Today is “May Day” and this month marks 30 years of the Porsche 944 being available in the U.S. The Porsche 944 was available for sale in the U.S. starting in May of 1982 as a model year 1983 in the U.S. (it was available in 1981 as a Model Year 1982 in European markets). The Porsche 944 was hated by some Porsche enthusiasts and loved by others.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s many upper level people at Porsche thought that the Porsche 911 was on its way out. They thought that the car would either die out due to lack of demand or that it would be out lawed in the U.S. due to its rear engine design (this was in part due to Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at any Speed). Fortunately, this was all wrong and the Porsche 911 is still around with us today. However, largely because of this fear Porsche started making front engined sports cars. This started with the Porsche 924 and then the Porsche 928 (while the 924 was available for sale first, the 928 was actually under development first).
It is impossible to talk about the Porsche 944 without mentioning the Porsche 924. The 924 was originally designed to be sold as a VW that was designed for VW by Porsche. VW decided not to make the car and Porsche bought the rights back and sold the car as a Porsche (in-spite of the Audi/VW engine under the hood). The 924 had a lot of good feature, especially the great handling. However, the car was not very fast (especially in the U.S. due to emission requirements).
At the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1981 Porsche debuted the Porsche 944. The 944 had a body style based on the Porsche 924 Carrera GT, but with a Porsche designed 2.5L engine. There was a lot of excitement about the new car and it was available in the U.S. as early as May of 1982. While the performance was not up-to-par with the Turbo Charged Porsche 924 Carrera GT, it was still very good for the time.
We must remember when looking at older cars to compare performance to cars from around the same time (in other words, don’t compare a stock 1965 Porsche 911 to a new 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera). When the Porsche 944 was first available in the U.S. the 0-60 MPH time for the car was 8.3 seconds. While by today’s standards that seems pretty slow, in 1983 (or 1982 depending on when the car was bought) the car was competing with cars like the Mazda RX-7 that had a 0-60 MPH time of around 9 seconds or even the V8 Mustang GT that had a 0-60 MPH time of 8 seconds. So, the car was not considered slow in a straight line in it’s day. In fact the Porsche 911 SC that was available at the time took 7 seconds to get to 60 MPH from 0, but the more interesting statistic is that the Porsche 911 SC went 0-50 MPH in 5.8 seconds versus 5.9 seconds for the Porsche 944. This was important in 1982/83 as the national top speed limit at the time was just 55 MPH. This meant that when driven legally the Porsche 944 was pretty much as fast as a Porsche 911 in the U.S. (these numbers change for the European models as they had more HP due to looser emission requirements)!
Where the car really makes a statement in on a curvy road. Due to the use of a front engine and rear transaxle design made the car very well balanced (nearly perfect 50/50 weight distribution). The car can take corners at speeds that would make other cars loose control. When compared to the Porsche 911 SC of same time period, the 944 is much more capable when driven by an average driver (this isn’t to say that someone that knows how to drive a 911 properly couldn’t do more with it, but the average driver would probably loose control). If you own a Porsche 944 today, look to take the back curvy roads and you will stay very happy in the car.
Today a good early Porsche 944 (pre-1985.5) can be had for under $5,000 (USD). This is an incredible value for a car that if you look at the specs is an almost perfect match for a new 2012 Mazda MX-5 (it has almost the exact same 0-60 MPH time and has a bit better weight distribution). Where you have to watch out is with repair costs. This can quickly add up and the parts are not always very cheap (although, they often cost less than parts for a 911). This is why it is important to buy a good car that has a documented maintenance history.
If you are careful, you may be able to find a good deal. I bought my current daily driver a 1983 Porsche 944 for just ,500. It had documentation of all the important maintenance tasks (such as the timing belt having just been replaced as well as the water pump). It also had a straight body, but had some cosmetic issues, someone did a cheap single-stage paint job and much of the interior was in bad shape. For me the interior was not a big deal as I eventually wanted to make it a track day car, so much of the interior was going to be removed and the paint was OK for a while and then I would paint it myself (something that I’ve slowly been doing panel by panel as I get time). The car has been very reliable for me with the only major problem being the clutch going out after owning it for two years (I’ve now owned it for four years).
If you are looking to buy one, make sure to know what you are getting. You are getting a car that was designed to go quickly on a curvy road, but not a car that was designed to blow away cars at the drag strip. If you do some searching on the internet for making an early Porsche 944 faster, you will mainly get posts telling you to sell your car and buy a Porsche 944 Turbo.
I personally have found a few things that will make your car at least feel faster (some of these won’t make your car any faster, but they make it feel faster). If you put on a Throttle Response Cam and Short Shifter, the car will feel sportier and feel as if it is a bit faster (although, it probably isn’t much faster if any). The bigger thing is weight reduction. If you remove sound deadening, audio system, spare tire and jack (warning, if you do this and get a flat prepare to just call a tow truck), remove most of the roof headlining (you may want to keep the trim around the windshield) and sound deadening, either remove the carpets or replace with very light weight carpet and remove the rear seat (you may want to keep the bottom pad to reduce the transmission noise). Beyond this you can remove the A/C (this requires a special bracket and you will only want to do this if you live in a cooler climate) and the windshield wiper fluid reservoir to reduce more weight. This weight reduction can take out 200-500lbs (depending on how much you can take out) and will make your car a bit quicker (although you may want to keep everything you take out, just in-case an early Porsche 944 every becomes a true collectors car). After you finish with the weight reduction, you’ll want to start working on upgrading the suspension (are at least adjust to stock suspension as after the weight reduction the car may ride a bit higher). Once you do all this your car will be fairly quick on a track.
Beyond these steps you could do an engine swap (I personally think an S2 or 968 swap is best, but you could also do a Chevy LS1 swap, but then you don’t have a Porsche engine) or supercharge the engine (there are a couple of kits out there to do this). The problem with either of these is that you will need to upgrade brake, transaxle, etc. in order to keep up with the extra power. One way to get 20 hp fairly easily is to remove the catalytic converter and then change the tune of the engine. This would make it a European spec car which would give you 163 hp versus 143 hp for the U.S. spec tune. This is only an option in states that do not require a catalytic converter (not an option where I live in California). I’ve heard of people during this, but you will have to check that compression is set correct for this and there is supposed to be a way to have the DME run with the European settings (again I’ve never done this myself, I’ve just heard of it being done).
The first 30 years of the Porsche 944 in the U.S. have been fun for a great little car. Let’s make sure that these cars (even the early ones) are kept alive (and at least with the ability to put them back to stock in the future) and share them with future generations. Due to this big milestone over the course of this month I will be writing about the various Porsche 944 variants (so I will cover later Porsche 944s in future posts).
The below video is an old commercial for the Porsche 944 (enjoy this blast from the past).