Ever wanted to take a smooth-looking Porsche 911 off-road? Now you can!
The Keen Project, led by former Porsche racer Leh Keen, now makes and sells off-road Porsche 911 “Safari” cars. You can buy one for around a hundred thousand dollars. Each one consists of the core of a retired Porsche 911 plus tons of sweat and new parts. And they perform well in actual off-road driving.
While racing professionally, Keen looked ahead and realized that he would probably need a new project after finishing the racing season. So he began the Keen Project, to build converted Porsche 911s. For his first car, he started with a 964 chassis – which he continues to improve today. 964 is the internal Porsche nickname for the 911s produced between 1989 and 1994.
Keen describes himself as a huge fan of the brand, “peeking around at Porsches since I was three years old.” He wanted to make a vehicle of interest both to himself and to other people. Taking inspiration from the benchmark Singer Porsche, and his own pro racing days, he aims to instill the same magic of those classic cars into his rebuilds – “to put that into the cars, so they drive really nice, too. So that they sound right, so that they look right.”
So he picked up an ’81 SC in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, and got to work. At first, people felt offended, telling Keen things like “you’re gonna make people mad, you can’t do this to this car, the car you bought’s too nice.”
Keen argues in his defense that Porsche had already made an off-road 911 in the seventies. He even spoke with some of the people who had been involved with the company then. In fact, the very first Porsche 911 raced in the 1965 Monte Carlo Rally.
Over time, he won over the critics with his impressive vehicle, then went on to make more. The off-road Porsches are not just about performance, but also about design. “That’s one of the things I’m most passionate about,” Keen says.
He did wind up racing for a few more years, for Ferrari, after that initial uncertainty surrounding the season when he came up with the Porsche Safari idea.
The Porsche upgrades require various overhauls. “We don’t do too much to the engine. We do more to the suspension, and a lot of cool stuff on the outside, like the bumper bars.”
When Keen first showed the car publicly, he got a positive response: “Everybody was lovin’ it.”
The Safaris differ from most custom builds in being suitable for off-road driving. These cars drive off-road, but are also street legal, so you can just drive them around town or anywhere you want. “If you live in Atlanta or you live in LA, or whatever, you can drive the car around, to hit potholes and stuff, and then you can take a dirt road.”
A friend Keen was driving around with said, “I’ve gotta have one of these.” So Keen began building more. He now has a backlog of ten on order.
Old Porsche 911s go for around $30,000, and then Keen puts in more valuable improvements. He does the high-level design work himself, and test drives the cars, while subcontracting much of the work.
For the Safaris, he uses “only G-body cars, impact bumper cars, so anything from like ’74 to ’89. I prefer the three liter SCs, and 3.2 Carreras.” Porsche has made improvements to the 911 over the iterations, and some model years are far more rugged than others.
In addition to making the Safari an off-road beast, Keen gives each one an attractive interior with unusual colors. A lot of the stark contrasts from the 1970s and ‘80s provide for vivid looks.
One of his customers drove a Safari across the country, from New York to Los Angeles. So far, a few of the cars have been driven for over 10,000 miles. Keen says that they improve with age, like a baseball glove.
Getting the cars ready or off-roading has proven challenging. “Yeah, we went through some learnings, with the suspension and stuff. The great thing about Porsche, it’s like the perfect car to do this with. Because it’s rear wheel drive, but it still makes a lot of grip, with the engine being in the rear. So you can have the fun and you can slide around, as you would like a rear wheel drive car, but if you get in a mud hole and you start to get bogged down, you have a lot of weight over the rear axle and you can get out. It’s amazing what the cars actually can get through.”
The cars can take a beating. Even if they get wet, and the engines get covered in mud, they keep on roaring. “I jumped mine – I don’t know if that’s the craziest thing I’ve done – nighttime runs on national forest roads, on the side of a mountain, on gravel roads. Pretending to be a rally car driver in the middle of nowhere.”
For all its ruggedness, the car earns some heavy driving. “There’s one jump I went off, and the car landed really hard, bounced back up in the air and shot flames out.”