Francis Castelli’s personalised 1993 Porsche 911 Carrera 4 964
Long-term ownership has seen this 964 morph from standard to top mod, but how far and fancy should conversions go? We check out the customisation...
Words Johnny Tipler
Photography Dan Sherwood
Nailed! Nearly, anyway. It’s almost there — a hair’s breadth from being the perfect 964. Owner, Francis Castelli, is still scratching his chin, and we’ll get to future possibilities shortly.
Sure, purists will grimace and heave a heavy sigh, but, don’t turn the page just yet. I have always viewed my cars as objects ripe for personalisation, chasing some elusive race car oriented goal, motivated by purposeful imagery, restrained or otherwise. Customising, if you will. Porsches in particular lend themselves to this frivolous activity. What’s wrong with specification the manufacturer served up in the first place? Fair question regarding products often honed to perfection by Walter Röhrl on the Nordschleife. What’s good enough for a two-time World Rally Championship victor ought to be good enough for you and me, right?
Well, yes, but we all know stock specification means a level acceptable to the widest range of buyers. As marque die-hards, we can do better. Indeed, we can make a Porsche move faster, handle more sharply and achieve a look more distinctive, thereby making our ride stand out from the rest in a louche line-up. Does this justify muddling the appearance and capabilities of a perfectly usable and competent standard 911? I see no problem, providing the car in question can be returned to showroom specification if so desired. Francis feels the same way. Let’s see what he’s brought to show us, then.
It’s clearly black… or is it? Actually, it’s metallic dark grey — in the sunshine, we note a sparkle. The aggressive stance is obvious thanks to the thirty millimetre drop in ride height. Much of the work has been carried out by the team at PIE Performance, porkertuners par excellence, based in the countryside near Lavenham, Suffolk. Although Francis has owned his 964 for fifteen years, he was obliged to rescue it “in boxes” from an unsuccessful engine rebuild, which he asked the PIE crew to remedy. “I bought the car from a now defunct Porsche specialist in the north of England,” he says. “In due course, I asked the company to service the car and, with mileage getting high, they told me it could do with a full engine rebuild. In December 2018, as a kind of fiftieth birthday present to myself, and much to the car’s benefit, I reasoned a rebuild presented the perfect opportunity to increase displacement to 3.8 litres.”
Disaster loomed large. “The work proved to be beyond the firm’s skillset. Consequently, in February 2020, I had the car and its component parts collected and shipped to PIE Performance.”
Where the previous specialist failed, PIE excelled — Francis collected his finished car in November 2021 and immediately drove to the French Riviera. “It felt like pulling on your favourite old leather jacket!” he laughs. That particular razz took him through five different countries, providing the perfect opportunity to run-in the oversized flat-six and give it a decent shakedown.
LEAVE AN IMPRESSION
Francis and 911s go back a long way. His stepfather, Stanley Palmer, was an amateur rally driver, competing in a two-litre 911 in the 1968 Monte Carlo Rally. By coincidence, the event was won by the late Vic Elford in a similar car. Mr Palmer collected a Carrera RS 2.7 from the factory in 1973, and young Francis enjoyed several continental adventures in it. As an affectionate souvenir, Palmer’s rally stopwatch and his original British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) badge are mounted on the glovebox lid of his stepson’s 964.
Francis owned a 2.2-litre 911 in the 1990s and acquired his 964 in 2007, immediately putting it to use as his daily driver. “The prices of pre-impact bumper cars had skyrocketed. With the 964, I opted to for what was, back then, a relatively unloved model.” He gradually turned an ‘okay’ car into a party piece, driving it to his French hideaway every summer.
ALTHOUGH THE CARRERA 4 CARRIES MORE WEIGHT, IT ISN’T NOTICEABLE IN ACCELERATION, TOP SPEED OR FUEL ECONOMY
As far as the external appearance of the car was concerned, the prospect of a backdate was rejected. Likewise, an RS replica. Neither seemed the right way to go. Rather, he would endeavour to bring to reality his vision of the ultimate 964, making his car look purposeful but not garish, as if it could have rolled out of Zuffenhausen like this. Aesthetics aside, he wanted a true driver’s car as happy going to the supermarket for the weekly shop as to the Côte d’Azur, with a potential detour to a race track thrown in en route.
To chronicle the list of modifications PIE Performance has applied to this spectacular 964, let’s begin with the colour. The car started life dressed in Marine Blue, but had been an assortment of hues by the time Francis took ownership. Today, his Porsche’s personality is defined by the sultry dark grey seen here. “It’s a colour from the palette of South Korean manufacturer, Kia, which is a subsidiary of Hyundai. I like the way it flips from black to bluey-grey, depending on the light. Chris Lansbury, head of PIE Performance, treated the car to a respray when the front panel was reconfigured and the splitter added.” We’ll pick up on that little excrescence later.
