Yuppie Sports, Part 1: The Porsche 924

Although Porsche and Volkswagen hadn’t exactly set the world on fire with their first joint-venture sports car, the 914, the two companies decided to try again in the early seventies with the Porsche 924. Developed by Porsche as a Volkswagen, the new model ended up becoming Porsche’s first front-engine, water-cooled production car and launched a new line of “volks Porsches” that lasted into the nineties. Here’s the tangled history of the 924.

1978 Porsche 924 badge

VOLKSWAGEN AND PORSCHE

For decades, Volkswagen AG and the firm of Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche KG were practically joined at the hip. As many of our readers are undoubtedly aware, Ferdinand Porsche designed the original Volkswagen Beetle in the 1930s at the order of Adolf Hitler. When Herr Doktor-Ing. Porsche’s son Ferry developed the company’s first postwar car, the 356, he naturally based it on the Volkswagen, using much of the Beetle’s running gear. Although Porsche gradually replaced most of the 356’s Volkswagen components with bespoke Porsche hardware, the relationship between the 356 and the Beetle remained much like the old story about grandfather’s ax: If you replace the handle, and later replace the blade, is it still the same ax?

The relationship between the two companies went deeper than the use of shared hardware. Porsche financed the 356 in part by becoming VW’s Austrian distributor. (Porsche had moved to Gmünd, Austria, during the war, and didn’t return to its headquarters in Zuffenhausen, Stuttgart until 1950.) Starting in 1948, Porsche also provided most of Volkswagen’s research and development. Volkswagen and Porsche’s R&D work was so closely intertwined that the main reason Porsche adopted its familiar 900-series type numbers (911, 914, 928, et al) was to avoid confusion with Volkswagen’s own internal numbering system. Furthermore, starting in 1969, Volkswagen controlled Porsche’s North American distribution, selling Porsches alongside Audis. (VW had acquired Audi back in 1964.) While the two companies were separate entities, they were greatly dependent on one another.

THE PORSCHE 914

In 1967, Ferry Porsche and longtime Volkswagen marketing director Heinrich (Heinz) Nordhoff agreed to collaborate on the development of a new sports car, which was to be marketed and distributed through a jointly owned entity called VW-Porsche VG (Vertriebsgesellschaft, marketing company). As we have seen, the result of this collaboration was the Porsche 914, which appeared late in 1969 as a 1970 model.

Heinz Nordhoff died unexpectedly in April 1968 and VW executive Kurt Lotz took his place. When Lotz arrived, Volkswagen was struggling to find a direction beyond the Beetle and the Beetle’s familiar air-cooled, rear-engine configuration (also embodied in the Type 3 and later 411/412 series), which seemed increasingly behind the times and was starting to cost VW European market share.

To address this problem, Kurt Lotz took a two-pronged approach. First, he commissioned Porsche to develop a direct replacement for the Beetle and 411/412: an air-cooled, mid-engine car coded EA266. Second, he arranged to have Volkswagen subsidiary Audi acquire NSU, best known at the time (and now) for its revolutionary rotary-engine Ro 80, but which was also preparing a smaller follow-on model, the front-engine, front-wheel-drive, water-cooled K70. Lotz briefly canceled the K70, concerned that it would compete too much with Audi products, but eventually changed his mind and opted to market the K70 as a Volkswagen.

1975 Porsche 914 front 3q
The Porsche 914 used a mid-mounted, air-cooled engine; most were four-cylinder VW engines, but the rare 914/6 had a carbureted version of the 911’s flat six, giving much better performance. With odd styling and a high price tag, the 914 never sold as well as anticipated and Porsche fans were reluctant to accept it as a real Porsche. Production ended in 1975, although about 4,100 were sold in the States as 1976 models.

Lotz’s tenure was beset with political problems, both within the company and between him and the government of Lower Saxony, which was a minority shareholder in Volkswagen AG. In October 1971, he resigned in favor of Rudolf Leiding, previously the head of Audi-NSU and before that of VW of Brazil.

Leiding promptly canceled the EA266 project. Although it was slated to use a water-cooled engine, the EA266’s mid-engine configuration seemed like a bad bet in a market that was beginning to embrace the transverse front-engine/front-wheel-drive layout of the BMC Mini, Autobianchi Primula, and Autobianchi A112/Fiat 127, among others. The mid-engine layout had advantages for racing and sports cars, but also had serious drawbacks in packaging, noise, and powertrain access, which made it a bad bet for a family sedan. Furthermore, sales of the mid-engine 914 didn’t inspire confidence in the public’s acceptance of such a configuration.

The cancellation of the EA266 raised the question of whether Volkswagen still needed Porsche at all. The engineering staff VW had acquired from Audi and NSU had much more experience with water cooling and front-wheel drive, neither of which Porsche had ever used in a production car. Consequently, Leiding informed Ferry Porsche that VW would not be renewing its current development contract, which was set to expire in 1973.

