Since its debut in 1964, the Porsche 911 has come to define the Porsche brand. The company’s periodic efforts to expand their market with new models, however worthy, have inevitably prompted grumbling from purists, who stubbornly refused to accept the arrivistes as real Porsches. That was the fate that befell the 1978-1995 Porsche 928, the company’s first V8-engine production car. Conceived as a successor for the 911, it never quite found its niche, dismissed by the faithful as a pricey German Corvette. Nonetheless, the 928 is a milestone car in its own right — a formidable GT that foreshadowed the shape of the modern sports car. This is its story.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
That the 928 emerged as such a departure from Porsche’s established design practice owed a great deal to the substantial organizational changes that took place at the company in the early 1970s. Since its founding in 1930, Porsche had been a KG (Kommanditgesellschaft, limited partnership) held by the Porsche and Piëch families. In 1971, Ferry Porsche, then in his early sixties, opted to remove himself from the day-to-day business of the company. In March 1972, the firm was reorganized as Porsche AG (Aktiengesellschaft, “share company”). Its leadership was divided between a supervisory board consisting of Porsche family members and a new executive board consisting of outsiders. The firm’s technical director, Dr. Ing. Ernst Fuhrmann, became the new chairman.
Fuhrmann was not exactly an outsider: He had originally joined Porsche in 1947 and went on to design the dual overhead camshaft (DOHC) racing engines used by the Porsche 356 Carrera and 550 Spyder. In 1956, however, he was passed over for promotion in favor of Klaus von Rücker, newly hired from Studebaker; Ferry Porsche wanted someone with experience in the American industry. Fuhrmann left the company and soon found new employment with the engineering firm Goetze Werke. Ferry Porsche apparently bore Fuhrmann no ill will, for in 1971, he lured Fuhrmann back to become head of engineering and months later picked him as the first CEO of Porsche AG, a post Fuhrmann held until 1980.
Fuhrmann inherited a company faced with significant challenges. One of Porsche’s biggest engineering jobs — the EA 266 project for Volkswagen — had been canceled in 1971. Not only did the cancellation deprive the company of much-needed revenue, it killed nascent plans for a new small sports car based on the EA 266 design. At the same time, Porsche was struggling to keep up with mounting regulatory pressures in both the U.S. and Europe, which was difficult and expensive.
Worse, the future of the 911, the core of Porsche’s product line, was the subject of much debate. The 911 was already eight years old by then and its sales had been on a downward slide. Furthermore, the viability of its basic concepts was in question. Although the 911 had been all new in 1964, it was conceptually an evolution of the styling and engineering of the 356, which was itself based on the obsolescent Volkswagen Beetle. Rear-engine cars had taken a drubbing in the press throughout the 1960s, thanks in part to Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed. It was also becoming harder to make the 911’s air-cooled engines conform to increasingly stringent noise-pollution laws. Even if the 911 remained commercially viable, Fuhrmann wondered if it would be able to survive the regulatory environment of the 1980s.
A NEW DIRECTION
In the summer of 1971, development chief Helmuth Bott and his team began exploring a variety of configurations for a potential 911 successor. The results of their study were presented to Fuhrmann on October 21, Furhmann’s birthday. Fuhrmann reviewed the study and approved it on November 8. It was assigned the project number 928.
The Porsche 928 was not intended to replace the 911 immediately. Realizing that the older model would need to remain Porsche’s bread and butter for at least another five years, Fuhrmann also authorized a series of updates to the 911, including a formidable turbocharged model, the 930. Still, the 928 was seen as the company’s eventual flagship.
Since the 928 was a clean-sheet design, owing little to any of its predecessors, Bott considered a number of novel design possibilities. One of the most discussed was a mid-engine layout, which seemed to be the way of the future for sports cars. Porsche had had success with mid-engine racers, but experience with the 914 had soured them on mid-engine street cars. Mid-engine cars handled well, but the layout compromised both comfort and utility, which seemed inappropriate for a high-priced GT. Moreover, Porsche’s marketing staff had lobbied strongly for a 2+2 rather than a pure two-seater and finding room for even a token rear seat in a mid-engine car was difficult.
