Yuppie Sports, Part 2: The Porsche 944 and 968

Designed as a Volkswagen and powered by an Audi engine, Porsche’s entry-level 924 rubbed many purists the wrong way. In 1982, a new look and a new engine transformed the 924 into an eighties icon, a favorite toy of affluent Yuppies on both sides of the Atlantic: the Porsche 944. This week, the history of the 944, the 944 Turbo, and its often-forgotten successor, the Porsche 968.

1987 Porsche 944 badge

PORSCHE 944: THE REHABILITATION OF THE PEOPLE’S PORSCHE

For those joining us late, the 924 was Porsche’s third attempt at an entry-level model following the 912 and the mid-engine 914.

Although it shared its styling themes and front-engine/rear-transaxle layout with Porsche’s not-yet-released 928, the 924 was originally designed for Volkswagen. When VW canceled the project at the eleventh hour, Zuffenhausen bought the rights and marketed it as a Porsche, starting in early 1976. The Porsche 924 sold well at first, but it was expensive for its performance and its assortment of off-the-shelf Volkswagen parts — particularly its engine, borrowed from VW’s LT31 van — alienated many purists, who declared that the 924 was not a real Porsche. Despite an ambitious competition program, which included several runs at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 924’s sales sank sharply in the early eighties, brought down by a global recession, rising prices, and a lingering lack of credibility.

In 1981, Porsche built a limited number of a special homologation model called 924 Carrera GT (type numbers 937 and 938), featuring a restyled nose with wider fenders and an extensively revised suspension. Although the 937/938 used a more powerful intercooled version of the 924 Turbo’s engine, now making 210 PS (155 kW), Porsche was also preparing a new four-cylinder engine, first seen in the 924 Carrera GTP that ran at Le Mans that summer. The new engine was not Volkswagen-based, but rather a four-cylinder derivative of the 928’s V8. At the Frankfurt show in September, Porsche announced that the 2,479 cc engine would power a new model called 944, which subsequently debuted in May 1982 as an early 1983 model.

Calling the Porsche 944 a new model was slightly disingenuous. Despite the new engine, the 944 was in many respects an evolutionary development of the 924. In fact, the 944 looked a great deal like the 937, although the latter’s hood scoop and cooling slats were gone and the 944’s broader fenders were steel rather than polyurethane. The suspension adopted the 937’s geometry, but the layout (MacPherson struts in front, semi-trailing arms in back with torsion bar rear springs) was still the 924’s and there were still some Volkswagen and Audi pieces in the mix. As with the final 356s of 20 years earlier, many of the pieces had changed from the original incarnation, but the basic template remained much the same. The 944 was even assembled at Audi’s Neckarsulm plant alongside the 924.

Nonetheless, the 944 was certainly a step forward. The new engine, displacing 2,479 cc (151 cu. in.), was still a SOHC eight-valve design, forsaking the Le Mans engine’s dual overhead cams, but it made a healthy 163 PS DIN (120 kW) in Europe and 143 hp SAE (107 kW) in the U.S. — not far off the 924 Turbo, but without the turbo’s complexity, low-speed lethargy, and excess heat. Porsche fans could also take solace in knowing that the new engine was designed and assembled by Porsche in Zuffenhausen before being trucked to Neckarsulm for installation.

1983 Porsche 944 front 3q
The Porsche 944’s engine, a 2,479 cc (151 cu. in.) SOHC four, was based on the 4,664 cc (285 cu. in.) V8 of the contemporary 928, although very few parts are actually interchangeable. Unlike the V8, the four had twin counter-rotating balance shafts (for which Porsche paid Mitsubishi a per-engine patent royalty) to quell the second-order vibration inherent in big inline fours. Note the unusual bumper design; the front and rear bumpers of the 924 and 944 are carried on hydraulic struts to meet U.S. 5 mph (8 km/h) impact standards.

The Porsche 944 started at DM 38,900 in Germany and $18,980 in the U.S., which split the difference between the 924 (still available in Europe, though not in the U.S.) and the 924 Turbo. That still wasn’t cheap, but at least it wasn’t dramatically more expensive than the Chevrolet Corvette or Datsun 280ZX Turbo, as the 924 Turbo had been. Performance was also much improved over the 924. European cars could run from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than 8 seconds and had a claimed top speed of 137 mph (220 km/h). U.S. cars were nearly as quick, if not quite as fast, topping out at around 125 mph (200 km/h). Brakes, now four-wheel discs, were much improved over the 924’s and handling was better than ever.

The 924’s handling had always been its strong suit and Porsche had steadily refined it since 1976. Although semi-trailing arms are notorious for their penchant toward snappish trailing-throttle oversteer, the 924’s even weight distribution and the high polar moment of inertia provided by its front-engine/rear-transaxle layout kept that tendency in check, providing a high level of agility and superb steering response without treachery. The 944 was better still, although its steering was noticeably heavier despite a higher ratio, a function of the new car’s greater weight. You could hang out the tail if you were so inclined, but collecting it was simple — a sharp contrast with the hedgerow-seeking behavior of the contemporary 911. The ride was firm but reasonably comfortable, although road noise remained a great annoyance. In August 1984, Car and Driver named the Porsche 944 the best-handling car in America, over a host of formidable rivals, including the Audi Quattro, the Lotus Esprit, and the new Chevrolet Corvette (C4).

The 944’s most important quality, however, had nothing to do with power or handling: It was Porsche’s success in establishing the 944 as a new model, distinct from the 924. Considering the 944’s evolutionary styling, little-changed interior, and carry-over mechanical components, it was a remarkable marketing coup. The same critics who had savaged the 924 as a pretender happily embraced the 944 as a true Porsche, worthy of its illustrious brand. At a stroke, the 924’s sins had been expunged.

