Zuffenhausen Heresy: When Porsche Put a V-8 Up Front

With Porsche 911 values at stratospheric levels, collectors may be tempted to take a second look at the car created to replace that air-cooled icon: The 928, produced from 1978 to 1995.

It’s an appealing strategy. Although 928 prices have trended somewhat higher, it remains tantalizingly affordable, especially as performance-oriented GTs go. Still, with the exception of the rarest and best-preserved examples, market experts see limited appreciation in the near term.

The 928 arrived bristling with technology and infused with luxury, all wrapped in a slick wind-cheating design that still looks fresh; the British car critic and former “Top Gear” personality Jeremy Clarkson called it “one of the best-looking cars ever made.”

With a 4.5-liter water-cooled V-8 up front (subsequently enlarged to as much as 5.4 liters), the 928 was a radical departure for a company built on air-cooled, rear-engine sports cars. But the configuration actually foreshadowed the popular vehicles that revived Porsche’s fortunes in the 21st century: the Cayenne SUV and Panamera sedan.

By the time the 928 reached production it was a relatively large and heavy grand touring car (curb weight of later versions approached 3,600 pounds), starkly different from the 911 in layout and driving experience. And it turned out to be a dead end: In the early 1980s management decided to retain and revitalize the 911 – to the applause of enthusiasts who never embraced the 928.

Though the 928 has languished in the resale market, its fans found encouragement in March when a 1994 928 GTS sold at the Bonhams auction in Amelia Island, Fla., for $132,000 including commission. Built near the end of production, and one of only about 30 GTS models sold in the U.S. with a five-speed manual transmission, that car had been driven fewer than 24,000 miles.

Still, Eric Minoff, a car specialist for Bonhams in New York, cautioned that the Amelia Island Porsche represented “the tip of the mountain” for 928s, towering over “the rest of the land around it.” It was, he said, “the best one out there: the GTS with the stick shift.”

He added, “The tippy-top cars, the really special ones, are selling for a lot,” though even these are trading far below preferred versions of the 911.

Minoff suggested that the 928’s biggest impediment is Porschephiles’ 911 obsession. “Among enthusiasts who are spending all this money on Porsches, certain boxes have to be checked,” he said. “It must be air-cooled, and it must have the engine in the back.”

Though the 928 was a sensation when it arrived, annual production topped 5,000 only twice, in 1979 and 1984. And Minoff noted that pure sports cars appreciate more than GT cars – even among Ferraris. Further, a high percentage of 928s were sold with automatic transmissions rather than the manual gearboxes more desired by enthusiast-collectors.

Many 928s passed into the used car market to owners who could not afford Porsche parts and service. Engineering that was advanced for its time proved “very expensive and complicated to maintain,” Minoff said. “Whenever something goes wrong, they are expensive.”

John R. Quain, a technology writer in New York who has had a 1987 928 since the early 1990s, concurs. While he considers his 928 S4 “a supercar for the price of a VW Rabbit,” he concedes that “the maintenance costs are fairly unforgiving.”

On Bringatrailer.com, recent auction sales of complete running cars have ranged from a 1981 Euro-spec 928 for $9,100 to a 1986.5 928 S with 32,000 miles for $52,000. Sports Car Market gives the 928 an investment grade of D.

Aside from the car’s performance – the GTS could reach 171 mph – and its luxury touches, the 928 offered such distinctive features as rear-seat sun visors and Pascha upholstery with a psychedelic checkerboard pattern – “a design piece,” Minoff said.

And star power never hurts. A gold 928 played a pivotal role in the 1983 film Risky Business: After Tom Cruise’s character sank his father’s Porsche in Lake Michigan, he opened a bordello in the family home to raise money for a replacement.

“It’s cool to be attached to that,” Minoff said. “But we’re not talking about Steve McQueen’s Mustang in Bullitt.”

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