The configuration Bott’s team settled on for the 928 was a front-engine, rear-drive coupe, powered by a water-cooled V8 engine. For better weight distribution, the transmission would be mounted at the rear, connected to the engine via a long, enclosed driveshaft.
THE 928’S AMERICAN CONNECTION
Although Porsche fans (and European enthusiasts in general) are loathe to admit it, there were notable parallels between the Porsche 928 and certain American cars. The most obvious was the Corvette, a comparison made by many critics when the 928 debuted. The 928 and the Corvette different in many respects — the Corvette was a two-seater, not a 2+2, and had a fiberglass body, while the 928’s body was steel and aluminum — but both were V8-powered GTs of similar size and appeal.
As much as the Porsche faithful bristled at the comparison, from a business standpoint, it was not necessarily a bad thing. The Corvette’s sales continued to climb throughout the seventies, despite spiraling prices and progressively weaker performance, reaching a peak of nearly 50,000 units in 1977. It helped that the Corvette was far cheaper than most Porsches, of course, but its success demonstrated that there was a market for large, stylish, relatively civilized sports cars.
Interestingly, although the 928 borrowed no stylistic cues from Chevy’s sports car, Porsche design director Anatole (Tony) Lapine had actually worked on the Corvette earlier in his career. A former GM stylist, Lapine had worked with Bill Mitchell and Larry Shinoda on the design of the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray as well as the mid-engine CERV I and II testbeds of the early sixties. Lapine had also been a co-driver to racer Dick Thompson during the short-lived SCCA career of Bill Mitchell’s XP-87 Stingray Racer. Lapine transferred to GM’s Opel subsidiary in 1964, where he helped develop the Opel GT, and then joined Porsche in 1969.
The Porsche 928’s front-engine/rear-transaxle layout also had another significant American antecedent: the 1961-63 Pontiac Tempest. The Tempest had shared the body shell of the Chevrolet Corvair, but had a front engine and a rear transaxle linked by a unique curved driveshaft, the brainchild of John DeLorean, then a Pontiac engineer. The Tempest’s standard engine was a big slant-four, created by slicing the standard Pontiac V8 in half (an interesting parallel with Porsche’s later 944, whose engine was basically half of the 928’s V8), but like the 928, it could be had with an aluminum V8 engine. The 928 differed significantly in detail, but it was conceptually similar.
PORSCHE 928 ENGINEERING
Whatever its antecedents, the Porsche 928’s engineering was state of the art. It was powered by Porsche’s first eight-cylinder street engine, a 4,474 cc (273 cu. in.) all-alloy, 90-degree V8 with one overhead camshaft per bank, driven by a rubber timing belt. Like the disastrous Chevrolet Vega engine of the same era, its aluminum block eschewed cylinder liners. Instead, Porsche used an aluminum-silicon alloy for the block and etching the cylinder bores to expose the silicon crystals. The silicon provided a durable bore surface without the extra cost and weight of press-in iron or steel cylinder liners. Unlike the Vega engine, it proved to be reasonably reliable, setting a design precedent for many subsequent aluminum engines. Equipped with Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection, European 928s produced 240 hp DIN (177 W). The smog-controlled U.S. model was rated at 219 hp SAE (163 kW).
The showpiece of the design was the driveshaft, known to Porsche engineers as the “fast shaft.” It was just under an inch (25 mm) in diameter, enclosed in an aluminum torque tube. Resolving the vibration problems resulting from placing the engine and transmission four feet (1.2 m) apart was the 928’s biggest engineering challenge, eventually resolved by mounting the battery on the transmission, where it would act as a damping weight. (Revisions to the driveshaft and torque tube design later made this unnecessary, although the battery remained in the rear for better weight distribution.) The transaxle itself was either a five-speed manual, adapted from the 908 race car, or a three-speed automatic whose internal components were licensed from Mercedes.
