Vintage Views: Porsche 944 Turbo

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the November 2017 issue of Grassroots Motorsports. Some information may be different today.]

For decades we’ve touted the Porsche 944 Turbo as a bargain supercar, and our advice has always been simple: Buy one and enjoy one of the fastest, most capable machines of the ’80s. The 944 had a competition pedigree as well as the performance chops to run with the day’s best.

These were extremely clean examples imported from a European collection, but is it a sign of a changing market? Is now the time to grab one off Bring a Trailer? Perhaps, but as with most questions involving the Porsche crest, the answer first requires a history lesson.

1976: Porsche released the 924. It didn’t have those iconic flares or much of an engine, but big things were in store.

1982: Porsche split the family tree, so to speak. The 924 continued as a low-cost model, while its basic DNA formed the 944. In creating the 944, Porsche added better brakes, finally tacked on those flares, and fit a real Porsche engine under the hood.

1983: The Porsche 944 finally came stateside, replacing the 924. (The 924 would remain available overseas and eventually come back to the U.S. as the 924S.)

1986: Porsche expanded the 944 model line with the turbocharged model. Horsepower was bumped 30 percent, all the way to 217. Today, these are selling in the mid-teens and higher on Bring a Trailer.

1988: A second Turbo model, the Turbo S, joined the lineup: bigger brakes, Koni dampers, stiffer bushings and a limited-slip differential. Power was boosted to 247 horsepower, and only about 1635 copies were built.

1989: Psych! The 944 Turbo S was only a one-year beast. However, all of its goodies became standard on the 944 Turbo, which itself would be gone by 1990.

The naturally aspirated 944 lasted into the 1990s, when it morphed into the 968. However, considering the meteoric prices set by the 911 Turbos, if a 944 variant is going to score big, there’s a better than average chance it will be a boosted one.

Practical Guidance

Brian Weathered knows the Porsche 944 quite well: His shop, Midwest Eurosport; specializes in Stuttgart’s favorite marque, and he also serves as director for the Midwest Chapter of the 944 Cup Racing Series. In the late ’80s, the Porsche 944 came with antilock brakes, air bags and climate control. They were more advanced than the 911 Carrera. When buying a used 944 Turbo, part of the pre-purchase inspection should include a leakdown test. We like to see numbers under 15 percent.

The cylinders are Alusil-treated aluminum. We use a borescope and look at cylinder walls for metal transfer from piston skirts.

Piston rod bearings are a weak link. Bearings can be installed with the engine in the car, and we recommend doing them every 80,000 to 100,000 miles; on a race engine, we do them every 60 to 80 racing hours.

Timing and balance shaft belts and rollers should be replaced at 45.000 miles. After replacement, they need to be re-tensioned every 15.000 miles and then replaced again at 45,000 miles. The rubber belts break down after five years and should be replaced regardless of mileage. In racing applications, we replace belts and rollers when we do rod bearings every 60 to 80 racing hours.

First step in improving performance is to free up exhaust. Run at a minimum a 3-inch system with a muffler or resonator in the rear. On our race cars, we run a side exhaust out the right-side rocker panel-under the passenger seat is a pretty loud setup for the street.

Stock boost is around 0.8 bar. We run 1.0 bar on our race motors, which is what you’ll have after you free up the exhaust system. Porsche did a great job with the stock wastegate controller, so don’t take it off. We log air-fuel ratios and use an adjustable fuel-pressure regulator for correction.

We also recommend O-ringing the cylinder head and using a “wide fire ring” head gasket.

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Comments
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crankwalk
crankwalk Dork
10/16/17 3:44 p.m.

Do people just do a balance shaft delete ever? Anybody make a kevlar timing belt for them?

 

Rod bearings/ O-ringing the cylinder head for insurance on an extra 1-2 psi of boost?

 

Needy little things for mediocre power aren't they? There's a reason people LS swap them.

Cotton
Cotton PowerDork
10/16/17 3:50 p.m.

I've had a couple and miss them.  Sold my last one because I thought it was a pain to work on,  then I got into v12tt Mercedes.  The 951 is a breeze to work on compared to the twin turbo v12s.

racerdave600
racerdave600 UltraDork
10/16/17 3:58 p.m.

