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Porsche 944 Buyers' Guide

Written by Peter Morgan

 

Model history

The auto industry model year (MY) runs from August 1 to 31 July, so a 1988 model could have been produced between 1 August 1987 and 31 July 1988.

1982 MY: 944 announced in June 1981 with production starting November 1991. UK models from April 1982. All new 143bhp, 2.5-litre 8-valve engine.

1985 MY: Major model upgrade in February 1985 with 944 receiving 'oval' dash. 220bhp 944 Turbo announced with LHD deliveries starting July 1985. UK deliveries start November 1985 (in the 1986 model year).

1987 MY: 90bhp 16-valve 944S introduced. New option is ABS.

1988 MY: 944 engine upgraded to 160bhp. Limited edition 250bhp Turbo S introduced, most with silver/pink metallic paint and Studio Check interiors (subsequently dubbed the 'Silver Rose' models, 1635 built, and unconfirmed is 77 RHD UK models). 944 'Celebration' (for building 100,000 944s), all in Zermatt Silver or Satin Black with black leatherette or Studio Check interiors.

1989 MY: 944 engine increased to 2.7-litres, with 165bhp. Turbo upgraded to 250bhp as main model. ABS standard on all models.

1990 MY: 944S2 introduced with 16-valve 3-litre engine producing 211bhp. S2 available in coupé and new cabriolet body styles. 944 production stops in July 1989.

1991 MY: 944 Turbo Cabriolet introduced at start of MY. 944SE was UK only run out model - an S2 with sports suspension, sports steering wheel and chipped to 225bhp. From January 1991, all 944s built in main Zuffenhausen factory (have 'S' instead of 'N' at 11th digit of VIN). 944 Turbo and 944S2 production stops July 1991.

1992 MY: 968 replaces all 944 models, with RHD models available from April/May 1992

 

What's it like?

The 944 was an evolutionary development of the super successful 924 that transformed a recession-hit Porsche sales during the late 1970s. The 924's main driving asset was its well balanced handling and this transferred to the 944. What the 924 needed - badly - was more power and this came with the 944's new, all aluminium, 2.5-litre 4-cylinder engine.

2.5-litres is big for a 4 cylinder, but clever balance shafts either side of the crankcase gave the overhead camshaft engine a silky smoothness. The interior came from the Gen 2 924 Turbo and the appearance, perhaps the 944's greatest attraction, was an aggressive makeover in the style of the limited edition 924 Carrera GT.

The bottom line was a thoroughbred Porsche that was easy to drive around town, yet had agile overtaking and cruising ability combined with interior refinement. A new 5-speed gearbox gave the model long legs for easy cruising (a 3-speed auto was also available but rarely chosen).

Another asset inherited from the 924 was the staggering versatility of its design. The opening tailgate brought unheard of practicality to owning a Porsche. With the rear seats folded flat, this was a car into which you could get most medium sized domestic appliances!

 

Which one should I get?

The 944 received almost continuous development and the advice is aim to buy the latest model you can afford, accepting condition is just as important. On the early cars, the 'oval' dash introduced in mid-1985 transformed the cabin ventilation and updated the interior appearance.

The 944 option list was fairly limited in terms of comfort, so as well as having a good service history and condition, many cars will be selected for their colour. In the mid-1980s, the popular colours were Guards Red and Alpine White, both on the standard listing. Consequently any metallic colour tends to give the 944 more special appeal, assuming the paint quality is OK.

The 190bhp, 16-valve 944S didn't sell in any great numbers mainly because the performance was disappointing and it didn't sound much like a twin-cam should, but the later 211bhp, 3-litre S2 was arguably the best all round 944 of them all, being notable for its good power flexibility.

The base 944 was upgraded to 2.7-litres (maximum power rising from 163bhp to only 165bhp) for the 1989 model year - the end of the 944 line change giving the car better overtaking capability.

In the Turbo, the 944 gained a maturity that put its performance alongside the contemporary 911 Carrera. The first 220bhp Turbos deliver a refined experience with enough captivating 'turbo lag' to make the drive fun. The limited edition 250bhp Turbo for 1988 has suspension equipment that makes it unique, but the following year all the production Turbos had the 250bhp engine and these later cars are the better buys (1989-90 models).

The Cabriolet is a great top down experience, but rear quarter visibility can be limited with the roof up and the cabin can get quite dark. Note that no UK 944 models were fitted with airbags.

 

What are the running costs?

With all the 944 models now at least 25 years old and some 35, components fail and higher mileage and storage will affect components. As with all classic cars, regular driving is one of the secrets to keeping maintenance cost down.

As the 944 engine is all-aluminium (with coated bores), it is essential to have the engine oil changed annually. Even if the car is mainly stored, condensation can seriously corrode the internal components of the engine. For a mainly stored car, as well as the annual service, which can cost from £250 to £400, there will be safety aspects beyond the VOSA test such as perishing tyres, corroding brake discs and pipes, brake fluid water content and battery condition.

