BUYERS’ GUIDE: 944 Turbo
Buying Porsche’s ’80s Turbo terrific
During the 1980s the words “Porsche” and “Turbo” brought one car to most people’s minds: the widearched, big-spoilered 911 flagship in all its pomp and aggression, the exclusive rear-engined supercar for the wealthy, and perhaps brave. But as from the middle of that decade there was a second blown Porsche available, one entirely different in character, and with an image that was as understated as the 911 Turbo’s was extrovert.
The 944 Turbo, arriving in 1985, three years after the launch of the 944 itself, was actually more expensive new than a 911 Carrera, partly why it was not a particularly popular model. But it also suffered the non-image problem of the rest of the 944 range, the Audi-assembled car still seen by many as a Volkswagen cast-off that, for cost reasons, Zuffenhausen took on in 1976 as the 924 and made it as much of a Porsche as possible.
The perceived lack of pedigree has left all 944 values a fraction of the 911’s, although they are now starting to rise. You can pick up a 944 Turbo for under £10,000, which does seem an extraordinary bargain. But does a car that could be over 30 years old deliver a good Porsche experience, and what should you be looking out for if considering buying one?
First, some 944 context: the original 1982 944 “Lux” appeared with a 2.5-litre fourcylinder “big banger” engine giving 161bhp and 151lb ft torque. Its gearbox, a fivespeeder derived from the 924, was rearmounted for good weight distribution. In August 1983 power-steering became optional, and in September 1984 made standard, and the interior refreshed with a completely new fascia using a flat instrument display rather than three sunken dials, while minor improvements included electrically adjusted and heated door mirrors.
With the 944’s spec sorted, Porsche launched the 944 Turbo in September 1985 for the 1986 model year. Its 2-valve, 2.5litre engine used an intercooled KKK turbocharger and produced 217bhp, and 243lb ft torque at 3500rpm, over a third more power and half as much torque again as was produced by the 944 at that point.
The gearbox was strengthened, and the suspension springs and anti-roll bars stiffened. A spoiler with integrated lamps graced the nose, an apron spoiler with ‘Turbo’ lettering the rear, along with an underbody spoiler designed to suck extra air over the exhaust, transmission and fuel tank. The cabin received various upgrades including electrically adjustable Recaro seats. The UK price was £27,500, over a third more than that of the regular 944.
The crucial date for 944 Turbo fanciers is September 1988, when a larger turbocharger resulted in power leap-
frogging the 911 to 247bhp, and torque rising to 259lb ft at 4000rpm. The engine featured an external oil cooler and the brakes were uprated. In fact the previous November this engine spec had appeared in a run of 70 of the Turbo SE Limited Edition with 928 brakes and painted in Silver Rose metallic.
The new model was designated the 944 Turbo SE, with the non-se model running alongside it for a short time. A large ‘Turbo’ sticker on the driver’s side wing marked out the more powerful car, while extra equipment included a limited-slip differential, 10-speaker sound system, toptinted screen and split-folding rear seat.
The most obvious difference between pre- and post-1988 cars is the sevenspoked alloy wheels which replaced the original “telephone dial” rims. The SE ran 7Jx16in fronts with 225/50 tyres and 9Jx16in rears with 245/45s; its price was now £41,250, over £4000 more than a 911 Carrera 3.2.
In summer 1989 the Turbo’s engine was fitted with a catalyst with no loss of power, and a 959 style ‘bridge’ rear spoiler was added. The coupe was discontinued in February 1991, but that wasn’t the end of the turbocharged 944 as in September of that year it was made available in Cabriolet form for the first time, this in a batch of 500, 100 of them right-hand drive.
DRIVING THE 944 TURBO
For its day the 944’s turbo was a top installation, and once the turbo is on song the engine offers a deep reserve of usable power. What you don’t get, obviously, is the 911 flat-six’s frenzied wail, the motor not in the least stirring, even when the turbocharger is spinning.
The five-speed gearshift is short, but the distance between it and the gearbox inevitably means some stiffness, hence a firm and deliberate push is needed each time, although in contrast the clutch is, or should be, sweet and light.
The powered steering is perfectly weighted, and with its level of grip, the sheer controllability of the tail under power and the ultra communicative feel of the chassis, the 944 Turbo was without doubt the best handling road car of its time – and is still impressive.
Enter the 944 and you could almost be in a 1980s Audi, the fittings bland but well made. However, the 944 is a much easier car to live with day to day than a contemporary 911, thanks partly to normal pedals rather than the 911’s floor-hinged items, and heating and ventilation that works properly.
WHAT YOU’LL PAY
While you can still buy 944s for £5000 or a bit less, 944 Turbos now start at nearly £10,000, and the ability, with a service book convincingly full of stamps, to elevate the
price to £15,000 for a private seller, and up to £20,000 in a Porsche specialist showroom. If you want low mileage, say under 80,000 miles, expect to pay over £20,000.
The Turbo, along with other 944s, is a car that is migrating from mainstream sales websites to specialist classic car sites. For example, Car and Classic had 25 of them for sale when we checked. The highest priced “normal” example we saw was the 73,000-mile Grand Prix White coupe at Hamilton Grays in Loughborough, Leicestershire for £24,950, but you now also see “time capsule” cars appearing at £30,000 to £40,000. An Austrian classic dealer was asking £39,000 for a 60,000km (37,500 miles) car described as in ‘nearly perfect condition’.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: ENGINE
The engine is not particularly stressed by the addition of a turbo, and remains as reliable as the normally aspirated 2.5, according to David Barker at Gloucestershire-based 944 specialist Augment Automotive. ‘It should show about 3.0 bar oil pressure at idle and 4.5 bar plus above 2000rpm, and should run and tick over quietly, though the oil-filled tappets can make a clacking noise if they are not run regularly, which should stop once the engine warms up,’ he explains. Smoke from the exhaust needs to be investigated with the usual compression and/or leak down tests and checks.
Oil leaks are an annoyance, most often from the balance or camshaft seals on the front of the engine, but this is easily dealt with as part of a camshaft change. It is also common for the rear crank seal to leak. ‘Unfortunately this can only be fixed by removing either the engine then the clutch or by removing the gearbox and torque tube, either of which is costly and time consuming,’ David warns.
All cars are over 25 years old and the cylinder head gaskets will be suspect. ‘They tend not to actually fail, but they do rot away and allow the cooling water to bypass the rear of the block and engine,’ David explains.
But what of the model’s unique aspect, the turbocharger? ‘Turbochargers can leak oil, so if the car smokes then the turbo may be the cause,’ David says. ‘Some idea of its condition can be gained by removing a pipe from the intercooler, on top of the engine, and if you see lots of oil inside the pipe, the turbo needs to be investigated for worn bearings and seals.’
Removing the turbo is often a time consuming job due to seized bolts in difficult places. The wastegate can also suffer from long term heat damage, with cracked valve seats, broken valves, a failed diaphragm and broken springs. ‘There are good, reasonably priced, direct-fit aftermarket wastegates that work reliably,’ is David’s view.
It’s durable, so accept any whines from it as excusable after quarter of a century. However, there are clutch issues: worn plates, noisy release bearings, worn operating forks with damaged spindles and
bottoms and also the area under the battery in the boot.