A little harsh aren't you there crankwalk?  When they were new they were far from mediocre on power.  I owned one for a number of years and never found them too needy.  Sure you needed to do a timing belt and pulleys every two years, but that was about it.  Everything else was pretty reliable.  I noticed the 240Z, let's put it this way, it would have blown my modified '71 240 into the weeds without working very hard.  In fact, you had to be well into triple digits before you even knew you were going fast.  I know most people would prefer a '70's or '80's 911, and they are built to higher standard, but in truth, the 944 Turbo drives better, and it's as fast or faster than most 911's of the period. 

mad_machine
mad_machine MegaDork
10/16/17 3:59 p.m.
crankwalk said:

Do people just do a balance shaft delete ever? Anybody make a kevlar timing belt for them?

 

 

It's not the make up of the belt that limits their life, it's the shape of the teeth. Like the Fiat 124, the belt on the 924/44 are square. They work great being square, but because the belt stretches just a tiny bit as the RPMs rise, the square teeth start to get just a little bit off of the pullies and begin to wear. Eventually the belt will get enough wear that it can skip a tooth or two and we all know how that story ends

Stefan
Stefan MegaDork
10/16/17 4:00 p.m.
crankwalk said:

Do people just do a balance shaft delete ever? Anybody make a kevlar timing belt for them?

 

Rod bearings/ O-ringing the cylinder head for insurance on an extra 1-2 psi of boost?

 

Needy little things for mediocre power aren't they? There's a reason people LS swap them.

Balance shaft delete results in cracked cast aluminum parts on the engine.  It isn't a good idea, especially for a 4hp gain (seriously they don't suck up as much power as most think).

They do or did make a kevlar belt, but honestly its not that bad to replace at the scheduled time frames, not as easy as most timing belt motors, but it isn't the end of the world.

Mine made 450hp on pump gas and got 30mpg on the highway.  They aren't young cars and they need loving owners who want to put the time into them.  I decided I wasn't one of those and sold it on to someone who hillclimbs and autocrosses it quite successfully.

crankwalk
crankwalk Dork
10/16/17 4:17 p.m.

 

Stefan said:
crankwalk said:

Do people just do a balance shaft delete ever? Anybody make a kevlar timing belt for them?

 

Rod bearings/ O-ringing the cylinder head for insurance on an extra 1-2 psi of boost?

 

Needy little things for mediocre power aren't they? There's a reason people LS swap them.

Balance shaft delete results in cracked cast aluminum parts on the engine.  It isn't a good idea, especially for a 4hp gain (seriously they don't suck up as much power as most think).

They do or did make a kevlar belt, but honestly its not that bad to replace at the scheduled time frames, not as easy as most timing belt motors, but it isn't the end of the world.

Mine made 450hp on pump gas and got 30mpg on the highway.  They aren't young cars and they need loving owners who want to put the time into them.  I decided I wasn't one of those and sold it on to someone who hillclimbs and autocrosses it quite successfully.

I'm not talking about a balance shaft delete for power it's so I don't have to MESS WITH IT every 15k and then 45k like the gentleman in the arcticle suggested. On my Galant VR4, I deleted it with factory Mirage turbo parts so that the belt wouldn't snap, get caught in the timing belt then bend valves.

 

racerdave600 said:

A little harsh aren't you there crankwalk?  When they were new they were far from mediocre on power.  I owned one for a number of years and never found them too needy.  Sure you needed to do a timing belt and pulleys every two years, but that was about it.  Everything else was pretty reliable.  I noticed the 240Z, let's put it this way, it would have blown my modified '71 240 into the weeds without working very hard.  In fact, you had to be well into triple digits before you even knew you were going fast.  I know most people would prefer a '70's or '80's 911, and they are built to higher standard, but in truth, the 944 Turbo drives better, and it's as fast or faster than most 911's of the period. 