1983 Porsche 944 side
The early Porsche 944 is actually a little shorter than the 924 — 165.4 inches (4,200mm) for European cars, 168.9 inches (4,290 mm) for U.S. models, compared to 170.1 inches (4,320 mm) for the 924 — but the wheelbase is identical at 94.5 inches (2,400mm). The overall shape is quite similar to the 924’s, but the 944 has a wider nose and significantly wider track; in profile, you can see the visible flaring of the fenders.

YUPPIE’s DARLING

The Porsche 944 also had the good fortune to arrive just as the economy was recovering from its fin-de-decade slump. As fears of a renewed energy crisis faded, well-heeled buyers were again spending money. Many of those buyers were Baby Boomers, now in their thirties and forties and getting their first taste of real affluence. The new breed of yuppies was eager for symbols of prosperity and achievement, but unlike their parents had little interest in traditional American icons like Cadillac and Lincoln. Instead, the Boomers sought out European brands like Mercedes-Benz and BMW, with their higher perceived quality and greater snob appeal.

It was a boom time for Porsche. Since the press had duly ordained the 944 a proper Porsche, buyers no longer needed to worry about some jackass calling their car a glorified Volkswagen. The fact that the 944 was not as fast as a Corvette was beside the point. It was a Porsche, and even neophytes knew what that meant. The 944 became as important a status symbol as the 3-Series BMW, name-checked in popular books, movies, and songs like David & David’s 1986 hit “Welcome to the Boomtown,” a caustic portrait of mid-eighties yuppie excess.

Early 944 sales were predictably robust. In 1984, Porsche sold 26,539 units, about 60% of those in the U.S. Porsche’s total sales climbed from 31,734 in 1981 to 54,458 in 1985. By 1986, Porsche AG’s total revenue had hit a record DM 3.7 billion (around $1.7 billion).

1983 Porsche 944 rear 3q
The Porsche 944’s most distinctive styling feature was its rear spoiler, originally introduced on the earlier 924 Turbo (937). Porsche deleted this spoiler from the 968, which may not have been the best move from an aesthetic or branding standpoint. The 944’s five-speed transaxle was still essentially the same Audi-based unit introduced on the 924 in 1980. A three-speed automatic, also from Audi, was optional, but rarely ordered.

Those were extremely gratifying results for Peter Schutz, who had replaced Ernst Fuhrmann as Porsche president and chairman in the fall of 1981. Schutz had pushed for a greater emphasis on the U.S. market and had canceled plans for a cheaper entry-level model, arguing that Porsche didn’t need it. Flush with success, he invested over DM 1 billion (about $400 million) in facilities like a new wind tunnel and a new paint shop. He also hired consultants from Booz Allen & Hamilton to advise Porsche on streamlining its R&D operations and authorized expensive new projects like the limited-production 959 supercar; a new line of twin-turbo 911s called Type 965; and a turbocharged 944, known internally as the 951.

PORSCHE 944 TURBO

The Porsche 944 Turbo was an obvious development considering that Porsche had created a turbocharged version of the new four even before the 944 debuted. The factory had arranged to enter a 951 prototype in the SCCA’s Nelson Ledges 24-hour endurance race in 1983 and again in 1984, using the events as an opportunity to fine tune the engine and chassis. The production 951 finally appeared in late 1985 as a 1986 model.

Like other 1986 944 models, the 951 benefited from a makeover that smoothed out the styling and banished most of the remaining Volkswagen/Audi pieces, adding a new dashboard and control stalks, upgraded ventilation, and even new suspension components of forged aluminum rather than stamped steel. Like the old 937, the 951 had an air-to-air intercooler and a single water-cooled KKK turbocharger with up to 10.9 psi (0.75 bar) boost. Output was 220 PS DIN or 217 hp SAE (162 kW) and 244 lb-ft (330 N-m) of torque. The 951 also had bigger brakes, stiffer suspension, a new nose, and an aerodynamic belly pan, so it weighed about 155 lb (70 kg) more than the 944 (which had also put on weight since its debut), so a U.S.-spec 944 Turbo now weighed more than 3,000 lb (1,375 kg). Even so, performance was dramatically improved: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) now took about 6 seconds and top speed was over 150 mph.

1987 Porsche 944 Turbo front 3q © 2009 Bamidele O. Shangobunmi (used with permission)
The easiest way to identify the 944 Turbo (known to the factory and Porsche cognoscenti as 951) is the smooth polyurethane/fiberglass cover over the bumper, which helps to reduce the coefficient of aerodynamic drag to a claimed 0.33. Other changes included stronger gearbox synchros, revised gearing, bigger vented disc brakes, and 16-inch wheels rather than the 15s standard on lesser 944s. Anti-lock brakes and driver- and passenger-side airbags became standard on U.S. cars in 1987. (Photo: “1987 Porsche 944 Turbo” © 2009 Bamidele O. Shangobunmi; used with permission)

Critics were already fond of the 944 and the 951 elicited a chorus of buff book hosannas. The 944 Turbo had its flaws, including weak low-speed performance, a gruffer engine note, slightly less nimble handling (although grip was naturally improved), and a much higher price — about $30,000 in the U.S., DM 72,500 in Germany, and around £25,000 in the U.K. — but reviewers thought it a match for the even pricier Porsche 928. Dealers soon had waiting lists for the new model, which sold more than 10,000 units in 1986, three-fourths of those in the U.S.

Although the 951 was the most expensive iteration of the 944, the standard car’s price was rising as well. A strong Deutschmark led Porsche to hike prices in most export markets, which took the base price of a U.S. 944 to more than $26,000 by 1987. Porsche added more standard equipment to help justify the higher sticker price, but it was still uncomfortably close to the cruder but much faster Corvette and over $6,000 more than the new Mazda RX-7 Turbo, which also looked very much like the 944. Moreover, delving into the options list could add thousands more to the tab.

