There are those who insist that the only bona fide carries an air-cooled engine aft of its passenger compartment, as Dr. Prof. Ferdinand Porsche intended.
Which is rather curious when you think about it. By the purists' definition, no current Porsche is a "real" Porsche because none of the four models in production , , Carrera GT or cools its cylinders with air.
Of course, most Porsche aficionados accept the notion that water-cooled engines even, heaven forbid, front-mounted engines in some instances may be evolutionary necessities if the brand is to remain viable in the new century.
The 924 of 1976 and the 928 of 1977 were the front-engine, water-cooled models that first took Porsche down the road to perdition or, depending upon your point of view, the natural evolutionary path. And it was these two models that morphed to become the 944 of 1983, the subject of this Used Car Classic.
The 924, designed by Porsche for , was built of VW/Audi parts, including its 4-cylinder engine. The V-8-powered 928 was designed by Porsche to be an eventual replacement for the 911. As it happened, the 924 ended up being marketed as a Porsche rather than as a VW or an Audi, despite the car's performance, which was anemic at best. Porsche management confronted this embarrassment by developing a new engine for the car, a 4-cylinder powerplant that was in essence half of the 928's V-8. It used a belt-driven single-overhead camshaft augmented by two belt-driven balance shafts.
To celebrate the new engine, Porsche added flared fenders, wider wheels and tires, a front air dam and a rear deck spoiler to the 924 bodyshell, and anointed the whole shebang with a new model designation 944.
The chassis, however, remained essentially unchanged from the 924. That is, one with the engine and clutch mounted between the front wheels and the transaxle mounted back between the rear wheels, the two assemblies connected by a long torque-tube driveshaft. Suspension, too, was 924 fare: MacPherson struts with coil springs in front, semi-trailing arms and torsion bars in the rear.
With its new Porsche engine, the 924 which had been praised for its handling finally had suitable performance. No matter your take on what constitutes a true Porsche, all can agree that the 944 was much more of a Porsche than its predecessor.
What's the least expensive new Porsche these days? That would be the car that replaced the 944/968 series, the Boxster, with a current price tag of $43,336. But for a fraction of the Boxster's cost would you believe as little as 10 or 15 percent? you can buy a decent 944. Which makes the 944 an amazingly affordable entry into the world of Porsche.
You'll find there's an ample selection of the cars too. Not only did the 944 have a lengthy production life, there are a number of model variants that make matters interesting. And Porsche consistently improved the cars over the production run. Some important milestones:
This car is Executive Editor Doug Kott's 944 S2, modified with stiffer suspension, Koni "yellow" shocks, a 5-point harness, fire extinguisher and 17-in. Fikse 3-piece wheels, common changes for cars that see autocross and time-trial use. Extremely well maintained by its former owner, it still relishes trips to its 6400-rpm redline with 123,260 miles on the clock.
- 1983: 944 introduced with 2.5-liter Porsche engine and 5-speed manual transmission.
- 1985.5: 944 received upgraded suspension components, improved mounts for the transaxle that reduced noise and vibration, revised electrics and a redesigned interior.
- 1986: 944 Turbo introduced with revised front-end bodywork, beefier suspension components, updated brakes, wider tires/ wheels and a turbocharged 2.5-liter engine with 70 additional bhp.
- 1987: 944S supercedes 944. Has a 16-valve, dohc 2.5-liter engine and 41 additional bhp an updated transmission. ABS became an option.
- 1988: 944 Turbo S introduced with various modifications to turbo boost, water pump, suspension, transmission. Dual airbags became standard.
- 1989: 944S2 supersedes 944S. Has a 16-valve 3.0-liter engine and 20 additional bhp.
- 1990: Cabriolet version introduced. Turbo/Turbo S dropped.
- 1992: 968 replaces 944. Has extensively revised styling, a 6-speed transmission and the S2 engine enhanced with VarioCam variable-valve timing and an additional 28 bhp.
- 1995: End of the line.
To help us winnow through the 944/968 series, we assembled a panel of Porsche experts. Mark Hergesheimer and his staff race-prep and service Porsches at Hergesheimer MotorSports in Lake Forest, California. Jay Ward has been servicing the marque for 33 years; his shop, Specialized Porsche Service, is in Riverside, California.