The end of the relationship with Volkswagen was only one of the dramatic changes that took place at Porsche during this period. In the fall of 1971, Porsche had begun work on the V8-powered 928, intended as the eventual replacement for the familiar rear-engine 911. A few months later, in March 1972, the firm began a reorganization that transformed it from a privately held firm into a public company, Porsche AG. Ferry Porsche and his sister, Louise Daxer-Piëch, opted to step back from their roles as managing directors and engineering director Ernst Fuhrmann became CEO, the first non-family member to head the company.

THE CORPORATE KIT CAR

Leiding, aware that the VW contracts had represented a substantial portion of Porsche’s income, decided to offer Porsche a final project as a sort of severance package. It would be a new inexpensive sports car, intended as a successor to the slow-selling 914.

The heads of VW-Porsche VG, Erich Filius and Klaus Schneider, had actually started discussing a replacement for the 914 back in 1970, when it became clear that 914 sales would be less than hoped. Filius and Schneider had several ideas about how to rectify that problem in future models, including offering a 2+2 rather than a pure two-seater, sharing even more off-the-shelf hardware to keep down production costs and retail prices, and establishing styling continuity with other Porsche models. The 914 had deliberately borne no resemblance to existing Porsche or Volkswagen cars, but that had proven to be a commercial miscalculation.

In early 1972, those ideas became the basic parameters of Porsche’s farewell project, which was coded EA425. It was to be designed entirely at Porsche’s Weissach development center, but financed by Volkswagen. One catch was that Leiding insisted that the EA425 be marketed only as a Volkswagen or an Audi, not as a Porsche. Porsche’s board of directors wasn’t happy about that stipulation — the main reason they had been interested in the 914 in the first place was that they needed a cheaper entry-level car — but they were not in a position to refuse.

There was no enthusiasm for repeating the 914’s mid-engine layout, but the Porsche 928 project suggested an interesting alternative. Like the old “rope-drive” Pontiac Tempest of the early sixties, the 928 had its engine in front, but mounted the transmission at the rear, connected to the engine via a narrow driveshaft Porsche engineers dubbed the “fast shaft.” This provided better weight distribution than a conventional front-engine/rear-drive layout as well as a larger polar moment of inertia for greater stability.

While the 928 was intended as a much more expensive car than was the EA425, project leader Jochen Freund believed it would be possible to make the “fast shaft” work on the EA425’s budget by borrowing as many existing components as possible. To explore the idea, the development team created a test mule using a second-hand BMW sedan and the powertrain from an Audi 100, which had a longitudinal front engine and front-wheel drive. The engine and clutch were installed in the BMW’s engine bay while the Audi’s heavily modified O-88 four-speed transaxle was placed at the rear axle. The two were joined by a narrow torque tube housing a 66.9-inch (1.7-meter) driveshaft of about 0.8-inch (20mm) diameter. (For comparison, the driveshaft of a manually shifted 1961 Pontiac Tempest was 82 inches (2,083 mm) long and had a diameter of 0.75 inches (19 mm.)

The rest of the EA425 was a hodgepodge of off-the-shelf Volkswagen and Audi components. To keep costs down, the EA425 needed to use an existing VW or Audi engine, so Freund’s team opted for the Type 831 engine used in Volkswagen’s big LT31 van, a 1,984 cc (121 cu. in.) OHC four with an iron block and an aluminum head with the combustion chambers formed by the dished pistons (a Heron head design), fitted for this application with Bosch K-Jetronic mechanical fuel injection. The EA425 had front disc and rear drum brakes while the suspension used MacPherson struts in front and semi-trailing arms (with torsion bar springs) in back. Most of the components were borrowed from other Volkswagen or Audi products, including the Super Beetle, the Type 181 utility vehicle (a.k.a “The Thing”), the Audi 100, the Scirocco, and the Golf; the latter also supplied the heating and ventilation system and many interior pieces.

The EA425’s exterior styling was the work of Dutchman Harm Lagaay under the supervision of Porsche styling director Tony Lapine. In broad strokes, the EA425 resembled its 928 sibling, with a fat, semi-fastback tail and a steeply sloping, grille-less nose (which required tilting the engine 40 degrees toward the right) with pop-up headlights. The EA425’s body was essentially a wedge shape with flowing, organic lines marked by a number of sharp creases. U.S. models got body-colored bumpers on hydraulic struts to meet federal 5 mph (8 km/h) crash standards without looking like battering rams. With its sleek contours and smooth nose, the EA425 was one of the most aerodynamic cars of the seventies, with a claimed drag coefficient of 0.36.

1974 Porsche EA425 front 3q © 2009 Francis Murigu (used with permission)
Seen here in the Porsche museum in Stuttgart, this model of the EA425 is clearly related to the eventual Porsche 924 production car, but the styling, particularly in the rear, has some significant differences — note in particular the shape of the rear quarter windows. (Photo: “PORSCHE 924” © 2009 Francis Murigu; used with permission)

THE EA425 BECOMES A PRODUCTION CAR

Volkswagen approved the EA425 in mid-1974, but there were signs that VW’s commitment was wavering. The project was delayed in March, after the launch of the FWD Volkswagen Scirocco, and in May, Volkswagen had allowed Porsche to buy out its share of VW-Porsche VG. There were rumblings from Wolfsburg that Volkswagen was financially overextended; although the new Golf and Scirocco were off to a good start and would prove to be extremely successful, their development and launch had been very expensive, making 1974 a money-losing year for VW. Those losses, which ultimately totaled some DM 800 million (then equivalent to about $310 million), undermined the VW board’s confidence in Rudolf Leiding. They forced him to resign in January 1975. Since the EA425 was Leiding’s project, his departure boded ill.

