The 924 was Porsche’s most controversial car. By the company’s own admission, it polarized people from the start.
The Audi-sourced engine, brakes, and transaxle were just the beginning. The switches, door handles and other details that came from the Volkswagen/Audi parts bin were just too much for the Porsche faithful to handle. Additionally, the engine was not only in the wrong place—shouldn’t that thing be in the rear?—but it was cooled by water instead of air, as God and Dr. Ferdinand intended.
Yet, it could be argued that the 924 (and its later development, the 944) saved the company. More than 150,000 units were sold from 1976-1988, most of them in North America. But only in the last few years has the 924 begun emerging from the cloud that hung over it from birth.
It’s easy to understand the Porsche faithful’s vociferous reaction to the 924 when it debuted in the fall of 1976 as a 1977 model. It was Porsche’s first front-engine, water-cooled car, and everyone knew that it originated in a cancelled VW/Audi project.
Code-name “EA 425” (as it was known) was a design project Porsche had undertaken for a new VW sports car. It had survived to the pre-production phase when VW decided that its new sport coupe would be the Golf-based Scirocco, not the EA 425. Porsche bought back the rights to the car, had it built under contract by Audi in Neckarsulm, and sold it as the 924.
Some of the car’s perceived shortcomings might have been overlooked had the 924 been a brilliant sports car out of the box. But it wasn’t. The original 1977 924 was underpowered (only 95 hp), buzzy, and appalling on the freeway. On the plus side, it was cheap (for a Porsche) at $9,995, when a new 911SC was nearly twice that. It also handled well, the result of a 49/51 front/rear weight distribution.
Improvements were made along the way; the ride was refined, the car gained 15 more horsepower by the second half of the ’77 model year, and the four-speed gearbox was replaced by a five-speed in 1979. A turbocharged version was added in 1980, which made the car faster, but the annoying buzz of the rough, 2.0-liter Audi four-banger remained.
The 924 left the U.S. after the 1982 model year. It was replaced by the 944, an improved version of the 924 that now sported aggressively flared fenders and a 2.5-liter Porsche four-cylinder engine that was essentially half the 928’s V-8. With Mitsubishi-licensed balance shafts, the new engine was both smoother and more powerful than the old Audi unit. The 924 returned to the U.S. lineup briefly in the 1987-88 model years as the 924S, which combined the old narrow 924 body with the newer 944 engine. At a hair under $20,000, it was Porsche’s entry-level model at the time.
Most of the last four decades haven’t been particularly kind to the 924. The stigma of too much VW/Audi engineering still taints the car in some eyes, even though other VW-powered Porsche models like the 914 and the 912E have appreciated considerably over the last several years. They were at least air-cooled, whereas the 924 has ethylene glycol (coolant) pumping through its veins.
Strangely enough, the market finally seems to be waking up to the merits of all of the transaxle Porsches—924, 944, 928, and 968. No less than Magnus Walker (an L.A.-based 911 aficionado/taste-maker) has taken a shine to them; he owns 13 turbo versions. Even the naturally aspirated, Audi-engined cars are bringing more than the once customary $2,500-$3,000 for good cars. Recent 924 sales on Bring a Trailer included a 1977 for $6,000 and a ’79 for $8,500—more than early 944s in some cases and more than the later 924S. But how? The 944 is a better car in every measure except ease of maintenance. And that may be the key.
Simplicity is the 924’s trump card. No ABS to break. No power steering to leak. A non-interference engine with an easily changed timing belt and generally few power options. It’s a thoroughly analog car that most anyone could wrench on. At the end of the day, the small performance differential between a 924 and an early 8-valve 944 simply isn’t enough for many people to warrant buying the newer, more refined car.
Is the 924 really a bad car? I’ve come full circle on the car over the years. Ten years ago, I wrote an article for the New York Times inviting the 924 to “rust in peace.” Now I own one. The fact is, had the 911 not existed as a comparison, or had the 924 been an Audi or a VW and not carried the expectations of the Porsche name, it might be better regarded today. Compared with other contemporary performance cars in its class, like the BMW 2002 or 320i or the Alfa Romeo Alfetta Sprint, it was the better car.
As 924s go, later is generally better. Unless it’s a visually striking Martini and Rossi racing special edition, there’s no good reason to buy an early 924 with just 95 hp. And if you do any highway driving, a 5-speed is a must. The 924 Turbo is a separate model and adds a number of cool features, from the NACA duct hood to some wild interiors and two-tone paint options. The myriad wheel and suspension options are well beyond the scope of this article. The 924 Turbos (otherwise known as 931s by their internal project numbers) are genuinely rare cars, yet $10,000 still buys an excellent one. Low mileage, original 924s aren’t uncommon. When the 944 arrived, they depreciated fast and hard. Even minor problems were deemed too expensive to fix and the cars sat, sometimes for years. I know someone who recently picked up a 13,000-mile 924 that had been sitting since the Reagan administration, simply because it had a bad fuel pump. At any rate, $6,000–$8,000 buys a really nice 1978-82 924.
The 1987-88 924S is an odd duck. It’s a little lighter than a 944 and has the same engine. It keeps the basic (rather inexpensive-looking) dash shared by the original 924 and the pre-1985½ 944. But you also get the added complication and maintenance issues of the 944. Oddly enough, they seem to bring about the same money as the original, Audi-engine 924.
The future is likely bright for the 924. In time, it will be accepted as a true Porsche. After all, the design work was done by Porsche from the ground up. Porsche stylists Tony Lapine and Harm Lagay dictated the car’s handsome shape, and the 924 was reasonably well-built (bodies were progressively galvanized as the production run went on). And the Audi engines, while rough, are at least tough.
The 924 will always be appreciated for its balance and simplicity. Sure, it will never bring 911 money, but it won’t be practically free for much longer either. The supply of good under $4,000 cars is drying up as we speak. Now would be a good time to grab one and enjoy one of the best handling sports cars of the 1970s.
Rob Sass is the editor of Panorama, the official magazine of the Porsche Club of America.