The Porsche 944 evolved out of an earlier project, undertaken by Porsche AG as a Design Consultant for VW, just as the original KdFwagen design had been contracted to Porsche AG in the 1930s and the VW-Porsche 914 sportscar had been designed by Porsche but sold through VW in the 1960s.
In the late 60s and early VW was in the (massive) process of moving away from the air-cooled Beetle concept to a modern range of water-cooled cars. In sports cars, VW needed to replace both the 914 VW-Porsche and the older Karmann-Ghia coupé/convertible models, all being popular and profitable in the lucrative US market.
Project EA425, dismissed by VW
The new project EA425 was for a RWD coupe platform with water-cooled front-engine using parts from the VW empire in order to reduce cost. So the engine was the same VW EA831 2 litre ohc unit as found in the Audi A100 (and VW LT85 van), given a Porsche cylinder head in the 924 application. This engine was originally mated to an Audi FWD gearbox, mounted on a rear transaxle with other suspension, steering and brake components also taken from the VW Audi supply chain.
The intention had been to sell project EA425 as a VW/Audi product but VW management cancelled the project at the last minute, putting its resources into the more mainstream Scirocco 2+2 coupé. Porsche, left holding the baby, bought the project off VW and brought it to market as the Porsche 924 in 1975.
The “poor man´s Porsche” was well-received, being a very attractive and dynamic, if not particularly fast 2+2 coupé. The chassis was praised for its excellent engineering balance, the transaxle giving ideal weight distribution which resulted in particularly smooth and safe handling. Despite growing a turbo in the search for more power in 1978 (170 bhp) and racing success on the back of the Carrera GT homologation special of 1980, Porsche cognoscenti struggled to embrace the 924´s humble origins, particularly its engine.
The birth of the 944, a proper Porsche
The 944 was the answer to these demands. Using the same chassis as the 924 but with the muscular integrated wheelarches of the 924 Carrera GT, the engine used for the 944 was an all Porsche 2,5 litre 4 cylinder. Basically developed by using half of big brother 928´s V8 engine, the new 944 unit was unusually large for a 4 cylinder of the period, using balance shafts to help keep 4 large pistons running smoothly and put out a useful 163 bhp. By now, the transaxle was an in-house 5 speed Porsche unit.
It also helped that the 944 was reassuringly expensive -in true Porsche fashion, with the look and feel of a bigger, more prestigious car. 944 interiors were better finished and equipped so the 944 was better accepted by Porsche fans than its little brother 924. By the same token, journalist loved the new model which immediately established its own strong identity and market presence.
The next significant evolution of the 944 came in 1985, with the Turbo version. A KKK turbo boosted power to 220bhp, the front panel was cleaned up and the performance of the car came very close to Porsche´s flagship 911, without sharing the 911´s reputation for tricky on limit handling.
The 944 S2 of 1986 introduced a 16 valve head to the 944 giving the normally aspirated car 190 bhp and also body modifications which echoed the earlier 944 Turbo. The 944 Turbo was never fitted with this 16 valve head, but gained more power in the form of the 944 Turbo S in 1988, 250 bhp being available from a larger KKK turbo and more sophisticated remap. The Turbo S designation was for one year only as 1989 saw the 944 Turbo incorporate all the “S” features as standard.
Meanwhile, in 1989, the 8 valve engine was stretched to 2,7 litres (163 bhp) and the 16 valve engine to 3 litres (211 bhp). The 944 Turbo stayed with 8 valve and 2.5 litres throughout its production life.
The 944 was replaced by the 968 in 1992. The 968 shared the same architecture as the 944, but was updated enough in look and feel to justify a new model designation. Between 1982 and 1991, 163192 variants of the 944 had been built (25245 being 944 Turbo) making it the fastest-selling Porsche to date, vital to helping the growth in volume and profitability of the company in general.
Driving Impressions: 944 Turbo
We had the pleasure of taking a 1986 Porche 944 Turbo into the mountain roads of the Sierra de Gredos. This example is a well-preserved and very original car, with just over 145000 Kms showing.
First impressions confirm the quality of the 1980s Porsche factory build. The car has presence, tight panel fit and straight lines. Doors open and close with a clunk-as do most things in the cabin! Windows go up and down, not quickly but solidly. Controls and switches are not light, but just work. The dashboard is well-laid out, with easy to read instruments, everything analogue, everything black, everything where it should be.
The 944 is low, so you tumble down into the seat, but once there it is comfortable and easily adjustable to achieve a good driving position, wheel, gearchange and pedals all being at a comfortable distance. The 2+2 cabin is ample, though It shows its age in lack of storage space for small items and the rear seats are children only. Good visibility thanks to generous glass areas help to build early confidence in the car, the only downside is reversing the car, when the low seat and wide wheel arches make it easy to misjudge its (considerable width).
Once moving, the impression of solid build quality is underlined by the tightness of the chassis. For a sports car nearing its 40th birthday, the 944 Turbo is quiet and free from rattling interior trim. The controls tend to reflect this by being heavier than expected. The power-steering has good feel and is not overlight, the gearshift is best not rushed (a long way back from leaver to rear transaxle) and the pedals all require a push, the accelerator having typically Porsche long travel.
It was interesting to compare the feel of the 944 Turbo with an Alfa Romeo GTV6 (admittedly a good one!). Sharing the same transaxle architecture, the Alfa´s much-criticised gearchange was lighter and faster than the Porsche. The same applied to the controls in general, so a newcomer to the 944 has to work a bit harder to get the car moving.
The same feeling of initial lack of urgency comes from the engine. Being a relatively early turbo installation, it is a bit all or nothing. At 3000 rpm the turbo kicks in and torque catapults you forward. 0-100 kph was very fast in 1986, but in modern traffic conditions you might wish for a more linear delivery to get the most from the performance.
Fortunately, the chassis can harness the punchy nature of the engine. Steering is very good and places the car precisely, offering plenty of feedback. The brakes are strong (needing a good push) and the car changes direction surely and swiftly. As with the Alfa GTV6, the excellent weight distribution makes for a driving experience which will reward an engaged driver, though the Porsche will tolerate a less committed or competent driver more readily than the Alfa. The 944 Turbo rides very well over poor surfaces and although low to the ground does not bottom out.
The 944 is an easy car to live with. Dynamically, you quickly get the message that the chassis will cope with most things but be careful with throttle applications. For a 2+2 coupé, it is remarkably practical, happy to drive slowly in traffic, good logistics and with generous luggage space via an enormous but easily operated rear hatch window.
The 944 Turbo is also a very fast performance car for its day. That element may require a little more time to unlock than the normally aspirated 944, but will undoubtedly reward the driver who will put the effort in. This particular example is now looking for a owner, and will be soon for sale by auction via Collecting Cars.