Concerned, Porsche reinstated the 924 in the U.S. in mid-1986. Christened 924S, it essentially combined the 924 body with the 944’s suspension and engine, priced about $5,000 below the 944. A few months later, the existing models were supplemented by the new 944 S, which introduced another feature previously seen on the 1981 Le Mans engines: dual overhead camshafts. The 944 S had a new DOHC head with four valves per cylinder, hydraulic lash adjusters, and knock sensors that allowed a higher 10.9:1 compression ratio. The result was 190 PS DIN / 188 hp SAE (140 kW) and 170 lb-ft (230 N-m) of torque. The extra power made the 944 S significantly quicker than the standard 944, capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 7 seconds and a claimed top speed of 141 mph (228 km/h), although the twin-cam engine was noticeably peakier than the older eight-valve engine.

The following year, standard 944s got a new high-compression eight-valve engine with 160 PS DIN or 158 hp SAE (118 kW) and 156 lb-ft (210 N-m) of torque. However, the price of the base car was now approaching that of the 944 S, which ended up accounting for about 40% of 1988 sales.

The other 1988 highlight was the limited-edition 944 Turbo S, of which 1,000 were built. The Turbo S had a bigger turbocharger, increasing output to 250 PS DIN or 247 hp SAE (184 kW), and a host of extra or mandatory features, including ABS, bigger brakes, and a limited-slip differential. The Turbo S was a bit quicker than the regular Turbo, but was also the most expensive 944 to date, listing for $48,350 in the U.S. (inclusive of the assorted “mandatory options”) and DM 99,800 in Germany.

SKID CONTROL

This escalation of power and prices turned out to be ill-timed. The 944’s popularity had been tied to the economic boom of the mid-eighties and proved to be just as ephemeral. In October 1987, around the beginning of the 1988 model year, stock markets around the world suffered their steepest losses since 1929. The U.S. Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 22% and some markets dropped by more than twice that figure.

The stock market crash was a jarring reminder for Porsche of just how dependent it had become on status-conscious yuppies. As had happened in 1929–1930, buyers who had just watched their paper fortunes collapse were in no mood to buy expensive four-wheeled toys, even if they were still in a position to do so. Worldwide 944 sales, which had already declined somewhat from their 1986 peak, fell by about 20%.

1987 Porsche 944 Turbo cabin © 2009 Bamidele O. Shangobunmi (used with permission)
Midway through the 1985 model year, all Porsche 944s got a number of minor styling revisions, including a flush windshield and a completely new interior. The redesigned cabin was a great improvement over the earlier cars, but the arrangement of some minor controls was still rather scattershot. The instrument panels of 944 Turbos, like this one, were almost the same as the regular 944’s, but added a turbo boost gauge. (Photo: “1987 Porsche 944 Turbo” © 2009 Bamidele O. Shangobunmi; used with permission)

Two years earlier, Peter Schutz had looked like a genius, but now his star was falling. Schutz had always had good relationships with Porsche’s engineers, but the board — and particularly the Porsche family — had never been entirely comfortable with him. Schutz was a Berliner by birth, but he had grown up in Chicago and worked for Caterpillar and Cummins in the U.S. before returning to Germany. The board tolerated or even welcomed the cultural differences as long as the company was doing well, but once things went sour, buyer’s remorse set in over all the money Schutz had spent. Heavy criticism from the West German press probably didn’t help.

In December, the board called for Schutz’s resignation, appointing finance director Heinz Branitzki to succeed him at the beginning of 1988. Branitzki was faced with a difficult situation: For all the money Porsche had invested in the development of new high-end products (many of which never saw the light of day), the existing product line was shaky. The 928 had never been a strong seller, 911 sales had been hit and miss, and the 944 now seemed to be fading.

Branitzki responded by cutting costs, hiring a new round of consultants to review Porsche’s finances for possible savings and canceling the mooted 965/969. The 924S also got the ax, finally ending the 924 line after 12 years and almost 138,000 cars. Branitzki also pushed longtime technical director Helmuth Bott to retire, replacing him with Ulrich Bez from BMW.

Despite its decline, the 944 was still Porsche’s biggest-volume model, so the company did what it could to pep up sales. For 1989, the 944 got tidied-up styling and various engine changes: The 944 Turbo now had the same engine as the now-departed Turbo S while the base 944’s engine was bored out 4 mm (0.16 inches), bringing displacement to 2,681 cc (164 cu. in.) and output to 165 PS/162 hp and 166 lb-ft (225 N-m) of torque. The 944 S, meanwhile, was replaced by the 944 S2, which was bored and stroked to 2,990 cc (182 cu. in.), giving 211 PS/208 hp and 166 lb-ft (280 N-m) of torque. (For those keeping track, the slant four in the old Pontiac Tempest, which was also a V8 derivative in a front-engine/rear-transaxle car, was 3,186 cc (195 cu. in.).) The increased displacement was aimed at improving flexibility, which hadn’t been a strong suit of the smaller twin-cam engine.

The engine changes and the introduction of a new 944 S2 Cabriolet for 1990 temporarily resuscitated 944 sales, which topped 15,000 units in 1989, but Porsche’s total U.S. sales remained gloomy, falling from almost 16,000 in 1988 to around 9,500 in 1989 and 9,139 in 1990. The principal problem remained price: The 944S2 was now over $45,000 in the U.S., the Turbo $47,600, and the Cabriolet nearly $53,000. Unless you were deeply enamored of the Porsche badge, that was a lot of money for a four-cylinder sports car. Making matters worse was a new American luxury tax on cars over $30,000, which added an additional $1,500 or more to the bottom line.

