Addicted to the Rush

930 & 944 Turbo: Mainlining high-grade boost in two habit-forming turbos.

Photo: Addicted to the Rush 1
May 16, 2019

Asked what he loves about the 1986 911 Turbo pictured here, owner Todd Abbott attributes his affection to the fact that the car is nothing short of “the best Porsche ever.” And despite the subjective nature of that assessment, we are disinclined to argue. Abbott, you see, has quite a bit more experience with the marque than does the typical sports-car enthusiast, having owned “40 to 50” Porsches over the years, by his estimation.

Personal preferences aside, there’s no question the 1975-1989 930-gen 911 Turbos represent an inflection point in the history of Zuffenhausen’s flagship performer, the inevitable upshot of some speed-addled Rumple Minze enthusiast in the engineering department clapping eyes on a gargantuan Kühnle, Kopp & Kausch (KKK) turbocharger late one evening and wondering, “Why not?”

Why not, indeed? Porsche, after all, had been dabbling with forced-induction race cars since the late 1960s, with generally good results. That the street-going 911 was less well equipped to cope with such a massive infusion of forward thrust was a secondary concern. Porsche had resolved to take its signature model racing, and FIA homologation rules required that a road-legal version of such a car be made available to the public through existing dealer networks. And so, the 911 Turbo was born.

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Chasing the Dragon

The earliest 930s were shockingly fast but could be a handful to drive, the latter trait attributable to the aft placement of the 3.0-liter flat-six powerplant and the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of its power delivery. Lacking access to modern technologies such as sequential turbocharging and direct fuel injection, Porsche engine designers were forced to compromise throttle response in the pursuit of maximum output. A largish turbo, combined with a low 6.5:1 compression ratio, resulted in languid acceleration at low-to-mid rpm, followed by an eye-widening rush to redline once the boost came online. Dip too heavily into that boost at the wrong time—entering a corner, exiting a corner, just thinking about a corner—and the car’s spoiler-topped tail would attempt to swap ends, sometimes with fiscally or even medically tragic results. Not for nothing was the 930 dubbed “The Widowmaker” by driving enthusiasts and the motoring press.

As is often the case with automotive enfants terribles, the 911 Turbo evolved and matured over the years, most notably by gaining an intercooled 3.3-liter six for 1978. Sadly for American buyers, changes to federal emissions standards for 1980 rendered the car unsalable in the U.S. starting that year, leaving gray-market importation as the only means of slaking one’s thirst for serious Porsche-turbo power. That situation was resolved six years later, when the 930 was reintroduced to America in smog-legal form. And while this 282-hp version was down on power compared with its freer-breathing European cousins, it instantly became the fastest-accelerating production vehicle available Stateside, capable of reaching 60 mph from a standstill in just 4.6 seconds. The quarter-mile arrived in 13.1 ticks at 105 mph, with the fun continuing on to a redline-limited top speed of 155 mph.

In an effort to soften the Turbo’s reputation for snap oversteer, Porsche widened the 1986 edition’s rear wheels from 8.0 to 9.0 inches and encased them in commensurately fatter 245 mm rubber. But while these and other, previously applied tweaks succeeded in blunting the car’s most treacherous impulses, it remained challenging to operate at anywhere near its limits. Turbo lag also remained an issue in what was essentially a 1979 carryover engine, further frustrating efforts at smooth driving. Where more-recently developed Porsche models such as the 928 promised a refined, relatively low-effort motoring experience, the 911 Turbo promised only a bracing blast of force-fed speed.

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Riding herd on such an elemental beast would test the patience—not to mention the skills—of most, but Abbott is well prepared for the job. Having cut his driving teeth on a first-generation Camaro in the late-’70s, the then-recent high-school grad purchased his first Porsche, a 1975 911 Carrera, in 1981. Finding the improvement in handling and braking offered by the lithesome German to be “like night and day” compared with the crude Detroiter, he switched allegiances and began importing gray-market 911s to the U.S. for resale shortly thereafter. Changes to importation laws and a slip in the value of the dollar versus the Deutsche Mark rendered this pastime infeasible a few years later, but not before Abbott had sampled enough cars to know that the turbocharged 911 was the one for him.

Dozens of Porsches passed though Abbott’s garage in the decades that followed, until he decided in December of 2017 to track down a well-preserved, all-original turbo “keeper.” An Internet search turned up a number of candidates, the most promising of which was a 91,000-mile, Guards Red ’86 located in Texas. Mint, unmodified, and armed with a documented service history, the car looked to be a relative bargain at its asking price. Abbott purchased it for $80,000, and today he drives it sparingly, but vigorously, on the lightly trafficked back roads near his home in Lakeland, Florida.

