A spurned Porsche has its loyalists

“Some would argue that the 944 is not a real Porsche,” Gael Buzyn says, “because it’s better.” There’s little doubt that his zinger is intentional, reflecting a tendency among 944 owners like himself to defend their oft-maligned brand outliers.

“It gives me a little mission,” Buzyn, manager of General Motors’ Southern California Advanced Design studio, says. “I always go a good 5 miles an hour faster than the 911 guys in my group, just so they know how good the car is.”

With sightings in the wild becoming ever rarer, and vintage 911s trading at stratospheric prices, the water-cooled, front-engine 944 is earning a second look from enthusiasts — long overdue according to Buzyn. His sensuous slice of 1980s hedonism was guilty not of slipshod build quality, as the collector-hobby hive mind has long since ruled, but of luring buyers ill-prepared to care for a sophisticated sports car. “If the maintenance is done right, the car is really, really reliable,” he says.

Introduced for 1982, the 944 offered more respectability than the limp 924 it was based on, and pulled new blood into the brand just as TV shows like “Miami Vice” were giving European sports cars a massive pop-culture platform in the U.S. But like the flashy kingpins and low-level flunkies apprehended by Crockett and Tubbs, many 944 buyers got in over their heads.

“The people who bought the 944 spent every penny they had on them because finally, [here was] a Porsche they could afford,” says Tony Gerace, owner of the 911 specialty shop TLG Auto in North Hollywood, Calif. “Most of them turned to crap because they weren’t maintained.” The cars were good; their stewards, not so much.

“Now, 90 percent are junk,” was has how he summed up the model’s fate.

That kind of attrition, real or hyperbolic, will earn any car a bad rap. But dig into the particulars and you find a lot worth preserving – and enjoying. These Zuffenhausen thoroughbreds are still a thrill to drive, and drive hard. Buzyn regularly flogs his pair of 944 Turbos through Los Angeles’s canyons.

Some guiding 944 maintenance principles are universal. “Shocks wear out. Timing belt. Wiring harnesses, power steering leaks, those kinds of things,” says Michael Schatz, owner of MKS Performance in Camarillo, Calif. “They’re pretty reliable cars. The only thing that’s really an issue across the board would be the climate-control systems.”

Owners and prospective owners of automatic-transmission models do need to be especially vigilant, though. “Manual cars got rid of that rubber-centered clutch disk; now they’ve got a spring-centered disk,” Schatz says. “But automatics have this giant rubber damper that can break and separate from the flywheel. That’s a $1,300 part, and they will break in two.”

Unqualified mechanics are another source of heartache. “A lot of the independent shops didn’t know what they were doing when they serviced these cars,” he says. “New motor mounts? Doesn’t do you a whole lot of good when they timed the balance shafts wrong.”

Still, the biggest maintenance hurdle is beyond even Schatz’s abilities. “Zuffenhausen has given up on them. I understand that Porsche Classic may be changing that, but they seem a lot more interested in servicing early 911s.” The factory-parts drought makes a service bill swell even before one single wrench is turned.

If only for a few more years, the 944 seems to offer refuge for collectors suffering Stuttgart sticker shock. “But that is typical Porsche for you,” Buzyn says. “They know how to evolve their products in such a smart way. You always want the next one, but you never disregard the old one.”