Project Luna

We help Porsche drive to the moon

By Greg Raven
VW&Porsche magazine
March 1987, page 82

I had not been to Mexico in years. As a kid, Mexico was a neat place to go. You could camp out on the beach and shoot off fireworks anytime you wanted. In town you could barter with the storekeepers to get the cheapest price on keen-o things like switchblade knives.

Then I started getting older, and as my friends would go to Mexico they would come back with horror stories about how they had been minding their own business (usually in a bar somewhere) and had been thrown in jail until they could buy their way out. I didn’t drink, had never been in a bar, and wasn’t planning on starting either habit, but still I figured that Mexico was not the place to be.

Then the call came. Drive to Mexico City … to the pyramids of Teotihuacan … to the Temple of the Moon? In a Porsche 944S? For Porsche? With Gerhard Plattner? You bet, I replied in a heartbeat.

Think about it. Gerhard Plattner has driven Volkswagen and Porsche vehicles all over the world. This is one cat who knows how to travel. We will probably have a Porsche chase car, secret caches of special Porsche fuel, stay in special Porsche hotels that lie along our special Porsche-planned route … it promised to be the ginchiest thing since Kookie lent out his comb. The down side, as it was explained to me, was that we would be expected to observe all speed limits; the eyes of the world were upon us. Sigh.

To get to Dallas by noon on Saturday I had to board the plane before seven in Los Angeles. This is what is known as an inauspicious start. I got to Dallas okay, and after a small mix-up located the shuttle bus that the Texian Inn had sent out to collect me. The sky was threatening to rain again but the thermometer was hinting that it might be sleet. I figured that Gerhard would know what to do when he got into town.

The plan was that I would arrive in Dallas a few hours before Gerhard and check into the Texian. The Texian was chosen because it was right next to Forest Lane Porsche, our rendezvous point as we converged from opposite ends of the United States. The first leg of the journey Gerhard was sharing with race driver Price Cobb, the latest winner of the Porsche Cup. Gerhard would then take a couple of hours off while I put some miles on the car driving it around Texas. Sunday we would leave for Mexico with a refreshed Gerhard.

This plan lasted until I was about half-way done filling in the hotel personal information card. At that point, Gerhard walked through the door and introduced himself. Judging by his appearance, he had been in town quite a while. 55 miles-per-hour indeed! Would I like to leave for Mexico right away? I would, so I picked up my bags and followed Gerhard to Forest Lane Porsche, where the car was getting an oil change, a bath, and a general looking over before the trip south.

Project Luna 944S

After I threw my things in the back, Gerhard handed me a map and a highlighter pen. Here, Greg, he said. You choose the route. In case you are wondering, there was no chase car either.

I stuck with the roads that made the fattest lines on the map. No sense getting off in the middle of nowhere, I thought, eying the cellular phone in the 944S that would do us absolutely no good at all once we left the Dallas metropolitan area.

Gerhard still had some preparations to make, so I wandered over to the shop area where a 944 motor was sitting on the floor, partially disassembled. We had just dropped our 924S off at the dealership in Los Angeles so they could fix for the second time a small problem in the oil cooler that allowed oil and engine coolant to comingle freely. The car had been there a week already, with no hopes of getting it out soon because the new and improved parts were back-ordered to Stuttgart. The motor on the floor was waiting for those same parts, and it was interesting to speculate on how long we would have to hole up in Bueno Loco, Mexico, when that same seal in our 944S motor let go.

Before leaving Forest Lane Porsche we shook hands all around with everyone, including owner Kirk Franceschini. Kirk is the kind of guy who pops into my mind when I think of a Texan. He’s big and self-confident in a quiet way, and you know he gets the job done. Kirk let slip to Gerhard and me that Forest Lane is the largest Porsche dealership in the country, selling nearly 500 cars last year. After he left, Gerhard turned to me and whispered, We didn’t sell 500 cars in all of Austria last year. It would be interesting to know how many cars Forest Lane could sell if Texas wasn’t in the depths of a recession, and if there wasn’t another Porsche dealer right across town.