Leiding’s replacement, former Ford of Germany executive Toni Schmücker, quickly decided that a new sports car was low on VW’s list of priorities, particularly since the Scirocco was doing well. He told Ernst Fuhrmann that Volkswagen had decided not to proceed with the EA425 project.

This left Fuhrmann in a difficult spot. Although Volkswagen had insisted the EA425 not be sold as a Porsche, the project was still a much-needed source of work and revenue. Also, production of the 914 was winding down by 1975, and while 911 sales were improving after the brief slump provoked by the OPEC oil embargo, the 911 was too expensive to sell in the volume Porsche needed to survive. As a temporary measure, Porsche reintroduced the 912 for 1976, powered by the fuel-injected flat-four from late 914s, but it was just a stopgap. Porsche was in dire need of a cheaper entry-level car.

The obvious answer was the EA425, which was already finished and basically ready for production; there were eight prototypes running by the winter of 1974. Leiding had previously refused Fuhrmann’s offer to buy the project, but Schmücker was more amenable to the idea, in large part because it would help him extricate Volkswagen from a messy labor situation. The original plan had been to build the EA425 at the NSU plant in Neckarsulm that also built the NSU Ro 80, but with the EA425 project going on the shelf and the Ro 80 selling poorly, Schmücker concluded that Volkswagen really didn’t need the plant at all. Considering Volkswagen’s losses the previous year, closing the Neckarsulm factory made financial sense, but that prospect went over poorly with the auto workers union and with the government of Baden-Württemberg, putting Schmücker — and Volkswagen — in an awkward political position.

Schmücker finally decided that the better part of valor was to sell the rights to the EA425 project to Porsche on the condition that the cars be built by Volkswagen Group workers at the Neckarsulm plant, allowing it to remain open. The selling price to which Schmücker and Fuhrmann agreed, DM 160 million (about $65 million), was less than the DM 180 million Volkswagen had invested in the project, but considering the potentially ugly political problems it avoided, it wasn’t a bad deal. Furthermore, since Volkswagen still had Porsche’s distribution rights, VW-Audi dealers actually stood more to gain by selling the EA425 as a Porsche — which would probably mean a higher price — than as a Volkswagen or an Audi.

PORSCHE 924

Once it became a Porsche project, the EA425 received a new type number: 924. Porsche built about 100 preproduction models in the summer of 1975 and full production began that fall. The Porsche 924 was introduced to the press in November at a special event in Camargue, in the south of France. The car went on sale in Germany in February 1976 and debuted in the U.S. in April as an early 1977 model.

1979 Porsche 924 front 3q © 2007 Rudolf Stricker CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
In European trim, the early Porsche 924 was 164.2 inches (4,171 mm) long on a 94.5-inch (2,400mm) wheelbase and weighed around 2,450 lb (1,111 kg). U.S. models, with their bumpers standing further from the body, were 5.9 inches (150 mm) longer and around 90 lb (41 kg) heavier. While most 924s had a manual gearbox, Audi’s three-speed automatic became optional in 1978. It was a poor choice for the underpowered U.S.-market 924, exacerbating both its engine noise and lack of performance. (Photo: “Porsche 924 front 20071231” © 2007 Rudolf Stricker; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Although it was the entry-level Porsche, the 924 was hardly inexpensive. In Germany, it started at DM 23,240 (around $9,200). The initial U.S. models started at $9,395 — adjusted for inflation, that’s the equivalent of about $33,000 today. The 924 was cheaper than the short-lived 912E, but some $2,000 more expensive than the final 914 and far costlier than it would have been as an Audi or a VW. Furthermore, the price escalated rapidly. By 1978, it was up to almost $12,000 and would hit nearly $17,000 by 1980.

The Porsche 924 was not exactly a stunning value. Its handling was superb, with none of the knife-in-the-back tendencies of the contemporary 911, but the 924 was noisy, had a jittery ride, and its brakes wilted in hard driving. Moreover, it wasn’t very fast. European models, with 125 PS (92 kW), had reasonable performance — 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 9 seconds and a top speed of about 125 mph (202 km/h) — but a Ford Capri 3000 could blow the 924’s doors off. Even more embarrassingly, the Volkswagen Golf GTI was as quick or quicker (though not as fast all out) for about half the price. American 924s, which were de-tuned to 95 hp (71 kW) to meet U.S. emissions standards, needed around 11 seconds to reach 60 mph (97 km/h) and topped out at about 110 mph (176 km/h), which was decidedly mediocre compared to the Datsun 280ZX, Mazda RX-7, or Chevrolet Corvette, particularly since the 924 was more expensive than any of those rivals.

