A metallic ping resonated from beneath the 23 year old Porsche as it made its way through the darkness. It wasn’t immediately clear as to what had created the cryptic sound and it took a few minutes for Ben to realize the extent of what had happened.
A year in the planning, it was now a mere seventeen days until Ben Coombs and Laura Reddin would set off for Africa in a Porsche 944. They decided it best to include a second car so Ben’s friend, Brummy, purchased a Mitsubishi Shogun 4×4 and was joined by Louise and Tom. The group would set out together for three months (Libby, another close friend would also join the the group for a stint).
Moments later surrounded by a torrent of steam and smoke, Ben grudgingly opened the hood breathing life into his fears. Under mysterious circumstances, the crankshaft pulley bolt worked itself free from its post and had rattled about the engine bay a bit before ultimately liberating itself from the automobile all together. By the time he heard the sharp ping of metal striking concrete it was already too late. What Ben didn’t know at the time was that the oil pump pulley lies behind the crankshaft pulley and relies on this very same bolt to stay engaged on the woodruff key. Without it, the pulley slides off of the keyway, the oil stops flowing, and within seconds the engine is reduced to beer can fodder. This would be the end for engine number one and a sign of things to come.
Unfortunately for Ben, that single loose bolt had set the theme for the entire “African Porsche” adventure where breakdowns would be commonplace and a long string of minor setbacks added to a long, disheartening list of challenges he would face.
Fortunately, he had the foresight to purchase a used, albeit rough around the edges, Porsche 944 to supply spare parts for the journey. This car would now supply the new heart for the severely wounded African Porsche. He had no way of knowing what condition the motor was in or if it would even start. With only seventeen days remaining until departure, he pressed on.
[Fun fact of the day: On the Porsche 944’s with the 2.5 liter engine, the oil journal on the crankshaft barely provides enough oiling to feed the bearings for the cylinder two connecting rod. By the time you realize the oil pressure is low, it’s already too late, the damage is done and the bearings are cooked. An experienced machine shop can modify the crankshaft to provide increased oil flow, but this requires an expensive rebuild.]
Despite the poor timing of such a catastrophic occurrence, and much to the surprise of his friends (and, even more so, himself) he was somehow able to coordinate the necessary help to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of resurrecting the Porsche in time. Sadly, instead of a sense of relief, Ben now found himself diffident. The engine failure had sewn the seeds of doubt planted by nearly every person he dared to share his idea with. He now had tangible reason to question the Porsche’s worthiness to cross the African Continent. Despite these reservations, he pressed on with the vehicle modifications.
In an effort to better absorb the rough roads that lie ahead, and to provide a spot more ground clearance, the suspension was swapped in favor of one with increased ride height -to this former Porsche mechanic, it appears to be the factory suspension that came on the U.S. spec model 944’s. Whether it was to pacify the USDOT’s bumper and headlight height restrictions at that time, or Porsche’s answer to our less than stellar road conditions, the exact reason Porsche produced a taller suspension for the U.S. escapes me at the moment. To avoid sleeping on the ground in unfamiliar areas, Ben also constructed a roof rack and sleeping platform to accept a ground tent that could be quickly deployed -an important feature since camping was planned for nearly every night of the trip. He and Laura would have to ease their way into the tent via the hood careful not to damage the windshield on the ascent. With vehicle prep complete, and Ben quietly stressing over the low probability of the Porsche completing the journey, the group set out for Cape Town.
His fear of failure continued as he and his travel companion, Laura Reddin loaded the car for the long haul. This was in no small part due to the glowing oil pressure light that remained illuminated from the time the donor motor first sprang into life. The warning light seemed to taunt Ben, constantly reminding him of what it was capable of. It’s as if the Porsche knew what lied ahead and boldly protested in bright red silence. The car’s sentiment was arguably justified.
Founded in 1931, Porsche has a long history of producing top notch sports cars. It wasn’t until the introduction of the Cayenne in 2002 that the words “Porsche” and “off road” were spoken in the same breath. No doubt, history buffs will be quick to point out the Porsche 959 rally car that won 1-2 in the 1986 Paris-Dakar; although a great feat of engineering at the time, it wasn’t exactly a road car. So what possessed Ben to take this near antique sports car 13,500 miles across Africa; a country known for having some of the most inept infrastructure on the planet?
I can’t speak for Ben’s sanity or whether or not he was simply powerless against the mighty gravitational pull that many travelers experience toward the African continent, but what I can tell you is that he did it. He managed to traverse the 15,000 miles from London to Cape Town …in a Porsche. I don’t want to give too much away. You can find out more about the challenges he and his friends faced in his book, Survival of the Quickest: Across Africa. In a Porsche. You can also follow Ben’s latest undertaking to which he calls “Pub2Pub”, where he plans to visit the northernmost pub on the planet and subsequently bounce from pub to pub working his way down to the southernmost pub on the planet. His goal is to not only visit interesting pubs, but to do so in style.
Ben describes the intentions of Pub2Pub:
“…– the AfricanPorsche Expedition and V8Nam – were shaped primarily by the practicalities of touring the globe in a sports car, Pub2Pub will be different. The all-important practicality will be fused with stylishness, making Pub2Pub the ultimate expression of just how debonair travel can be if you think outside the backpacking box. Everything from the clothes we wear to the car we drive will be chosen as for its ability to bring a unique, classical elegance to the trip, making it different to any road trip that’s gone before. Very different. Basically….” ~Ben Coombs, Pub2Pub
Across Africa. In a Porsche.
Cape Town, South Africa
Time to complete: 2 months
Ben’s 1980’s Porsche 944 Specs:
- 2.5 liter engine, normally aspirated; stock (158 hp)
- Suspension; +19mm, Porsche/Bilstein
- Transaxle; factory Porsche 5 speed manual
- Traction aids; none
- Sleeping arrangements; custom roof rack with clamshell design and provisions for supporting a ground tent.
- Wheels/tires; factory spec
- Comms; cell phones
- Navigation; Garmin handheld