The best cars we've ever driven are not good in the Corolla or Corvette sense of the word. Machines like the Austin-Healey Sprite or Austin Mini. The first-generation Mazda Miata. Vehicles neither comfortable nor fast but important because they remind us that the best things are unquantifiable.
This story appears in the October, 2019 issue of Road & Track. - Ed.
Both of these cars are around $100,000 out the door. Each is a rear-engine, rear-drive hooligan with lofty ride height and zero interest in tarmac grip. Both of them hail from Appalachia, with the Nomad assembled in South Boston, Virginia, and the 911 built, modified, tuned, and tweaked from stock by a retired professional sports car racer from the north Georgia hills. We packed the cars with camping gear and pointed them at the middle ground of Tennessee's bent southern border to find out if they were good for anything save dropping jaws in traffic.
The 911's cabin smells like campfire: the deep aroma of hardwood smoke, misty dawn, embers, and the promise of coffee and eggs. Anything but old Porsches. Leh Keen's 1981 911 SC is now as much Georgia as Germany. It's slathered in red-clay dust, the paint raked by brambles and branches. The interior smells as it does because he's actually taken the car camping. Bits of bushes and weeds are wedged into the bodywork, proof of all-out sideways sprints through the forest. And the car has been uniquely modified, built to suit gravel roads and Keen's taste.
"One reason this car is here is because I have a GT3 RS," he said. "I'm so scared to drive it around downtown Atlanta. I wanted to build a carefree car. I wanted to build a car to take into the woods. It checked a ton of boxes. If you hit a pothole or have to drive up on a curb, you can, but you're in a 911 the whole time."
Keen spent a decade racing Porsches professionally, racking up titles in the Rolex Sports Car Series and the American Le Mans Series, but he grew up slinging four-wheelers around his family's farm. Our test car is the unlikely marriage of the two. His business, the Atlanta-based Keen Project, builds "safari" 911s to order, with suspension and interior modifications to suit. The car he lent us was his personal example, the first of 16 built so far.
You'd think that someone who has lapped la Sarthe would want their 911 low-slung and lethal, but Keen knows what most automakers have forgotten: massive power and grip are usually worthless on the street. And worse, at legal speeds, they make for a boring car.
The Porsche is soaked through with drama. Keen says that his favorite part of putting together a car is hunting down weird materials. Or maybe it's just the chance to cross lines while you have the purists distracted: once you've decided to lift a 911 and bolt on dirt tires, carpet borrowed from a European bus probably seems like mild offense to the Stuttgarti.
With the engine cold, it takes a moment for the car's 3.0-liter flat-six to light. But it always starts, and when it does, it makes the world's most perfect noise, an angry Cessna barking at the sky. Keen begins with clean donors, then goes through the cars from top to bottom. That includes the engine, though most of his builds use a largely stock driveline.
"I want to keep it fairly simple," he said. "In the woods, you don't actually need that much power. A lot of guys are thinking maybe they want velocity stacks and all that, but it's just going to get covered in mud and dirt."
A set of factory 964 (1989-1994 911) cams lives under the Porsche's valve covers, and a row of silver-dollar-sized holes has been drilled into the air box. Giving the throttle a good boot produces an audible gasp, the engine rushing to suck down the sticky Tennessee air. It revs like there's no flywheel, as eager as anything, but the gearbox is sluggish until warm.
Driving this car is a box of dualities like speaking a different language, one you've studied and thought you understood. Is it a dump truck or a 911? Yes. Also terrible and splendid. The brakes take more pressure than you'd think, in part because Keen has added an adjustable bias valve and cranked it toward the rear, so you can set the car's nose in loose stuff without locking up the fronts. Because it's an air-cooled Porsche, there's understeer if you ask for it, amplified by those spectacularly inappropriate tires. Keen fits his cars with 215/65-16 BFGoodrich KO2san all-terrain all-season developed for trucks and SUVs and when you turn the wheel, there's a moment of noncompliance as the tread blocks shrug their shoulders and drool at you. The car tips and leans, all while the view out the windshield screams "PORSCHE." I spent the first 10 minutes in the thing praying I wouldn't bounce it off a tree before we made it out of my neighborhood.
