response is astoundingly quick and this vastly reworked flat six gets shifting quickly with noticeably more torque availabe at low revs than even the factory RS 4.0. However, the real magic is how SharkWerks’ 4.1 still retains the Mezger’s peaky nature and sense of occasion as that needle zips relentlessly around the tacho, pulling strongly all the way to a heady 7,950rpm.

My drive was only 30 minutes long but that was enough – any longer and I’ll have likely got too carried away by its eagerness to rev so robustly, so relentlessly. It’s not just an improvement on the factory 3.8-litre Rennsport, and it’s not just better than the coveted 997 RS 4.0 either. I don’t make the statement lightly when I say this is most likely the best Porsche 911 I’ve ever driven. Peddling it was my greatest pleasure of 2015.

What five 911s have you most enjoyed reading about in Total 911 this year? Comment below or tweet us @Total911.

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Top ten photos from Total 911 issue 134

Total 911 issue 134 is dominated by our first drive of the radical new Porsche 991.2 Carrera (above). However, for those who prefer their neunelfer thrills to be a little more traditional, we’ve also driven the very first impact bumper Porsche 911.

There’s even a guide to the Porsche 356 Speedster, a car that would inspire three generations of open-top 911, and a head-to-head between two extreme SharkWerks GT cars. Here’s our photographic rundown of the latest issue:

Never less than eye-catching, we drive the very first impact bumper Porsche 911, displayed at the 1974 Earls Court Motor Show.

Carving through California's canyons, two very different Porsche GT cars, tuned by SharkWerks, go head-to-head.

A pre-911 Porsche icon gets the ultimate guide treatment in Total 911 issue 134.

Josh takes a thrilling drive to Le Mans in the 991 Turbo S to see if forced induction really can be fun...

We take a look at the life and achievements of Porsche's first CEO, Ernst Fuhrmann.

Get the lowdown from the sales room with our look at prestige car auctions in issue 134.

Canford Classics have gained an impressive reputation in under ten years of trading. We find out how.

The 911 Carrera is dead. Long live the 911 Carrera. We get the lowdown on the new turbocharged neunelfers.

The SharkWerks 997 GT2. Is any reason needed?

To read all of these great features, pick up Total 911 issue 134 in store today. Alternatively, download a copy straight to your digital device now.

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2015 Total 911 Photo of the Year Award: The Shortlist

After a week of intensive voting, we can reveal the super six shortlist that you have chosen to compete over the next seven days for the 2015 Total 911 Photo of the Year Award.

However, the voting isn’t finished yet as, once again, picking the ultimate winner is down to you. This time though you’ve only got one chance to vote, and you can only choose one stunning photograph as your potential award winner, so choose carefully.

Voting closes at 8:00 GMT on Thursday 10 December and we’ll announce the winner later that day. So, without any further ado, here’s the super six. Get voting now:


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