While it might lack the gobsmacking performance of today’s 540-plus-hp 911 Turbo variants, Abbott’s ’86 arguably represents the purest distillation of “911-ness” ever offered in a forced-induction Porsche. That it can be had for less than half the price of the modern editions only sweetens the deal. “Back in the ’70s, you could get a 911 for 25 grand, and it was a badass car,” Abbott notes. “Now, you’re spending 180 [thousand] for a new one. Most Americans aren’t willing to do that.”

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Given his obvious affinity for this model, we couldn’t help but wonder whether Abbott planned to add another one to the fold at some point. Though he claimed not to have any concrete plans for such an addition, he did offer the following disclaimer: “A 930 is like heroin—hard to let go of once you’ve had it.”

Gateway Drug

Equally addictive but less potentially catastrophe inducing is Porsche’s first serious attempt at building a world-class, front-engine turbo car, the 944 Turbo (951). Five years after its introduction in naturally aspirated form, the force-fed version of this 924 replacement burst onto the scene in 1986 armed with a formidable combination of speed, agility, refinement, and affordability that was virtually unrivaled among European sports cars at the time. Success in showrooms and on road courses followed, as the competitively priced 944 Turbo made inroads with budget-conscious enthusiasts and racers alike.

More than three decades later, it’s not hard to see why. Even for the uninitiated, pushing a 944 to its limits is a piece of cake, especially compared with the fiddle-footed 930. Engine placement notwithstanding, the car boasts near 50/50 weight distribution thanks to the pronounced setback of its diminutive four-pot powerplant. Peerless handling was, and remains, the 944’s signal trait, with seemingly telepathic steering response and far more road grip than its narrowish tires would suggest. “The…engine may be up front, but [the 944] can nevertheless change direction with a nimbleness not seen in some mid-engine sports cars,” noted this publication in a 2009 article.

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Output from the 2.5-liter blown four was fully adequate, at 220 hp, but lag remained an issue. From that same 2009 story: “As with most Eighties turbo cars, the 944 suffers from a distinct lack of torque off the line.” Once the turbo came fully online, however, the nose-motored Porsche surged forward with an intensity befitting the brand. “By the time peak torque arrives at 4,000 rpm, the scenery blurs and the 944 rockets forward to a host of turbo whistles and a muted bellow from the engine bay.” Sixty mph arrived in 6.2 seconds, and top speed was a heady 157 mph—enough to pip even the pricier 911 Turbo.

Along with predictable handling, the 944’s conventional drivetrain layout paid dividends in the area of user friendliness, as Abbott explains. “The engine bay is logically laid out, so, unlike the 911, it’s easy to access most of the parts,” he says. “The only exception is the turbo, which is buried under the right side of the intake.”

He would know, having purchased our black ’86 feature car back in September of 2017. As with the 911 Turbo he would acquire a few months later, Abbott’s goal was to locate an unaltered, fully original vehicle in good, operable condition. Quite by chance, he found this 96K-mile at a race shop in Jacksonville, Florida, and was able to buy the car, which he describes as “mint,” for an eminently reasonable $10,000. Since it lacked the comprehensive documentation of his 911, Abbott subjected the car to a meticulous going-through, performing most of the mileage-appropriate maintenance items and generally getting it ready for the occasional shunpike strafing run. “It’s unreal how well it handles, it’s very fast for a four-cylinder, and it has great brakes,” he notes. (Though not fast enough, apparently: A larger turbocharger cranking out more boost is planned for the future.)

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In addition to his stock-for-now road car, Abbott owns one of just 12 Playboy/Escort Racing Series 944 Turbos imported to the States in 1986. Putting the skills he learned as a onetime professional race-engine builder to good use, Abbott has modified the car with a 3.0-liter turbo engine running 1.2 bar (17.4 psi) of boost and pushing out somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 hp. So tweaked, this track-only terror topped 200 mph on the high banks at Daytona, demonstrating just how much untapped potential remains in the 944 platform.

Alas, Porsche effectively abdicated the front-engine turbo market to the Japanese makes in 1991, when it replaced the 944 line with the naturally aspirated-only 968. And while this newer offering represented an evolutionary step forward for the platform overall, many felt that it lacked the character and pure driving excitement of its predecessor. Fortunately for Abbott and the rest of us, today’s Porsche-turbo market is fairly swimming with quality used 930s and 951s at palatable prices, making it a simple matter to cultivate one’s very own forced-induction addiction. Just turn on, tune in and drop the hammer. Being hooked on speed never felt so good.

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Also Available

2018-2019 Porsche Buyer’s Guide
$14.95 (for U.S. residents)
Can be ordered with other back issues using the Printable Order Form. Or can be purchased separately.
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