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Model Guide: Front-engined, four-cylinder Porsche sports cars — Part I

Friday, October 21, 2016

Above: 944S.

Photos courtesy Porsche. All models pictured are European-market cars.

Click here to read Part II of the front-engined, four-cylinder Porsches, covering the 944 Turbo and Turbo S, 944S2, and 968

One of the most common misconceptions is Porsches are expensive to purchase. Tell the average person you own one, and they’ll think you either had to sell a kidney or shares on Wall Street for a living. As many PCA members know, it’s just not the case for all Porsches.

As the prices of air-cooled 911s have skyrocketed in the past decade, once-neglected air-cooled models such as the 914 and the 912 are now frequently advertised and sold above $10,000 if they’re in good condition. About the only deals that can be had at an entry level, attending-college-and-have-a-job budget, are front-engined water-cooled Porsches from 1977-1989. Specifically the 924, 924 Turbo, 924S, 944, and 944S. We’ll leave out the 944 Turbo, 944 S2, and later 968 models because they’re quantifiably more expensive to purchase and, in the Turbo’s case, maintain.

Crucially, any of the 924s or 944s covered in this guide can be found for sale on the used car market — in good condition — for around $5,000, give or take a grand or so. PCA's Mart is a good place to start looking. Of course, the best examples may go for more, and the worst for less. So if your budget is $5,000 and that 944S you’re looking at is $4,500, better to go find a cheaper 944 or 924S so you’ll have money left over to fix problems or perform required maintenance, things that are inevitable for an old, used car.

Produced jointly by three German automakers, the 924 (1977-82) relied heavily on mass-produced drivetrain components from Volkswagen and Audi, while Porsche developed the body and chassis and figured out how it would all go together. Audi built the first cars in its Neckarsulm plant. The 924 was introduced to the US market for the 1977 model year, followed by the 924 Turbo in 1979. In 1983, Porsche replaced it with the much-revised 944, which was powered by an engine fully developed by Porsche, followed by the 924S and 16-valve 944S in 1987. Production of the base 944 model continued through 1989, after whence it was axed from the product line, leaving only the more expensive 944 S2. Which one you choose will depend largely on your performance target, preferred styling, and cost of maintenance, as well as your purchase budget.

Above: 924 cutaway.

The information presented below is meant to be an overview of 924 and 944 models and what makes them unique, not a complete buyer’s guide. Be prepared to do more research of the model(s) that speaks to you most. PCA has a great Tech Q&A forum to research common issues with these Porsches and their remedies. Tech Q&A is open to primary and co-members as well as Test Drive members. Other online forums, such as Rennlist and Pelican Parts, can be excellent resources where you can find information covering ownership experiences, DIY projects, and quirks and intricacies of the cars. Clark’s Garage is another excellent resource compilation for 944 owners. And remember, always take your prospective Porsche to a qualified technician for a pre-purchase inspection.

1977-82 924

When the 924 launched in 1977, it received a detuned, 95-horsepower version of the European-market engine, powering 2,600 pounds of car. It is the least-desirable model year in the 924/944 family from a performance standpoint. If you’re set on an early 924, best to go for the “1977.5” and later models, which received a 110-hp engine and a transmission with a lower final-drive ratio, which boosted acceleration slightly. A four-speed manual was standard and a three-speed automatic was optional throughout the 924’s production run.

Top: 924. Above: Family picnicing with 924.

Despite the performance updates, straight-line performance never was the 924’s strong suite. The 1977 model runs from 0-60 miles per hour in 11.9 seconds while the 1977.5-1982 models were slightly quicker at 11.0 seconds, according to Road & Track (Aug. 1977). Just 0.3 seconds separate their quarter-mile times. The lesson here is, don’t purchase a 924 if quick acceleration is a priority — the 924 Turbo, 924S, and 944 models are all quicker and faster. That said, if handling is a higher priority and you’re one of those types who likes to drive a slow car fast, don’t count an early 924 out. With MacPherson strut-type suspension up front, semi-trailing arms at the rear, and a rear-mounted transmission (or transaxle setup), the 924 excels in the corners. Keep in mind, the 924 (and the 924 Turbo) did not come with power steering.

Road & Track (R&T) summed up the 924’s best attributes in its road test of the 1977.5 model (Aug. 1977): “The 924 looks great, its seating is as comfortable as a well worn Gucci loafer, and the car sticks to the road like chewing gum on the bottom of a theater seat.”

