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Collectible Porsche 924/944/928-'77 TO '95

by Bob Hagin

August 27, 2001

When my son-in-law Rick Cioppa called me a dozen years ago to tell me he'd just bought a late-model Porsche, I immediately thought of some version of the 911 air-cooled, rear-engined sports coupe. This has been the traditional configuration for Porsches since the first one, the venerated model 356, came to these shores in the late '40s.

But Rick's Porsche was unconventional for a Porsche. It had a four-cylinder, liquid-cooled engine up front driving through a rear-mounted five-speed transaxle that drove the rear wheels. It was a 944, one of only three types of Porsches that have their engines up front.

When its predecessor, the 924, was introduced here in 1977, the Porscheophiles that I knew were aghast. Not only was it totally alien to the Porsche mindset, but it was felt that it was thrown together from parts lifted from the Volkswagen/Audi parts bin and wrapped in a Japanese-style hatchback coupe body, albeit designed by Porsche staffer Harm Lagaay.

And that analogy wasn't too far off base. The engine was a 2.0-liter all-aluminum, four-cylinder, single overhead cam powerplant that was normally found in the front-drive Audi 100, a VW derivative that mounted its engine longitudinally, rather than transversely as in the then-current VW Rabbit. The Audi's four-speed transaxle innards were housed in a Porsche designed and built housing and moved to the rear to drive the independently-sprung rear wheels. The engine in the original 924 was pegged at only 94 horsepower (a number that was to grow exponentially in the following years) and installed in the chassis at a 40-degree angle.

The chassis parts too were VW/Audi items. The front MacPherson strut suspension and the steering gear were borrowed from the then-current VW Golf sedan whiule the rear suspension was adapted from the VW Super Beetle. The brakes were discs in front with drums in back, which was yet another VW transplant.

The reason for the Porsche proclivity to utilize parts from the VW/Audi stockpile wasn't arbitrary: originally the car was to be the Audi EA425 sports car and the engineering and design was contracted out to Porsche. When VW/Audi corporate heads scratched the project, Porsche itself elected to go ahead with it and market it as a "low-cost" entry-level Porsche. The targeted competition here was sports coupes of the Datsun 240/280Z genre.

In a concessionary move, Porsche struck a deal with VW/Audi to have the 924 built at the already-existing Audi plant Neckarsulm, thus keeping the factory busy and its workers employed.

The use of Volkswagen parts and technology in the 924 wasn't a totally alien concept for Porsche. Automotive historians are well aware of the fact that the first vehicle to bear the Porsche name was a two-seater, mid-engined sports roadster that was, in essence, a much- modified and re-bodied Volkswagen Beetle. That famous car had been designed and fathered by Ferdinand Porsche before World War II, so it was fitting that Porsche Number 1 first should be engineered and built by his son Ferry at the then-new Porsche engineering company in Austria. From that time on until 1964, all Porsches could trace their ancestry back to the Beetle.

But the front-engined 924 was anything but a success here. It was noisy and the Audi engine seemed harsh at higher RPMs. When the first 924s appeared here, it was quickly obvious that the car was no match for the any of the Datsun Z-Model sports coupe. As a countermeasure, by 1980 the 924 could also be had with a turbocharger, which added considerably more performance to the car and helped to have the front-engined Porsche accepted by aficionados.

In parallel to the development of the so-called "low-priced" 924, Porsche had also been busy on the 928, an ultra-high performance Grand Touring coupe that utilized the same liquid-cooled, front-engine, rear-transaxle design parameters of its modest entry-level sibling. But the engine in the 928 was an overhead-cam V8 that bristled with highly advanced innovations. I was at the car's presentation in San Francisco in 1978 and the one item that sticks in my mind is that the normally- heavy hydraulic valve adjusters were wafer-thin. Porsche has always done things its own way.

In 1983, the last of the "maverick" Porsches, the 944, was introduced. It was actually a derivation of the 924 but with one big difference. The 2.0-liter Audi engine was gone and in its place was a twin-cam unit that was a half-liter bigger. It was totally Porsche- designed and all the shortcomings of the Audi engine had been overcome. This is the version my son-in-law owned. He sold it as soon as he discovered the costs of repairs and maintenance of a Porsche.

The variations on the 924, 944 and 928 Porches are myriad and too convoluted to expand upon. Most Porsche enthusiasts will be happy to expound on them in great detail and are ebullient on the subject.

The liquid-cooled, front-engined Porsches faded in 1995, but the cars enjoy a fanatical following among American fans. But the faithful will soon be rewarded by a resurrection of the concept and again, the new vehicle will be a joint venture with Volkswagen. But there's one catch in the formula. The next generation liquid-cooled, front-engined Porsche is to be a four-door sport/utility vehicle designed to do market battle with the fancy off-roaders from Lexus, Acura, Mercedes, Lincoln and Cadillac.

Welcome to the new millenium, Porsche fans.