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Written by JG Pasterjak
From the Feb. 2000 issue
Posted in Buyer's Guides
John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelley, Porsche 944. You may think that one of these things is not like the other, but they're more similar than you think. The NFL's Class of '83--where some of the greatest quarterbacks in football history were drafted into the pro ranks--occurred the same year that Porsche introduced the 944 into the ranks of the sports car elite.
At this point, we could make all kinds of sports metaphors, but that's as far as we'll go. Suffice it to say that the 944, while somewhat polarizing to Porsche purists, remains one of the finest GT cars ever produced. It is now also one of the best bargains in the used sporty car marketplace.
Europeans got their first taste of the 944 in 1981, but we in the States had to wait until the 1983 model was released on May 1, 1982. The 944 was an evolution of the 924, in that it used the basic body structure (while adding its own distinctive fender flares), interior, suspension and brakes from the 924 Turbo to surround its own 150-horsepower, 2.5-liter, inline four-cylinder engine. This engine was basically half of a 928's five-liter V8. The four shared a cylinder head, valves, bore and stroke and combustion chamber shape with the big V8.
Like the 924, the 944's suspension featured McPherson struts and coil springs up front and semi-trailing arms with torsion bars out back. To help achieve a more favorable weight distribution, Porsche engineers designed the car to use a transaxle that was part of the rear differential. A torque tube linked the gearbox to the engine. Vented front and rear disc brakes with 15-inch alloy wheels were also standard equipment.
Porsche purists initially snubbed the 944, just as they had rejected the 924 throughout most of its life, due to its front-mounted water-cooled engine. Everyone knows, of course, that all real Porsches are cooled only by God's air and have the engine out back.
The 944, however, soon did more than any other water-cooled Porsche had ever done to endear itself to the hardcores. The 944 was praised for its incredible handling, even winning a Car and Driver 10Best award as Best Steering Car in 1985. The engine, while not amazingly powerful by today's standards, produced a very flat and usable torque curve-ideal for sporty driving. Maintenance costs and schedules were also reasonable, something that Porsche owners were certainly not used to. There was such demand for these cars that a waiting list nearly two-and-a-half YEARS long formed soon after the 944 was introduced.
The 944 grew a turbo in 1986, and power jumped a whopping 30 percent, to 217 horsepower. This put the 944 into true supercar territory, as it took on the Corvette, Ferrari 308 and even the 911 as one of the fastest, most usable performance cars of the era.
The 944S-basically a 944 with a 16-valve head-was introduced in 1987. Power was up to 188 horsepower, and the stellar chassis remained. This model was sold alongside the regular 944 and the Turbo. For 1988, a bump in compression ratio from 9.5:1 to 10.2:1 pushed the regular 944's power up eight horsepower to 158.
The Turbo S was also introduced in 1988. Based on the normal 944 Turbo, the S had some significant changes that made it a much more serious car. A modified turbo and computer provided more boost over the entire rev range, the clutch was a heavy-duty unit designed to handle increased power, the first and second gear sets were specially hardened, a limited-slip differential and trans oil cooler were standard, shocks and springs were upgraded to Koni coil-over units, 928 brakes were used all around and bushings were of a harder durometer rubber than on the standard Turbo. Only 1000 of these cars were built in 1988.
However, for the 1989 model year, the specs that made the Turbo S so special were adapted to the entire 944 Turbo lineup, meaning those cool Turbo S goodies weren't as hard to come by anymore. This move was mainly due to the introduction of the 944 S2 and the need to distance the Turbo, performance-wise, from this new, normally-aspirated 944.
The S2 featured a massive 3.0-liter, 16-valve four-cylinder engine that cranked out 208 horsepower. The S2 also featured the swoopy, smooth-front bodywork from the Turbo, but was available in coupe and convertible configurations.
The Turbo and the S2 were still sold alongside the standard 944, which entered its final year with a displacement increase to 2.7 liters and a corresponding power increase to 162 horsepower. The Turbo also ended production at the end of 1989, leaving the S2 as the only 944 until its evolution into the 968 in 1992.
The good news is that you can have a 944 for about the price of a used Honda. The bad news is-well, there really isn't much bad news, IF you do your homework. Our research has shown the 944 to be a pretty reliable car if properly maintained. Maintaining one is admittedly more expensive than keeping up a Honda, but nowhere near the cost of keeping a 911 happy. And much of the regular maintenance can be accomplished by a competent backyard mechanic.
