The second and third attempts? They were done under contract to VW and were a bit more problematic. The first of these was the 914. Thanks to unfortunate decisions made by VW management, it was expensive. For a year, the 914 2.0’s VW-based flat four found its way into the low-price 912E as well, with only minimal success. While Americans bought 914s, the car didn’t sell so well in Europe, where it was marketed as a VW-Porsche. A 911-powered 914-6 helped prestige-wise, but did nothing for profits and was discontinued after just three model years.
Not long after 914s began stacking up at European dealerships, work began on its intended replacement. The EA425 (VW’s type number for the project) was a parts-bin special drawing from mass-production VW and Audi hardware. Apparently intended to be badged not as a Porsche but as a VW, the project was nearly complete when VW management decided against building the car. Testing, tooling, and even factory space in an ex-NSU plant in Neckarsulm had been planned out. Porsche made a tough decision: It bought the project back and then renamed it Typ 924.
Despite a lukewarm reception from some enthusiasts, qualified raves and blue-sky speculation came from road testers. “In a few years, all Porsches will be front-engined…” wrote one. With performance in the ballpark of such cars as Datsun’s 280 ZX and Alfa-Romeo’s Alfetta, the 924 did appeal to a different class of buyers. With a higher price tag than either, it was saved in the eyes of many not because it was an engineering marvel, which, with its unashamed use of mass-production pieces it was not, but because it was a Porsche. Less than 18 months later came the Mazda RX-7, with more performance and more appeal to those who craved technology and innovation for less money.
Porsche was paying attention, however. Suspension tuning took care of a few early complaints and a mild horsepower increase came after a year. This didn’t do anything for the noisy, somewhat rough engine, the lack of a fifth ratio in the transaxle, or the low-dollar disc/drum brake system.
Conspicuously absent in the 924 story so far is any mention of motorsports. The 924 could be raced for class wins, and was. Somehow, though, that lacked the image appeal of outright victories. So, in 1981, Porsche unveiled the 924 Carrera GT. The formula was simple and could be traced to several special 911 models of the recent past: Raise power and add the necessary competition goodies to enough cars rolling off the assembly line to qualify for whatever “production” racing class you’re interested in.
In this case, the requisite number was 400 cars to qualify for the FIA’s Group 4 category. From the outside, it was apparent that this was no ordinary 924 Turbo. The cooling slots cut in the nose for added air cooling were like those on the standard Turbo, but the front fenders were widened and add-on caps were applied to the rear flanks to accommodate larger and wider (16×7 front, 16×8 rear) wheels. An air scoop atop the hood was added as well, along with a larger rear spoiler. Not so noticeable was the windshield, bonded for aerodynamic and structural reasons.
Orders had been placed for all 400 examples before the production run was complete. Focus soon shifted to the “evolution” version, the GTS, built in a series of 50 in street-legal form but ready for competition. The engine remained largely the same (though some say the power was bumped again, this time to 245 bhp, but still well short of the 375 bhp in the factory Le Mans entries), but the interior was gutted and an aluminum roll cage that provided both protection and more structural rigidity was installed. The 924’s retractable round headlights were replaced by fixed rectangular lights under transparent covers. This time, the need for better brakes was felt —and parts borrowed from the 911 Turbo would fit the bill.
Porsche’s trio of 924 GTRs did well enough at Le Mans in 1980, finishing 6th, 12th, and 13th overall in their first appearance despite serious engine problems that forced their drivers to adopt a slower pace. The next year saw a 924 GTR take seventh overall at the 24-hour race, though this time there was a difference: the car was powered by a development version of the upcoming 944 engine which, with a turbocharger, churned out a healthy 420 bhp.
This, at last, was the “real” Porsche that buyers had been waiting for. What’s more, it was offered at a lower price than the 924 Turbo, which it replaced in the U.S. Published road tests were effusive, almost free of caveats and complaints. Long lines at dealers ensued. While this became the entry-level Porsche, part of a line that would eventually include expensive turbocharged and open-top models, Porsche focused its racing efforts elsewhere — notably the 956 and 962. When the end came for Porsche’s front-engined cars in 1995, the company was still building 911s.