But then the road coiled in on itself, working over the blanket-fold ridges on Tennessee's eastern edge. Our drive happened during summer, when the heat and humidity work to run everyone out of the South, but bombing from one holler to the next, dipping in and out of pools of morning light and cool air, was a rare and excellent occasion. The roadsides were overgrown, every leaf and limb a blur against the 911's fenders.
Get to know how Keen's car moves and wants to be driven, and it calls up your early days behind the wheel slinging something simple around on tires made for million-mile commutes, watching the universe through dirty glass. The kind of bliss that no other $100,000 car I've driven has been able to re-create.
That said, the Nomad occupies something like the same space, and it works at the same job. The two cars end up so close in personality that your favorite tends to be the one you drove last. Keen has worked to make his 911s appear period, even going so far as to hide any carbon-fiber components (like the lightweight roof panels some customers choose) under a layer of paint. But Ariel has fully embraced modernity. The Nomad's sister model, the infamous Atom, may look similar, but this is not an Atom with knobby tires. The Nomad wears its own clean-sheet chassis constructed of thicker tube steel. It makes the Atom look bird-boned by comparison, and the roof arches allow for niceties like a laminated windshield and a bikini top. Power comes from a 2.4-liter Honda four, the 201-hp engine from a 2012-2015 Civic Si, bought new from Honda and paired to a six-speed manual transaxle and a helical limited-slip differential. Our test car wore the optional supercharger, which Ariel claims is good for close to 300 hp. Checking that box also throws in a performance clutch.
There's not much else. Adjustable coilovers and A-arm suspension. Some lights. A couple of fixed-back bucket seats. Even with the Tactical model's heavy options (a list that includes a Warn winch, extra lighting, and a spare tire), the thing weighs just 1750 pounds. And that means that if the 911 is a lazy Sunday afternoon, the Nomad is nine o'clock on a Monday morning. Jumping between the two is like switching channels from Bob Ross to Tarantino, and it takes half a minute for your mind and muscles to catch up.
Like an Atom, the Nomad's engine feels bolted to your lower back. There's not much grunt low in the tach. Power hangs out in the upper octaves, where the valve timing and that supercharger conspire to launch you through someone's living room. Sorry about the coffee table, Dolores. Hope you like your new bay window.
As with the 911, unless you have room to give the car a big chuck or slide it on throttle, the Nomad's default mode is understeer. The BFGoodrich mud-terrain KM2 all-seasons look mean as hell and serve up a surprising amount of pavement grip, to a point. The tires turn greasy when hot. On the move, as the Porsche and Ariel chased each other toward the North Carolina border, I kept looking through the Nomad's transparent bodywork, half expecting to see chunks of rubber flying. With those tall sidewalls, I also expected the Nomad to be soft, a Ford Raptor shrunk to its skeleton, but it's not. With a reasonably taut, stiffly sprung suspension and that miraculously low curb weight, the car is amazingly agilea tribute to the joy of a manual steering rack and manual, lockable brakes in our ever-muddled driving world. The engine breathes through an intake above and behind the driver's head, its snort so loud that you have to yell to be heard by a passenger. Like the 911, the Nomad wants you to know how good a car can be when there isn't an army of algorithms between you and the road.
And my God, when that Honda four is up there screaming, the sound is spectacular. The combination of the right gearing and enough power means that you can pick a gear and leave it there if you're feeling lazy, you don't have to work to carry speed. Given the car's light clutch and precise, stellar gearbox, it's almost a shame. The 911 and the Nomad were two of a kind on the Cherohala Skyway. The road runs from nowhere to nowhere, draped over the mountains between Robbinsville, North Carolina, and Tellico Plains, Tennessee. It's 43 miles of double-yellow asphalt perfection, spanning two massive national forests, the Cherokee and the Nantahala. And at the start of the work week, it's all but abandoned.
Back in Keen's Porsche, it dawned on me that the man has inadvertently built a 911 trainer. The car does everything you expect from a G-body Porsche, all the quirks, good and bad, just 15 mph slower. It's a talker, chatting about its actions before they happen, letting you take your time and react to a rotation before you start swapping headlights for taillamps. It makes every corner feel like a feat, every sweep past 60 mph a triumph.
The Nomad, by contrast, is generally unflummoxed, almost more motorcycle than car. Like a bike, it smells like hot metal and sweat until you round a corner and get a nose full of honeysuckle. Without any sheetmetal, you're so much more a part of the world, but for every terrible minute baking in traffic or cowering from a thunderstorm, there are a dozen transcendent ones. Slinging through switchbacks, you can hear the trill of a birdcall or the pale alarm of cicadas. Little treasures that remind you to take in more than the road ahead.