1977 Porsche 924 engine © 2006 Pgagliardi
The Porsche 924’s Type 831 engine was distantly related to the OHV engine in the 1972–1976 Audi 100, but had a single belt-driven overhead camshaft, Heron heads, and Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection. In unrestricted European form, this engine made 125 PS DIN (92 kW) and 122 lb-ft (165 N-m) of torque. U.S. engines initially had a meager 95 hp SAE (71 kW) and 109 lb-ft (147 N-m) of torque, but engine changes later in the 1977 model year brought output to a more respectable 110 hp SAE (82 kW) and 111 lb-ft (150 N-m). (Photo: “Early 924 motor” © 2006 Pgagliardi; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license)

As with the 914, hardcore Porsche fans groused that the 924 was not a ‘real’ Porsche. Even if it hadn’t been another departure from the established rear-engine, air-cooled format of the 911 and 356, the 924’s assortment of Volkswagen parts-bin components would inevitably have provoked some sour reactions. Although the 924 was generally well assembled, people spending this kind of money were jarred by seeing climate control dials and other pieces borrowed from the Golf/Rabbit.

We strongly suspect that Porsche didn’t help the 924’s case by releasing it before the 928. Although the 928 had been designed first, it didn’t debut until the Geneva show in March 1977, which led observers to perceive the 928 as an overgrown 924 costing about twice as much. Had the 928 debuted first, the 924 would have seemed more like an affordable version of the new flagship and both might have been better received.

The 924 sold well at first, more than 30,000 units a year in both 1976 and 1977, but the cool reception provoked defensive responses from Zuffenhausen. Porsche fans’ attachment to the 911 was a source of ongoing frustration for Ernst Fuhrmann, who at that time assumed the 911 would have to be phased out due to its inability to meet more stringent emissions and noise standards. To hear first the 924 and then the 928 decried as “not a real Porsche” clearly struck a nerve.

1979 Porsche 924 rear 3q © 2007 Rudolf Stricker CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
The Porsche 924 was nominally a 2+2, but its rear seats were suitable only for children. The lift-up rear window, a feature suggested by Rudolf Leiding, added a measure of practicality, although the cargo area is rather shallow, a function of the bulky transaxle. The bulbous tail makes the 924 look taller than it actually is; overall height is only 49.6 inches (1,260 mm). (Photo: “Porsche 924 rear 20071231” © 2007 Rudolf Stricker; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

PORSCHE 924 TURBO

Porsche quickly moved to address complaints about the 924. Midway through the 1977 model year, U.S. cars got a higher compression ratio, a new camshaft, and a catalytic converter, adding 15 hp (10 kW). A five-speed gearbox became available for European cars in 1978, although it had a racing-style shift pattern (first gear down and to the left) that made it awkward in traffic. This became standard in 1979.

In late 1978, Porsche unveiled a more considered response to the 924’s performance deficit with the introduction of the 924 Turbo, known internally by the type number 931. By the late seventies, many manufacturers, most notably Saab and Buick, were adopting turbochargers as a way of extracting more power from smaller engines. Porsche had experience with turbocharging on the 917/10K Can Am racer and had introduced a turbocharged 911, known internally as 930, in the spring of 1975, so a turbocharged 924 was the next logical step.

The 931’s engine used the standard Type 831 block, but had a new cylinder head, an oil cooler, and new pistons to lower the compression ratio to 7.5:1. A single KKK turbocharger provided up to 10 psi (0.7 bar) of boost. An unusual trick borrowed from the 917/10K was an exhaust gas recirculation valve designed to keep the turbine spinning when the driver lifted off the throttle; the 930 had the same feature. To withstand the extra power, the diameter of the “fast shaft” was increased from 0.8 to 1.0 inches (20 to 25 mm). The 931 had also various chassis upgrades, 15-inch rather than 14-inch wheels, and an assortment of scoops and cooling slats on the nose.

European cars, which went on sale in 1979, had 170 PS DIN (125 kW) and 181 lb-ft (245 N-m) of torque and came with four-wheel disc brakes. In Germany, the starting price was DM 37,000 (about $20,000), compared to DM 26,850 (a bit under $15,000) for a 1979 924. U.S. cars, with only 7 psi (0.45 bar) boost, had 143 hp SAE (107 kW) and 147 lb-ft (198 N-m) of torque and retained disc/drum brakes, although the rear drums were wider. Starting price was $20,850. There was also an optional 924 S package that allowed you to buy a normally aspirated 924 with the 931’s chassis, wheels, and brakes.