Opportunities to drive a 924 Carrera GTS don’t come along very often, so when Henry Camisaca offered his (number 20 of 50 built) for a run, I wasn’t going to say no. Camisaca has owned the car for two years since purchasing it from the estate of the original owner, who took delivery from the factory in August, 1981. According to the factory invoice, 110,000 DM was paid for the privilege. Now showing a mere 36,000 kilometers on the odometer, the GTS is remarkably original and is kept in pristine condition.
But it was the India Red GTS and not the bronze 944 that caught my eye. I have to admit some ignorance of its story beforehand; all I knew for sure was that the GTS was a kind of factory hot rod intended for racing but endowed with some civility, much as the earlier 911 Carrera RS had been. I was more familiar with 944s and was curious to see what this proto-944 with racing credentials was all about.
A close look at the GTS is revealing: You could easily mistake it for a 944 until you check the details. The side quarter windows and rear window are Plexiglas. Racing-style pins keep the fiberglass hood closed, and a plastic GTS badge sits below the rear spoiler. The GTS’s fuel tank fills from under the rear hatch, while the battery lives in the spare-tire well. The GTS’s interior is severe, with a lot of painted surfaces, a pair of 935 seats, and shells for doors. It does have carpet and insulation, however. These were installed at the factory per the buyer’s wishes, according to the invoice.
There isn’t anything unusual to be seen under the GTS’s hood. Everything is clean, laid out neatly for quick service during competition. The space in the 944 seems far more crowded, even though there’s no turbo with its large housing and piping runs.
Those contradictions continue when the respective ignition keys are turned. The GTS engine is less refined, though totally without temperament. It idles smoothly enough — as smoothly as it does anything, that is. First gear is in the old-fashioned race-car location: down to the left and back, outside the H-pattern. But once you’ve remembered that, starts are fuss-free.
The rest of the controls feel just right. Steering, clutch, and brakes all require moderate effort; this is not a tiring car to drive. Moreover, you sense that Porsche engineers pared out a fair number of pounds (more than 300 when compared to the 944), and that’s all to the good. This is a nimble, delightful car to drive, and would probably be a blast on the track — at least once the driver adjusts to the delay between asking for power and getting it. I didn’t have a chance to work the GTS hard, but it imparted a feeling that there would be no nasty surprises waiting out toward the ragged edge. I got the sense that once the GTS was up to speed, it would be easy to keep it there.
Time for the 944. The newer car felt almost soft by comparison, but that was relative. It certainly earned the accolades it received from testers when new. In turns, it felt slightly less precise than the GTS, which may have had as much to do with tires as anything else. Oddly enough, despite the balance shafts, the engine felt slightly rougher than the GTS’s; it wasn’t much quieter, either. The 944’s horses, fewer in number, were nicely responsive at low speeds. I will say I found myself echoing one complaint leveled at production 924s and 944s: The driving position is not comfortable and there’s not a thing you can do about it. The steering wheel is too low (and too vertical), leaving little space for both human thighs and seat cushions below. Didn’t notice that in the GTS.
The 944 was state-of-the-art for its class in 1985. Now, 24 years later, it does not feel as outmoded as you might expect and remains very likeable. As a combination daily driver and weekend canyon runner, it would be hard to beat, delivering quality, comfort, and performance in a pretty reasonable package. Visually and dynamically, it is a far more appealing proposition for the 21st Century than a Nissan Z of similar vintage.
It’s not easy to imagine a world without the 911, one in which all Porsches are front-engined. Good as they were, impressive as they still are today, neither 924 nor 928 had what it took to push the traditional Porsche layout off its pedestal. That said, I’d take a GTS in a heartbeat. I’d opt for a 944, too, but that would take two heartbeats. The GTS invites you to pull your helmet on for a fast run around the Nürburgring; the 944 suggests you toss your luggage under the hatch and settle in for a nice, long road trip. In other words, the 944 speaks to the mind, while the GTS connects with the soul. At the end of the day, that’s what really counts in a sports car.