Though anchored in Porsche motorsports history, off-road Porsche 911s only recently ignited imaginations following the debut of Luftauto 001, a Safari 911 built by the guys behind Luftgekulht. Since the Grand Prix White car dropped, a number of companies have brought their own iterations forth. None, however, stand out as much as the Thunderdome-ready Russell Built Baja.
Russell Built may not have a name as recognizable as other classic 911 restorers, but the Sun Valley, California shop has been doing the fabrication for Singer Vehicle Designs for the better part of a decade—in other words, they know what they’re doing. T.J. Russell, the man behind Russell Built, relayed a story to The Drive about how he became “obsessed” with the concept of a Baja-ready 911, and after supplying Singer with “custom bracketing and hand-crafted metal pieces from car 1 to 170,” he knew what he had to do. The result is the wicked car seen here. And yes, we’re drooling as much as you are.
Nothing on Russell Built’s Baja was left stock. Like Singer, Russell Built takes a 964-generation Porsche 911 and bases its conversion around that. And while it too uses the sports car’s suspension pickup points, similar to other Safari builds, Russell Built swung for the fences and fabricated a tube-structure that wraps around the factory tub to, A) provide increased strength and rigidity, and B) give customers the ability to swap broken parts on the fly.
By adding a set of custom spindles, A-arms, and 2.5-inch 3-way adjustable coilover shocks, the whole suspension package allows for 12.5-inches of travel at the front and 13-inches at the rear—FYI, a Ford Raptor has 13-inches at the front and 13.9-inches at the rear. Russell Built also added a NASCAR-style set of adjustable sway bars to keep the car “planted and level” while cornering.
"From desert racing to short course to rally, I kept envisioning more and more on how these 911s could be made into a really capable and versatile off-road car," Russell said. "Basically, what if Porsche had continued its off-road racing success and endeavors like the winning 959 in the 86 Paris to Dakar rally into the 90s? Also being in So Cal, the mecca of off-road racing, I wanted to blend today’s technology, engineering, and fabrication with the DNA of the air-cooled 911."
The air-cooled motor remains, but it’s definitely not what came from Stuttgart. Underneath the Baja’s composite widebody panels, which help bring the weight down to 2,800 pounds in “luxury spec,” sits a Rothsport Racing 3.8-liter flat 6-cylinder engine featuring a number of custom internals neither Rothsport nor Russell Built wishes to share with the class. The engine also gets new throttle bodies and a custom intake manifold, all of which is controlled by a Motec ECU. The motor is good for 365 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque.
Russell also admitted that a Rothsport Racing turbocharged motor could be fitted to the car, “if the customer so chooses,” but the company chose the 3.8-liter for its bullet-proof reliability, adding, “[This motor] will run around 100,000 miles in the most brutal conditions. It works extremely well with this style of build.”
As for which wheels that grunt goes to, Russell Built says customers can choose between 2- and 4-wheel drive. A manual transmission is standard, but the company will also offer a sequential unit as an option for race-ready applications which is said to get the sports car’s weight down to just 2,500 pounds. Fifteen52 Integrale wheels shod in Toyo Tires Open Country AT IIs finish the off-road package.
Before the Porsche gets its interior, Russell Built seam-welds the car’s tub, which seals off the cabin from both the fuel tank up front and the rear engine. Further, to better insulate the driver and passenger from the raucous road and trail noises, as well as the heat from the engine, the company sprays the bare interior down with sound deadening and a ceramic coating.
Variations of the interior can be spec’ed, including different color palettes and materials, with the first car getting a full cage, quilted leather door inserts, quilted Alcantara, carbon-fiber-backed Recaro SPX seats, and a set of 6-point Sparco racing harnesses. Helping customers pilot the Baja is a Motec digital dash, knobs to adjust brake, torque, and differential bias, and a more traditional Sparco steering wheel.
"I spent about 8 months trying to convince myself that this was an avenue I needed to pursue," Russell told The Drive. "It wasn't long before I was test fitting prototype suspension components on Singer’s customer shells that were in the shop for fabrication."
After seeing other Safari builds pop up, whether that was Luftauto, Kelly-Moss Road and Race, or Leh Keen’s The Keen Project, he knew he had to go to another level.
"At the beginning of 2018, I had done enough planning and thinking that I dove 100% into this endeavor," he said. "I realized if I followed through to the best of my abilities, made the highest quality parts that could possibly be mounted on this car, and stayed true to the Porsche gods by keeping my designs looking as if it was something that might have come out of the race factory in 1990, that there would be a market for that."
What that meant to Russell, in his own words, was “the baddest, go anywhere, do anything, luxury dual sport 911. A car that could spend a day in the desert, sand dunes or mountain roads, and end up at the finest steak house on the way home.”
A steak dinner, however, isn’t included in the Baja’s price. Neither is the base car—customers will have to start by either sourcing their own 964 911 or asking Russell Built to assist in their search. Once the car is located and depending on whether they want a luxury build or a full race car, as well as options—engine, drivetrain, aesthetics like rally lights, wings, and interiors—customers can slap down $380,000 for the race-ready Baja or hit $650,000 for the more luxurious car with almost every option ticked.
Russell, however, doesn’t want to go the way of more production-focused builders, stating, “I’m not trying to stamp these cars out like a cookie-cutter. These builds are extremely extensive and require a lot of really in-depth fabrication.” As such, the Baja will be just barely more abundant than Bugatti’s Chiron-based La Voiture Noire with just four commissions per year. Russell told The Drive, “I want to keep these very exclusive and very high end.” We just hope that exclusivity doesn’t preclude us from getting behind the wheel.