It had started to drizzle, and with me in the driver’s seat we waved goodbye and hit the freeway long enough before the afternoon rush hour that we missed any heavy traffic. The drizzle alternated with rain and the outside thermometer flashed its red icy conditions warning at us as the temperature dropped to 0 degrees C.

Still the road was clear and the traffic was light, and by 9:30 that night we had made it to Laredo. We celebrated by eating at a fast foods restaurant and exchanging some of Gerhard’s traveler’s checks for pesos. When I was a kid, we got 12.5 pesos to the dollar, or 8:1. This night, the official ratio was 946 pesos to the dollar, or nearly 95:1. We didn’t shop around, though, thinking it was better to accept the 930 pesos per dollar offered by the place down the street from the restaurant than to waste time trying for a better deal.

By 10:00 we had crossed the border into Nuevo Laredo, The streets instantly turned to mud, and in contrast with this squalor the dumpy buildings in Laredo looked like castles. I made myself a mental note: Never move to a border town.

One thing that was the same in Nuevo Laredo as it was north of the border was the cold. Each customs, motor vehicle, and insurance official was bundled up warmly to keep from freezing in the huge, high-ceiling building they share. I had not thought to bring a passport or get shots but it turned out not to make a difference because by the time Gerhard had explained with his Austrian accented English to the Mexican accented officials why an Austrian was driving a German car with Nevada plates and a Californian on board to see the pyramids near Mexico City, they had had enough.

By 11:00 we had all the papers and insurance we needed. The customs man tried to affix the tourist sticker to the inside of the windshield but Gerhard grabbed his arm and fought him away, pointing instead at the side window. The guard eventually did as Gerhard instructed, but I doubt he understood a word about the peculiarities of the Securiflex windshield.

With only an occasional road sign to guide us, we made it to the outskirts of the city to find that the highways are in much better shape than either of us imagined. The blacktop was fairly smooth, mostly straight, and delightfully deserted. Being a stranger in a strange land, I decided that the 80 kph speed limit was a fine pace to maintain while we were getting acclimated. After first one and then another police car passed us going as fast as its V-8 motors would push it, we picked up the pace considerably.

By 1:15 we had reached Monterrey, a large city with no road signs. At this point we found out that no matter how slowly you ask for directions in English your reply will be in rapid Mexican. Repeat your question if you must, the answer remains the same.

Also in Monterrey we found that the minimum amount of time that you must spend being lost is one hour. At 2:15 we were again on track, heading south to Saltillo. As we had known ahead of time that our biggest worry would be range animals (there are no fences between the grazing areas and the highway) Gerhard tucked in behind a bus that was averaging 140 kph and followed him for nearly an hour.

From my own experiences years earlier in Mexico, I was certain that we would be equally endangered by the drivers and the overall unsafe condition of their vehicles. As it turned out, the drivers were more than courteous, and if there are problems with safety we sure never found out about them.

The outside temperature gauge started giving us higher readings the farther south we got, and at dawn we were greeted by a clear sky and the stark beauty of the Mexican desert. By 7:30 there were signs of humanity everywhere. People walking, burning their trash, and working in little local shops.

Gerhard had learned enough Mexican to ask for unleaded fuel, gasolina sin plomo. We had no idea what it would take to find unleaded fuel in Mexico, but that turned out to be the least of our worries. The Mexican government owns the petroleum industry (Pemex) there and runs virtually the only gas stations around. Pemex stations were everywhere, and even out far away from population centers the Pemex stations we saw seemed to be open 24 hours a day. We didn’t stop at every one of them, but better than 50 percent of the ones we did stop at had unleaded fuel.