You mention my junkyard 240Z as if it's my only reference point for how fast cars can be. LOL

I've owned plenty of fast stuff and to give you a reference, a factory SR20DET or 4g63 with a bigger fuel pump can make 40-50 more hp at the wheels than a 944 turbo without checking on pesky rod bearings, screwing with balance shaft belts, having to O-ring the head for turning up the wick 0.2 bar as the suggestions mentioned.   (Did anybody else not read all those things and think "I don't have to do any of that stuff with some Japanese 4 cyl turbo or V8 equivalents? Or did anybody even see the same section of the article I saw?)

There are a lot of ways to skin a cat but that sure is a lot of time, work and money to keep up with that maintenance schedule for 220 whp in a little decent handling RWD platform.

My $0.02.

Stefan
Stefan MegaDork
10/16/17 4:41 p.m.

Agreed to some extent, except most aren't making 220hp since they'll support a good amount more than that out of the box. 

The maintenance schedule isn't as bad as the article implies, but I guess setting point gaps or adjusting valves isn't something you'd be interested in either and those are things people still needed to do back when the engine was originally designed.

What factory produced 4-cylinder motor in 1986 was making 220hp?

Chrysler didn't do it until the Turbo III in the Spirit R/T 1991 and it had some pretty bad issues with the cylinder heads cracking that weren't solved until later.

The 4G63 made 167hp in 1986 in the Lancer

The fact is that Porsche was milking the 924/944 platform for all it was worth since the costs to import the cars were going up around that time frame.  While the development of the 924/944 saved the company from bankruptcy and kept the 911 from dying off completely, it was still a platform designed in the early 70's for VW (who decided to go with the Scirocco instead) with an engine designed in the late seventies.

Remember, the original plan was to replace the 911 line with the 924, 944 and 928 as the 911 sales were stagnating and the new president decided a new direction was needed.  The 911 faithful rioted, the president was ousted and the 911 was saved.  The 924, 944 and 928 were already there though and selling well enough to allow them to keep racing and building 911's, so they kept it going for as long as it was economically feasible.

They were good enough cars for Mazda to copy for the 1st and 2nd Gen RX-7's.  :)

crankwalk
crankwalk Dork
10/16/17 5:18 p.m.
Stefan said:

 

The maintenance schedule isn't as bad as the article implies, but I guess setting point gaps or adjusting valves isn't something you'd be interested in either and those are things people still needed to do back when the engine was originally designed.

 

I actually do all of those things on most of my current vehicles but it's because they are old and mostly stock these days.

My point is the article made it seem like it's not only a good idea but darn near required to do a lot of work to run barely anymore boost which is a big turn off for me especially when much faster alternatives are out there for less money that came just a couple of years later. If you like them , you like them though. I get it.

racerdave600
racerdave600 UltraDork
10/16/17 6:23 p.m.

Simply not true.  You can't run massive amounts of boost, but mine was around 300hp without significant mods, and nothing internal.  The big difference between it and many other cars you mentioned, is that the Porsche excels at high speed touring.  There are not many cars as capable from that era that are so easy to drive fast.  Like I noted previously, you had to be going close to 130 or so before the car even felt like it was going fast.  Even in say my 370Z, it was not even close to being as stable a platform.  Steering feel was also nice.

Many people compare the RX7 to these, and yes, I owned one of those back in the day too, but while a nice car, it was not in the same league in terms of driver appeal.  The specs on these do not do them justice.  Are they worth the extra maintenance?  To some yes, to others no. 

Cotton
Cotton PowerDork
10/16/17 6:31 p.m.

In reply to crankwalk :

I ran more boost on my last one with just chip and exhaust.  No other supporting mods.  I dynoed it and did much better than the factory specs would lead you to believe.  I want to say I was 230ish hp and 250ish tq to the wheels,  but honestly that was a lot of cars and a lot of dynos ago,  so I'd have to dig the sheet out to be sure.  Regardless it was a stout car and a fun DD.  

mad_machine
mad_machine MegaDork
10/16/17 6:36 p.m.

also remember, the 944 was the yardstick that Mazda used to get the Miata's handling "just right". More than a few 944s met their end at mazda's hand

crankwalk
crankwalk Dork
10/16/17 7:06 p.m.
racerdave600 said:

Simply not true.