For 1990, Branitzki decided to streamline production by dropping the base 944, leaving the S2 and Turbo; the latter was withdrawn from the U.S. market. This consolidation may have sounded like a good idea on paper, but dropping the cheapest models of a line already criticized as overpriced had predictable effects: Despite significant price cuts, total worldwide 944 production fell to only 8,510 units, fewer than 2,500 of which were sold in the U.S.

Adding to the 944’s woes was the arrival in 1989–1990 of a host of slick new Japanese rivals, including the latest Nissan 300ZX and Mitsubishi GTO/3000GT, which boasted V-6 engines and significantly more power than the 944 at lower prices. The Japanese Supercars would eventually fall victim to the same mixture of weak economy and unfavorable exchange rates that had hampered the 944, but in the short term, the new competition was bad news for Porsche.

INFLATION

Although Branitzki had managed to bolster Porsche’s profitability, he had done so by cutting costs rather than increasing revenues, which still hovered around two-thirds of their 1986 peak. He had also alienated a lot of the company’s executives and engineers, which added to the sense that he was taking the company in the wrong direction. The board pushed him to take early retirement in January 1990, replacing him with another outsider, Arno Bohn of the computer company Nixdorf.

In early 1990, there was an internal debate over the future of the 944. Ulrich Bez had been pushing since his arrival for a serious update of the existing 944, but he had met considerable resistance from production chief Rudi Noppen. Bohn was not supportive either, arguing that it didn’t make sense for Porsche to keep focusing on entry-level cars. There was some logic to that position; it was always going to be hard for Porsche to compete with bigger manufacturers on price, which meant that low-end Porsches inevitably ended up being too expensive relative to the competition while still being too cheap to generate adequate profits.

However, Porsche didn’t have an immediate alternative. The planned 989 luxury sedan was still several years off and neither the 911 nor the 928 was enough to keep Porsche afloat; the latter had sold only about 3,000 copies in 1990. Facing that situation, Bohn authorized Bez to go forward with the update of the 944.

1990 Porsche 944S2 Cabriolet rear 3q © 2007 Rudolf Stricker CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
The Porsche 944 S2 Cabriolet’s top was developed and installed by the American Sunroof Corporation (ASC). The 944 (and later 968) Cabriolet was exceptionally solid for an open-topped car, but the top was fussy and inconvenient, requiring an Allen wrench to detach the top from the windshield frame before you could activate the power mechanism; the tonneau cover was even worse. At a time when the Mercedes SL (R129) offered a one-button mechanism to lower the top and snap the rigid tonneau in place, this was a rather retrograde touch. (Photo: “Porsche 944 Cabrio rear 20070928” © 2007 Rudolf Stricker; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Harm Lagaay, the Dutch stylist who designed the original 924 back in the early seventies, had returned to Porsche in late 1989 as designer director. Lagaay didn’t have the budget for a complete redesign of the 944, but he and designers Dick Soderberg and Tony Hatter gave the car an extensive facelift with new exposed flip-up headlamps, a feature lifted from the stillborn 965. The interior was almost unchanged, another reflection of the limited funds.

Bez thought the 944 really needed a six — expanding the four had been Helmuth Bott’s idea — but Porsche couldn’t spare the money for an all-new engine. Bez considered creating a 2.7-liter V6 from the 3.6-liter V8 then in development for the 989 or going out of house for either a DOHC version of the Peugeot-Renault-Volvo V6 or even BMW’s M50 inline six, but none of those ideas proved viable. Instead, Bez’s development team revised the 2,990 cc (182 cu. in.) four, adding a new three-mode variable intake valve timing system called VarioCam, a revised cylinder head, and new intake and exhaust manifolds.

With 944 sales tanking, Porsche decided it was time for a new name, so the revamped car would be badged with its internal type number: 968.

PORSCHE 968

The Porsche 968 debuted in July 1991, arriving in the U.S. around the end of the year. Despite its new face and many detail changes (Porsche claimed that more than 80% of the car was new), the 968 still looked very much like the 944 it fundamentally was and the exterior dimensions were very similar, although the new car was a little longer than the 944 S2. One major difference was that unlike the 924 and 944, the 968 was produced in Zuffenhausen; building cars through Audi or Volkswagen factories had become too expensive.

The 968’s revamped engine now had VarioCam, 11.0 compression, and 240 PS/236 hp (176 kW) and 225 lb-ft (305 N-m) of torque. The standard manual transaxle now had six speeds rather than five and the old three-speed automatic was replaced by a new four-speed Tiptronic unit, co-developed by Porsche, ZF, and Bosch and featuring complicated manual shift controls. Although the six-speed’s gearing was taller than before and curb weight for the coupe had climbed to around 3,000 lb (1,370 kg) for European cars and more than 3,100 lb (1,420 kg) for U.S. models, the extra power made the 968 significantly faster than the 944 S2, albeit not as quick as the departed 944 Turbo. Factory claims were 0-62 mph (0-100 km/h) in 6.5 seconds and a top speed of 157 mph (252 km/h) with manual shift.

In Europe, the 968 was more expensive than the 944 S2 — German coupes started at DM 89,800 (equivalent to about $55,000) — but Porsche Cars North America kept the price of 1992 U.S. coupes to $41,605 with luxury tax and freight, somewhat cheaper than the last American 944 S2. The Cabriolet, which arrived after launch, started at DM 99,800 (around $62,000) in Germany and $51,700 in the U.S. There were still a lot of extra-cost options to drive up the price even further; Tiptronic alone cost a hefty DM 5,850, or $3,465 in the U.S.

1994 Porsche 968 front
The Porsche 968’s new nose was inspired by the abortive 965, although the flip-up headlights give a certain resemblance to the 928 — not necessarily a good thing, given the 928’s moribund sales. The 968’s engine, fitted with twin counter-rotating balance shafts, is remarkably smooth for an inline four of such large displacement, although it was never quite as sweet as a six of the same size.

