Classic Sports Car
PORSCHE’S TWIN PEAKS
The GTS was the last hurrah for the 928, yet the car it was designed to replace, the 911, was just getting into its stride with the Carrera RS 3.8
Opposites attract as mighty 928 GTS meets outrageous 964 Carrera RS 3.8
‘These two could have shared showroom space back in the 1990s, though they look generations apart – because fundamentally they are’
Don’t sweat the small stuff, or so the saying goes. It’s the bigger picture that matters. But sometimes you can’t appreciate the bigger picture without understanding the detail. Sometimes the details are the bigger picture. On the surface, the two cars we have here would seem to share little beyond the Porsche crests on their bonnets, teardrop ‘Cup’ mirrors, and the Guards Red warpaint they wear. One is the last gasp of Porsche’s failed front-engined GT experiment to replace the 911, and has just sold at The Hairpin Company for around £70,000. The other, the former property of fourtime Indycar champ Dario Franchitti, is a thinly veiled racing car on offer at the same garage for a not inconsequential £1.13m more.
But they each represent the pinnacle of their respective model lines. If many of us aspire to Porsche ownership, these specific models, the 928 GTS and 964 Carrera RS 3.8, are the cars to which many existing owners of 928s and late air-cooled 911s aspire. Very few will ever manage it because their desirability is matched by their rarity. They are the unicorns.
Coincidentally, these two machines are also contemporaries and could have shared showroom space back in the early 1990s, though they look generations apart because, of course, fundamentally they are. Mentally strip away the RS 3.8’s swollen arches and giant rear wing, and the 911 looks delicate and so narrow. But then its core shape can be traced to the 901 Porsche unveiled at the Frankfurt show in 1963, whereas the 928 – itself no spring chicken by the time this GTS was built – is almost 15 years younger.
The basic silhouette of this 1992 GTS is little different from that of the original 4.5-litre, spoiler-free 928 introduced at Geneva in 1977, but the GTS is a bigger car in every way. Though Porsche continued to evolve the 928 constantly throughout its 17-year life, even after it had realised that the front-engined car could never replace the 911 as originally envisaged, the step-change that’s most relevant to the GTS backstory occurred in the autumn of 1986 when Porsche introduced the 928 S4, stretching the aluminium V8 to 5 litres, adding twin-cam, fourvalve heads and, most obviously, smoothing the bumpers and fitting flush lights.
The USA and Continental Europe received a 100kg (220lb) lighter, more driver-focused 928 Club Sport spin-off in 1987, while the UK got a similar, if slightly less extreme, SE; both were replaced in early 1989 by the 928 GT, which offered more of the same and subsequently morphed, finally, into the GTS in 1992. This then became the only 928 offered until the model line was axed three years later.
It takes a fairly eagle eye to tell an S4 from an SE or a GT, but not so the GTS, whose fat rear wheelarch flares make it the simplest of all 928 spots, and build the excitement as you reach for the doorhandle. Swing open the long door, drop into an interior that’s greyer than John Major’s Spitting Image puppet and you’re immediately struck by the vision afforded in every direction, particularly ahead. The dashboard falls away from the scuttle, creating an airy feel alien to Jaguar XJ-S drivers, and wraps round and into the door panels in very modern fashion.
The V8 fires easily and settles to a purposeful rumble that can be subbed for a muted bark with a blip of gas that sets the car rocking on its springs like a garage-built hot rod. If that showboating and the butch reputation of the GTS suggests you might want to put in a few 200lb barbell squats to limber up for pressing the
clutch, it’s a surprise to discover that the leftmost of the three pedals – which are oddly mismatched for height – is actually as light as a supermini’s. The gearlever, too, requires almost no physical effort, but a little of the mental kind as a consequence to make sure you’re selecting the intended of its five ratios.
Far more rare and desirable than the fourspeed automatic alternative, that transmission – a dogleg-shift Getrag five-speeder driving the rear wheels through Porsche’s clever, electronically controlled PSD limited-slip differential – is mounted at the back of the car. It’s connected via a torque tube to the V8 that’s currently wafting the 928’s considerable 1620kg heft along Oxfordshire’s damp spring lanes on the merest whiff of throttle.
Tightening emissions regulations in the early 1990s forced Porsche to switch to milder cams for the GTS, but there was ample compensation from a longer stroke that stretched capacity from 5.0 to 5.4 litres and new pistons that hiked the compression up four points to 10.4:1. These changes lifted power from the GT’S 326bhp to 345bhp, but made a much bigger impression on the torque output, whose peak swelled by 51lb ft to a thickset 369lb ft. That maximum doesn’t arrive until 4250rpm, but there’s enough fullness in the foothills of the torque curve to make wringing this V8 optional, rather than essential.
An extra prod of right foot to dispatch a dawdler is met with a crisp response from the Bosch fuel-injected V8 at low revs, and a noticeably stronger lunge forward when you try the same trick with the red needles wrapped further round the clear but slightly bland dials. Autocar measured the GTS at 5.4 secs to 60mph and 168mph at the far end, numbers impressive enough to keep any modern honest.
With fat 225 front, 255 rear rubber wrapped around its 17in alloys and a claimed 50:50 weight distribution thanks to the transaxle layout, the GTS doesn’t have anything to fear from those whippersnappers in the bends, either. You never quite escape the feeling that you’re piloting a big car, but the light, surprisingly feelsome steering points the 928 keenly into every corner, and with the headlamps raised to cut through the almost wintry gloom – making you feel as if you’re driving a Caterham with a dining table draped over its bonnet – it’s not hard to place the car exactly where you want it.
