964 TURBOS REVISITED
Racer and instructor, Mark Hales, tested the 964 Turbo when it was the new Turbo on the block. Time to revisit for a contemporary take
They say you should never go back, but for motoring journalist, Mark Hales, the chance to drive again the 964 Turbo is a useful exercise in re-evaluating Porsche’s ’90s engineering and dynamic mindset. In short, it’s rather better than he remembered as he drives both the early 3.3 and later 3.6 964 Turbos
It was Goodwood, probably about 1989. I was there with the thennew 911 turbo for a photoshoot, most likely for Fast Lane magazine, or maybe the Telegraph. As you can see, the recall’s a bit hazy. Rather clearer, fortunately, is the memory of the car’s dynamics. It was fast, no doubt about it, but electronics had yet to micro manage the engine’s essential functions and there was a fair interval between treading the gas and the expected rush provided by a single huge turbo. I wrote, saying it “had lag you could measure with a sundial followed by a massive surge which sort of made up for the wait…” On the track, we had a car which would push into the corner almost irrespective of any loading on the brakes or steering input carefully timed to take advantage. Then, when the boost arrived, it would only make things worse, sitting the tail down, picking up the front and shoving it wider still. In a reflective moment, it did occur to me that if it was any different, then you might have a serious problem. Electronics had yet to manage the chassis, too – and the multiplicity of links which now twiddle the toe and camber at the rear weren’t there either, let alone the large sticky tyres which are now pretty much standard. If that level of grunt appeared when the car was tipping into the corner with the rear end just leading the front, well, you could see what might happen.
Almost by accident then, it was selfregulating. Any traditional looseness of the engine-laden 911 tail, provoked by getting in too fast and lifting off the gas had time to settle before that big spike of grunt, after which push and power fought each other until the corner was done. Sometimes you had a bit of a slither right on the exit but, more often than not, the understeer got worse and you had to lift to tuck the nose back in. Depended on the tightness of the bend. Since then, I’d been on more than a few Porsche launches, usually for the Telegraph, and it became clear that the Turbo variant was never intended for the keen driver who might take it to a track, or tweak the front suspension and make it point. There were plenty of naturally aspirated models aimed at those buyers, and the lap times at the Nürburgring were there as evidence. Walter was always quicker in the nonturbo model which had less power. Over the years, the Turbo had certainly
acquired icon status but it was never a big seller; by the end of the air-cooled era, Porsche had made just 32,200 of them.
That Goodwood experience was nearly 30 years ago and I haven’t spent so much time in 911s of late, but a few months ago one of my students sent me an email; he owns a 1994 3.6 litre Turbo, which had only done 44,000 miles. Would I like to drive it, see if one of the magazines was interested? I then discovered it was completely original, even down to the big four-spoke steering wheel with its offset centre and complete with limited-slip differential, 18-inch Speedline split rim wheels, a sunroof, rear wiper and sports seats with red piping and extra lateral support. All of them factory-supplied extras of course. And, it is one of only 31 righthand drive cars made, out of a total of 1474 produced that year. The longer and wider 993 model was due to launch and take its place in history as the last of the air-cooled cars – and there would be no more twowheel drive turbos – so Porsche appear to have made a handful of 3.6 litre 964 Turbos to keep people happy while they waited. It seems like a lot of effort to put the wheel on the other side for just 31 buyers, but now detail like that which seemed irrelevant at the time only makes a car rarer, and worth more money…
The key point for me though was the fact that Michael – whose day job is in construction – had been obsessively careful not to modify the car in any way. Not sure why he had a 44,000 mile engine rebuilt by specialists Hexagon, and looking back, neither is he, other than there were “a couple of minor problems” and he wanted it perfect. It is almost impossible to find a car like this which hasn’t been fiddled with in some way – almost all of them have brake and wheel upgrades, different dampers and so on, sometimes for good reason, maybe less so in this case. It would be a delightful and rare opportunity. I reckoned it would be useful if we could find a slightly earlier
“Porsche made a handful ” of 3.6 964 Turbos to keep people happy
model as a comparison, as much for my benefit as anybody’s, but also to put the cars in context and see how the model had developed during its lifespan. Michael came up trumps here as well, finding a beautiful 1991 3.3-litre Turbo in Guards Red, 52,000 miles on the clock with original “Cup” wheels and complete with electric sports seats and limited slip differential. For sale in a West London Mews for £129,950, it too had recently had a full engine rebuild, but was otherwise original bar a slightly smaller steering wheel. We had a pair of bookends for the 964 Turbo’s lifespan, each looking almost exactly as they did in the press pictures at the launches. More important as far as I was concerned, neither car had been lowered, stiffened or set up with any departure from the factory settings.
