15 April 2016

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.”

7 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Brooks Minnesota April 18, 2016 at 15:30
    I have a one owner 1984 944, no sun roof, limited slip diff, sport wheel, no rear wiper, liquid black with original cookie cutter wheels. It handles well and gets looks wherever it goes. And the thrill of driving has been long paid for...
  • 2
    John Chicago April 18, 2016 at 15:50
    If you're a low-budget 944 owner like me a parts car is a must. For example a new wire harness and a non-running 944 go for about the same money. You can sell unneeded parts on Craig's List and eBay. Keeps the costs down and if you do it right can even make you a little. You just gotta put up with the ol'lady's complaints while the parts car slowly disappears from the driveway piece by piece!
  • 3
    Tim Helmerich Spring, TX April 18, 2016 at 20:14
    I have a 1979 924. I has it quirks but it is still fun to drive. The acceleration in fourth is outstanding. I cruse to Galveston Island with the windows down and the sunroof open.
  • 4
    Oliver Julien Boone, NC April 18, 2016 at 20:16
    I agree completely!! Mine is an 86 944 Turbo. I have owned it since 1990. The outside is bone stock including wheels. Everything else is aftermarket including 245/45 R16's, 8"wheels front and rear, frozen rotors, ebc pads, 4" BB exhaust, custom K26/27 Turbo, Max951 chips, MO30 bars & Koni shocks, short shifter,,,,,,,. It surprises most new ones on these NC mountain roads!!! I don't want a new one!
  • 5
    Phil Gray Montgomery, AL April 22, 2016 at 12:13
    The community of 944 owners in the Southeast is amazing. A great group to gather with for a North Georgia mountain run. My 1990 S2 Cabriolet turns heads and handles like, well like a Porsche. Parts are available from many reliable sources, and all the common issues have been identified and have solid solutions available. Cost of ownership is well below that of a 911 of the same era, and no shortage of adrenaline pumping driving excitement. Also, they are insurable through Hagerty with reasonable rates and fantastic service. What's not to love about the 944?
  • 6
    ryan hennessy Kentucky April 28, 2016 at 10:22
    I have replaced the clutch in my 87 944S due to the factory rubber centered manual clutch disintegrating. So it is not just the automatics that have rubber in the system from the factory
  • 7
    Andrew South Africa September 1, 2016 at 05:25
    I have a '91 944 Turbo. A stock standard outstanding car in outstanding condition, with real muscle. Handles like a dream and corners like a house fly. Catch me if you can. It makes me grin...

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