Live Updates: What happens when we drive a broken Porsche across the country?

Update by Tom Suddard to the Porsche Cayman project car
Jun 29, 2023 | Porsche, Road Trip, Cayman, Porsche Cayman

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In our last update, I mailed $15,000 off into the void, theoretically buying a broken 981 Porsche Cayman on the opposite side of the country. What could go wrong?

[$15,000 Porsche: Are we stupid or the smartest bargain hunters you know?]

Everything, of course! But optimism has never been a problem for me. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been focused on gathering intel: information about the car’s actual condition, potential problems, parts supply, inevitable repairs and, ultimately, my odds of success.

Time for an update on my progress.

My first order of business? I needed to make sure I actually owned the car. Yeah, seriously. The title wasn’t even in my name when I wrote the last update. Normally I wouldn’t worry too much about getting the title transferred, but this was a relatively expensive purchase and it was far away, so I figured I should get my ducks in a row and spend 15 minutes at the tag office.

Title transferred, it was on to the next obstacle: storage. Maybe it wasn’t obvious from the photos, but my Cayman was basically street parked. That’s less than ideal for a few days, but three months? During the rainy season? In a busy city? Yeah, no thanks.

I didn’t want this story to end with the wheels disappearing, hail damage, vandalism or any of the other dangers that can happen when you leave a nice car in a seemingly abandoned condition.

So I started asking friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends for help. My pitch was simple: “Can I stash a car at your place and give you little to nothing in return?” After a few days of striking out, I got a lead, and then a phone number, and then an offer: The Porsche would live in a spare garage just outside the city for a few months, and I’d bring a bottle of wine for the owner when I picked it up.

Thank you, Kim, for the hospitality. And thank you, Andy Reid, for making the connection. Mitch, my Seattle-based friend who brokered the deal, drove the car an hour on the highway to drop it off at Kim’s garage.

Now that the car was safely tucked away, I turned my attention toward fixing it. I ended the last update with a call for help and an admission that I really didn’t have much information to work with, hoping Porsche experts would come out of the woodwork with parts, advice and diagrams. And they did–kind of.

I can’t name names, but, through a few sources, I learned that the internals of this 981 Cayman six-speed really are a black box officially, and Porsche diagrams never materialized in my inbox despite a few promising leads. I’ll be flying blind when I tear it apart.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t get help, however. My first call was to LN Engineering, longtime friends of GRM and the source of plenty of advice for our Boxster S project car over on Classic Motorsports.

LN Engineering didn’t have any transmission parts, sadly, but it did send its well wishes and a care package: The car is now parked next to a case of oil and LN’s spin-on oil filter adapter, along with an oil analysis kit and a magnetic drain plug. Why change the engine oil when the transmission is broken? Simple: I’ll be putting 4000 miles on the car, and I have no idea when it was last changed. Consider this cheap insurance to keep it healthy.

As I sifted through the emails and Facebook messages offering tips, one name kept coming up: Matt at Guard Transmission in Fort Collins, Colorado. The company builds sequential transmissions for all sorts of Porsches, and it’s intimately familiar with what the gearboxes look like inside.

So I gave Matt a call and ended up spending more than an hour on the phone learning about Porsche transmissions. First I asked if it was possible that the retaining pin for the fifth- and sixth-gear shift fork had just fallen out, turning my six-speed into a four-speed. “Oh, totally,” he replied, “that’s a common issue.”

Apparently this issue is so common that Porsche had an underpublicized service campaign to fix broken cars. Sadly, though, it wasn’t something documented at the dealership level: Bad transmissions came out of cars, then good transmissions were installed in their place.

Back to that black box of a transmission, at least there was good news: Matt said that–assuming that retaining pin was the issue–only incredibly bad luck could cause further damage to the car by continuing to drive it with only four speeds.

Matt didn’t have service diagrams, but what about parts? There was good news on that front, too. Guard Transmission has tons of 981 internals on the shelf, but that’s not all: Many of the internals of our Porsche transmission can be purchased at the dealership–just, well, not the Porsche dealership.

Matt told me that my transmission was full of parts that could be sourced from just about any Audi dealership, but the cross-references and part numbers are closely held secrets that only a few in the Porsche world might be willing to share.

I’d learned plenty on that phone call, but I asked for one more piece of advice: “Is this a stupid idea, and do you think we’ll make it?” I could hear Matt’s smile over the phone as he replied, “I think it’s a great idea because I lived my life that way for many years before I settled down, and I absolutely think you’re going to make it!”

Thank you, Matt, for being so generous with your time and your expertise.

So here’s where things stood after my weeks of research: I still didn’t have internal diagrams or repair procedures. I had some educated guesses that the car could drive around without doing any further damage. I also had the realization that rebuilding this transmission would be far easier in my home shop–with machine tools and unlimited time–rather than in my buddy’s basement on a tight schedule with basic hand tools. Tearing the car apart before driving it home was starting to sound like a very bad idea.

Plus, I had Mitch’s feedback that the car was remarkably comfortable in fourth gear: “I’d drive it all day like this!”

Challenge accepted. No more research, scheming or shopping. It’s time to grab my wife, hop on a plane and drive from Seattle to Florida in fourth gear. Follow our journey in the comments below.

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Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
6/20/23 12:55 p.m.

Let's get this trip started!

Tony Sestito
Tony Sestito UltimaDork
6/20/23 12:58 p.m.

Oh, this is gonna be good. 

And good luck! 

AngryCorvair (Forum Supporter)
AngryCorvair (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
6/20/23 1:07 p.m.

In for updates!

BullManUGA GRM+ Memberand New Reader
6/20/23 1:08 p.m.

3000 miles on a broken transmission. Woof. Good luck!

bmw88rider GRM+ Memberand UberDork
6/20/23 1:10 p.m.

Not sure your route but if you need help near Omaha, You have my number. 

Should be a fun time. 

BullManUGA GRM+ Memberand New Reader
6/20/23 1:13 p.m.

In reply to bmw88rider :

The default route Google Maps gives goes right through Omaha!

johndej SuperDork
6/20/23 1:23 p.m.

From a random Google search to a cayman forum post.

TJL (Forum Supporter)
TJL (Forum Supporter) Dork
6/20/23 1:32 p.m.

Awesome! Ive been excited for this one. Good luck Tom and Nicole!

Drive along the Columbia river for a bit if you can, and about any part of Montana is amazing. You guys are going to O.D. on beautiful scenery. 


bumpsteer Reader
6/20/23 1:39 p.m.

It's like the hong norr CTS V but on a grander scale 

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
6/20/23 1:49 p.m.

Three gears is enough!


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