In the realm of sports cars, the Germans and the Italians are the fiercest competitors, but beneath the rivalry, the two nations also share a deep respect for each other. Since the dawn of motor sports in the 1920s, the two automotive giants have been in a tight race to take home the most number of Grand Prix championships. From the onset, the Italians dominated the sport, with marques like Maserati, Bugatti, and Alfa Romeo cementing their reputation as leaders in racecar production. The tide would eventually turn in favor of the Germans in the 1930s, thanks to heavy government investment in the car industry and incentives for car companies like Mercedes-Benz.
The era ushered in the legendary Silver Arrow racecars of Mercedes-Benz and the Auto Union (the precursor of Audi), so called because of their distinctive aerodynamic design and unpainted body. It was during this ﬁrst Golden Age of German motor sports that automotive engineer Dr. Ferdinand Porsche designed the iconic Auto Union Type D.
The car was revolutionary in its day, with a sophisticated suspension system and V16 engine mounted in front of the rear wheels. Every now and then, an Italian marque would break the German winning streak, but the advent of World War II and the disastrous fate of the alliance between Italy and Germany in that war put the brakes on the two nations’ racing ambitions.
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The post-war years saw the revival of both countries’ car industries and the booming American economy fueled demand for sports cars from Europe. Two new marques emerged in this period although each of its founders was previously involved in Grand Prix racing: Ferrari from Italy and Porsche from Germany.
In the decades ahead, the two manufacturers would continue the time-honored rivalry—and respect—between both countries, both on and off the track. So much so that, even today, you’ll see Germans swoon over Italian sports cars speeding through the German Autobahn, and likewise for Porsches making their way through the Autostrada of Italy. At least, that was what I noticed while driving along the Southern Italian coast of Puglia in Porsche’s 911 Targa, coincidentally, a sports car named after the legendary race, the Targa Florio, that used to take place further down south in Sicily.
Rebirth of a classic
The Targa was first introduced in 1967 as a removable soft-top version of the popular 911 coupe. Everything about it was classic Porsche 911: the unmistakable profile, air-cooled, flat six engine, and rear-wheel drive train. It’s most distinctive feature, however, was the roll bar meant to protect the car’s occupants in case it accidentally tips over. Even if the car hardly ever did, the safety feature was a design element that enthusiasts cherished. Porsche’s 911 was a road-going sports car but with the roll bar exposed, the Targa looked like it belonged to the race track instead.
When Porsche phased it out in favor of a retractable glass roof in subsequent models, enthusiasm for the Targa waned, especially since a cabriolet version of the 911 was also available. Understanding that the sporty roll bar was what drivers wanted all along, the company’s engineers and designers reintroduced the characteristic wide bar in place of the B pillars in the 2014 model---but unlike the original car’s top which had to be physically removed, the new Targa features a folding roof above the front seats and a wraparound fixed rear glass window. Combining the fixed Targa bar with a moving roof and rear window was the most challenging part of the body design and Porsche achieved this in spectacular fashion using lightweight parts to reduce the amount of weight the complex system adds to the car.
The only drawback is that you need to completely stop the car before activating the roof and the longer-than-usual 19 seconds it takes to fully retract. But once the top is down, it’s a slight inconvenience that’s easily forgotten, especially when you’re in the perfect location.
La Dolce Vita
The setting in Italy’s Southeastern coastline couldn’t have been better for trying out Porsche’s two new 911 models: a manual seven-speed Targa 4 with a 3.4-liter engine, and the Targa 4S with a larger 3.8-liter power plant and equipped with Porsche’s proven seven-speed double clutch transmission. Both variants feature active all-wheel drive, plus a suspension and brake system similar to the coupe and convertible models in the 911 range. Naturally, I took the top-of-the-line Targa 4S for my journey through Southern Italy.