Not my words. I'm just stating what Brian Weathered mentioned in the article. I'm sure they can be pushed past that but his section about rod bearings being a weak link, silly balance shaft schedules, and o-ringing the cylinder head makes them look way more needy and less stout factory than a japanese turbo rwd equivalent.

I was never a huge fan not because of the VW lineage or because they were water cooled or was one of those people who thought they  weren't real Porsche's (Hell, my 75 911 was water cooled). Better at high speed touring than an s13? Sure, I guess? That's about it for me though.

  

monknomo
monknomo Reader
7/2/18 3:49 p.m.

In reply to crankwalk :

People do, but most threads where I've seen it result in people putting them back, or breaking stupid stuff, like the oil pickup.  It's a mighty big 4, lots of swinging metal

maj75
maj75 HalfDork
7/2/18 4:24 p.m.

I briefly owned a mint ‘86 951.  I had thoughts of making it a track car, but was talked out of it because it was so mint.  It was an OK car, but very expensive to get reliable HP for track duty.  Also, finding someone reliable to work on it locally was a challenge.  I sold it and bought a ‘95 M3.  Far better track car in every way and less expensive to modify than the P car.

 

The only way I’d enjoy an 951 at this point was if it had an LS1 swap and working AC.  I like to be comfortable when I drive to the track.  My C5 has 440hp and 450tq which is flat from 2700 to 5800.  You couldn’t get that performance out of the 951 motor without spending more than the swap costs.  And it wouldn’t be as reliable.

Sparkydog
Sparkydog Reader
7/2/18 6:28 p.m.

Don't just delete the balance shaft - delete the engine bay! wink

AnthonyGS
AnthonyGS New Reader
7/2/18 7:24 p.m.

Near me is a fairly clean looking NA 944 with sport seats and Fuchs wheels for cheap.  I’m tempted to get it for an LS future when I finish my Miata build in a few years.

I’d have to sell my 91 ZR-1 to make room for it and that’d be hard.  Sometimes I think of selling the ZR for a C5 Z06 too.

 

 

Vigo
Vigo UltimaDork
7/2/18 8:54 p.m.

 

Near me is a fairly clean looking NA 944 with sport seats and Fuchs wheels for cheap...I’d have to sell my 91 ZR-1 to make room for it

Ummm, that comes off a little crazy. Unless an n/a 944 is your dream car I just don't see that being a good idea.  

crankwalk
crankwalk SuperDork
7/2/18 11:03 p.m.
AnthonyGS said:

Near me is a fairly clean looking NA 944 with sport seats and Fuchs wheels for cheap.  I’m tempted to get it for an LS future when I finish my Miata build in a few years.

I’d have to sell my 91 ZR-1 to make room for it and that’d be hard.  Sometimes I think of selling the ZR for a C5 Z06 too.

 

 

Where do you live that clean NA 944s aren’t like $3,000?  Lol

Campbelljj
Campbelljj New Reader
7/3/18 3:30 a.m.
crankwalk said:

I was never a huge fan not because of the VW lineage or because they were water cooled or was one of those people who thought they  weren't real Porsche's (Hell, my 75 911 was water cooled). 

  

What the heck!  Must of had a chevy V8 in the back end as no 911 was a water pumper til the 996.

crankwalk
crankwalk SuperDork
7/3/18 9:24 a.m.
Campbelljj said:
crankwalk said:

I was never a huge fan not because of the VW lineage or because they were water cooled or was one of those people who thought they  weren't real Porsche's (Hell, my 75 911 was water cooled). 

  

What the heck!  Must of had a chevy V8 in the back end as no 911 was a water pumper til the 996.

Turbo rotary

yupididit
yupididit SuperDork
7/3/18 6:16 p.m.

What makes these 944's a better buy than a 986 boxster base or S that is priced identically?

 

te72
te72 Reader
7/3/18 10:09 p.m.

I'll say this much to the 944's credit, an old friend had one, took me out for a ride when he had to get some parts or food or what have you. I was looking at my phone, didn't even realize we were doing about 125 or so down the freeway.