Although it couldn’t equal its 300+ horsepower (224+ kW) rivals or the much lighter new RX-7, the 968 was very quick by most standards and still had many dynamic virtues. The suspension was far less sophisticated than the multilink and double wishbone setups of the latest Japanese sports cars, but years of refinement and expertise had made the 968’s chassis far sharper than the plain specifications might imply. The adroit suspension tuning was bolstered by superbly communicative (if rather heavy) power steering and vault-like solidity — even in cabriolet form — that most rivals could only envy.

Nonetheless, the age of the basic platform was becoming harder to ignore. By nineties standards, the ride quality bordered on harsh, particularly at low speeds, and broken pavement would send the tires hunting for direction. Road noise, which had been a problem even on the original 924, remained obnoxiously high. Mid-eighties updates had improved the driving position, but the interior design was dated and still suffered from eccentric and fussy minor controls. Had the 968 been cheaper than newer rivals, those shortcomings would have been easier to accept, but at the price, it was once again leaning heavily on the value of the Porsche name.

With the bottom falling out of the coupe market, that wasn’t enough. Worldwide production for 1992 was only 5,353, dropping to 3,783 for 1993.

A CHANGE OF DIRECTION (AGAIN)

Porsche had managed to remain profitable in 1990, albeit barely, but it posted a net loss for 1991. Bohn tried to put a brave face on the losses, announcing in January 1992 that the company would cap annual production at 30,000 units in the interests of exclusivity. That was the sort of statement that might please hardcore fans, but it was obviously unsustainable, leading many observers to wonder if Porsche would be bought out or end up as little more than an engineering consultancy for other automakers.

Porsche’s losses provoked yet another round of management changes. Ulrich Bez left in September 1991; he went on to become VP of engineering for Daewoo and then chairman of Aston Martin Lagonda. In October, Porsche hired a new production chief, Wendelin Wiedeking, formerly chairman of the parts supplier Glyco, with a mandate to cut costs by 30%.

The 989 sedan was dead by the end of 1991, and in early 1992, Bohn decided Porsche did need a cheaper entry-level car after all, approving development of a new model called the Type 986. Harm Legaay’s team started design work in February 1992, an endeavor that yielded the first Porsche Boxster.

Around the same time, the Porsche family, which still dominated the firm’s supervisory board, decided they weren’t satisfied with Bohn’s performance. Bohn was told his contract would not be renewed and Porsche offered the CEO position to BMW’s Wolfgang Reitzle. When Reitzle declined, the board reversed course and and decided to extend Bohn’s contract for an additional three years. However, board member Ferdinand Piëch — the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, a major Porsche stockholder, and soon to become chairman of Volkswagen — wasn’t satisfied with that and pushed for Bohn’s removal. In September, Bohn was forced to resign in favor of Wendelin Wiedeking.

1994 Porsche 968 side
The Porsche 968’s structural kinship with the 944 is evident in its unchanged greenhouse and very similar dimensions. The 968 is 170.9 in (4,320 mm) long on a 94.5-inch (2,400mm) wheelbase, 2 inches (51 mm) longer than a 944 S2. The 968 is somewhat heavier than the 944, although at around 3,100 lb (1,405 kg) in U.S. form, it’s still significantly lighter than a contemporary Corvette or many of its Japanese rivals.

Wiedeking pushed for a massive upheaval of Porsche’s entire operation, implementing a new strategy called Porsche-Verbesserungs-Prozesses (Porsche Improvement Process). Soon after his arrival, he hired consultants Yoshiki Iwata and Chihiro Nakao of the Japanese consulting firm Shingijutsu to train Porsche’s engineers and production staff in Toyota-style lean production methods. It was a difficult transition, not least because Wiedeking also laid off about 2,400 employees, but with mounting losses and shrinking volume, the situation looked desperate.

In January 1993, Porsche previewed the new Boxster at the Detroit Auto Show. Although the Boxster was officially a show car, development of the 986 had already been going on for six months. Porsche promised that the production Boxster would have a proper Porsche engine — a new water-cooled flat six — and that it would cost no more than the 968 coupe.

HAIL AND AUF WIEDERSEHEN

The fate of the Porsche 968 was sealed by the time the Boxster appeared in Detroit. The 968 and the even slower-selling 928 would remain in production through 1995, but they had already been canceled and there would be no replacements.

The 968 changed very little through the end of production in July 1995, but there were several interesting variations not offered in the U.S. For 1993, Germany and several other European markets added a de-contented, lightweight 968 Club Sport with a more aggressive sport suspension and bigger 17-inch wheels. The 968 CS, which ultimately accounted for more than 10% of all 968 sales, was not only 110 lb (50 kg) lighter than the 968 coupe, but also almost 20% cheaper. In early 1993, there were also 16 examples of the 968 Turbo S, developed for Germany’s ADAC GT racing series. The Turbo S was essentially a 968 Club Sport with a new engine combining the older SOHC eight-valve head, the 2,990 cc (182 cu. in.) block, and a big intercooled KKK turbocharger, good for 305 PS (224 kW) and 370 lb-ft (500 N-m) of torque. Porsche also built four even hotter Turbo RS cars with 337 PS (248 kW), intended solely for track use. One of these cars ran at Le Mans in 1994, but was DNF due to an accident.

1994 Porsche 968 rear
The Porsche 968’s squared-off tail, similar to that of the 944 S2 but without the 944’s traditional wraparound spoiler, makes the 968 feel more massive than the bigger, heavier 928 — not an entirely happy feeling in a sports car. Like the 924 and 944, the 968 still used a semi-trailing arm rear suspension with transverse torsion bar springs. Ride quality was harsh, but expert suspension tuning and superb steering gave the 968 a dynamic edge over newer and nominally more sophisticated rivals.