Of course, your smartest move is to start with the best 944 you can find. This will certainly minimize headaches down the road. Finding a car that has been properly maintained and that, most importantly, comes with records of that maintenance, is the best way to ensure driving pleasure.
When shopping for a standard 944, you'll basically be looking at cars from four different eras: 1983 to 1985, 19851/2 to 1986, 1987 to 1988, and the 1989 model.
The 1983 to '85 cars are the originals, with interiors lifted straight from the 924. These cars are easily recognizable by their square dash clusters and external radio antennas. These cars also have replaceable front ball joints; later 944s went to a one-piece front suspension arm with integral ball joints that makes ball joint replacement a much more expensive affair. The early cars have no specific faults, although it has been said that the ventilation system doesn't work as well as it could. These cars' biggest problem is simply their age and the fact that finding a low-mileage early car may be a bit harder. They are out there, though, and many of them have been well-maintained.
The 1985 1/2 to 1986 models can be spotted by their slicker interiors-the gauge cluster is more oval, and the steering wheel was moved up a bit to provide more clearance for the driver's thighs. These cars also had integral, windshield-mounted radio antennas and the aforementioned one-piece alloy control arms. With the dash redesign also came a vent redo that most folks say solved any ventilation problems found in the early cars.
All subsequent models were essentially identical, except for power output. As we mentioned in the previous section, there was a power bump in 1987 and 1989 (although it's not real easy to find a 1989 944 these days).
With the exception of the ball joints and the antenna motor, checking out your prospective 944 purchase is a similar process no matter what the year of the car. The most important thing to look for on any 944 is maintenance records. This documentation can save you a world of headaches down the road. Many 944s advertised have their service papers listed right in the ad-it's probably not even worth it to check out an undocumented car, since it's so easy to find one with a traceable service history.
Next, it's a good idea to have the car looked at by a trained Porsche mechanic. Even though the 944 is more shadetree-mechanic-friendly than other Porsches, it still helps to have the car checked out by someone who really knows what they're doing. Expect to pay for about two hours of labor for a checkout. (Some mechanics will give you a break on this if they think they can get your service business after you buy the car.)
As for what you can check, there's plenty of stuff to look for on 944s. Start with a drive around the block. Does the engine shake at idle, then smooth out if you rev it to around 1200 rpm? If so, you could need one or more engine mounts (about $100 each). If there's an unusual amount of driveline lash, the rubber center of the clutch disc could have gone south. Replacing the whole shootin' match (clutch, pressure plate, bearing, etc.) will run $500 to $600 for the parts and about the same in labor from a qualified mechanic. This is a job that a competent hobbyist can do, but it does require a great deal of disassembly of the car-be sure you have the time and the space to undertake a project like this. Access to a lift is also helpful.
Under the hood, look for corrosion around the battery. Since the 944 is made of galvanized metal, this is abut the only place where rust is a factor. If this area rusts through, water can leak right inside the car. Of course, if the owner has let this area rust through, the rest of the car is probably a pig, too.
Check the oil next. If it looks more like a chocolate milk shake than Mobil 1, there could be coolant leaking into the oil. The most common cause of this is leaking oil cooler seals. These are easy and cheap to replace ($30 to $40), but again, it could be a sign of a slacker owner who let other stuff slip as well. Leaking oil seals, if left unrepaired for too long, can take out the main bearings as well due to insufficient lubrication.
Power steering hoses on these cars also tend to leak at the hose-clamped fittings. This is not a big deal in itself (it can be remedied with a better hose clamp or a stronger arm on the screwdriver), but the location of the hoses allows the corrosive fluid to leak onto the control arms, which could prematurely weaken the ball joints. On the early cars (pre-'851/2), this means a $40 ball joint. On the later cars, it means a couple hundred bucks for a rebuilt control arm/ball joint assembly, or $400 to $500 for a new assembly. The fluid also drips onto the anti-roll bar bushings, causing them to fail prematurely. Porsche did have a fix for this that rerouted the hoses to a more favorable location, but a leaky connection can still wreak havoc.
Those are the key areas to check when auditioning a 944. Of course, you should do all of the usual used-car tire kicking, but that's pretty much the Porsche-specific stuff.
###What Else Goes Wrong? Beside the stuff we already mentioned, 944s do have a few maintenance issues that need to be addressed. While the cars are inherently durable, regular preventive maintenance can preserve and extend the life of a 944 for hundreds of thousands of miles.