The view under the boot with its signature tea tray spoiler is a busy one, dominated by a large intercooler and a huge air conditioning pump, and of course the engine’s cooling fan which also blows air through the intercooler to exhaust through the louvres on the spoiler. It’s all very different to the volume norm, as was the construction. I remember well a visit to the factory about the time when these were made and seeing men wearing brown smocks using a wooden template and a large mallet to ensure the window apertures were perfect while others flowed molten brass or lead into joints or dimples in the body before it was painted. The Toyotamanaged cost cutting and productionisation that would soon be necessary if Porsche was to survive was only a few years off and these were the last models that would be built by hand. Not sure you can tell by looking, but once you know, it adds something. Now though, it was time for the important part.
The venue was Bicester’s Heritage park with its corner of airfield peri-tracks and access roads combined to make up a small circuit. Not grand and sweeping like Goodwood, but much more like a public road – complete with bumps. First go was in the earlier 3.3-litre ’91 car and a swift reminder of the things I’d forgotten about the breed. Like the pedals hinged at the bottom, and offset to the left thanks to the right-hand drive, the sparse cabin
“Toyota style production ” would soon be needed for Porsche to survive
“The boost starts to come in around ” 2500rpm, pulling really hard by three
and simple dash with its bold simple dials and outsize clock. The seats were softer than I expected but I sink in and they feel nicely supportive, and the wheel is in exactly the right place, plus I can see over the wings and short bonnet to aim the nose. A rear-mounted engine brings benefits other than traction. Then there’s the clattery starter followed by the whine of the fan and the tick from the mechanicals, and of course the rudimentary climate control on a hot day. One you set off, none of it matters because the drive is immediately involving. The gearshift is clunky to the touch, but slick and accurate and the steering feels firm, with a large amount of self-centring, so much so that I wonder if like the really early ones, it doesn’t have power assist. It does and you know as soon as you turn off the engine. The kick back at the wheel though is an essential part of the involvement, and I’d forgotten about that, too. Porsches have grown progressively longer and wider over the years, but this one is still small by comparison and the weight of the engine out back sets off the signature corner to corner rock and roll as the car rides a bumpy corner and makes the wheel fidget in your hands in exact time. Nothing else does that.
It squats good and hard, too, enough to lift a front wheel off the road, something you see clearly in the pictures and feel very definitely as you poke it out of a corner. The 3.3 litre engine pushes out about 320 horsepower and the boost starts to come in around 2500, pulling really hard by three, but there’s no sudden surge like you get on some modern turbodiesels. The gears are quite long so you hang on to each for a while, and squirting it up Bicester’s 300 metre straight through second and into third, I didn’t feel the massive turbo lag I thought I’d experienced all those years ago. It felt more like the way you accelerate when you have passengers and don’t want to see their heads go back… Yes, it does still push on if I try and force it through the 180 degree hairpin, so that bit hasn’t changed, but through any of the shorter corners it’s pretty much straight by the time the power comes in. It all felt nicely intimate, as if the major controls were still directly connected and not being managed by systems. Watching from the outside, the engine and exhausts are in the same place so the breathy roar from the fan combines with the strangled hiss from the tailpipes to make a noise like a business jet warming up. Nothing else sounds like that either.
“It squats good and ” hard, enough to lift a front wheel off the road
Time to try the 3.6, and there’s nothing quite so informative as climbing from one car straight to the next on the same day at the same venue. The seats with their red piping (£186 to you, sir) are immediately firmer and the engine sends more noise through the shell and into the cabin. Gearshift isn’t quite so slick – possibly the throw is a bit longer and the clutch is certainly heavier underfoot – and there’s more of a mechanical thrum feeding back. Porsche lengthened the stroke and widened the bores to get the extra volume, although not by much, but it sounds and feels like a bigger engine, even before you plant the gas. The ride is firmer, too, and the steering is a touch heavier. Bigger tyres, little details… When you do plant it, the heave in the back is definitely not a little one. The specs say there’s another 40bhp and another 50lb ft of torque, both peaking at lower rpm, but the engine hangs on relentlessly through those long gears, feeling so much bigger than the numbers. Porsche had used a lightly revised development of the old 930 engine for the 3.3 whereas the 3.6 was the newer M64 unit, developed in the interim for the forthcoming 993 but equipped for this role with a single KKK turbo like its predecessor. Michael’s engine hasn’t been modified though; these cars were the last with the KJetronic continuous mechanical injection so fiddling is not something done with a keyboard, even if he’d wanted. The difference between the cars is nevertheless startling and the 3.6 feels bigger all round, which of course it isn’t.