1981 Porsche 924 Turbo front © 2009 Darcy Schott; used with permission
The Porsche 924 Turbo is readily identifiable from the front thanks to the cooling slots over the front bumper and the prominent NACA-style hood scoop. The latter serves to circulate air around the turbo housing in an effort to reduce its temperature. It’s not as effective as an intercooler, which was added to the Carrera GT models. Turbo and S models also got a duckbill spoiler around the rear hatch, also used on the 944. (Photo: “ogp_0145” © 2009 Darcy Schott; used with permission)

The 931 was considerably faster than the normally aspirated 924. European 924 Turbos could now reach 60 mph (97 km/h) in around 7 seconds and had a top speed of 140 mph (225 km/h) or better. North American cars were not that fast, but were now respectably quick. The drawback was turbo lag; even with the exhaust recirculation valve, the turbocharged engine was weaker than its normally aspirated cousin at lower speeds and power delivery was far from linear. Also, while the turbocharged engine was quieter, it also ran hotter and higher under-hood temperatures (despite the various cooling slats) led to problems with overheating. Many critics were ecstatic about the greater speed and chassis and brake improvements, but not everyone was willing to overlook the 931’s flaws.

For 1980, 924s got a new five-speed gearbox (an Audi-based unit with a conventional shift pattern), normally aspirated U.S. cars got an extra 5 hp (3 kW), and the S package (option M471) became a wheel and chassis upgrade option for both 924s and 931s, including 16-inch wheels and bigger four-wheel disc brakes. Four-wheel discs became standard on 924s for 1981.

924 CARRERA GT

In 1979, Porsche built a handful of heavily modified normally aspirated 924s, known internally as type 933, for the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA)’s D-Production championship. They didn’t fare well in D-Production, but 924 had more ambitious competition plans for the 924. Fuhrmann insisted this was nothing more than a good marketing tactic, but Porsche was undoubtedly eager to silence criticisms of the 924’s bastard origins by giving it a proper competition pedigree. Racing the 924 was also a way to shift the focus of Porsche’s racing efforts away from the 911, which was still slated to die by the mid-eighties.

In September 1979, Porsche exhibited a 924 “styling study” at the Frankfurt auto show, with a new nose piece and flared polyurethane fenders covering a significantly wider track. This was actually a prototype for a 924-derived Group 4 homologation special known internally as Type 937 (938 in right-hand-drive form). Porsche built 406 937/938 cars, which were called 924 Carrera GT. Aside from the wider fenders, the cars featured various suspension and brake modifications and an air-to-air intercooler, which allowed Porsche to bump the 931 engine to 210 PS (155 kW). Porsche also built 59 Carrera GTS cars with more boost and additional power. Fifteen of these were 270 PS (199 kW) Club Sport cars, which were lightened by 135 lb (61 kg) and had standard roll cages.

The Carrera GT was not imported to the U.S., although there were some gray-market imports. Buyers who couldn’t get one could settle for an improved S2 version of the 931 with a new Bosch DME engine management system, a higher compression ratio, and a bit more power: 177 PS DIN (130 kW) in Europe, 154 hp SAE (115 kW) in the U.S.

1981 Porsche 924 Carrera GTR front 3q
This is one of the full-race Porsche 924 Carrera GTRs, with around 420 hp (308 kW). This particular car, chassis BS70006, was a reserve car at Le Mans in 1981, although it did not actually race. It is photographed here at the 2008 24 Hours of Daytona. (Photo: “GTI 924 Carrera GTR” © 2008 The359; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license)

Porsche qualified nine of the full competition-spec Carrera GTs for the 1980 24 Hours of Le Mans. Because Porsche had not yet sold 400 cars, the three entrants had to run in the Prototype (GTP, rather than GT) class, finishing 6th, 12th, and 13th. The 924s were reliable and handled well, but they simply didn’t have the power to match the leaders in the GTP class.

A CHANGE OF DIRECTION

Despite Fuhrmann’s hopes, the Porsche 924’s brief competition career did not help sales. Like many automakers, the recession of 1979–1981 hit Porsche hard. Worldwide sales fell from around 36,000 to 28,000 and the company posted its first-ever net loss for 1980. In 1981, the board pushed Ernst Fuhrmann to resign and hired as his replacement Peter Schutz, formerly of Cologne-based engine manufacturer Klöckner-Humboldt-Deutz (now Deutz AG).

Schutz ordered a number of major policy shifts. He reversed Fuhrmann’s decision to phase out the 911 and called for a new emphasis on the American market. Schutz, who had grown up in America after his family fled Germany in thirties, recognized that the U.S. was Porsche’s most lucrative market and instituted a new “one spec” policy so that U.S. cars would no longer be shortchanged on power or features.

Fuhrmann had been considering a new entry-level car, based on the second-generation Volkswagen Scirocco and priced in the under-$15,000 bracket the 924 had outgrown. Schutz shelved those plans, contending that Porsche didn’t need a cheaper car so much as it needed to make its entry-level car worthy of the price.

TYPE 944

Porsche returned to Le Mans in the summer of 1981 with a new 924 GTP. Under the hood, it had a brand-new all-aluminum 2,479 cc (151 cu. in.) turbocharged four-cylinder engine, related not to the Volkswagen Type 831 engine in the 924, but to the 928’s water-cooled V8.