The 968 never sold well. Worldwide sales for 1994 were fewer than 2,500 and total sales for 1995 were only 1,156. By the time 968 production ended, the high-end sports car market had virtually collapsed, which made the question of whether the 968 was a good value against competitors like the Toyota Supra Turbo or Mazda RX-7 a moot point; most of those competitors were withdrawn from the U.S. market by 1996, although they lingered for a few more years in Japan.

The inevitable irony was that the 968 was both the best example of the 924/944/968 breed — fast, agile, and free of the VW parts bin stigma — and the least successful. Total production amounted to fewer than 13,000 units, against around 138,000 924s and something like 157,000 944s. By the nineties, buyers who had the wherewithal to spend $40,000 or $50,000 on a car now preferred their rolling status symbols with a proper back seat and, increasingly, four-wheel drive and lots of ground clearance. The only sports car in the 968’s class to survive the nineties was the Corvette, which appealed to a somewhat different demographic.

PAST PRELUDE

In July 1996, about a year after the demise of the 968, Porsche unveiled the production version of the Boxster. As they had promised, its base price was DM 76,500 in Germany and $39,980 in the U.S., well below the prices of the last 968 coupe. Critical and commercial response was enthusiastic and the Boxster sold well from the beginning. The current version, only mildly revised, remains reasonably popular.

Thanks to the Boxster and the subsequent 996, the first water-cooled 911, Porsche’s total production was back up to nearly 50,000 units by 2000 and the company was posting record profits (of which Wiedeking’s contract gave him a 0.9% share). Eager for yet more volume, Wiedeking authorized the controversial Cayenne sport-utility vehicle — again in collaboration with Volkswagen — and later the Panamera, a four-door sedan like the aborted 989.

Wiedeking ultimately overextended himself with a complicated plan to take control of Volkswagen in 2008. The plan backfired, leaving Porsche some €11.4 billion (around $15 billion) in debt. The Porsche supervisory board forced Wiedeking to resign on July 23, 2009, replacing him with logistics chief Michael Macht. (Wiedeking was in no danger of going hungry; his compensation for 2008 was €77.4 million — something in the realm of $110 million — and Porsche bought out the remaining three years of his contract for €50 million, around $68 million at the contemporary exchange rate.) In November, the Porsche board appointed former VW chairman Martin Winterkorn to succeeded Macht as CEO.

We mentioned in the first part of this article that Porsche and Volkswagen were once joined at the hip. By late 2009, Volkswagen announced plans to buy a 49.9% stake in Porsche before the end of the year. In July 2012, Volkswagen acquired the rest of Porsche for an estimated €4.46 billion (then equivalent to around $5.5 billion). Thanks to those machinations, it’s very likely that there will be other “Volks-Porsches” in the future, along the lines of the original 924. Rumors have been flying for some time that Porsche will launch a cheaper entry-level car based on the platform of the Volkswagen Golf and Scirocco. Given the companies’ histories, perhaps it’s inevitable.

LAST WORDS

The issue with which Porsche has wrestled since at least the mid-sixties is that its fans have very specific ideas about what a Porsche is supposed to be (a serious driving machine, preferably with a rear-mounted boxer engine) and at whom it is supposed to be aimed (hardcore driving enthusiasts). The history of the Porsche 924, 944, and 968, however, suggests something quite different. People bought the 924 and 944, when they did, because they were Porsches and because they were relatively attainable. Any other virtues (and any other deficiencies) were strictly incidental.

Wendelin Wiedeking figured out that secret more than 15 years ago, and as if to test the theory, gave us the grotesque Cayenne, a vehicle that’s about as far from what Porsche fans like to presume about the company’s brand values as you can get. People bought it anyway, in part because it was expensive and ostentatious and in part because it was the first Porsche with a back seat big enough for grown-ups; the Cayenne remains Porsche’s bestselling vehicle. It was followed in 2009 by the Panamera sedan, less conceptually distasteful but (to our eyes) even uglier, and in 2014 by the Macan, a smaller SUV whose first-year global sales surpassed those of the 911 by a significant margin.

As we’ve said before, we’ve never been overly fond of Porsches in general; even the mighty 959 impresses us more as an exercise in technological overkill than as an object of passion. Nevertheless, we have a soft spot for the Porsche 944 despite its yuppie-bauble image. It was agile without being abusive, admirably free of gimmicks, and still makes many other sports coupes seem cumbersome. In its original form, it was overpriced and not all that fast (which could also be said of a 4WS Prelude we used to own, whose virtues were not dissimilar), but it had a certain no-nonsense directness that we still appreciate. We wouldn’t want to own one, mostly because the price of banishing the Volkswagen hardware was a return to Porsche’s customarily intimidating running costs, but of all the Porsches built to date, it comes closest to our personal tastes. This, in turn, probably explains why we’re not rich …