1979-82 924 Turbo

For those who want a unique experience and better performance out of an early 924, consider the 924 Turbo (a.k.a., 931), offered in the US from 1979-82. Weight increased to just over 2,800-pounds, but when Porsche added a turbocharger to the Audi four-cylinder, the front-engined sports car was endowed with 150 hp and 152 pound-feet of torque. It was enough for a 1980 model to run 0-60-mph in 7.7 seconds (R&T, June 1979) and a 1981 model with the M471 sport-package option in 9.3 seconds (R&T, August 1980. The magazine attributed the slower 0-60-mph time to several factors, including a different test surface and wider, stickier tires that weren't as conducive to standing starts as the non-M471-package rubber).

Above: Porsche ad for 924 Turbo.

In spite of similar performance across all four models years, there are differences between the 1979-80 (v1) and 1981-82 (v2) Turbos that merit your attention. V1 cars had dog-leg five-speed gearboxes, meaning first gear is down to the left. They also came with disc brakes up front and drums at the rear standard. V2 Turbos had a conventional five-speed shift pattern and standard disc brakes all around. The engine in v2 cars was also upgraded with electronic ignition timing and a boost in compression from 7.5:1 to 8.0:1.

The Turbo was offered with a sport — or S — package, easily identified by five-luge wheels and the M471 option code. 924S Turbos, regardless of year, all came with four-wheel disc brakes, stiffer shocks, a rear anti-roll bar, and a larger front anti-roll bar.

In a review of the 924 Turbo, Road & Track (June 1979) commented: “We’d say that the handling is as balanced as [the base 924] with gentle forgiving understeer the normal characteristic. However, mild power oversteer is available to the skilled driver and the extra power allows the chassis’ real potential to be realized.”

The 924 Turbo is a unique experience as one of the earliest turbocharged Porsches, but along with the extra power comes extra heat from the turbo, meaning there’s a potential for higher maintenance than a base 924 or 944. With fewer 931s made, parts are not as widely available as they are for the mass-produced 924 and 944.

1983-89 944

Porsche’s front-engined four-cylinder sports cars really came into their own at the dawn of the 944. Taking inspiration from the flared 924 Carrera GTS road and race cars, the basic shape of the 924 was retained with the addition of wider, sculpted fenders. The 924 Turbo’s hatch-mounted rubber spoiler also made the jump to the 944. The big news, however, was underneath the hood.

Above: 924 Carrera GTS (top) was inspiration for 944 (bottom) styling.

One of the more widespread criticisms of the 924 was the anemic Audi engine, which redeemed itself somewhat with the addition of a turbocharger. For the 944, Porsche developed a brand-new engine, a 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder mill with 150 hp and 142 lb-ft of torque. Fuel flow and ignition timing is handled by a Digital Motor Electronics (DME) system, which was state-of-the-art in 1983. Vibrations inherent in inline fours were quelled by the use of twin counter-rotating balance shafts. The larger displacement, DME, and overall refinement of the engine resulted in smooth, robust power delivery from low rpms up to the 6,400 rpm redline.

Given time and constructive criticism from the automotive press, Porsche engineered away some of the 924’s other rough edges. The 944 kept the excellent handling characteristics of the 924 using the same MacPherson strut front and semi-trailing-arm rear suspension, but refined spring, shock, and anti-roll-bar rates to optimize the ride, which was considered bouncy and rough previously. Four-wheel disc brakes were standard.

“The 944’s combination of power, mid-range torque, flexible gearing, superb handling, and excellent braking result in an extremely well-balanced machine," according to R&T (May 1982). "The 944 has a neutral feel and a tendency toward power understeer. Throttle liftoff brings the tail out, but ever so slightly and controllably. Knowing this, an experienced driver can play throttle brakes, and steering to wring the maximum out of the car.”

Above: 944 cutaway.

The 944 received mostly minor updates from its introduction for model-year 1983 to 1989, with a few exceptions. First-year cars came standard with no power steering, with an option for the excellent power-steering system. In 1984, power steering became standard, but could be deleted as an option. From 1985 and on, power steering came standard and could not be deleted.

Porsche gave the 944 a notable mid-cycle update halfway through 1985. The “1985.5” 944 received a new, sleek dashboard that was more inviting with an easier-to-read gauge cluster. The non-adjustable steering wheel was raised a bit, likely due to complaints that it was too low for taller drivers.