As expected of a car in its class, the Porsche 928 had four-wheel disc brakes and fully independent suspension. The front suspension was a conventional double-wishbone arrangement, but at the rear had an interesting innovation, the so-called Weissach axle (named for Porsche’s Weissach development center). This used an upper transverse link and a semi-trailing lower wishbone incorporating an additional lateral link extending from approximately the inner crux of the wishbone. The inner end of that link was connected to the rear subframe via a flexible bushing. By altering the lateral stiffness of that bushing relative to the bushing connecting the leading edge of the wishbone to the body, Porsche was able to induce rear toe-in rather than toe-out when the driver lifted off the throttle, resisting the trailing-throttle oversteer for which the 911 was so notorious. The same flexibility also induced toe-out under acceleration, which actually made it easier to provoke a deliberate power slide.
Thanks to the Weissach axle and a high polar moment of inertia, the 928 was far more stable than the 911 and was not as prone to the lurid, tail-happy behavior of its rear-engine brethren. That stability, however, made it far less nimble than a 911 or 914. The 928 was predictable and free of vices, but it felt more deliberate than sporty.
Some of that stolidity was also a product of the 928’s considerable bulk. Despite the use of aluminum for the hood, fenders, and doors, it weighed in at a hefty 3,400 pounds (1,550 kg), nearly as much as a Chevrolet Corvette. This avoirdupois was largely attributable to the 2+2 configuration, which made the entire car bigger than it might otherwise have been. In hindsight, the rear seats were of dubious value. Although they were well-appointed, with their own heater vents and sunshades, they were cramped even for children.
Even the 928’s front seats were cozy, thanks to the prominent interior tunnel necessitated by the driveshaft. According to authors Julius Weitmann and Rico Steinemann, Ernst Fuhrmann, noting the pronounced separation between driver and passenger, joked that the engineering team had created a car for Jesuits. As if to counter that apparent conservatism, early 928s came standard with eye-popping Op-Art upholstery, a vivid touch in an otherwise somber cabin.
The Porsche 928’s exterior styling was as visually challenging as the Op-Art interior, which was exactly what Tony Lapine and his deputy, Wolfgang Möbius, had in mind. Like his former boss at GM, Harley Earl, Lapine said his goal was to be deliberately provocative in order to challenge the sensibilities of Porsche management. Even Ernst Fuhrmann didn’t care for the design at first, but Lapine was not dissuaded, arguing that a car that was immediately likeable would not age well.
Despite Lapine’s bravado, the 928’s design was as much a product of engineering necessity as stylistic inspiration. Unlike Harley Earl’s tenure at GM, where Design tended to dominate engineering in product development decisions, Lapine and his staff were seriously outnumbered; there were only 43 designers at Porsche, compared to about 2,000 engineers. Indeed, the 928’s curious proportions were largely dictated by packaging constraints, while features like the low, wide fenders and flip-up headlamps were intended to minimize frontal area. The plastic-covered, body-colored bumpers — controversial at the time — were an attempt at gracefully integrating the 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers required by American safety standards.
If nothing else, the 928 was distinctive. Contemporary American cars were baroque, awash in neo-Classical styling cues and padded vinyl roofs. Contemporary Italian designers were busily exploring the Giugiaro school of angularity, so the Porsche 928’s rounded but not curvaceous shape and unique telephone-dial wheels looked like nothing else on the road — except perhaps the AMC Pacer, a similarity Tony Lapine later acknowledged without shame. (Some sources suggest that the 928 was inspired by the Pacer, but based on the timing of the two designs, we consider that unlikely.)
Surprisingly, the 928 was not as aerodynamic as it looked. Despite its smooth contours, its faintly awkward proportions contributed to a mediocre 0.41 coefficient of drag. That wasn’t bad by the standards of its era, but it was inferior to the much older Porsche 356, which also benefited from a smaller frontal area.