We speculate about obtaining a more subtle RUF front panel or even a ducktail from the Pfaffenhausen concern, but Francis is wedded to the 964’s standard electronic rear spoiler, both in terms of function and looks. “I like the fact it automatically extends and retracts — there’s something to be said for it being retracted, when you’ve got the original unadorned arching 911 back end to look at.”
When contemplating an engine rebuild, owners often think about enlarged capacity and wonder ‘what if?’. Although maintaining standard specification is frequently the most pragmatic option, Francis decided to go the whole hog and take his Porsche’s air-cooled boxer from 3.6 litres up to 3.8. After all, Porsche led the way by building a hundred 3.8-litre 964 homologation specials at Weissach for the 1993 GT racing season, each car featuring bi-plane rear wing and horizontal front splitter. “I figured an increase in displacement would give my car more low-down torque, which it has.” He’s spot on — the way his 964 pulled on empty straights between Holt and Fakenham while heading for our photoshoot was phenomenal, delivering the assertive performance of a healthy 964, and then some. “The car is pretty impressive in those situations. I’m sure top end power isn’t hugely different, but this air-cooled Porsche is now much more usable in all types of driving.”
GETTING IN TUNE
Specialising in Porsches — and 911s in particular — PIE Performance Tuning (PPT, the PIE Performance sub-brand) offers products and services ranging from bespoke mapping of ECUs to ignition kits, exhausts and suspension systems. Chris waved his PPT tuning wand at Francis’ 964, and it shows. To this end, the engine’s specification now includes a reground crankshaft, Mahle pistons, RS camshafts, a PPT ECU, wideband sensors and ignition kit. An oxygen sensor was inserted into the Hayward & Scott stainless steel exhaust system. Power is transformed.
The engine bay makes continued use of a standard airbox and filter, which Chris reckons breathes better than an aftermarket cone filter, a conclusion reached after dyno tests with and without. There’s an RS clutch and lightened flywheel, too. Francis admits to having reservations on this front. “Many owners told me 964 Carrera 4s can be notoriously bad to drive when equipped with an RS clutch and flywheel, a problem associated the Carrera 4’s standard ECU software not keeping pace with sudden drops in rpm and when additional load is at play, such as active air-conditioning. Stalling is a common complaint, but the PPT ignition kit eliminates the problem, meaning the engine never cuts out, much to my relief.”
The suspension was completely overhauled and now incorporates Powerflex polyurethane bushes, Bilstein B16 coilovers and Eibach springs. With a grounding in sporting 911s, Francis was always destined to pursue the lowered look. “When I bought the car, the ride height was quite high, though lower than standard. When the car reached Chris and the team at PIE Performance, I asked them to fit lowering springs, which they did, but as part of a Bilstein B16 makeover. The car looks so much better now.”
Adding to the enhanced handling, a beefy Wiechers strut-brace resides up front. Beside the neighbouring battery is a master switch by Autolec, a company founded by the aforementioned Stanley Palmer. The RS-style carpet in the luggage compartment, which also features a Powder fire extinguisher, was sourced by PIE, while the wheels are oversized Fuchs replicas from Group 4 Wheels, sprayed black and shod with Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tyres (225/40 ZR18 at the front and 265/35 ZR18s at the back). Standard 964 Carrera 4 calipers and discs are bolstered by Pagid RS pads and fluid with a high-boiling point.
There’s no doubt the faux Fuchs set things off splendidly, and the wide external offsets allow the wheels to fill the arches completely. A succession of other styles preceded the Group 4 Wheels design, though. “I was in two minds about fitting Fuchs-style wheels,” Francis admits. “I thought they might be too much of a reference to Porsche’s past. I’ve already had the car rolling on a set of Cups, as well as Speedline split-rims, but when the Group 4 Wheels products went on, it was clear they were the perfect match to my Porsche.” He’s also thought about converting his Carrera 4 to rear-wheel drive, ditching a hundred kilograms in the process, but is perfectly happy with how the car currently performs. A job for later down the line, perhaps?
Viewed from the front, one of the standout details is the headlights. Recognising standard 964 headlights are little brighter than a pair of candles, the intriguing lamps now in place are LED Techlight units. Sourced from independent Porsche parts retailer, Design 911, they feature prominent individual lenses for dip and main-beam and positively transform night into day. The car’s front bumper panel houses 993 fog lamps, indicators and the sidelights, as well as RS-style brake cooling ducts.