 

I didn't hear a thing, road or wind noise wise. We even had the run roof panel off.

 

You can buy a slow Porsche, you can buy a boring Porsche, but the one type of Porsche you can't seem to find is a poorly made Porsche. I doubt I'll ever own one myself, but I'll stand by their build quality, absolutely.

AnthonyGS
AnthonyGS New Reader
7/3/18 11:15 p.m.

I live in DFW.  944 in question is TX boondocks.  Looks clean but probably has a fried DME or crank position sensors.  I’m thinkIng of buying, fixing and flipping.  Heck maybe I’ll bring a Porsche to the $2019 challenge.

If I decide to keep it; it get gods engine:  LS.  

Ive considered selling my ZR to get a turbo to drive and as a semi investment too.  Clean turbos will be stupid prices in 10 years.

Stefan
Stefan MegaDork
7/3/18 11:38 p.m.
yupididit said:

What makes these 944's a better buy than a 986 boxster base or S that is priced identically?

 

A buddy has a pretty well modified 924 Turbo.  He’s friends with a fellow Porsche owner who races a Spec944 and has a Boxster.  He went for a ride in the Boxster and was shocked at how much it rattled, groaned and squeaked compared to his 924 Turbo on stiff suspension and r-comps.

around a track or prepped for racing, the Boxster has a better chassis to build from.  You have to add a cage anyway, and there are interesting options for a bit more power as well.  The 944 is no slouch, but it’s limited by th strut based front end and general age.

if you want a street car that will haul groceries and be a bit fun, the 944 isn’t a bad choice, otherwise, get a Miata if you want top down fun.

Vigo
Vigo UltimaDork
7/4/18 10:06 a.m.

Ive considered selling my ZR to get a turbo to drive and as a semi investment too.  Clean turbos will be stupid prices in 10 years.

That i can get on board with. ZR1s seem to be stubbornly undervalued, but 944 Turbo prices are pretty much the opposite and rising. 

AnthonyGS
AnthonyGS New Reader
7/4/18 11:18 a.m.
Vigo said:

Ive considered selling my ZR to get a turbo to drive and as a semi investment too.  Clean turbos will be stupid prices in 10 years.

That i can get on board with. ZR1s seem to be stubbornly undervalued, but 944 Turbo prices are pretty much the opposite and rising. 

I get it.  I’d beat on my Miata and just enjoy the turbo in mostly stock form.

Cotton
Cotton PowerDork
7/4/18 11:20 a.m.
yupididit said:

What makes these 944's a better buy than a 986 boxster base or S that is priced identically?

 

I’m a fan of the 944 turbo,  have owned a couple,  one heavily modified and one with just chip and catback.  I love the feel of the cars and the way they drive and,  all things being equal,  would take a 944 turbo over a base or S Boxster.

Tyler H
Tyler H UltraDork
7/5/18 8:43 a.m.
yupididit said:

What makes these 944's a better buy than a 986 boxster base or S that is priced identically?

 

Box flares.

yupididit
yupididit SuperDork
7/5/18 3:24 p.m.
Tyler H said:
yupididit said:

What makes these 944's a better buy than a 986 boxster base or S that is priced identically?

 

Box flares.

That's not fair lol

johnnytorque
johnnytorque Reader
7/22/20 9:18 a.m.

I regretfully owned an '86 944 turbo and was, and still am, ecstatic that I sold it last year and bought a CRX to replace it.  The 944 was ULTRA needy.  Something was always broken.  It never ran right, despite the motor being perfect in every way.  Everything was new and the car was still never "right"

Some 944 cons:

Timing belt/BS belt replacement

Cooling systems are terrible

They sound awful

Working on them is beyond frustrating

Its like sitting in a sauna on a hot day

Not particularly fast in stock form(but don't MOD it because kaboom)

Very expensive to own and maintain. Both in Time and money

Some 944 Pros:

Timeless looks(pop up lights)

Great handling

Nice highway car(if running properly)

 

All in all a terrible car to own for me, your mileage may vary.  I say run away from the turbo and get an S2, it's a MUCH nicer car.

noddaz
noddaz UltraDork
7/22/20 12:37 p.m.

