Body and Mind

The ultimate 924 meets the model that replaced it, Porsche's smart 944.

Photo: Body and Mind 1
January 24, 2010

Porsche and Volkswagen have long lived in a state of symbiosis. Three times during their relationship thus far, Porsche has built sports cars based on VW components. The first time turned out wonderfully well: The 356 was, after all, the foundation for all that followed and the realization of an idea Ferdinand Porsche considered and acted upon with the Type 64 of 1939, long before the first VWs reached civilian hands.

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.

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Ironically, the little coupe — with whatever refinements were possible at that late date — fit right into Porsche’s mid-1970s view of the future. Like the 928 under development, the 924 would offer customers a modern sports car with a water-cooled engine mounted up front. In time, the reasoning went, the aging 911, seemingly developed to the limit and expensive to build, would be put out to pasture as the 924, 928, and their successors took its place. We all know how well that worked out.

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.

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The next step was obvious, at least to anyone familiar with Porsche’s 917 and 930: turbocharging. This didn’t come as a stand-alone upgrade; suspension, body, transmission, and braking were all addressed as part of the package. Attention was paid to sound- and vibration reduction, as well. Lingering effects of the non-Porsche underpinnings remained, but 143 horses (vs. the standard 924’s 110), five forward speeds, and four-wheel disc brakes simply overpowered any criticism. At over $21,000, the Turbo was twice the price of the ‘78 924.

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.

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But the real news was under the skin. Placing an intercooler between turbo and intake allowed increases in compression ratio and boost, bringing output to 210 bhp. To cope with the added power, which reduced the 0–60 mph time from 7.7 seconds to under 5.9 and raised maximum speed to 150 mph (18 mph over the street Turbo), the suspension was stiffened. Surprisingly, the brakes were largely left alone.

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.

Photo: Body and Mind 5

Almost as quickly as it had appeared, the 924 GT/GTS was history, overtaken by the 944. Though the new car had much of the visual flair of the GT/GTS — and was a welcome change from the clean but largely featureless 924 — the news was, once again, under the hood. The VW-Audi four had been supplanted by a new engine that was, in essence, half of the 928 V8. Equipped with a pair of balance shafts, it was smoother, quieter, and, in normally-aspirated form, a match for the 924 Turbo in output.

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.

Photo: Body and Mind 6

For comparative purposes, we brought along as original a 944 as you’re likely to see today. John Clinard, who labors for Ford Motor Company’s Public Affairs division during the day and seems to spend the rest of his time enjoying great cars of all kinds, bought the 1985 944 some years ago for his son Jeff as a first car! At the time, it had rolled up a mere 7,500 miles. It was later sold and eventually bought back. By the time we matched it up with the GTS, it had been run for a total of 50,000 miles but felt as tight and new as it had during my first drive in it more than a decade ago. A deeper rear valance and 16-inch Fuchs wheels are the only “major” changes.

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.

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In contrast to the single-purpose air of the GTS cabin, the 944 is almost sybaritic inside. There’s plenty of padding, the usual complement of audio, A/C, and ventilation controls, the whole panoply of GT car fittings and amenities. Somehow, the 944 feels larger inside even though it isn’t.

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.

What starts in the GTS are not, however, is rapid — at least not without the kind of forceful driving techniques you don’t employ in someone else’s pride and joy. Low compression means precious little torque off the line; nothing really happens until the boost gauge (a dial not supplied in either 924 Turbo or Carrera GT) shows 1.0 bar, which is usually somewhere above 3000 rpm or thereabouts. At that point, the engine is getting with the program and speed starts to builds at an impressive rate. Drivers of modern turbo cars have little experience with what was called “turbo lag” back in the day, but it was a fact of life in the 1970s and 1980s.

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.

For the most part, each of the cars left the impressions I expected. The GTS was ostensibly a racer, but there is a wide gap between a racer from the assembly line and one that has been directly prepared for the track. It lacked the hard edges of a car in full numbers-on-the-side trim, but still impressed as being ready to go out for some serious lapping. As has been the case with other homologation specials I’ve driven, the GTS felt as if it should be the mass-production car from which race cars are derived. It was a purposeful but sweet little machine, and imminently lovable.

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.

Also from Issue 181

  • 2010 GT3 3.8 vs. GT3 RS 3.9
  • 1957 356A with a 2.7 RS Powerplant
  • One-Off 993 Speedster
  • Falken Tire: Racing Against Goliath
  • Early 911T Tastefully Modified
  • 550-horsepower 914 V8
  • 986 Boxster with 3.4-liter 996 six
  • Market Update: 924, 944, 968
  • 2009 Carrera S Cabriolet Short Take
  • The $70 Brake Caliper Rebuild
  • Tech Forum: TPMS Part 2
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