# # #

NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources for this article included Tony Assenza, “Porsche 944 Turbo S,” Car and Driver June 1988, pp. 93–96; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Porsche Chronicle (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1995); Roger Bell, “Fast Feud: 944 Turbo -v- 911 Turbo -v- 928S4,” CAR March 1989, pp. 100–107; “Company Earnings; Profits Double at Porsche,” New York Times 25 January 1990, www.nytimes. com, accessed 15 November 2009; Tony Corlett, Porsche 911 3.2 Carrera: The Last of the Evolution (Dorchester, England: Veloce Publishing, 2005); “Corvette vs. Ferrari 308GTBi Quattrovalvole vs. Porsche 928S vs. Porsche 944,” Road & Track August 1983, reprinted in Porsche 928 Takes On the Competition (Head to Head), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1999), pp. 45-51; Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, 2nd ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); “Coupe War! (Colt Starion -v- Porsche 944 -v- Lotus Eclat Excel,” CAR March 1983, pp. 40–47, 110; Steve Cropley, “Midnight special,” CAR April 1981, pp. 56–62; Csaba Csere, “Porsche 924S,” Car and Driver Vol. 32, No. 1 (July 1986), pp. 40–43; and “Porsche 944 Turbo,” Car and Driver Vol. 31, No. 6 (December 1985), pp. 60–64; “Decisions, Decisions: Comparison-shopping the Porsche 924S, 944, 944S and 944 Turbo,” Road & Track November 1987, pp. 44–53; “Double edged (Group Test: Lotus Eclat Excel, Porsche 944 Lux),” What Car? October 1983, pp. 48–52; Peter Dron, “No Profit in Its Time,” Fast Lane July 1991, reprinted in Toyota Supra Performance Portfolio 1982-1998, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books, 2003), pp. 61-65; John Eisenhammer, “Inside Story: Shock therapy for Porsche,” The Independent 3 July 1994, www.independent.co. uk, accessed 15 October 2009; “Five Part Harmony,” Road & Track January 1986, reprinted in Porsche 928 Takes On the Competition, pp. 68-77; Alain Gayot, “Automobile: Totally Fun Cabriolet: 1992 Porsche 968,” Gayot, 21 February 2008, www.gayot. com/ lifestyle/ automobile/ reviews/ porsche_968.html, accessed 15 November 2009; Gavin Green, “Trading Places,” CAR June 1992, pp. 72–81; Larry Griffin, “Porsche 944S,” Car and Driver August 1987, pp. 59–65, and “Porsche 968,” Car and Driver Vol. 37, No. 9 (March 1992), pp. 47–50; “High Noon (GroupTest),” Motor 4 May 1985, pp. 10–16; Chris Horton, “Brothers in arms,” 911 & Porsche World November 2007, pp. 94–101; Georg Kacher, “Blown Glory,” CAR August 1993, pp. 102–107, and “Porsche’s Autobahn Activist,” CAR April 1981, pp. 62–63; John Lamm, Porsche Boxster (Colortech) (Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing, 1998); L’Editrice Dell’Automobile LEA, World Cars 1985 (Pelham, NY: Herald Books, 1985); Randy Leffingwell, Porsche Legends (Motorbooks Classic) (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1993); Karl Ludvigsen, “The Turbo That Never Was,” Excellence, June 2005, pp. 111-116; and 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; “New Order (Giant Test),” CAR January 1989, pp. 106–113; “924 Carrera GT,” 924GT.com, n.d., accessed 15 November 2009; John Phillips III, “1990 Import Cars: Charting the Changes,” Car and Driver November 1989, pp. 64–69; “1990 Import Cars: Porsche 944S2 Cabriolet,” Car and Driver November 1989, pp 93–95; and “Porsche 968 Cabrio Tiptronic,” Car and Driver December 1992, pp. 87–90; “Porsche 968 Turbo RS,” 968turbo.homestead. com, accessed 15 October 2009; “Porsche’s New Performer (Road Test: Porsche 944 Turbo),” Autocar 29 January 1986, pp. 34–40; Productioncars.com, Book of Automobile Production and Sales Figures, 1945–2005 (N.p.: 2006); “Refresher Course (Road Test: Porsche 944 Lux),” Autocar 4 December 1985, pp. 40–46; “Road Test: Porsche 944 Turbo,” Motor 6 July 1985, pp. 40–45; Graham Robson and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Volkswagen Chronicle (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1996); Serge Schmemann, “Business People: American to Depart as Head of Porsche,” New York Times 17 December 1987, www.nytimes. com, accessed 15 November 2009; Don Schroeder, “Tops Down, Bucks Up,” Car and Driver Vol. 37, No. 12 (June 1992), pp. 100–111; Craig Seko, “A short history of the cheap Porsche,” Rennlist.com, 2003, members.rennlist. com/944sandmore/ history.htm, accessed 14 November 2009; “Sportwagen: Porsche Boxster (986, 2.5),” Carpassion.com, n.d., www.carpassion. com, accessed 8 August 2015; “Stückzahlen + Preise” and “Technische Daten,” Porsche Club 968 Deutschland, n.d., www.porsche-club-968. de, accessed 8 August 2015; ‘Sven,’ “Modellgeschichte – Daten/Tabellen,” 944er.com, www.944er. com/modellgeschichte.htm, accessed 8 August 2015; “The Best-Handling Imported Car Is…” Car and Driver July 1984, reprinted in Porsche 928 Takes On the Competition, pp. 58-67; “TwinTest: Clash of the Teutons,” Motor 5 April 1986: 46–51; 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® entries for the Porsche 944 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porsche_944, accessed 15 November 2009) and Porsche 968 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porsche_968, accessed 15 November 2009).

The song “Welcome to the Boomtown” was written by David Baerwald and David Ricketts and performed by them (as David & David) on their 1986 album Welcome to the Boomtown.

Information on Porsche’s modern predicament came from DPA, “VW moves in for the kill as Porsche chief steps down,” Earthtimes, 23 July 2009, www.earthtimes. org, accessed 23 November 2009; Carter Dougherty, “Wendelin Wiedeking,” New York Times 23 July 2009, topics.nytimes. com, accessed 23 November 2009; “Ex-Porsche CEO Wiedeking charged over failed Volkswagen bid,” Automotive News Europe 19 December 2002, europe.autonews. com, accessed 21 December 2012; Greg Kable, “Porsche chief Wendelin Wiedeking resigns,” Autoweek 23 July 2009, www.autoweek. com, accessed 23 November 2009; Porsche SE, “Wiedeking and Haerter Are Leaving Company” [press release], 23 July 2009, press.porsche. com, accessed 25 November 2009, and “Porsche SE and Volkswagen AG Create Integrated Automotive Group” [press release], 4 July 2012, press.porsche. com, accessed 8 August 2015; Chris Reiter and Andreas Cremer, “Porsche, VW Feud Escalates to ‘Kingmaker’ Showdown,” Bloomberg, 23 July 2009, www.bloomberg. com, accessed 23 July 2009; Bertel Schmitt, “Porsche Fires Wiedeking and Härter, Merger with VW Near,” The Truth About Cars, 23 July 2009, www.thetruthaboutcars.com, accessed 23 July 2009; and “Winterkorn and Pötsch join Board of Management of Porsche SE” [press release], Volkswagen AG, 24 November 2009, www.volkswagenag. com, accessed 25 November 2009.

