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The Porsche 944: 1982-1991

The 944 was a front-engine, rear-wheel drive sports car produced by Porsche, unlike the rear-engine 356 and 911 models or the mid-engine 914. Based upon the front-engine 924 that preceded it, the 944 was available in coupe or convertible models with either a normally aspirated or turbocharged four-cylinder engine.

944 1982-1989

In 1976 Porsche introduced its first front-engined car, the 924, intended as a replacement for the entry-level 914 and 912E. The impetus for a front engine design instead of the modified rear-engine Volkswagen architecture of the 356 and 911 may well have been the fear of the US outlawing rear-engined cars in the wake of Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed, which savaged the rear-engined Chevrolet Corvair for it’s swing-axle design, the same design of the Volkswagen Beetle `and Porsche 911, despite a 1972 NHTSA study that debunked Nader’s claims.

The car was initially VW/Audi Project EX-425 in partnership with Porsche and was to be sold as an Audi model, but internal politics within the VW-Audi Group caused the project to be abandoned. The VW-Audi group also felt that the production cost would be too high and that the newly released Volkswagen Scirocco would sufficiently fill their sports car niche. Porsche bought the design back from them, kept the Audi engine, finished developing the project and produced it as the 924. A rear-mounted transaxle partially offset the weight of the engine, giving the car a slight rear weight bias of 48/52 front/rear along with very neutral handling characteristics. Although the car handled exceptionally well and received positive reviews it was criticized by Porsche enthusiasts for its under-powered and Audi-sourced 2-liter engine, just as the 914 before it was criticized for its VW heritage. Porsche later introduced a turbocharged version, but the high price put off some buyers as it was still not 100% Porsche.

Using the 924 as a baseline Porsche developed a new mid-level sports car that would become the 944. The prototype debuted at the 1981 24 Hours of LeMans race and was called the 924 GTP LeMans as the previous year’s entry was an actual 924 Carrera GT. The engine, now 2.5 liters, was developed entirely by Porsche and angled 45 degrees to the right. This dual-overhead cam engine utilized counter-rotating balance shafts running at twice the engine speed that provided better weight distribution and balanced out the naturally unbalanced secondary forces inherent in an inline four-cylinder design, making it as smooth as a six-cylinder would be. A prototype Bosch Motronic engine management system controlled fuel injection, ignition timing and boost from the single KKK 15.5 psi turbocharger. The result was a 414 HP engine that was more fuel-efficient than its predecessor and propelled the 924 GTP LeMans to a seventh-place overall finish behind the winning Porsche 936 and a class win in the GTP+ 3.0 category.

Porsche debuted the street-legal 944 in 1982 with an all-alloy version of essentially the same engine as the racing car, but heavily de-tuned for safety reasons to 143 HP for US customers as this version was non-turbocharged. The rest of the world without the strict emissions laws of the US got a 161 HP version. Even with only 143 HP the 2,600 lb. 944 could accelerate to 60 MPH in 7.9 seconds and run the quarter-mile in 15.7 seconds with a top speed of 137 MPH. The engine also utilized the same counter-rotating balance shafts and Bosch Motronic engine management system as the 924 GTP LeMans racer and was essentially half of the Porsche 928’s 5 liter V-8, although few parts were interchangeable between the two. Porsche tried to develop their own counter-rotating balance shaft system but found that they could not improve upon the system patented by Mitsubishi in 1975, so they opted to pay licensing fees rather than spend more money developing a system different enough from the Mitsubishi to circumvent the patent.

The bodywork was similar to the¬†924¬†but with wider wheel arches similar to the¬†924 Carrera GT, which would become somewhat of a styling trend for cars with sporting aspirations as the decade wore on. The¬†944, with its flared fenders, presented a Mr. Hyde appearance as opposed to the sedate and slab-sided¬†924‚Äôs Dr. Jekyll. A fresh interior and braking and suspension upgrades also differentiated the model from the¬†924¬†as well as a new rubber spoiler around the rear hatch glass. The smoother 2.5 liter engine meant that the¬†944¬†was slightly faster than the¬†924¬†despite having a higher drag coefficient, it stopped better and was better-equipped, more refined and more comfortable to drive. It utilized a rear transaxle as did the¬†924, but the weight distribution was nearly even at 50.7 front/49.3 rear so it handled even better. At its launch, it was heavily marketed as a ‚Äúbrand-new¬†Porsche¬†model‚ÄĚ in attempt to bury the image of all front-engined¬†Porsches as not being ‚Äúreal‚Ä̬†Porsches, a fate which had befallen the¬†924. Sales went through the roof with 26,800 being sold by the end of 1982. For context,¬†Porsche¬†made only 28,000 cars period in 1981; that is how popular the new¬†944¬†had become. Before the¬†Boxster¬†and¬†Macan¬†models, the 944 was the savior of¬†Porsche¬†and the cash reserves it built up from¬†944¬†sales in the 1980s kept the company afloat during the 1990s world recession.

