The early years of the transaxle era were perplexing ones for Porsche, with the flagship 928 failing to fire the imagination of its target audience and the entry-level 924 providing a curious halfway house between its trademark engineering ingenuity and cost-sensitive compromise.
Porsche had assumed complete control of the 924 when Volkswagen withdrew its collaborative interest in 1973. A buyout agreement would see the cars built in nearby Neckarsulm by VW employees, with the engine still being an Audi-sourced, water-cooled inline four from the uninspiring 100 saloon. Despite a shortfall in power, the 924 was well received and its handling balance was a far cry from the contemporary 911. However, it was clear that the transaxle design had plenty more to give. So it would.
In 1982, the 944 arrived. Harm Lagaay’s styling took inspiration from the 924 Carrera GT built to homologate the car for Le Mans two years earlier. The bolt-on rear arches of the Carrera had been replaced with a more organic shape, but the 944 was possessed of the same muscular stance and wider track. Critically, that water-cooled inline four was also now radically different. Porsche had dispensed with the Audi unit altogether and developed its own naturally aspirated all-aluminium four-cylinder design, derived from the V8 in the 928 and displacing 2.5 litres in its earliest guise for peak power of 160PS. The engine used balance shafts acquired under licence from Mitsubishi to counter the lack of smoothness inherent in an in-line four, producing an exceptionally refined and robust powertrain that returned in the region of 30mpg but which was still good for 135mph.
The 944 was, in essence, the car Porsche might have built several years earlier had it not been hamstrung by the cost efficiencies prescribed by VW. The masterful initial concept of a compact front-engine, rear-drive transaxle monocoque design was now equipped with an appropriate powertrain, uprated alloy suspension, better brakes and greater level of cabin refinement.
The result sold like hot cakes. In less than 10 years of production, more than 163,000 were delivered worldwide. This was an unprecedented success for Porsche and a number that would only be eclipsed several years later by the 986 Boxster – another radical, entry-level design. The 944 brought Porsche to a new audience and, in the process, redefined what a Porsche could be. Still built at Neckarsulm (and far more cost-effectively than the 911 and 928 in Zuffenhausen), the 944 presented a brief window into the sort of business model that would ultimately save Porsche in the following two decades.
At launch, the 944 occupied a mid-market position in Porsche’s range between the 924, which would remain in production for a further four years, and the more expensive yet much less modern 911 SC. It continued to evolve throughout its lifespan, the first significant uptick in performance coming from the addition of a turbocharger in 1985. The 944 Turbo made 220PS, a figure that would rise to a round 250PS in later models, creating an intoxicating blend of performance and handling precision that Porsche’s contemporary 911 would always struggle to match. Alongside a softer, more modern bumper treatment at both front and rear, the future-facing 944 Turbo became one of the first production cars to offer airbags as standard. Adding insult to injury for the 911 diehards, it even borrowed the brakes from its ageing rear-engine stablemate to cope with the extra power.
At the same time as announcing the Turbo, Porsche also began to subtly upgrade the entire 944 package with a more aerodynamic flush-mounted windscreen, a revised interior treatment and ‘Teledial’ wheels to replace the original ‘cookie cutters’. In 1987, the 16-valve ‘Ventiler’ engine was introduced for the 944 S, an extensively reworked four-valve DOHC design making 190PS in a car that tipped the scales at less than 1,300kg. Like the Turbo, the S benefitted from uprated suspension, stouter transmission and longer gearing, refining an already excellent concept into something approaching perfection.
As the decade wore on, further improvements would see the already oversquare engine increase in displacement from 2.5 to 2.7 litres in 1989. Later that same year, the 944 S2 would be announced, introducing an unprecedented and unlikely 3.0-litre capacity to the world of inline fours. The 944 S2 benefitted from the same, sleeker bumper treatment as the Turbo and introduced the Cabriolet to the range, one of the more effective retrospective soft-top designs in the whole history of sports car design.
Production of the 944 wound up in 1991, replaced by the comparatively short-lived 968. This was, in effect, the 944 S3, rebranded to help further extend the life of the transaxle era which was by now almost two decades on from the inception of the original 924. The plug was formally pulled on the 968 in 1995, bringing an abrupt and permanent halt to one of Porsche’s most interesting and lucrative diversions from the 911. Much like the Boxster that replaced it as the gateway product, the 944 had been both vital cash cow and perennial thorn in the side of Porsche’s flawed but abiding flagship.
Meet the owner
R31 member Jim Thomson has owned his Guards Red 944 since 1987. A highly original 2.5-litre model from the first year of production, it started life as Jim’s daily driver and ferried the now-retired executive jet pilot to airports and private airfields around the country for several years.
“I’d always wanted to have a Porsche and, when this one presented itself, I knew it was the one for me. It was a demonstrator when new, registered on 1 April 1982, which I think was when they were first introduced to the UK. The original owner was the sort who washed and polished it every day, so I knew it had been looked after.”
Jim joined PCGB in his first year of ownership, but the demands of his career meant neither car nor Club saw as much of him as they would have liked. Over the years, presumably accelerated by the previous owner’s fondness for a bucket and sponge, that brilliant red paintwork began to fade to an unfortunate shade of pink, which discouraged Jim from driving the car.
“I was quite embarrassed by it,” he concedes. “The paint on the roof was so matte you could have struck a match on it. I used to feel very guilty and just put the cover back over it. But I always started it and kept its MOT up. After my kids started driving it, I decided to put some fresh tyres on it and, during the pandemic, we got it professionally resprayed. The 944 always was a great-looking car and it’s lovely to have mine back to its best. We’ve been together for more than 35 years and it looks a lot better for it than I do!”