In 1987, the 944 received different wheel offsets. A year later, the engine’s compression ratio was raised from 9.5:1 to 10.2:1, which was accompanied by a boost in horsepower and torque to 160 and 155 lb-ft, respectively.

The last year of the base-model 944 was 1989, and Porsche pulled a curious move in enlarging the engine to 2.7 liters for just one model year. The result was 165 hp, 166 lb-ft of torque, a 10.9:1 compression ratio, and a 7.5-second 0-60-mph time, according to R&T (April 1989). The improvement led the magazine to comment, “The extra 15 horsepower transforms the 944’s character to that of a more muscular and extroverted car… Now it hustles with greater alacrity, in any gear, at any time, while requiring a lot less advance notice with the gearshift and accelerator.”

But really, if performance is what you’re after, any 944 will provide a similar experience, with the earlier cars being lighter and slightly less powerful, and the later cars gaining both weight and power. What will likely sway most buyers towards an early or late model car is the interior, greatly improved in 1985.5 models, or the presence (or absence) of power-steering. Those with autocross and track time in mind may prefer a 1983 model or a 1984 car without power steering. If those things don’t matter, then we’d recommend purchasing the newest 944 in your price range.

1987-88 924S

Once criticized as being too slow, the 924’s transformation to 944 in the early ’80s was exactly what the front-engined Porsche line needed. The 2.5-liter four quickened the 944’s pace and lent the car a higher level of refinement. For model-year 1987, Porsche decided to reintroduce the 924 to the US market in the form of the 924S — and it received the 944’s motor.

Above: 924S.

The 924S looks nearly the same as previous 924s, but the 2.5-liter engine combined with the slimmer, more aerodynamically efficient body actually made it quicker and faster. R&T (July 1986) recorded a 0-60-mph time of 7.8 seconds, 0.4 seconds quicker than the 1987 944 it had tested previously. And Porsche’s quoted top speed was 134 mph, up by three compared to the 944.

Most 924S models came with power steering, though the old-style interior from the earlier 924 remained. Search hard enough, and you may come across the rare 924 SE, the sport-package model with no power steering (could be optioned back in) and lowered and sport-tuned suspension, among other minor changes.

Besides the body, slimmer wheels and tires, and the old interior, the 924S was virtually identical to the 944 — including bump in output to 160 hp in 1988 — so the choice between the two likely will boil down to personal preference.

1987-88 944S

At the upper end of the 944 range we’re covering in this guide is the 944S, available in the 1987-88 model years. With a 16-valve 2.5-liter engine and dual overhead camshafts (the base model is of an 8-valve single-overhead-cam design), output increased to 190 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque, and redline was raised to 6,800 rpm. R&T (1987) recorded a 0-60-mph time of 7.2 seconds, and Porsche said the top speed increased to 142 mph. The extra performance does come at a cost on the used-Porsche market, with 944Ss often listed for sale around the $5,000 mark, and sometimes a bit more.

Above: 944S cutaway.

The S is virtually indistinguishable on the outside from a base 944 except for “16-Ventiler” script ahead of the doors and the 944S badging on the rear. However, in addition to the new engine, R&T said the handling had been improved as well: “Handling has always been the 944’s forte and in the S it’s even better, especially when the optional wide wheels and sport suspension package have been added. Porsche learned about the 944’s cornering inadequacies — watching some of its cars get trounced in IMSA and SCCA showroom stock racing — and applied this knowledge to the [944S].

Whichever way you cut it, any 924 or 944 is a great first Porsche and gateway into PCA membership. It's a great car to autocross with, attend high performance driver education track days, and even club race with extensive race modifications. Something to keep in mind: A Porsche 924 or 944 were expensive cars in their day, and the maintenance required to keep one running will be high above what one could expect from a contemporary Japanese econobox. For example, a timing belt and water pump replacement, which should be done every 45,000 miles or five years, can cost $1,500 or more at a repair shop. That cost can increase if there are other issues that need addressing at the time. Remember: Always get a pre-purchase inspection at a qualified repair shop, and purchase the newest, best-condition 924/944 you can find in your budget.

In the meantime, head below to look at some additional photos of 924 models.

Above: 924 advertisement.

Above: View of the 924's chassis. Notice the transaxle setup, in which the engine is up front, while the transmission is mounted arears at the end of the driveshaft. Transaxle cars are inherently well-balanced due to the spread of weight across the chassis.


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