The first changes came in 1985 and include a new dash and door panels, a 115-amp alternator (up from 90), a larger oil sump, new front and rear cast- alloy control arms and semi-trailing arms, a larger fuel tank, optional heated and powered seats, a¬†Porsche¬†HiFi sound system with the radio antenna embedded in the new flush-mounted windshield and a new transaxle mount to reduce noise and vibration. The US-spec engine got a bit of a HP bump also, to 147. The previous iteration‚Äôs ‚Äúcookie cutter‚ÄĚ wheels were replaced by ‚Äúphone dial‚ÄĚ style wheels, with optional Fuchs wheels.

Optional anti-lock brakes were introduced in 1988 as well as an updated Bosch Motronic engine management system. The new Motronic system gave US-spec models more HP too, bumping it to 158. Because of the new wheel offset to accommodate the ABS system, the Fuchs wheels were no longer an option. Driver and front passenger airbags were offered as standard equipment on the Turbo and optional for the regular 944.

1989 saw the engine size increase from 2.5 liters to 2.7 with a significant increase in torque to 166 from 155 and a jump to 164 HP. The cylinder head was reworked to accommodate larger valves as well. This was in preparation for the release of the S2 model that same year.

In 1983 American tuning company Callaway Cars began offering a turbo package for the 944. The one above has been modified for racing. As the 2.5 liter engine was not suited to forced induction due to the high 9.5:1 compression ratio, Callaway significantly modified the engine, milling away metal from both the piston heads and combustion chamber walls to achieve a more turbo-friendly 8.0:1 compression ratio. This required disassembly of the entire engine, which had to be removed from below, and was a rather costly process. They also tweaked the Motronic engine management system to ensure optimum fuel injection and added their own Microfueler unit. Finally they installed a small 10 psi IHI RHB6 turbocharger with an internal wastegate, necessitating the use of premium 91 octane fuel. The small turbocharger with an optional boost adjuster knob on the dash virtually eliminated turbo-lag. The modified 944 now produced 284 HP at 5,500 RPM and would accelerate to 60 MPH in 5.9 seconds and top out at 165 MPH Callaway stated, but did not recommend, that if the rev limiter were removed the acceleration would be even faster. Ultimately only 20 models were produced, making it one of the rarest 944s.

944 Turbo 1986-1991

The Turbo version of the 944 was introduced in 1985 for the 1986 model year, bumping the HP to 217 and making the 944 Turbo a formidable contender at 5.5 seconds to 60 MPH and a quarter-mile time of 14.1, topping out at 152 MPH. The power output was identical whether or not the car was equipped with a catalytic converter, a first for the automotive industry. An intercooler was also fitted to cool the intake air from the hot turbocharger, making the air denser to allow more power and lessen the risk of predetonation. The Turbo was also the first Porsche production car to utilize a ceramic port liner to retain exhaust gas temperature for optimum turbo performance and featured new forged pistons and an 8.0:1 compression ratio like the Callaway turbo. The engine’s headers, crossover pipe and down pipe were made of the austenitic superalloy inconel. More than thirty engine component revisions were made to the 944 Turbo to compensate for the increased engine loads and heat generated by the turbocharger.

The aerodynamics were improved thanks partially to an integrated front bumper, with the widest front turn signals fitted to any production car at that time. A strengthened rear gearbox with a different final drive ratio, oil coolers for both engine and transmission, 16-inch wheels, stiffer suspension and Brembo front and rear disc brakes with 12-inch discs borrowed from the 911 rounded out the Turbo package. This version had the code number 951.

1987 saw the North American version of the Turbo become the first production car in the world to offer driver and passenger airbags as standard equipment. ABS became an option for the first time as well. A 180 MPH speedometer was added as well as a low oil level light.

The Porsche 944 Turbo Cup, an entire racing series based upon identically prepared modified 944 Turbos, similar to the IROC series, was created for the car and ran support races for more established US and European racing series.

944 S/S2 1987-1991

The 944 S (for Super) featured a high-performance 16-valve version of the naturally-aspirated DOHC 2.5 liter engine producing 187 HP. This was developed from the 928 S4 and featured a re-designed camshaft drive, magnesium intakes, a magnesium valve cover, an upgraded 115-amp alternator, a larger capacity oil sump and a revised exhaust system. The wheel bearings were strengthened and the rear brakes were fitted with the 944 Turbo’s pressure regulator. An upgraded Bosch Motronic engine management computer with dual knock sensors improved fuel performance in the higher (10.9:1) compression ratio cylinder head. It also borrowed progressive springs and larger front and rear anti-roll bars from the 944 Turbo to improve handling. The transmission and gearing were also changed to take advantage of the higher rev limit of the 16-valve engine. The S could sprint to 60 MPH in 6.5 seconds and speed topped out at 144 MPH.