The cabin features seats lifted out of a 964 Turbo and has been reupholstered, front to back, in grey leather with blue stitching. A flat leather-rim MOMO Prototipo wheel gets the same treatment. From the driving seat, this feels like a brand-new car. Talking of which, there’s a plethora of great driving roads in North Norfolk. We hook up with them. Power delivery is instantaneous, especially if I drop a cog, rushing for the Big Skies vanishing point. This 964 is impressively fast —you can sense the greater torque and depths of power surging from the vaults of the 3.8- litre engine. It feels as if it would go on dishing up grunt for some considerable time, if only it wasn’t for the mobile chicanery of the holiday traffic, requiring me to back off. What really stands out is the smoothness and lightness of this 964’s steering around bends. This, for me, is a paradox. By common consent, prevailing wisdom is that the lack of a front driveline means the Carrera 2 is lighter than the Carrera 4, which should make it slightly quicker. In reality, there is likely to be more difference between the performance of individual 964s than between Carrera 2 and Carrera 4 variants, just because of wear and tear and the unique traits of each car. In terms of handling, though, the standard Carrera 2 has a sharper and nimbler feel, which appeals to purists who believe the security of the Carrera 4’s all-wheel grip and traction takes the edge off the thrill element of motoring in a 911.
TURN A CORNER
Exiting tight bends, the steering of the stock Carrera 4 weights up as torque is applied to the front axle, giving ever such a slightly ponderous impression, and the brakes have a different feel because the Carrera 4 runs a high-pressure system. Naturally, if the roads are damp and if push comes to shove, the all-pawed Porsche is a safer and more secure proposition. In short, the Carrera 2 has a slightly more agile feel and its steering is a bit more sensitive, while initial turn-in is sharper. By comparison, the Carrera 4 has slightly less sensitivity due to the extra weight in the front and, as speed increases, will understeer at turn-in and through the corner, though it generally feels very planted. The Carrera 2 turns in more precisely and can be balanced on the throttle through the corner, making it marginally — theoretically — quicker on a dry track, but wet conditions favour the Carrera 4, making it easier to drive overall. Although the Carrera 4 carries slightly more weight, it isn’t noticeable in acceleration, top speed or fuel economy. That’s what the text books say. The reality check comes when I’m behind the wheel of Francis’ 964. It may be a Carrera 4, but the ease and smoothness with which it negotiates cambered esses is awe-inspiring. The lightness of touch to the steering belies the commonly held belief Carrera 4s lack feel and feedback.
Lowered as it is, this example boasts simply sublime steering and brilliant road handling. Judge the braking, get the gear and it’s so beautifully balanced as it dives into every bend, with the nose-lightness you’d expect of a Carrera 2, which you’re aware of through hands on the wheel. The ride is spot on, too. Not over-firm, nor intrusive, just flowing over the surfaces, plenty of which are indifferent around here, the more rustic we get. This is certainly one of the best 964s I’ve had the pleasure of driving. There are, however, two or three aspects I’d change or improve upon, starting with the brakes. I know we’re spoiled by ceramic discs these days, but this 911’s anchors need sharpening up a bit. Less largo to the ralentando. Then there’s the noise. It just ain’t loud enough! More of the guttural flat-six, please — if you’re gonna do it, do it! The passenger seat is compromised in going to-and-fro by a subwoofer and, though I don’t want to dwell on the front splitter, here’s the thing: fashions in car-looks move on, sometimes in circles. Retro is now passé, and tweaking wot-u-got into a Mad Max simulacrum is the new backdate.
Once upon a time, in the mid-1980s, long-bonnet classic 911s were ‘modernised’ as much as possible. Truly, anything goes, as long as it looks right. This wingended splitter might suit an aspirant 996 GT3, but it says something else about the 964 which doesn’t belong, certainly not the roadgoing side of a 993 GT2. Francis and Chris will conspire to switch it for something more subtle. And then I think they will really have served up — no gristle — one tasty PIE porker.
Above Flat-six benefits from a PIE Performance Tuning ignition kit, as well as a raft of other upgrades contributing to better acceleration and increased reliability. Above Bluey-grey paint is a shade lifted from the colour catalogue of South Korean manufacturer, Kia.
Above Hayward & Scott peeks out from the rear bumper, while grille badge lets other road users know there’s something unusual beneath the engine lid of this personalised Porsche.
Above Tipler isn’t sold on the front lip spoiler, but he’s super-impressed with the PIE-built 3.8-litre flat-six powering this all-pawed 964.
Right Francis’ stepfather’s rally stopwatch and BRDC badge are mounted on the dashboard of this Carrera 4.
Above Bilstein coilovers, Powerflex polybushes, Eibach springs, staggered replica Fuchs and sticky Michelin rubber ensures this personalised 964 handles just as good as it looks.