IT’S GENERALLY ACCEPTED THAT IF YOU WANT THE BEST PORSCHE your money can buy, you get the newest model in your chosen series that you can afford.
Fallen in love with 356s? Then buy a C coupe or cabrio — they’re all good. Want some air-cooled, mid-engined magic? See if you can find a late 914 2.0 from the ’75 or ’76 vintage. Yes, I know the ’73s and ’74s have better-looking bumpers, but the final 914s were the closest to bulletproof. And who doesn’t love the 1984-89 Carreras? Buy an ’87-89 car. Great motors. Better transmissions and clutches, too.
This strategy also holds true with the front-engined, water-cooled Porsches. Starting shortly after the introduction of the 2.5-liter 1983 944, Porsche lavished its best engineering on these beautiful coupes, making them better every year, and sometimes even mid-year. Brakes, motor mounts, engine power, and even the interior design evolved over time. By 1989, the 944 S2 had Turbo bodywork and a 3.0-liter, 16-valve engine making 208 hp.
A 944 S3 might have followed, but Porsche’s followup to the 944 S2 was so vastly improved that it got an entirely new model name. Enter the 1992-95 968, the pinnacle of Porsche’s front-engined, four-cylinder line. While a dismal economy made 968s a hard sell as new cars, they’re sought after today. In a world of sub-$3,500 “driver” 944s, good 968s regularly command prices in the teens. Want a top example? Be prepared to fight for it with your checkbook.
I have loved the 968 since my first drive in one back in the day. I even attended a 968 Register meeting a few years ago and came away impressed with the owners, their passion for the breed, and, of course, the cars. But I wasn’t quite sated, and always wanted to know more about these fairly rare, very tempting Porsches.
Who better to ask for a tutorial than the guy who runs the 968 Register (968register.org)? So I spoke with Jeffrey Coe.
COE’S FASCINATION WITH THE 968 BEGINS NOT WITH FOUR CYLINDERS, but eight. Explains Coe: “I always loved the look of the 928, but I drove one and I didn’t like it. I thought it was too much of a touring GT — too heavy, too big of a car. But I loved the look of it and I liked the 944. So when the 968 got announced, it had the look of the 928 with the performance characteristics of the 944.”
Back in the early 1990s, Coe had a 944 Turbo. When he drove by his local Porsche dealer, he would see 968s on the lot. “I fell in love with them,” says Coe. “But they were high-priced and way out of my league at the time. But as we all know, the recession was going on at the time and the 968 suffered from that. They didn’t sell well at all, even though they were pretty well recognized as a great final evolution of the front-engine cars.”
When the 968 went out of production, with the Boxster waiting in the wings, the basic rules of economics took over. Says Coe: “The 968s nose-dived pretty quickly from a depreciation perspective.” With the prices dropping to a more reasonable level, Coe set about acquiring one.
“I bought my first 968 Cabriolet in December of 1996 for $23,000, which was unbelievable,” he says. “The car sold originally for $51,000 — and it only had 30,000 miles at the time. So they depreciated pretty quickly!” As if to further justify his love for the 968, Coe easily enumerates the faults he found with his 944 that Porsche addressed in the 968.
“The nice thing about the 968 is that it’s so well sorted,” he opines. “Not that the 944s aren’t great cars, but there were definitely things about them that Porsche had finally gotten right by the time the 968 came out. When I owned my 944 Turbo, I did a clutch. I did a water pump. I did oil seals, a steering rack — all the known issues with the 944. With the 968, Porsche had really worked it through by that time. So really, they are amazingly dependable cars.”
Coe says he knows of several 968s that have logged over 200,000 miles and are still going strong. He says there’s always chatter on the web about a pinion bearing problem, but he says it’s actually quite rare. He feels the problem gets mentioned so much because it’s the only negative thing you can stick on a basically sound design. He’s quick to point out the need for conscientious maintenance, however.
“You gotta do the timing belt; if you lose it, you’re gonna get yourself a nice $7,000 repair bill,” he says, before ticking off other 944 concerns and where they stand on the 968. “The 968s are rock-solid cars. The water-pump issues have been worked out. All the oil seal issues have been worked out. They are real dependable.”
FORTUNATELY, COE CAN’T STAY FOCUSED ON THE CONSUMER REPORTS aspects of the 968 for too long. “They’re a real joy to drive, and the other thing that impresses me is that they hold up to current technology. They were right on the forefront of a lot of this stuff.” Coe quickly ticks off what he means: “It’s got the front airbags and anti-lock brakes. It’s got variable valve timing. It’s got great performance, and it’s got excellent gas mileage at the same time — something we’re all concerned about now. And it’s a six-speed.”
If there’s a weak point in Coe’s mind, it’s the interior. “It goes all the way back to the 1985-and-a-half 944, but it’s a practical design and it works well.” He goes on to add his own unique insight into arcane Porsche trivia: “As you know, the 968 is one of the last of the custom-built, hand-built Porsches. As you know, a lot of the robotics replaced a lot of the hand-built craftsmanship — which is both good and bad.” But he says that the old-world craftsmanship offered 968 buyers a greater ability to customize their Porsches.
Unlike the earlier 944, which was built in Audi’s Neckarsulm plant, the 968 was built in Porsche’s Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen plant alongside 911s and 928 GTSs. “[Customers] had so much more ability to individualize if they chose to,” says Coe. “They had 99 interior options (between) colors and materials. They had 30 exterior colors and then a host of other options.”
Coe says most of the cars didn’t stray too far away from the standard offerings, which is no surprise since the slow-selling 968 was often ordered for dealer stock. “For the most part, people configured them fairly normal, maybe to keep the price down, but there are some cars with really unusual features that are pretty neat.”