928 UNDER FIRE
The Porsche 928’s basic design was presented to the Porsche board on November 19, 1973. By then, Porsche was faced with yet another challenge: the chaos in the Middle East following October’s Yom Kippur War. In retaliation for American support of Israel in that conflict, the OPEC nations embargoed oil shipments to the west, resulting in widespread fuel shortages. With that crisis yet to be resolved, a thirsty, V8-powered GT was a risky decision. There was talk of abandoning the 928 in favor of some cheaper, more fuel-efficient model. Fuhrmann felt the 928 was still a good concept, but expressed doubts that it was appropriate for the current environment.
The board took a wait-and-see attitude, allowing development and testing to continue through the following year without making any firm decision. Finally, on November 15, 1974, they decided to go ahead with the original design, gambling that the market would recover by the time the 928 went on sale. They were also encouraged by the progress of the EA 425 project (which emerged as the Porsche 924), which would be a cheaper and more fuel-efficient companion for the 928.
A COOL RECEPTION
The Porsche 928 made its public debut at the Geneva show in 1977 and went on sale later that year as a 1978 model. Its styling made the greatest impression on critics, not necessarily favorably. Some were impressed by its futuristic contours, others found it too similar to the cheaper 924, or decried it as bulbous and bug-eyed.
Response to the car itself was similarly guarded. The 928’s straight-line performance was excellent and its handling and braking needed no apologies, but it had none of the exhilaration of the contemporary 930. Its size and bulk — and to some extent, its array of luxury and convenience features — also drew sharp criticisms. The 928 was not nimble or hard-edged enough for sports car fans, but it was a little too stiff and demanding for buyers who might otherwise select a Mercedes 450SLC or a Jaguar XJ-S.
The 928’s confrontational styling and compromised dynamics seemed to discourage buyers and early sales were disappointing. At a bit under 5,000 units a year, it was eclipsed by both the Porsche 911 and the much cheaper 924. It sold well enough to justify a place in the Porsche lineup, but plans for it to replace the 911 were quietly shelved.
A CUSTOMARY EVOLUTION
The Porsche 928’s shape and configuration changed very little during its life, but there was the inevitable, steady refinement of the basic design. In 1980, a more-powerful 928S was added to the lineup, with a bigger, 4,644 cc (283 cu. in.) engine. A four-speed automatic, once again with Mercedes internals, replaced the earlier three-speed in 1983 and anti-lock brakes became available a year later, although they were not offered in the U.S. until 1986. In 1985, the engine was expanded to 4,957 cc (302 cu. in.) with four-valve heads and more sophisticated Bosch LH-Jetronic fuel injection.
The most significant exterior changes came with the arrival of the 928 S4 for the 1987 model year. The S4 got a new front clip, redesigned bumpers, and a rear spoiler. The changes added 2.3 inches (58 mm) to its overall length and helped to cut the 928’s drag coefficient to a more creditable 0.34.
The final version of the 928, offered from 1992 to 1995, was the Porsche 928 GTS, with a 5,397 cc (329 cu. in.) engine rated at 345 hp (257 kW). Although curb weight had crept up to just over 3,700 pounds (1,685 kg), even the automatic GTS was capable of 0-62 mph (0-100 km/h) in about 6.5 seconds, while top speed was now close to 170 mph (272 km/h). Unfortunately, U.S. prices now approached $90,000, not including luxury and gas-guzzler taxes. As a result, fewer than 500 928s were sold in the U.S. between 1992 and 1995, with ’95 sales amounting to a meager 84 cars.
By then, Porsche’s finances were in dismal shape. Sales of the 911 and 968 (the entry-level successor to the 924 and 944) were not much more encouraging than the 928 and the company was losing money at an alarming rate. Porsche decided to axe both the 928 and 968, focusing on revitalizing the 911 and developing the cheaper, mid-engine 986, which eventually became the Porsche Boxster.