Consequently expect to be changing tyres (£750 + VAT) every 10 years or so and a similar interval for little used brakes (£1-1.2K +VAT). Clutches last a long time (perhaps 70-80K miles typically), while a replacement might cost £750-1K + VAT).

The main ongoing preventative maintenance task is to replace the rubber camshaft timing belt and the balance shaft belt. These should be replaced typically every 4 years.

Typical cost for a belt/idler kit is around £200 + VAT, plus labour. The 'while you're in there' extra costs could also include the coolant pump (about £150 + VAT). The pre-85 944s can be retrofitted with the stronger 944 Turbo cam belt and engine mountings (a trending issue on early cars), but the automatic tensioner wasn't introduced until the 1987 models. Replacement engine mounts cost about £40+VAT each plus fitting.

Leaking power steering pumps or pipes is another common problem (driven from the front of the crankshaft and mounted at the offside front of the engine). The pump itself is very expensive to replace (about £650) but often the leaks come from the pipes or even the reservoir.  

Unfortunately the 944 series can be prone to rust, particularly in the sills and around the rear suspension mountings. It's very difficult to suggest costings for bodywork repairs, but typically a sill replacement with work to the rear trailing arm mounts and subsequent body repainting/protection isn't going to leave change from perhaps £2K + VAT (but can be higher).

The main issues on the suspension are usually the various bushes, which can usually be replaced fairly inexpensively (relative to say, a replacement whole lower control arm assembly) and replacement of worn out shock absorbers (typically from £200 + VAT each).

The Turbo has a good reputation for reliability, accepting that parts wear out and fail over time. Tuning and performance upgrade parts can reduce the reliability of the engine.

 

What should I look for?

Buying a car that is at least 25 years old requires a very comprehensive mechanical check. The best starting point is a car that demonstrates consistent care throughout its life and evidence of replacement of the items that will always wear out (clutch, brakes, belts and so on).

Finding a car with a relatively low mileage will be difficult, and the key to long engine life will be a disciplined oil change record throughout its life. It is important to know the belts/idlers have been changed within the past say 3 years and look for bills covering the high risk items such as coolant and steering pumps. Many cars get stored at points in their life, when mileage is negligible, but with an all-aluminium engine, missing more than perhaps 2-3 annual changes isn't recommended.

For an engine that has had regular servicing, expect the top end to need a rebuild from 120K miles and a full rebuild from 150K miles. If the engine is smoking it is essential to establish that this is worn valves rather than worn or scored cylinders. The piston rings can be changed, but resurfacing the bores isn't a low cost option. Head gasket failure can turn the coolant milky and this is also the symptom of a failed oil/coolant heat exchanger (about £340 + VAT). Both issues require top or front end engine work and if left, can lead to damage to the vulnerable cylinder bores.

It's worth pointing out that all 944s have impossibly lethargic starter motors, even when healthy.

The twin-camshaft S engines are generally reliable but the exhaust cam is driven by a small toothed belt tensioned by an automatic tensioner. The belt should be changed at the same intervals as the cam belts (every 4 years or 48K miles).

Issues with the K Jetronic fuel injection should be apparent when driving the car and will need an experienced diagnostic expert to fix, while the exhaust system is a consumable item.

The most frequently noted issue with the transmission is worn pinion or differential bearings. These show as a whine when driving. While the parts are relatively inexpensive, the labour is major.

A clonking nose or front wheel shake when driving can suggest worn suspension bushes (either lower control arm or anti-roll bar droplinks), while floaty handling can suggest worn out shock absorbers (which may be leaking). It's important to get under the car to assess the suspension condition as well as the brakes and brake lines. A torch is useful for this.

The alloys should be damage free and it's worth looking carefully for damage repairs or cracked rims. Tyres must be checked for tread depth, signs of perishing or simply being more than 10 years old (hardened rubber).

To assess the bodyshell, a paint thickness gauge is invaluable to detect heavy filler. If this is present in the lower fronts of the rear wings, caution is required. The sills and rear suspension front mounts should be properly weld repaired and external panels finished using only skim (less than 1mm thick) filler to finish. Signs of cheap body repairs show up as poorly matched paint, poor panel gaps and wet carpets (from water ingress around the tailgate or sunroof).

Interiors can take a beating over several decades, but seats should be intact on a good car. Check the seat suspension hasn't collapsed (a saggy look) and that the adjustment works. There's no excuse for a dirty/grubby interior, if the car has been looked after. After the external appearance, a clean interior is a major selling feature.

Always try to drive the car before you buy. Important issues will show up even in a short drive (5 miles would be typical). If you don't have the experience to check the car out yourself, get a pre-purchase inspection expert to look at the car. They will advise on all aspects of the car's condition, what needs replacing now and in the short term and whether the car is valued correctly.

 

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