A Club Sport touring package and lighter weight 16-inch wheels was available in 1987 and 1988 and saw some racing success in the US IMSA Firehawk Cup series as well as in Canada and Europe. This version was superseded by the larger-displacement S2.

1988 saw the introduction of the¬†944 Turbo S¬†with a more powerful 247 HP engine. A larger¬†KKK¬†turbocharger and revised engine mapping created a 30 HP jump over the standard¬†Turbo. This version would rocket to 60 MPH in 5.5 seconds, pass the ¬ľ mile in 13.9 and top out at 162 MPH as tested by¬†Car & Driver¬†magazine, making it the king of the¬†944¬†line. The¬†M030¬†optional suspension was standard on the¬†Turbo S¬†and featured¬†Koni¬†adjustable shocks front and rear, progressive rate springs, larger (and hollow) anti-roll/torsion bars front and rear, harder suspension bushings and chassis stiffening brackets on the front frame rails ensured that it was the best-handling¬†944¬†as well. The car rode on its own unique¬†Fuchs Club Sport 944 Turbo S¬†wheels, larger than standard¬†944 Turbo¬†ones and requiring remodeling of the fenders. The front and rear fender edges on the¬†Turbo S¬†were rolled to accommodate the new wheels. Larger¬†Brembo GT¬†4-piston front brake calipers and 12-inch discs were borrowed from the¬†928 S4, while the rears were the same as the standard¬†Turbo. ABS was standard.

Porsche didn’t skimp on the interior of the most powerful 944 either, with standard driver and passenger power seats, and an optional 10-speaker sound system with separate equalizer and amp.

The Turbo S was a one-year only model for 1988. All Turbos from 1989 through the end of the model run featured the Turbo S enhancements as standard, but without the S designation, except for the M030 handling package and Club Sport wheels, which remained optional. The 944 Turbo S was the most powerful production four-cylinder of its time.

625 944 Turbo S models were converted into Turbo Cabriolets with a special body made by the American Sunroof Company (ASC) of Weinsberg, Germany. 100 were right-hand drive and the remaining 525 were left-hand drive. The model was not imported to the United States despite our love affair with convertible cars.

In 1989 the 944 S received a new 3-liter, 208 HP version of the dual-overhead cam 16-valve engine and was christened S2. At the time it was the largest four-cylinder engine in production and propelled the S2 to 60 MPH in a mere 6 seconds with a top speed of 150 MPH. The new, more powerful engine necessitated a revised transmission and gearing to accommodate and better utilize the extra 21 HP and increased torque. The same rounded nose and rear valance of the Turbo model were present on the S2, which remained until the end of 944 production two years later.

The American Sunroof Company also made 16 944 S2 Cabriolet models in 1989, with an additional 3,938 made until the end of the model run and many of these were imported to the North American market. Perhaps Porsche heard the cries of enthusiasts who bemoaned the lack of a US-spec 944 Turbo Cabriolet.

Major revisions planned for a 944 S3 model were eventually rolled into the 944’s successor, the 968.

The Porsche 944, especially in S2 and Turbo guise, provided remarkable performance and handling from a four-cylinder sports coupe. It outclassed most of its contemporaries in the 1980s and proved that small engines do not necessarily equal small performance. The four-cylinder performance cars that came in its wake owe a debt of gratitude to the 944 for showing the way.

When my brother and I were in West Germany in the mid-’80s we delighted in watching the Porsche drivers’ faces as we out-performed 944s on the Autobahn in his new Euro-spec, 16-valve Honda Prelude 2.0 Si with 143 HP but 1500 lbs. less weight. I’m sure that Honda took some lessons from the Porsche 944 when creating the 2.0 Si. It also topped out at 7 MPH faster than the 944 and would hold that speed for as long as we cared to keep it there, which we did many, many times. I will tell you that driving at nearly 145 MPH for extended periods is not for the faint of heart, even amongst lane-disciplined German Autobahn drivers. The little Honda may not have had the gravitas of the Porsche, but would hold its own against or beat most any four-cylinder car out there, EXCEPT a 944 S or Turbo as we found out on several occasions. I loved his Honda but still lusted after a 944 Turbo or S. I never got one, but did manage to drive a couple of later-model regular 944s and a 944 S2 later on. The acceleration and handling were both phenomenal for a four-cylinder, on par with or better than anything comparable I have driven. ✪

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