National forest roads spiderweb the southeast, two-track dirt lanes that spiral over ridges, trace trout streams to their sources, and run you far from cell service. After lunch, we aimed at a rough route with a handful of shallow water crossings. The road dissolved, from abandoned asphalt to bare clay and limestone, but the Nomad scrambled over all of it. Its adjustable dampers would have benefited from a few clicks to the soft side, but we were too happy driving to do it. The Nomad Sport comes shod in BFGoodrich Advantage T/A Sport tires, decidedly road-oriented rubber, while the Tactical steps up to those meaty mud-terrains. (If you're spending a lot of time off-road, the Safari's all-terrains would be a better fit and good compromise.)
It takes some effort to get the Ariel pointed, usually a big lift and a stab of brake. Catch the rotation and the machine produces tidy slides. Never in my life would I have thought 300 hp too much for anything, but on a road barely as wide as the Ariel's track, there are few places to run to redline. By the time the engine opens up, you have to slow for the next turn. When the power does come on, the Nomad breaks traction immediately. This thing would be great in the desert, with miles of nothing to hit but horizon, but in the woods, it's an exercise in managed panic.
We followed the Tellico River north, chasing the wider, emptier forest roads running loosely parallel to the Skyway. There is nothing on earth like the way the air cools near deep mountain water or the calm that air brings me. It's the feeling of a thousand afternoons spent wading and fishing in similar country.
And the 911 is as at home on those roads as the fish are in the Tellico. From the first corner, it was clear that Keen poured hours into making his cars work. The Porsche is easy, fun, and fast. It wants to turn, pivoting around your hips. The differential is dialed to help keep the car loose on entry, which means you can pivot into corners early, then bury the throttle and fire out the other side. The balance is sublime, the suspension compliant but just firm enough, the engine well matched to the brakes. It's credit to how Porsche designed the car from the factory and to Keen's well-chosen fiddling.
I've always enjoyed air-cooled 911s, but out there, with the forest a blur, was the first time I truly understood why the car is an automotive icon. Why so many people are willing to pay so much for so little.
Something has happened over the past 20 years for whatever reason, there's been a shift in car culture, from a love of driving for its own sake to the idolization of all-out performance. In all but the rarest of cases, the change has resulted in cars that happily delete the driver from the equation in exchange for a few tenths of a second. But the machines that made us fall in love with driving did not have 700 hp. They weren't capable of setting impressive Nürburgring times. They were escape hatches, excuses to run down new roads just to see where they led.
That's why the Ariel and Keen's Porsche exist. It's why Keen has a double-digit waiting list for his Safari builds, and why Ariel North America says that people who buy Nomads as weekend toys often wind up using them as daily drivers.
Driving, exploring, and going. They are the ancient and real human engines. These machines encourage their indulgence, pointing us to places past our comfortable horizons. If all this feels good and familiar, that's only because it's what the best cars have always done.
The Easy Way Out There
Crossovers are everywhere. Might as well put them to work. You don’t need a $100,000 two-seater, a lifted Tacoma, or a Wrangler to enjoy your local forest. The one silver lining to the dark cloud of crossover dominance is that they are well suited to exploring the dirt roads of our public lands. The combination of a little ride height, a compliant suspension, substantial sidewall, and copious cargo room is enough to make cars like the Honda Passport ideal for overnight trips away from packed campgrounds. Honda bolted a Roofnest Sandpiper roof-top tent to this example. Balk all you want, but the hard-shell design makes setup quick and painless. That was ideal for a Friday evening, when we loaded the Honda with a cooler, chairs, and fishing rods, and pointed ourselves at a campsite we spied while darting through the area in the Keen 911 Safari and the Nomad. Roof-top tents have their drawbacks. For one, you’re constantly lugging 150 pounds on top of your vehicle, exactly where you don’t want it. Add in two adults, and you may exceed your roof rack’s capacity. Check the owner’s manual. And they aren’t cheap—this model starts at $2795. But with hydraulic struts to help pop up the tent and a tough, waterproof canvas, it beats fighting a ground tent, a rain fly, and a sleeping pad at the end of a long day. And, if you leave it attached to your vehicle, you’re always ready to take the easy way out there.
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