Info on recent sales figures came from Porsche SE, “In 214, Porsche Delivered Worldwide 189,850 Vehicles to Customers” [press release], 8 January 2015, press.porsche. com, accessed 8 August 2015; “Porsche Outperforms Delivery Record of the Previous Year” [press release], 13 January 2013, press.porsche. com, accessed 8 August 2015; and “U.S. Porsche Dealers Sell 47,007 Vehicles in 2014” [press release], 5 January 2015, press.porsche. com, accessed 8 August 2015.

Data on historical exchange rates of the mark to the dollar 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 5 December 2009). Inflation estimates came from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator, data.bls. gov/ cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl.


10 Comments

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  1. The Cayenne receives little love from the auto press, it seems, but it was a very good decision.

    In the 1990s, Porsche market research began asking what other cars were in Porsche-owning households. The most common in the USA was the Ford Explorer. Selling to your existing customers is often the best business decision, and the Cayenne was a master stroke from that standpoint.

  2. A friend of mine recently bought a 944 and while a bit harsh and stiff – like a lot of german cars – once the revs are up it’s very sweet.

    I recently bought an 87 MR2(NA) and drove/camped across the US with my girlfriend. We both fell in love with the car. Comfortable enough (with curiously thoughtful amenities) – high revving sweet engine, beautifully balanced.

    Could I suggest a write up without sounding presumptuous.

    I also read your write up of the 240Z and you do raise the question of why japanese classics don’t have the cache of of european of vintage american cars. It’s curious but might be partly due to demographics.

    For example: The Acura integra has generated the largest aftermarket industry of any vehicle in history. But, I don’t think many of my pals would even know what one looks like. Bluntly put, the demographic isn’t white. Further, the interests are not in preservation but in self expression. The irony is that this approach is probably closer to the muscle car hay day than the trailer queen fetish of the collector’s market.

    1. We will do the MR2 eventually. It’s not on the schedule yet, but it’s definitely on the to-do list.

      I agree about the tuner crowd, although I think it’s become more white than it was at one point. I definitely think that the disdain toward Japanese cars is a combination of race, class, and to some extent generation. I imagine that today’s tuners will have a similar attitude towards the vehicles of their children and grandchildren’s generations, for similar reasons.

  3. I’m not big on the 80’s Porsche. It was not their greatest years IMO.

  4. I considered buying both a 924 and a 911, but decided against it, after talking to my buddies, both of whom said, “DON’T DO IT!”. Horrendous parts costs (even if you do the labour yourself) combined with general unreliability, along with owning a Porsche that’s “not really a Porsche” made me stay with my Subaru. And of course, the “gold chain factor” makes the 911 more of a rich, snobby old white guy car, than a real sports car. As for Japanese cars: all my kids love Japanese vehicles- definitely a generational thing.

  5. Peter Schutz also had an interesting pet project in the Porsche PFM 3200 light aircraft powerplant. To the company’s credit even though they stopped selling it in ’91 they fully supported the engine all then way up to 2005. Most of the 40 planes built were converted back to a conventional aircraft powerplant after that. Too bad, the engine was pretty advanced by light aircraft standards with electronic ignition, electronic fuel injection, automatically controlled fan cooling, automatic mixture control, single lever power control..

  6. Back in the day; 1998.
    The Porsche PFM 3200 engine in a Mooney aircraft was a sight to see when a then business client was enthusiastically showing off his newly acquired airplane hanger just outside of Boulder, Colorado; Myself having taken delivery of a MY98 911(993)C2S coupe. The Porsche/Mooney models seating,interior panels and noticeable switch gear were classic Porsche automotive items. It was classic ’90s era Porsche 911/944/928 fabric seating pattern? The cloth style with the word “Porsche” printed on the bias and repeated throughout.

    A question I had then (’99) and now (’15) to Porsche CEO Peter Schultz; Why the litigious USA aircraft industry? Go figure!
    P.S. Sixteen years on and the MY98 993 coupe is my garage. I doubt the Porsche/Moony is in the hanger . . .

  7. well for the last 2 years I have owned a Porsche 924 and a Chevy spark, and I have to say the Porsche is funner to drive and its more reliable then my chevy spark! I have 4 years left on paying off my spark and then I’m going to sell it and buy either a 944 turbo or a boxster.

  8. “grotesque Cayenne,… the first Porsche with a back seat big enough for grown-ups. Now we have the Panamera sedan, which is only marginally less visually distasteful…”

    Um, might I suggest getting your eyes examined? The Panamera is stylistically a hideous turd in comparison to the Cayenne [which admittedly, is no great shakes.] If Porsche really wants the Panamera to move off the lot, they need to give it a 944GT makeover/bodykit. The styling may be somewhat dated, but it is FAR superior to what it has now! Woof.

    1. Everyone’s styling tastes are different. I strongly dislike both the Cayenne and the Panamera; I dislike the Panamera slightly less mostly because it’s less conceptually troubling than the Cayenne. I’m not categorically offended by the idea of a Porsche sedan — I thought the abortive 989 was pretty attractive, actually — but an SUV is another matter.

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