Although it called up memories of the old slant four engine in the aforementioned rope-drive Pontiac Tempest, the new engine (whose valve cover read “944 Le Mans”) was not literally a V8 shorn of one cylinder bank, as the Pontiac engine had been. Nonetheless, the four shared much of the V8’s architecture, allowing it to be built with the same equipment. To control the second-order shaking that would have otherwise afflicted the big-capacity four, Porsche adopted twin counter-rotating balance shafts, although to the undoubted chagrin of technical director Helmuth Bott, Porsche found that it could not avoid paying Mitsubishi patent royalties on the balance shaft design, which cost Porsche about $8 per engine. The new four also traded the 924’s K-Jetronic mechanical injection for the 928’s L-Jetronic electronic system.

The Le Mans engine had dual overhead cams — the contemporary 928 engine was SOHC — and made 410–420 PS (302–309 kW) with a single big KKK turbo. The car, driven by Walter Röhrl and Jürgen Barth, finished seventh overall.

The greater impact of the Le Mans car, however, was the new engine. The Volkswagen engine had always been one of the 924’s biggest problems as far as image was concerned; climate control knobs and switchgear were one thing, but not having a real Porsche engine was harder to accept. Fuhrmann’s original contract with Volkswagen had obligated Porsche to use the Type 831 engine on the first 100,000 924s, a milestone Porsche had passed in 1981. Volkswagen had also informed Porsche that the Type 831 engine would be phased out by the end of 1984, so it was clearly time for a change.

1986 Porsche 944 engine © 2005 Stephen Foskett (CC BY 2.5 Generic)
The Porsche 944’s engine was 2,479 cc (151 cu. in.), a little more than half the displacement of the 928S engine, thanks to a 5mm (0.2-inch) stroke increase. Like the V8 on which it was based, the 944 engine was all aluminum, with a single belt-driven overhead camshaft and two valves per cylinder. In U.S. form, a normally aspirated 1986 version, like this one, was rated at 147 hp SAE (110 kW), although some turbocharged variants could produce more than twice that output. (Photo: “1986 Porsche 944 engine” © 2005 Stephen Foskett; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license)

At the Frankfurt show in September 1981, Porsche announced the arrival of a new front-engine model powered by a SOHC version of the engine from the 1981 Le Mans car. Although the new model bore a distinct resemblance to the 937, Porsche assigned the new car a new type number, 944, to signify the break with the 924. In fact, the 944’s relationship with the 924 was much like the relationship between the sixties 356C and its VW-based ancestor: changed significantly in detail, but still of unmistakable lineage.

END OF THE LINE

The arrival of the 944, which debuted in May 1982 as a 1983 model, meant the end of the Porsche 924 Turbo, but not the 924 itself. Porsche dropped the U.S.-market 924 for the 1983 model year, but it remained in production for the rest of the world through July 1985 with few changes. That fall, Porsche launched a new 924S, which combined the old 924 body with the engine of the 944. This reappeared in the U.S. market the following summer, priced at $19,900, about $5,000 less than a 944. Production of the 924S ended in September 1988, the last of the 924 line.

1986 Porsche 924S front 3q © 2001 Chris Dotson (used with permission)
The Porsche 924S used the 944’s engine along with its brakes and power steering rack. Since it weighed a bit less than the 944, the 924S was slightly faster, too. Most shared the “phone dial” alloy wheel design of the S2 944, albeit with narrower tires. Note the prominent side marker lights and the rubber inserts in the bumpers, which distinguish the U.S.-spec 924 from its overseas counterparts. (Photo: “Porsche 924” © 2001 Chris Dotson; used with permission)

The 924 sold quite well by Porsche standards; the final tally was 121,289 924s, 13,616 931s, 16,669 of the later 924S, and 507 Carrera GTs and other special-production models. Stylistically, the 924 was one of the most influential cars of its time. Obvious imitators included the Mazda RX-7 and Dodge Daytona/Chrysler Laser, but the 924’s influence was visible in many later sport coupes.

Despite all that, the 924 never quite overcame its red-headed-stepchild stigma. Its resale values were far less robust than those of the 911, which by the late eighties made survivors something of a bargain. Thanks to their assortment of off-the-shelf VW parts, 924s were somewhat less wallet-abusing to own than a 911 or 928 and the 931 lends itself to amateur racing and shade-tree hot-rodding. Still, as with the 914 and Ferrari/Dino 308 GT4, the 924 will probably never be coveted despite its admitted virtues.

In the second part of our story, we’ll take a closer look at the Porsche 944 and the final iteration of this series, the 968.