By 2:00 Sunday afternoon we had found the pyramids, getting lost again along the way, again spending an hour to extricate ourselves. By this time I was beginning to have my suspicions about Gerhard. He hadn’t eaten anything since we crossed the border, and had looked at me as if I was insane when I ordered a plate of chicken enchiladas and a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice (the bill came to $2.00) during a fuel stop. He seemed content to sleep in the car and just drive straight through.

We stopped the car in the parking lot in front of what Gerhard had identified as the Temple of the Moon and took some photos. That done, Gerhard seemed ready to climb back into the car and head north again. I intervened. I had seen another pyramid in the distance and wanted to go take a peek at it. Good thing, too. We had been taking photos of the Temple of the Sun.

In the parking lot of the Moon pyramid we were approached by the first of thousands of trinket hawkers who all sell the same items, each claiming that they have made them themselves. These two were quite enterprising, offering to become our tour guides in any language we might want. Upon learning that Gerhard was from Austria the one trinketeer started using German. I could tell he was speaking German because he kept referring to Gerhard as fraulein.

After taking photos of the correct monolith, I left Gerhard to guard the car while I took one of his cameras and one of mine and climbed to the top of the Temple of the Moon. I do a few aerobics at home, so I was surprised to find that I was blowing pretty hard by the time I got to the top. Nevermind, I took the pictures and headed down. By the time I got to the bottom the bug had bitten me to climb the Temple of the Sun, as well. The problem was that Gerhard was waiting, the sun was quite warm, and it looked to be well over a kilometer away. The solution was to hurry up and do it before Gerhard got antsy.

About a third of the way up the Temple of the Sun I was pretty sure that something was wrong. I was beet red, way out of breath, sweating profusely, and being passed up by kids barely tall enough to negotiate the steps. The Temple of the Sun was MUCH larger than the Temple of the Moon, and the steps were MUCH steeper. About three-quarters of the way up, I remembered something about the Summer Olympics that they held in Mexico City a couple years back, and about how the athletes were having trouble with the altitude. Was it 6,000 feet, 7,000 feet? I put the question out of my mind and concentrated on reaching the next step without losing my balance.

Half an hour after leaving Gerhard I was back, having climbed each pyramid and run our cameras out of film. By 4:00 we were back on the road, headed for home.

I thought. Both times before when we had gotten lost, Gerhard had been at the wheel. This time it was my turn. We missed the cut-off that would have taken us back to 57, and instead found ourselves in Mexico City, another large town with no street signs. We had four maps of Mexico City, none of which covered the areas in which we found ourselves, and none of which agreed with each other over matters such as street names. An hour and fifteen minutes later, hot and tired, we found the road out. I then got a second reminder about the altitude in Mexico City, with clapped out Novas passing us right and left, our 4-valve motor even at full throttle was straining for air to mix with the Mexican gasoline.

At least we were on the right road again, and things again settled in. By 8:00 Sunday evening we had reached Queretaro where we stopped to get fuel. At 180.00 pesos per liter, Mexico’s best unleaded gas was costing us 72 cents per gallon.

When we switched over I could tell that Gerhard was eager to get home. To put it another way, he was afraid we wouldn’t. Instead of letting the fuel gauge drop to the 1/4 tank reading before refueling, he would drive about 100 kilometers and then start looking for a Pemex station. At 3:00 in the morning we pulled into one station that didn’t have the Extra we needed, but we decided to check the oil anyway. The constant high-speed driving was causing higher oil consumption, although it was nothing that couldn’t be gauged fairly accurately.

While we had the hood open the attendant came over to see what the two foreigners in the wildly painted car were doing. It was freezing cold, and the attendant, a kid, couldn’t have been over fourteen. When he asked how much a car like that cost, the answer $30,000 had the same numbing effect on him as it did on the old man and his granddaughter who were leading burros laden with earthenware jugs of water to their home. In fact, everyone who asked adopted the same blank expression. Whether they were mentally trying to convert that much money into pesos, or they were trying to imagine what it would be like to have that much money in the first place, it’s hard to say. At times like that, though, the term conspicuous consumption takes on a whole new meaning.