Timing belts are one of the most important items to keep tabs on and should be replaced at least every 30,000 miles. The 944 engine is an interference design, meaning a broken timing belt will produce a harmful co-spatial event between the valves and the pistons. In layman's terms: Snap, bang, $ka-ching$. The belt itself is cheap (less than $30), but a dealer or mechanic will get $300 to $400 for the labor. Again, it's something that the average hobbyist mechanic can usually do, but plan on having your car apart all weekend.
While you're replacing that timing belt, it's a good idea to replace the water pump as well if yours has lots of mileage (60,000-plus). You have to disassemble the car to the same point, so this is the time to do it-not when the water pump fails. New water pumps run $100 to $150, and rebuilt ones are about two-thirds of that price.
Always use the updated, 944 Turbo-style water pump as a replacement part, and while you're in there, go ahead and replace the thermostat, the balance shaft belts and the rest of the drive belts. Also check the condition of the rollers and bearings that the belts ride on. This is your best opportunity to replace these wear items, and a little money spent now will greatly reduce the chances of spending a lot of money later. Most folks we talked to recommended doing the timing belt/water pump/thermostat/balance belts/drive belts service as part of a regular service every three to five years depending on driving conditions and yearly mileage.
Power window channels on 944s have a tendency to warp, causing the motor to strain and finally fail. Motors aren't cheap, so keep an eye on this area.
Another minor annoyance includes a rear hatch electrical release that can fail. This is usually due to a broken nylon piece which is easily replaceable. The hinge on the center console cassette storage bin is another frequently-cited failure. Again, these are cheap and easy to fix.
We've also heard about water leaks into the cabin from the sunroof (usually caused by plugged drain holes), the rear hatch (usually caused by a bad rear hatch seal, which costs around $60, or plugged drain holes by the spoiler). Finally, some owners have reported problems with the cruise control, usually traced to a faulty "black box" cruise controller.
Prospective Turbo buyers have a couple of other areas to check, as well. The turbocharger coolant pump, which circulates coolant through the turbo housing for about 30 seconds after the car is shut off, can fail with age. The cause is frequently binding in the shaft, which can be cured with a thorough cleaning and realignment of the motor shaft, but a new pump is around $175 if yours is completely toasted.
Also, the original-style Turbo exhaust manifolds were extremely prone to cracking. The factory changed to a more crack-resistant style sometime in 1987 and replaced the old pieces under warranty. This warranty was not very well publicized, however, so many cars may still have the old-style manifolds. This changeover costs about $1200, so make sure your prospective car either has the good manifold, or the seller is willing to take a chunk off the price.
Now comes the eternal question of price. How much should you pay for a 944? Good question, as asking prices are all over the place. When pricing cars, there are again three classes of 944s: early cars, middle cars and late cars. Early cars are the 1983 to 1985 square dash models, middle cars are the oval dash, 19851/2 to 1986 cars, and late cars are the 1987 to 1989 cars with the slight power increase.
Within these areas you're basically shopping for condition. A good early car can be had for anywhere from $4000 to $6000, middle cars are about $1000 more, and late cars are about $1000 more than middle cars. Of course, there are deals out there, and being in the right place at the right time can certainly pay off. But there are also pieces of crap out there masquerading as deals-buy wisely.
For a Turbo, expect to pay no less that $7500 for a 1986 in decent condition. A good daily driver 1986 or 1987 Turbo should sell in the $8000 to $9000 range, and for a 1988 Turbo S or a 1989 Turbo, you're in the $11,000 to $13,000 neighborhood. For an S2, expect to start negotiations at around $11,000 for a decent car.
Putting a 944 on the track is a simple affair. We talked to 944 owner/preparer/racer Nort Northam, owner of Orlando's Nortsport, to find out how he sets up his fleet of 944 racers.
The most important part of any race car, according to Northam, is the wheel and tire package. 944s seem to like eight-inch wheels all around, or eights in the front and nines in the rear. With 225/45 and 245/45 tires, this is an excellent and well-balanced combination. Autocrossers may want to opt for 245s all around or 225s all around, rather than going with the larger rear tires.
For any serious track use, some type of carbon brake pad is a must. Nort also finds that cryogenically treating the rotors greatly extends the life of all the brake components.
Under the car, Nort likes Koni shocks for their adjustability and their reputation. (Porsche used Konis on the 944 Turbo S and the M030 option 944s.) Coupled with 350 to 400 lbs./in. front springs and 28 to 30mm rear torsion bars, this makes a great combination for PCA or SCCA Improved Touring racing. Nort also recommends using Weltmeister anti-roll bars or Porsche factory bars from the M030 option package.