Since assembling a catalog of 914 parts and placing a small ad in Road & Track in the late 1970s, George Hussey has grown Automobile Atlanta to fill an old porcelain factory in Marietta, Georgia; his company not only sells, services and restores vintage Porsches, but has a thriving parts division that caters especially to 914s, 924s and 944s. Hussey has also written a 62-page paperback book of 944 technical hints (924/944 Tech Tips, $19.50).
We are talking elderly machinery here two decades old in the case of the earliest 944s and nearly a decade old in the case of the most recent 968s. That's enough time for a car to have suffered all manner of abuse and indignity, from accidents to neglect.
Although the price of service and repair for 944s may not be as daunting as that for, say, 911s of recent vintage, it's still relatively pricey enough that owners may defer anything that isn't critical to keeping the cars on the road. Meanwhile, the cars descend into heapdom.
And if there's one overriding piece of advice from our experts, it's this: Avoid the heap. The need of a $6000 engine rebuild or a lengthy list of repairs effectively dooms a 944 to the scrap heap because car values are so low. And though our progeny may come to think otherwise, it's hard to imagine the 944/968 cars ever becoming valuable collector items in the vein of, say, 1950s' Speedsters, worthy of costly restoration. So when it comes to shopping for one of these old sports cars, condition is everything.
But condition of cars being equal, there's little reason to consider any 944 earlier than the 1985.5 edition. The later car will cost nearly the same to buy and its upgrades, especially inside the cabin, are significant, say our experts. There's added leg room under the steering wheel, and the more handsome dashboard has better air venting. And shun an automatic transmission of any year, for the sake of both performance and upkeep.
If you're a fresh-air fiend, you'll be interested in a 1990 or later Cabriolet with a power-operated drop-top. Undeniably good-looking, the model has significant body flex by today's standards, though the structure was considered better than most convertibles of the day.
Biggest bang for the buck? The 1986 to 1989 944 Turbo at the going rate of around $8000 for a decent example. "It packs the guns to bring other cars into submission," as we said in a 1988 road test. The Turbo could reach 60 mph in around 6 seconds flat and its lateral acceleration figure of 0.90g ranked with the top cars in the world at the time.
As exhilarating as the Turbo, the 968 is the best all-around car of the bunch. Easily the most refined and arguably the best-looking, the 968 is also the newest, rarest and most expensive. Body parts are costly if they need replacement after an accident. Still, current 968 prices in the $13,000 to $17,000 range seem paltry compared to what the cars cost new nearly $40,000 for the coupe and more than $50,000 for the Cabriolet. And that was in early 1990s' dollars. We say a well-turned-out 968 is quite a bargain today.
It's always wise to be cautious when buying any used car. Look for a complete set of repair receipts so you can judge a car's service history and verify its odometer reading. Consider ordering a title report, like one from CarFax (), which could reveal a tainted past the car could be a salvage vehicle, for instance.
A thorough pre-purchase inspection by a technician familiar with the marque is a must. Any inspection should include the usual checks for engine compression, cosmetic flaws, accident damage, malfunctioning accessory items as well as body and chassis corrosion (however, 944/968 cars are built of rust-resistant galvanized metal).
Cars that have accumulated 150,000 miles or more will probably need some sorting out to regain the driving feel and reliability they once had. Unless the inspection and repair records indicate otherwise, plan on renewing such items as front engine seals, shocks/struts, rear carrier bearings, constant-velocity joints, brake pads and rotors, the catalytic converter as well as all fluids.
The Porsche experts we consulted for this Used Car Classic Mark Hergesheimer, Jay Ward and George Hussey suggest the following special points to keep in mind regarding 944/968 maintenance:
- Belt changes. Timing and balance-shaft belts are notorious maintenance items on 944/968 cars. Should the timing belt fail, pistons collide with valves. Belts timing, especially should be changed every 30,000 miles. Early S engines have problematic tensioners; these should be inspected every 12,000 miles. But 944/968 engine bottom ends are nearly indestructible; with regular oil changes, they'll last 200,000 or 300,000 miles.
- Oil cooler leaks. Froth on the dipstick or oil residue in the coolant recovery tank isn't necessarily an indication of a blown head gasket. Seals fail in the oil cooler, allowing coolant and engine oil to mix. The seals will have to be replaced, the radiator and coolant passages degreased and the oil changed. If the leak goes long without being corrected, the engine's lower-end bearings can be damaged.