I fell asleep south of Saltillo with Gerhard at the wheel. I woke up a couple hours later to find that we were stopped at a traffic signal. That meant that once again we were lost, and again it had been while trying to make the connection between the 57 and the 85. We drove for a few kilometers and came upon some signs. Each set of signs directly contradicted each other, so of course I chose to believe one set while Gerhard voted for the other set. He won, being as how he was at the wheel. One hour later, having explored Gerhard’s guess with no success and then trying mine, we left Monterrey.

By the time we crossed the border into the United States, the warmth we had known in Mexico was but a dim memory. The farther we drove, the more ominous the clouds to the north looked. Even the appearance of the sun couldn’t convince the temperature gauge to budge from its position near the zero mark.

Compared to the roads in the Mexico, the roads in southern Texas seemed like heaven. Not that the Mexican roads were that rough, but I personally felt uncomfortable traveling more than 140 kph for extended periods of time. I hit 200 kph once, but the unfenced two-lane road seemed unfit for such duty, and I backed it down after a few miles. Texas roads, on the other hand, were smooth, wide, and fenced off. Fat lot of good that does you, though, with a 55 mph speed limit.

At 7:00 Monday morning we stopped for breakfast at Dilley, Texas. For Gerhard this was the first full meal he had had since dinner Saturday. Suitably fortified, we motored the rest of the way to Dallas under mostly sunny skies, reaching Forest Lane Porsche around 3:00 in the afternoon.

While we stretched our legs, one of the guys from the dealership took the car out to put some miles on it. Over dinner, Gerhard agreed that I should drive the car during the day, and then he would take over and drive Tuesday night. I put in a wake-up call for 6:30 and went to my room to sleep in a bed that was horizontal and didn’t shake, rattle, or roll a bit the whole night.

At 7:01 on Tuesday morning I pulled out of the driveway of Forest Lane Porsche. To my chagrin, I noticed that Ernie had not left me a full tank. I decided to head over to Shreveport and fill up. Along the way, I thanked my lucky stars for having borrowed Gerhard’s Passport. Not the one with his picture on it; the one that he bought from Cincinnati Microwave. The Texas Rangers, like a second-league high school basketball team, dribble before they shoot, giving the Passport ample time to warn the driver to slow down.

Having refueled in Shreveport, I returned to Dallas. Once I got within range of the cellular phone service there I called Gerhard to see if everything was okay. He indicated it was, so I continued on.

I had planned to drive the 680 loop around the Dallas/Fort Worth area but a quick check of the instruments let me know that I was running low on fuel again. I figured I had better get on down to Houston and tank up before it got to be rush hour.

By the time I got back to Dallas it was just after 10:00 Tuesday night. I had been behind the wheel for 15 straight hours, averaging just over 100 kph the whole time. Gerhard wrote down all the data that had accumulated on the trip recorder and the hour meter, and transcribed all my fuel consumption notes into his little black book.

I gave him directions and we shook hands before he sped off into the night, a night on which all the weather forecasters were calling for some really low temperatures with a possibility of snow. I figured that if anybody would be safe on the road that night, it would be Gerhard. And if anything happened, I had developed a backup plan.

During my last gas stop in Houston as I was filling the tank, washing the windshield, and checking the oil simultaneously, a young man approached me. Say, man! Are you going to drive this car all them miles? I replied that, yes, I was part of the driving team. He then asked, How long is it gonna take you? I told him that Gerhard hoped to do it in seven months, but that it might take as long as a year. Well, give me a call if you need some help, he offered. I could do the whole thing in three months, guaranteed.

The only problem with this plan is that I forgot to get his number.

Webmaster note: I am honored that Porsche used one of the photos I took on this trip in its 9:11 video magazine report of Project Luna. Here’s the full video magazine; the Project Luna section starts around 4:49.