The difference in the handling between the two is less marked, which is no bad thing. There’s more grip and less movement on the 3.6, thanks to the bigger wheels and tyres (205/55 and 255/40-17s against 225/40 and 265/35-18s) and the stiffer suspension, but the basic characteristics are very similar. There’s still some rock and roll – perhaps a bit less and with a little less fidget at the wheel – and it will push the nose on if you force it to fit a long, tight corner, although now there’s just enough power to ease the tail wide as you exit the shallower ones. It straightens up almost by itself and is all very civilised and easy to enjoy, but it’s on the public road though that the 3.6 really rewards. I never thought I’d hear myself say that...
The road ride is extremely compliant and well damped, and the steering, which occasionally felt a bit limp on the track, becomes sharp without being nervous. And the engine, which I’d complained about all those years ago, seems even more suited to the task. You identify an overtaking opportunity, ease the wheel right and plant the gas, then feel the power coming in, nice and progressive, no sudden surge, just a
gentle squat of the tail followed by a relentless outpouring of power which goes on and on in just the one gear. On which topic, the slightly heavy, bottom hinged clutch and long throw shift is no real trouble because you have less need to pump them. Same with the brakes. The slightly odd action at the pedal is more than made up by the excellent modulation. You get real feel which allows you to load up a light front end to just the right amount. Deserted roundabouts become something to be savoured rather than merely negotiated.
All too soon it was time for me to head North and Michael to take his Turbo back to Greater London, but I would have been just as happy to chuck the bags in the back and head for Dover and then the South West of France. The Turbo is an easy driving companion, small enough to be comfortable in traffic, good view all round, but with controls that feel connected to everything. And if 360bhp sounds modest by today’s standards, the car is relatively light and the combination is plenty quick enough to provide excitement when you need some – it just does it in a different way. Which I think is the point Porsche was making at the time. I remembered one engineer’s response to the question, why did they make the Turbo and the GT3 and use the Nürburgring lap times as bragging rights? The cars were different, he said, aimed at different buyers. The Turbo’s speed was just a bonus and the car achieved it in a different way, mainly thanks to the turbo torque… I’m not sure I really got that then, but I think I do now. If you have no intention of taking your car to a track, then the exact amount of push through a hairpin is irrelevant.
But talking of the past, I’ve almost overlooked the fact that these two cars are heading towards classic status. The red one will soon see its 30th birthday, a detail that would normally ensure that it’s affordable but hopefully still usable and not too rusty. As a counterpoint, I found a handful of similar era BMW M5s, and some Corvettes, advertised for around the 15K mark, or if you fancy a left field option, several TVRS. Astons and Ferraris from the same era were a bit more, but there seemed to be some available for less than 60K and there was a fair bit of choice amongst all of them. Michael’s 3.6 Turbo wore an original price tag of £65,447 plus the extras, making a total of £79,995. He’s not looking to sell but he says a similar car sold recently for North of 300K. Good for him, but now, it’s about the only part of all this that doesn’t make any sense to me… PW
“Talking of the past, ” these two cars are now heading to classic status
The early 3.3-litre 964 Turbo used an uprated version of the original 930 Turbo engine. Guards Red? What else? Well, black of course!
The 18in Speedline split rims mark this out as being a later 3.6-litre 964 Turbo
Journalist, racer and track driving tutor, Mark Hales tested the 964 Turbo when it was contemporary. Revisiting the model has been an interesting exercise
Interiors show the trends of the time. If in doubt, go for black, we say. Both feature Porsche’s then Sports seats, a carry-over from the previous generation 911 and one of Porsche’s best pews
There’s a lot crammed into the engine bay, but essentially the larger 3.6-litre engine puts out 360bhp
Massive intercooler dominates. All looks crude by today’s standards. Power for ealier 3.3-litre car is 320bhp