Puglia faces the Adriatic Sea and, in spring, the days are longer yet the heat of the sun is milder than it is in summer. This, along with the sea breeze, the scent of lemon, and the sight of flowering cherry and almond trees make open-top driving ideal. The route I chose made it even more so. The drive from the coastal village of Savelletri in Fasano to the Porsche showroom in Bari, Puglia’s key city, provides a scenic drive through country roads lined with olive groves, medieval villages, and world famous Trulli—the region’s unique white-washed huts with conical limestone roofs listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I imagine that in a 911 coupe you still get a rush from the speed and power of the car. But with the fixed roof, you also feel detached from your surroundings. With the Targa, or any open top car for that matter, you feel more connected to the countryside. The moist air of the Adriatic in your nostrils, the smell of neroli blossoming by the roadside, and unobstructed views of the balconies of medieval towns are all possible without having to stop and leave your vehicle.
If all this sounds a bit, well, overly sentimental, not to worry, the roads are perfect for testing the muscle and mettle of the 911 Targa as well. Like every 911 model we’ve tested before, the testosterone rush is real. The shortest route to my destination is via the coastal freeway, a journey of a little under an hour, but I take the longer two-and-a-half-hour drive instead along the twisting, single-lane secondary roads that wind through hilltop villages and the flat farmlands that produce the region’s prized olive oil and wine.
Speed isn’t the objective on roads like these, but power needed to overtake both speeding cars and slow-moving tractors at an instant—even in an uphill climb. The lightweight body of the Targa 4S coupled with Porsche’s capable flat six, 3.8L engine never fails to provide power when you need it.
As I learned the hard way, many drivers in Southern Italy like to throw caution to the wind and won’t stop at anything coming at them. When overtaking in such unpredictable conditions and speeding through tight bends and blind corners, the Targa’s combination of precise electro-mechanical steering, dual-circuit brakes, and unbelievable traction, care of its proprietary Porsche Traction Management (PTM), makes all the difference.
Southern Italian drivers don’t seem to follow speed limits either and with no cops or radar traps in sight, it’s possible to test the upper limits of the Targa’s top speed of 296 km/h. Whether on country roads or on the Autostrada, the car accelerates as advertised and remains stable and smooth all throughout.
Although Puglia is one Italy’s most beautiful regions, it’s also one of the country’s poorest. This explains the substandard condition of its road network and freeway. Despite the low ground clearance and standard 19-inch low profile tires of the Targa, the ride over breaks in the asphalt and potholes along the way is surprisingly supple. I’m told that to compensate for the additional heft brought about by the new roof system, Porsche improved the Targa’s suspension and damping without compromising sportiness. It’s a wise move and, if ever you insist on a stiffer ride, the Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) that comes standard, allows you to adjust it further.
The decision to install an active all-wheel drive system as standard in the Targa was perhaps Porsche’s way of attracting the race enthusiasts that comprise the Targa’s traditional niche as well as an attempt to differentiate it from the open-top 911 cabriolet. Still, it’s a useful feature especially when navigating through the loose gravel surface of Puglia’s farm roads and sandy tracks along its coast.
After a full day of driving, it’s hard to find any fault in Porsche’s latest soft-top model—just as it’s difficult finding anything not to like about the latest generation of the 911 coupe and cabriolet the Targa is based on. Perhaps, it would be different in a tropical country like ours with alternating seasons of heavy rain and blistering sun, but in the mild climate of the Mediterranean, the only complaint I have is not having more days of fun with the car.
Understanding the Targa’s innovative roof system
The roof system consists of two moving parts: a soft top and a glass rear window. At the press of a button, the glass rear window opens to the rear and tilts. It is joined to the stowage box lid. At the same time, two flaps in the Targa bar open and release the soft top kinematics. The soft top is unlatched, folds to the rear into a Z-shape during the opening movement, and stows behind the rear seats. A panel running across the car behind the rear seats integrates the soft top. Finally, the flaps in the bar and the rear window close. When the top is stowed, a wind deflector integrated in the cowl can be adjusted manually. It reduces draught to the interior significantly.
Photographs by Iggy Bilbao
This story first appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 15 No 3 2014.