Under the hood of the non-turbo car, about all you can do to gain some power is use a K&N air filter and a decent header. Bursch and similar companies claim a 10- to 11-horsepower gain with their headers, a claim that many 944 racers say is well-founded.
Obviously, after reading this article, we're sure you'll be compelled to go out and buy a 944. The only problem is what to do next. You'll want to go somewhere and drive your car to the limit, but where? You have a few choices. The SCCA, PCA (Porsche Club of America) and POC (Porsche Owners Club) all have autocross programs and classes that 944s can be very competitive in. For those looking to go faster while not necessarily putting their cars in jeopardy of a wheel-to-wheel crash, PCA and POC have high-speed driver education programs and lapping days.
The next step would be actual wheel-to-wheel racing. SCCA has its Improved Touring category; the 944 slots into the ITS class, where it competes with Z-cars, the 13B-powered Mazda RX-7 and the Honda Prelude Si. PCA puts the 944 into its I Stock class, where it competes with other 944s, 924Ss, 914-6s and some older 911s. PCA Stock class rules are quite liberal, allowing substitution of springs, shocks, anti-roll bars, and exhaust systems. Competitors can build quite a capable race car, while still maintaining some streetability. POC also has a race program. The 944 fits neatly into their G Stock class, running against basically the same competition faced in the PCA. The main difference is that POC does not allow spring changes.
Remember the guy who liked Remington shavers so much, he bought the company? That's kinda what happened to me.
Before you skip ahead, let me assure you that no, I do not own the Porsche company. You may now take me off your speed dial. What did happen, however, is that while I was researching and writing this story, I became more and more enamored of the Porsche 944-a car that I had regarded fondly ever since my friend Donovan and I would sneak out and ride our bikes down to the Porsche dealership in the middle of the night to look at the cars. Of course, after I discovered porno, this activity cut way down, but the seeds of my lust were being planted back in the early '80s (for Porsches, not porno-well, for both, really).
Anyway, I've always liked 944s, and writing this story just reaffirmed that feeling. The 944 is also a car that many of our readers have been dying to see us do as a project car. Couple that with the fact that the Porsche Club of America and the Porsche Owners Club are two of the bigger sports car clubs in the U.S., and the marketing opportunities for the magazine would be tremendous. It just didn't make sense for us NOT to have a 944. And then there was that lust thing.
So when I researched this story-research that involved looking at and calling on classified ads to talk to owners-I was in the right place at the right time when the right deal came along.
Now, if you'll refer to my story, you'll see the part where I wrote about not buying a car without service records. Let this be the asterisk. If the car has no service records, but is so insanely clean that it looks like it just rolled off a showroom floor, shows no sign of any major mechanical malfunction, comes with a garage full of parts that can be sold for profit or kept as spares, and is ridiculously cheap, you're crazy not to buy it.
Such was the deal with my 944. It's a 19851/2 model with 96,000 miles that runs and drives like new. The car also came with a ton of parts, including a transmission, torque tube, axles, a nearly complete interior and a bunch of trim. (Before you call, don't bother: anything I'm not keeping has already been sold on eBay.) The price was $3800. Being in the right place at the right time, in the right situation, is a pretty satisfying feeling.
I figured that at that price, it would be pretty easy to bring the service history up to date (since I had no real paperwork on the car), and since it was going to be a project, I'd be doing a lot of work for editorial purposes, anyway.
Now, as for what we plan to do with this project: The first thing we did was to take it to our official GRM test site and run it on our autocross course. The result was a 38.7-second run, which was right about where our Project Miata was running with its nice Michelins. The Porsche rode on 205/60-15 Pirellis in the front and some tires I'd never heard of in the back. With this combination, the car felt like it had about a million horsepower because it just slid around all over the place. It was very neutral (a testament to its 50/50 weight distribution) and had awesome steering, just like the ads always said (and just like I dreamed about in those pre-porno years). So now we have a baseline.
The focus of this project, however, will go beyond our usual efforts to lower the car's on-course times. As we mentioned before, PCA and POC are two of the largest sports car clubs in the world, and we'd be crazy not to hook up with them.
So the focus of this project will be to not only show how your 944 can go faster, but also how to you can be a Porsche guy or gal. We're going to join these clubs and progress through their competition and driver programs as we prepare the 944 for autocrossing, driver education and, eventually, road racing. We'll also see if we can compete with the Porsche clubs while still remaining competitive at SCCA autocross events (and at the many independent club events that use SCCA rules).
We've realized that for the price of a used Honda, you can now own a Porsche. The question is, what next?
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