Contrary to Ernst Fuhrmann’s fears, the 911 survived the 1980s in good stead and while sales slumped in the early nineties, there was no serious discussion of canceling it. The traditional air-cooled engine finally disappeared with the end of the 993 series in 1998, but its water-cooled successor is still going strong today, more than 15 years after the demise of its erstwhile replacement.
A PROPHET BEFORE ITS TIME
As Tony Lapine intended, time has validated the Porsche 928’s bar-of-soap looks. If it no longer has shock value on its side, neither does it look kitschy or particularly dated, as do so many of its 1970s contemporaries. Its lay-down headlamps are passé, but nothing else about its design would draw puzzled looks on a new car.
The 928 also feels thoroughly modern. For better or worse, the bulk for which it was once so derided is no longer unusual. Today, even hardcore sports cars have taken a turn for the sybaritic, sacrificing razor-edged performance for comfort and stability. Many modern sports cars — notably the Nissan Z — bear a decided resemblance to the Porsche 928 in both size and concept.
Like most Porsches, the 928 no longer depreciates significantly and good survivors are beginning to appreciate in value. Decent examples are still relatively attainable, although the cost of repairs and maintenance can be very high. Still, with certain exceptions, it has yet to attain the fervent following of the 356 or early 911 on the collector market. We suspect that the 928’s failing as a collector car is precisely that it is so modern. Collectors are drawn to rarity and novelty and in that respect, the 928 disappoints. Certainly, there are rare 928s, like the lightweight 928 CS of 1988-89, but with over 61,000 built in all, the 928 is not as rare as an Italian exotic or even the scarcer American muscle cars. As for novelty, the 928’s styling and character now seem almost orthodox.
In an earlier article, we described the AMC Pacer as a symbol of a possible future that passed us by. The Porsche 928, on the other hand, is neither a relic of the past nor a vision of the future. It remains very much a car of today — it just got here a little sooner than the rest of us.
As of this writing, Porsche is in far better financial condition and there are rumors that a new 928 may appear sometime after 2010, probably based on the upcoming Panamera sedan. Like the original (and the Panamera sedan and Cayenne SUV), any new 928 will no doubt be derided by Porsche fans on general principle. It remains to be seen, however, if it will prove to be as prescient as its namesake.
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NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included Julius Weitmann and Rico Steinemann, Project 928: A Development History of the Porsche 928 From First Sketch to Production (Stuttgart: Motorbuch Verlag, 1977); Randy Leffingwell, Corvette: America’s Sports Car (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1997), and Porsche Legends (Motorbooks Classic) (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1993); and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Porsche Chronicle (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1995). Tony LaPine’s comments on the Pacer may have originally come from an article in the June 1979 issue of Road & Track, but our source was www.amcpacer. com/ history/statsfacts.asp, accessed 11 October 2007.
Additional details came from Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002 Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001). Road test notes came from Don Sherman, “Supertest: Porsche 928 and 930,” Car and Driver April 1978; “Power Play: Porsche 928S vs. Jaguar XJ-S HE,” Wheels February 1983; “Five Part Harmony,” Road & Track January 1986; and John Barker, “Group Test: Tour de Force,” Performance Car April 1992, all of which are reprinted in Porsche 928 Takes On the Competition (Head to Head), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 1999). Further clarification of the function of the Weissach axle came from the photos posted by giamann to the Pelican Parts forum 1 December 2009 (forums.pelicanparts. com/ porsche-928-used-parts-sale-wanted/ 514187-porsche-928-complete-rear-suspension-400-obo.html), and from Wilhelm Kroniger and Wolfgang Eyb, assignors to Dr. Ing. HCF Porsche AG, “Motor vehicle wheel suspension arrangement,” U.S. Patent No. 4,157,840A, filed 27 September 1976, issued 12 June 1979.