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NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources for the development of the 924 included Jeanette Ahlgren, “Yes Virginia, There IS an ‘S,'” 924 Garage, n.d., www.924. org/ models/ 924_S_model.htm, accessed 15 November 2009; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Porsche Chronicle (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1995); Rich Ceppos, “Porsche 924 Turbo,” Car and Driver Vol. 24, No. 8 (February 1979): 47–50; Tony Corlett, Porsche 911 3.2 Carrera: The Last of the Evolution (Dorchester, England: Veloce Publishing, 2005); Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, 2nd ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Steve Cropley, “Midnight special,” CAR April 1981, pp. 56–62; “Decisions, Decisions: Comparison-shopping the Porsche 924S, 944, 944S and 944 Turbo,” Road & Track November 1987, pp. 44–53; Bobby Dodd, “The 931 – What is it?” 924 Garage, www.924. org/ models/931_overview.htm, accessed 15 November 2009; “Four Automatic Sports/GTs,” Road & Track Vol. 30, No. 8 (April 1979); “Giant Test: Alfetta 2000 [v.] Porsche 924,” CAR April 1977, pp. 54–59; “Giant Test: Porsche 924 Lotus Eclat 523,” CAR May 1978, pp. 41–45; “Group Test: Two plus twos and a TR,” Motor Road Tests 1979, pp. 94–99; Chris Horton, “Brothers in arms,” 911 & Porsche World November 2007, pp. 94–101; Jarkom89, “924 Carrera GTR at Le Mans,” All About PORSCHE Car, 31 December 2008, porsche-lovers.blogspot. com/ 2008/ 12/ 924-carrera-gtr-at-le-mans.html, accessed 15 November 2009; Georg Kacher, “Porsche’s Autobahn Activist,” CAR April 1981, pp. 62–63; L’Editrice Dell’Automobile LEA, World Cars 1973 (Bronxville, NY: Herald Books, 1973), and World Cars 1979 (Pelham, NY: Herald Books, 1979); Randy Leffingwell, Porsche Legends (Motorbooks Classic) (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1993); Karl Ludvigsen, Porsche: Excellence Was Expected: The Comprehensive History of the Company, its Cars and its Racing Heritage (Cambridge, MA: Bentley Publishers, 2008); Jon Milani, “924 GTP Le Mans,” Porsche 944 Turbo Resource, 14 February 2009, 944turbo. net/ ?page_id=57, accessed 15 November 2009; “Models and History,” 924 Garage, n.d., www.924. org/ models/ modelhistory.htm, accessed 15 November 2009; Hirokazu Nakamura, Hikoichi Motoyama, Tadahiko Ito, and Seizo Iwasa, assignors to Mitsubishi Jidosha Kogyo Kabushiki Kaisha (Mitsubishi Motors Corporation), U.S. Patent No. 3,995,610A, “Four Cylinder Straight-Type Engine with Secondary Balancer System,” filed 27 September 1974, issued 7 December 1976; “924 Carrera GT,” 924GT.com, n.d., accessed 15 November 2009; “Porsche’s New Performer (Road Test: Porsche 944 Turbo),” Autocar 29 January 1986, pp. 34–40; “Road Test: Porsche 924 Turbo,” Motor Road Tests 1980, pp. 132–135; Graham Robson and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Volkswagen Chronicle (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1996); Edoard Seidler, “Dr. Kurt Lotz: Vorstandsvorsitzender of Volkswagen: The man who thinks beyond the Bug,” Motor Trend Vol. 21, No. 8 (August 1969): 18–22, 96, and “Upheaval of an empire: How Lotz went out and Leiding came in,” Autocar 25 November 1971, pp. 44-47; Craig Seko, “A short history of the cheap Porsche,” Rennlist.com, 2003, members.rennlist. com/944sandmore/ history.htm, accessed 14 November 2009; Mark Wan, “Porsche 924 / 944 /968 (1976),” AutoZine, n.d., www.autozine. org/ Archive/ Porsche/ classic/ 924.html, accessed 12 November 2009; and Julius Weitmann and Rico Steinemann, Project 928. A Development History of the Porsche 928 From First Sketch to Production (Stuttgart: Motorbuch Verlag, 1977). Additional technical details came from the 924/944/968 Frequently Asked Questions page (Version 1.8.9, 15 July 2009, www.connact. com/ ~kgross/FAQ/944faq.html, accessed 15 November 2009), and the Wikipedia® entry for the 924 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porsche_924, accessed 15 November 2009).

Background on the “rope-drive” Pontiac Tempest came from Bill Carroll, “Inside Pontiac’s Terrific Tempest!” Sports Cars Illustrated October 1960, reprinted in Car and Driver on Pontiac 1961–1975, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Book Distribution Ltd., 1985), pp. 5–7, 16; Wick Humble, “1961 Pontiac Tempest: But cars aren’t supposed to have curved driveshafts,” Special Interest Autos #48 (November-December 1978), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Pontiacs: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 78–86; Don Keefe, “1961-63 Pontiac Tempest: Innovative Brainstorm,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 19, No. 4 (December 2002): 8–21; Jan P. Norbye and Jim Dunne, Pontiac, 1946–1978: The Classic Postwar Years (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International Publishers & Wholesalers, 1979), pp. 88–99; and “Road Research Report: Pontiac Tempest,” Sports Cars Illustrated March 1961, reprinted in Car and Driver on Pontiac 1961–1975, pp. 8–16.

Historical exchange rate data for the dollar and the mark came from Harold Marcuse, “Historical Dollar-to-Marks Currency Conversion Page,” UC Santa Barbara, 19 August 2005, www.history.ucsb. edu/ faculty/marcuse/projects/currency.htm, accessed 9 December 2009. Inflation estimates came from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator, data.bls. gov/ cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl. All equivalencies cited in the text are approximate and are provided for illustration and informational purposes only — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!