These configurations included different wheel colors, unique interior/exterior color combinations, and wood interior trim. The 968 could also be had with several leather setups: full leather, full-leather seats, and the most common, partial leather (leather for just the part you sit on). Some cars got “Porsche-script” seats, which featured cloth with the Porsche name all over it.
Coe says the rarest of the rare when it comes to 968 interiors is something called multi-colored cloth. “It’s a plaid! And you could get that full-face or just the inserts inside the side bolsters.” As you might imagine, there weren’t many made. Coe says fewer than ten cars. The late Excellence contributor Jerry Sloniger bought just such a 968 new, in purple metallic outside with a gray-and-purple plaid cloth interior.
Towards the end of 968 production, Porsche offered colored piping on the seats, supple leather, and Porsche crests on the headrests. It even made car phones available, but Coe says a phone was a $1,500 option and they were analog — so they aren’t all that useful today.
THE MOST UNUSUAL 968 COE CAN REMEMBER IS A 1992 CABRIOLET painted Rubystone Red (pink) with a Magenta cloth top (which he says was purple) and a gray-and-magenta interior! He says the really different stuff didn’t appeal to U.S. buyers.
“They made some wild stuff in Germany,” offers Coe. “Europeans seem to be more inclined to buy really bizarre stuff.” He says about a dozen 968s were painted “color to sample,” typically in colors available in prior years. Such was Coe’s fascination with these cars that he even started a database of every 968 made.
“My first 968 I bought in 1996, and I started running the Register,” he says. Going neck-deep into the 968 Register involved some work on his part, but one benefit of having a list of all of the 968s in existence is that he got to know where the really rare cars were — which would prove useful.
“I became aware of my current car in Massachusetts in 2005,” says Coe. “I knew how special it was, so when the owner put it up for sale, I contacted him and told him I was definitely interested. I ended up working out a deal with him and bought the car in September 2007.
“Having been involved with the cars to the extent I was for so many years, I knew how special that car was,” continues Coe. “And it delivered in every respect. One was the color! It turned out being one of one in the U.S. in that color (N4 Mint Green). Two was the options. We didn’t even know it had the full-leather option until we saw the car in person. They’re so rare that I had only seen one up until that time.”
How rare? Coe says only 30 Cabriolets out of 2,008 produced had the full-leather interior while only 20 coupes out of 2,234 built had it — for a total of 50 cars. He speculates on why this highly desirable option was not installed in greater numbers. “I think the $4,000 to $5,000 price tag was one of the reasons why,” he said.
His Mint 968 has several other desirable options, and he can list them from memory quickly: “It had the 17-inch wheels, limited-slip differential, CD player, and all the other things like a hood that is stamped to support a recessed hood badge.” Concours judge alert: Coe says that last feature is only found on 968s built during the first two months of production in late 1991.
Coe says it’s also a historically significant car, being close to the start of the production run for 968s. “It was number nine in the production line.” Naturally, as keeper of the 968 Register, Coe has the model’s history from the first delivery to today down cold. “Porsche actually used the car for some sort of promotional duties back when it came ashore,” he says. Eventually, the car was delivered to Sewickley Porsche in Pennsylvania, where the first owner bought it in late 1992. Coe says the Porsche already had quite a few miles.
“I’m not sure what Porsche specifically did with it,” says Coe, “but the car already had 1,200 miles on it from its promotional duties.” The original owner drove the car quite a bit; the odometer showed 27,000 miles before he sold it to owner number two. The second owner added another 14,000 miles before selling the car to Coe.
“I picked the car up in 2007 and it had about 41,000 miles on it,” says Coe. “It’s got about 45,000 miles now, so I’ve been using it. A little bit, not a lot.”
AS WE DELVE DEEPER IN TO 968 TRIVIA, I’m anxious to get behind the wheel of the Mint Green 968 and shake out some cobwebs. After all, memory tells me that 968s are a lot of fun to drive. An added benefit: it’s a spectacular New England Saturday with bright sun, low humidity, and crisp, cool air. It’s a perfect day for top-down driving.
Coe has planned our route to include a variety of roads, from a fast highway (the always challenging Route 95) to interesting twisty two-laners and a cruise along a picturesque oceanside back road. As a passenger, the first thing I notice is a pretty stiff ride. However, once I get behind the wheel, I don’t notice it as much.
Handling on fast exit ramps and challenging two-lane roads is pure Porsche — flat and direct — and not at all dated. The brakes are also quite good. Early 944s have less than impressive brakes, but this 968’s four-piston brakes are excellent. It’s clear that the brake systems in Porsche’s front-engined cars made huge strides in the ten years after the first 944s rolled off the line.
The other thing that impresses is the power of the 3.0-liter four pumping away under the hood. It feels a lot quicker than I expected given its relatively modest — by today’s yardstick, anyway — 236 hp. The fact that the car has a six-speed gearbox probably helps keep the big 3.0 in its powerband. And, speaking of the shifter, it’s just fine — a bit notchy but easy to use.
Cruising back to our starting point via the highway is a relaxed and comfortable affair, this despite being on a notoriously lumpy North East Coast expressway. I glance at the gauges and see that, in sixth gear, we’re loafing along at 70 mph. This keeps the engine noise level down and the gas mileage up. You’d probably want to shift down a gear or two to make a quick pass, but, under normal driving, the power and torque are more than adequate.
So what’s next for Coe and his minty 968? After thinking for a minute, he says, “If I go to the Porsche Parade, I’m driving it there. [But] I’m more of a cruiser. For me, putting the top down, driving on a nice fall day or in the summer in the evening — that’s it for me.” Smiling, he says, “It’s a real joy to drive.” And, thanks to his generosity, I’d have to agree.