Transplant a VW 1.8t into a 944 and be done.   

(I want to, I want to, I want to)

Sparkydog
Sparkydog HalfDork
7/22/20 12:43 p.m.

Remove all the cons with a sawzall. Add things from other makes/models until the 944 runs again.

Stefan (Forum Supporter)
Stefan (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
7/22/20 1:48 p.m.
johnnytorque said:

I regretfully owned an '86 944 turbo and was, and still am, ecstatic that I sold it last year and bought a CRX to replace it.  The 944 was ULTRA needy.  Something was always broken.  It never ran right, despite the motor being perfect in every way.  Everything was new and the car was still never "right"

Some 944 cons:

Timing belt/BS belt replacement

Cooling systems are terrible

They sound awful

Working on them is beyond frustrating

Its like sitting in a sauna on a hot day

Not particularly fast in stock form(but don't MOD it because kaboom)

Very expensive to own and maintain. Both in Time and money

Some 944 Pros:

Timeless looks(pop up lights)

Great handling

Nice highway car(if running properly)

 

All in all a terrible car to own for me, your mileage may vary.  I say run away from the turbo and get an S2, it's a MUCH nicer car.

Agree on many of the points:  The timing belt is irritating, but considering it was the first one Porsche had done and had to include the balance shafts (also a first for Porsche), it wasn't bad for the time (late seventies) compared to other engines that came out with rubber timing belts after that?  Its just kinda dumb, especially when viewed from the standpoint of the 2.0L 924 or any of the other Audi/VW engines in use at the time.

The cooling system seems to work pretty well, its just a bit more complex than others.  No worse than many of the BMW's that need to have ALL of their components replaced on a routine basis, the difference is that BMW sells a lot more cars so vendors provide those parts in handy packages at a reasonable cost.  Porsche and the supporting vendors don't.

The engines are very truck like and not in a good way.  Being so large (2.5L and up) doesn't help.  It never struck me as a sports car motor, so much as a GT engine.  Compared to the song from the flat six, its a huge let down.  Even the 2.0 in the 924 sounds better in some cases.

Working on them requires understanding the service process that Porsche developed, any shortcuts or alternative methods simply leads to frustration.  Since so few people actually pony up for the factory manuals, they suffer with Hayne's or various online sources where some are better than others.

I don't understand the sauna comment.  Mine was perfectly comfortable, once I fixed the heater control valves, the window switches and charged the A/C.  If you have an aftermarket glass sunroof panel, then it will be brutally hot and its why so many buy them, use them and sell them on fairly quickly or store them on a shelf.

For the time, they were quite quick, but time has marched on and left them behind and unlike other turbo cars from the time, throwing cheap turbo tricks at them isn't a great idea due to the costs involved in their repairs.  Upping the boost on a FWD Turbo-Dodge may result in a new headgasket fairly quickly or maybe a new driveline, etc.  Both of which you can grab and change out in a few hours for a under a hundred bucks.

Like I said, I agree with many of your points and there's a reason I sold my modded 944 Turbo S when my kids were on their way.  It was a lot of fun (about 450bhp) and once I took care of the deferred maintenance it was actually fairly reliable until I popped the headgasket due to a blown coolant hose.  I repaired that, replaced all of the cooling hoses and it was back to being reliable again and the new owner drove the wheels off of it at autocross and hillclimbs before the engine finally popped.  Now he's built a 2.8L for it and its a monster that just ate second gear out of the transaxle (after decades of abuse, that's not bad).

For my 924, I'll probably swap something into it that's a bit newer with better parts availability since the rest of it is fairly cheap to deal with.  I think if someone came up with a good non-v8 swap kit for the 924 and 944 series it could be a great product for those that buy these cars cheap.

CyberEric
CyberEric Dork
7/22/20 2:37 p.m.

I saw someone swapped a Mazda KL V6 with a turbo into a 944. How’s that for an odd non V8 swap?

(and yes, I’m aware this is a necro thread, sorry)

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