964 TUR­BOS RE­VIS­ITED

911 Porsche World - - Contents - Words: Mark Hales Photography: Antony Fraser

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

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