- Power-steering hose leaks. When hoses leak near the nose of the car (a common problem), they tend to drip on the anti-roll bar bushings, the balljoints in the suspension arms and perhaps on the steering rack, causing these components to deteriorate and require expensive repairs. An aside: The power steering pump resides on an appendage of the engine that protrudes from the front. If the appendage breaks during even a minor front-end collision, it totals the engine because the appendage can't be welded back on.
- Balljoint deterioration. Balljoints can deteriorate with use and age, as well. Front-end clunks when entering or exiting a driveway, for example, can indicate worn balljoints or anti-roll bar bushings. Worn lower balljoints can lead to catastrophic failure, i.e., the loss of a wheel. On 1985.5 and later cars, the entire control arm must be replaced if the balljoint is worn.
- Worn clutches. In addition to slipping, substantial backlash when engaging or releasing the clutch can indicate the need for a new clutch. And in the words of one of our experts, 944/968 clutch changes "are diabolical." That's because the torque tube, exhaust, starter and transmission may have to be dropped, depending on the model. Bearing failures in the torque tube itself can cause unusual vibration and noise that varies with engine speed.
- Water-pump/cooling-system deterioration. Leaks or noises from the water pump mean that it should be replaced immediately. If the pump seizes, it could damage the timing belt, which, in turn, could lead to cylinder-head destruction mentioned earlier. Timing and balance-shaft belts must be pulled to change the water pump, a tedious operation. Clogged radiators, failed fan switches (there are two fans) and sticking thermostats are common causes of overheating. After changing the coolant, it's important to follow the proper bleeding procedure or air will remain in the system, reducing its effectiveness.
- Worn motor mounts. Especially common on early cars. Excessive vibration at idle indicates worn mounts (there are two). They can look okay, yet still be bad; they need to be checked with a gauge. Replacing the mounts can make the drivetrain feel much smoother.
- Body-related issues. The massive rear hatch of the 944/968 coupes can be troublesome. The glass may separate from the molding, hatch pins break or rust, and the hatch seal may deteriorate allowing both water and exhaust into the passenger compartment. The sunroof which lifts only a few inches at the rear but can be removed entirely frequently jams and leaks. Water may leak into the footwells from clogged drains or a rusted battery tray.
Typical private-party sales prices for cars in good condition:
- 1983-1989 944 Coupe: $3750-$5950
- 1986-1989 944 Turbo: $8175-$11,950
- 1987-1991 944S, 944 S2: $6250-$11,175
- 1992-1995 968 Coupe: $12,775-$17,175
- 1990-1995 944 S2 & 968 Cabrio: $11,975-$21,175
Source: CPI Collectible Vehicle Value Guide "Black Book," (800) 972-5312
Typical Repair Prices*
- Pre-purchase inspection, includes compression check, road test: $140
- Catalytic converter, aftermarket (part only): $170
- Taillight assembly, 944 (part only): $70
- Taillight assembly, 968 (part only): $300
- Replace one lower control arm, 1985.5 and newer cars: $400
- Reseal oil cooler: $400
- Replace radiator, factory-type aluminum core: $800
- Front-end "reseal," includes new timing/balance-shaft belts, seals, water pump, idler: $1700
- Replace clutch, 944: $1500
- Replace clutch, 968: $2881
- Cylinder head rebuild, includes new valves, guides, gaskets, timing belt, machine work: $2800
*Unless noted, prices include parts and labor at $96 an hour.
1988 944 Turbo
1992 968 Cabriolet
94.5 in.58.2/57.1 in.
turbocharged sohc inline-4
dohc 16-valve inline-4
Bore x stroke
100.0 x 78.9 mm
100.0 x 78.9 mm
104.0 x 88.0 mm
147 @ 5800 rpm
217 @ 5800 rpm
236 @ 6200 rpm
144 @ 3000 rpm
243 @ 3500 rpm
225 @ 4100 rpm
rack & pinion, power asst
rack & pinion, power asst
rack & pinion, power asst
1988 944 Turbo
1992 968 Cabriolet
0-60 mph, sec
Standing 1/4 mile, sec
EPA normal driving, mpg
Road test date
*Road & Track Sports & GT Cars.
Hergesheimer MotorSports, 20612 Canada Rd., Lake Forest, Calif. 92630; Specialized Porsche Service, 6192 Magnolia Ave., Riverside, Calif. 92506; Automobile Atlanta, 505 S. Marietta Pkwy, Marietta, Ga. 30060.