How to Buy a 944
Considering a water-cooled, four-cylinder Porsche? How can you tell a good car from one you should avoid?
By Bill Burris
So you’ve got a neighbor considering a 944 and they’ve come to you for advice. Your first instinct might be to convince them that there is no such thing as a cheap Porsche, but they think the 944-series cars are right for them—for every good economic reason. Before you end up in the car with them on the way over to the seller’s house for a look, here are a few considerations.
There are so many features to appreciate in Porsche four-cylinder, water-cooled cars, such as bulletproof blocks, reliable transmissions, class-leading handling and good build quality, you’re starting to remind yourself how these cars stood as the gold standard of their day. Just about every auto magazine used the 944 as their skidpad test model, and for good reason; it was both a sporting driver and not a bad looker, either. Even after all these years the turbo models still offer remarkable performance in a fantastic package.
For the 1989 model year, Porsche offered the 944 (center front) with 162 horsepower, the 944S2 (left) with 208hp, and the 944 Turbo (right) producing 247hp.
But that was then and this is now. A quick visit to Kelley Blue Book or even to online auctions like eBay will confirm that the market for these vehicles is soft. Cabriolets that commanded a premium when new are now dangerously close in value to their hardtop counterparts due in part to the number of cabriolets sold in America as a percentage of total vehicles delivered, particularly in the later years. Your cash-in-hand neighbor may not even be aware that the 944 engine appeared in a 924 body back in 1987-88 as the 924S, nor may they have ever heard of a 968, the last and arguably best of the breed, so you’ve got your work cut out for you.
Hindsight being 20/20, we know now what to look out for. Cam belts were problematic in the earlier cars, and it took years for service facilities to figure out how to keep them properly adjusted (only adjust the belts on a cold engine, use only the factory tool, turn the engine over a couple of times then back a notch or two, hop on one leg, whistle dixie, etc). The oil coolers had their fair share of challenges, too, with oil cooler seals allowing oil to mix with the coolant and vice versa, which made for under-lubricated rod bearings at least until the factory came out with upgraded parts. The sunroof worked perfectly until you actually tried to open it a few times and it stripped drive gears. Sunroof gear timing was as complicated as the cam belt procedure, only slightly more frustrating. Then there were electrical challenges with the audio (couldn’t hear any music over the static), dash lights (dim), and engine fans that wanted to run all the time (what’s wrong with that?); but most of these problems have known fixes and many of the cars have been recipients of countermeasures, so off you go.
Quick checks and first impressions
One of the most undervalued and frequently unrecorded opinions is your initial impression, what the military calls your “gut.” How does the car appear as you walk up to it? Does the exterior look like the car has been well cared for or did the seller simply forget to wash it for the last few months? How does the interior look? On these cars, the condition of the seats can tell you a real story, as will the condition of the carpet. The number of dash cracks will indicate whether or not this car got a sun bath every day or was valued enough to keep it in a garage. After that initial opinion is at least mentally recorded, give your seller a challenge and ask for a run down of the service history, ask for keys (ignition, wheel locks if they’re still in place, alarm if so equipped) and take some time with the owner’s manual, if present. Your asking the questions will most likely qualify you as an expert in the mind of the seller, which can work to your advantage when it comes to negotiation time.
The final variation of the four-cylinder, front-engine, water-cooled Porsche is the three-liter 968, capable of 156 miles per hour and a zero to 60 time of 6.3 seconds.
Things you should be able to live with
You should explain to your buyer/neighbor that there are some things that older water-cooled cars suffer from but aren’t particularly bothersome and certainly not worth repairing even if you discover them. After all these years, heat cycles and bouts with UV rays, most rear decks will creak when going over bumps. This noise is due to the delamination of the glass from the adhesive that holds it in the frame. The noise may be occasionally bothersome but as long as there isn’t a water leak, live with it. Loose door handles are often encountered, but are easy to fix with a large Philips head screw driver. Most 944s are missing their under-engine belly pan, which served primarily to catch oil residue and not much else, so don’t worry about it. Windows that are slow in their upward travel are often magically revived with a couple of new window switches: Don’t tell that to your seller who’s convinced the car needs expensive window regulators and is willing to discount the whole car so they don’t have to go to the expense and trouble of replacing them.
Things you really can’t live with
On the flip side, there are some things you absolutely don’t want to see. Bad body and paint work is almost unrecoverable. Long term water leaks into the passenger compartment will destroy the carpet set and set you up for rust problems for as long as you own the car. Avoid anything with an unknown history, particularly due to the potential for title washing—an auto industry term for cars involved in accidents so bad that insurance companies consider them total losses, then someone picks them up at auction, repairs them and runs the title through a neighboring state so that “salvage” no longer appears on the title. Bear in mind that wrecked cars can come back to life if you have enough time and money, but reborn cars are typically discounted 50 percent. You don’t want to find out that the beautifully repainted car that you just paid top dollar for had a prior encounter with a telephone pole. Sideways.
The first of Porsche's four cylinder, water-cooled designs to hit the maret was the 924. The 924S from 1987 provided performance identical to the 944 but offered a slighter higher top speed.
If you have the luxury of a pre-purchase inspection
If your buyer has patience, ask the seller for a pre-purchase inspection. Take it to the service facility they intend to have work on it after purchase. While dealers no longer enjoy expertise in these models, you should be able to find a good local facility through contacts in the club. The 944-series cars are famous for passing compression tests with flying colors, but skip the cylinder leakdown test which can give false indications of the need for head work. Get it all down in writing: static/dynamic/safety-related/cosmetic.
Clutch health plays a large part in determining value because the cost of a clutch job can approach a major percentage of the car’s value. Same goes for automatic/Tiptronic flex plate replacement, which is equally expensive due to the necessity of removing the transmission to get to it; smart buyers will know that flex couplings need replacement every 60,000 miles or so. Another unfortunate reality is the availability of tires in original equipment sizes. If the car you’re considering still has the original wheels, check for tire condition since competitive tires are becoming more difficult to find.
Do your homework; take a pad of paper with you and write notes to yourself. If you shop for cars as much as many of us do, you’ll thank yourself later if you end up looking at a half dozen cars, because they’ll start to run together in your mind. Your digital camera will also help serve two purposes, first to document which car is which, and secondly to serve as the “before” pictures you can share with buddies after you fix up that ride. In all cases, try to stay objective—and the best way to do this is to take a buddy. I can’t tell you how many buyers have rose colored glasses on when they look at cars; a real pal can give you a friendly nudge to the ribs and bring you back down to earth. Finally, like Bruce Anderson often says, buy the latest model you can afford. Porsche tends to improve the breed with each successive model year, so encourage your neighbor to shop, shop, shop. With as many 944 series cars produced and with the market as soft as it is, you should be able to take the pick of the litter.
Bill Burris is the member of PCA’s Technical Committee for late model (1987-on) 924/944/968 models. He worked for Porsche Cars North America during the years that 944s were being sold new. Currently a marketing manager for Lexus, Burris has been recognized as one of the nation’s top relationship marketing professionals by 1to1 Magazine.
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