14 Comments

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  1. Liked that reference…one of my favorite songs…! ‘Satisfaction oozes from her pores…’

    Thanks for yet another excellent history!

  2. Wonderful article! Any chance you can do a similar one on the 911?

  3. I owned a 924S with the Porsche engine once, bought it for the wife, who literally left it stranded after her stalling it at an intersection. Later got rid of both…

    It was a good car, though, quite torquey, but definitely let down by VW Golf/Rabbit interior parts.

    While I did have some high maintenance costs associated with it, that was more due to finding the trouble than actually fixing it. Specially a whining alternator that would do so only under belt tension.

    I also remember some overheating when doing reverse driving exercises – I guess it wasn’t designed as a driving school car anyway.

    I do miss it somehow, but then again that applies to all the cars I once owned.

  4. Nice article but I think it needs one correction…

    “Porsche also built a handful of heavily modified normally aspirated 924s, known as type 933, in an unsuccessful bid for the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA)’s D-Production championship.”

    In fact, Porsche 933s won the D production championship in 1980 and 1981. The D production class was discontinued thereafter and replaced with the GT3 class. Interestingly, several 933s were converted to GT3 spec and continued to win at a national level in later years, including in 1985 when another national championship was garnered with a converted 933.

    1. Oops! Thanks for the correction — I’ve amended the text.

  5. At the beginning of this article you say that Ferdinand Porsche designed the VW car in the 1930s, instructed to do so by Adolf Hitler.
    The Czechoslovakian car and truck maker had come up with the concept of a car with an air cooled rear mounted engine, but Hitler ordered Porsche to develop the concept.
    Tatra protested about patent infringements, but by then Hitler was infringing on a lot more than patents and subsequent history overshadowed the significance of Tatras original concept.
    Tatra, incidentally made air cooled, rear mounted V8 cars up to the end of the 20th century.
    Volkswagen took control of the Czech manufacturer Skoda around the turn of the century, and they began making Volkswagens with Skoda badges. From being Iron Curtain joke anachronisms Skoda is now a name recognised as a brand of very competent keenly priced cars. History has strange twists and turn indeed.

    Roger.

    1. Yup — that’s mentioned in another article, actually. As I recall, the eventual settlement (which was well after the fact) wasn’t terribly much, although I think it was at least more than Paul Jaray’s settlement with Chrysler over the Airflow.

  6. what was not mentioned I the article were the 400 924’s that were produced under the D Production program. These were street 924 cars. 300 kept in Europe with 100 brought into the USA. They had a 5 bolt pattern on the wheels Perrelli P2 tires, Koni shocks. Front and rear stabilizing bars, a transmission mounted behind the rear axle, a 5 speed transmission and 928 brakes. The interiors were a red plaid, guards red exterior color. I had one of these amazing cars which I bought from Herman Miller in Wayne NJ. In 1979.

  7. The numbering issue on the 911 had nothing to do with Volkswagen. Porsche’s original number designation was 901. Peugeot lodged a complaint as they felt they had the rights to a numbering system with the middle number being zero. Thus the 901 became the 911.

    1. Porsche had obviously decided to restart its numbering in the 900s before that; the issue with Peugeot (which is of course well-documented) just dictated where the new numbering would begin, at least for marketing purposes.

      1. I agree. After re-reading the statement, I can see that I mis-interpreted what you were saying.

        My first Porsche was a 1977 1/2 924. I joined the Porsche club in the spring of 1978 and have been a member ever since. While I have had a number of 911’s over the years, I still have a soft spot for the water pumper cars.

        I don’t keep cars for very long so it is interesting that the two cars that I have owned the longest (5 years) were both 944’s. One was an ’87 turbo that I bought new. We took many long distance trips in that car and found it to be a very comfortable, and practical, long distance cruiser.

        The other was an ’83 NA car that my wife and I did track days in for those five years. It was a supremely dependable car that we drove to and from race tracks while pulling a small trailer that contained the tires, tools, etc. After we were finished with it, our son owned it for another four years.

        To celebrate those days, I recently purchased a very nice original ’88 turbo. I am re-discovering why I loved these cars.

        I have been enjoying your articles and particularly enjoyed this one. Keep it up.

        1. The 944 is one of those cars that doesn’t necessarily wow anyone with its looks or straight-line performance (although the 951 was pretty fast for its time), but that earns affection and respect by doing a lot of things right while having few really serious flaws beyond the running costs, which sort of go with the breed. (Admittedly, it may eventually become no pricier to run than some of its contemporary rivals — if it hasn’t already, I don’t really keep track — as the parts supply for the latter gets sparser.) I’m not entirely convinced that the balance and weight distribution advantages of the rear transaxle were worth the cost, but it’s hard to argue with the results.

  8. Was not the basis of the engine for the 924 originally designed by Mercedes when they owned Audi?

    1. You know, I don’t know for sure off the top of my head. I recall people arguing about this point in regard to Audi, but I haven’t delved into it myself. So, rather than pretending that I can offer an authoritative answer, I’ll say, “Maybe, sort of, indirectly?”

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