There’s a touch of vertical movement along undulating B-roads, and some harshness over sharper intrusions, but body roll is kept smartly in check. Even in these damp conditions, and even with this much torque on hand, the GTS feels reassuringly tied down, only edging wide at the rear on the tightest of curves and with your most mischievous mode engaged.
It’s clear that this is far more than a big, grand touring cruiser. Yes, it’s better suited to longdistance driving than a 911, but it delivers so much more of a sports car feel, and invites you to up the pace more than a contemporary XJ-S or BMW 850i could, albeit at the expense of some of the refinement that the 928’s classic GT proportions promise.
Contemporary testers regularly criticised the 928’s tyre roar, particularly on the later cars, but today it’s the steering kickback on uneven surfaces that quite literally jars. It makes you wonder exactly how bad the 964 Carrera RS, a machine with no gran turismo pretensions whatsoever, might feel on these roads.
From the looks on the faces of other road users, they’re wondering the same. In fact, never mind whether the RS 3.8 works on these roads, they’re probably wondering whether it’s even allowed on them. The 928 is a striking-looking car, and might be less familiar than the 911, but the wings, the stance and the sound make it impossible not to stare open-mouthed at the RS, which looks as if it took a wrong turn out of parc fermé after the Nürburgring 24 Hours.
That’s no coincidence. This car’s predecessor, the 964 Carrera RS, much like its ’73 and ’74 namesakes and the little-known 911SC RS, existed purely to homologate Porsche’s racing machinery. It was unveiled to the world at the 1991 Geneva Salon and based on the
‘With headlamps raised to cut through the gloom, it feels as if you’re driving a Caterham with a dining table over its bonnet’
964-generation 911 that had arrived two years earlier. It was a model that retained most of the original 911’s compact, air-cooled character (and abysmal ergonomics), but finally delivered antilock brakes, power-assisted steering, coil-sprung suspension and even the options of Tiptronic automatic transmission and four-wheel drive.
The RS, effectively a roadgoing version of Porsche’s Carrera Cup racer, did without much of that extraneous stuff. The narrow-arched bodyshell retained the 964 Carrera 2 and 4 road cars’ electrically operated rear wing, but was seam-welded, fitted with thinner glass, little soundproofing, aluminium front and rear panels, and no underseal. Brake sizes grew and the ride height shrank, the handsome 17in Cup wheels hiding stiffer springs and lightweight aluminium hubs. The better-equipped Touring versions weighed around 1300kg (2866lb), but the more basic Sport model came in at 1230kg (2712lb), representing a 10% saving versus a Carrera and magnifying the effect of a modest 10bhp boost to 256bhp for the 3.6-litre flat-six.
Today those first RSS routinely change hands for more than £170,000 and are fêted as among the greatest Porsches ever built. But in period, before weekend track days had really taken off and made sense of this kind of car, not everyone was quite so enamoured. Autocar praised the responsive engine, crisp gearchange and brake feel, but was less effusive about the harsh ride and ‘unbearable’ tyre rumble, concluding: ‘It isn’t half the road car it could and should be.’
Stuttgart’s next move was unlikely to do anything to mute those gripes. With an eye on
GT racing, Porsche whacked the RS dial round to 11, creating a 964 RSR in 1993 and, once again, a series of road cars to homologate it. Where the earlier, narrow-body RS looked like a tougher Carrera, the 3.8 made even the turbo look tame. It pinched the turbo’s fat rear arches, but filled them with even bigger Speedline wheels measuring 9in wide at the nose and an outrageous, almost Countach-sized 11in at the back. And squeezing them into the Tarmac was a giant, multi-adjustable rear wing whose end plates bore the legend ‘RS 3.8’ to let everyone know what was hiding under the rear lid.
When the door shuts with that satisfyingly solid 911 ‘clunk’ you’re struck by how slim, old-fashioned and upright the cockpit feels after the 928. The interior is black and bare, stripped of almost anything not useful in the pursuit of going quickly, and features the steering wheel on the right, making it one of three so-equipped and the only one supplied new to the UK. There are simple, flat door panels with the classic RS fabric latch pulls, a fabulous three-spoke steering wheel that obscures a big chunk of the speedo’s arc, and a pair of the most perfect hard-shell bucket seats anyone with a monk-like control of their beer and choccy urges could wish for.
Bar the very earliest cars, the standard 964 Carreras came fitted with big, heavy dual-mass flywheels. The RS cars didn’t, to the benefit of engine response, but definitely not mechanical refinement. Fire up the 3.8 and the six-speed gearbox chunters noisily through the rear carpet and into the void reserved for rear seats in lesser 911s. Feeling scared yet? The floor-mounted pedals are skewed heavily to the left, but first gear slots home with the kind of precision that would shock owners of early 911s, and sets the tone for everything that’s to come.
There’s no slop, no slack, no messing about with the RS 3.8. The ride is bearable, but the suspension, which comprises shorter, stiffer springs, tight Bilstein dampers and adjustable anti-roll bars, has clearly been set up with smoother surfaces in mind, and the brake pedal feels fantastically firm underfoot. Roll the fat wheel away from centre and the twin peaks of the 911’s wings dart into the coming bend, weight building at your wrists, but never too strongly thanks to a rare power-steering option. It makes this Porsche a touch more welcoming without compromising on communication, and amplifying the feeling of a total lack of inertia in the way the RS changes pace and direction. But then this is a very light car; 20kg lighter again than the Carrera RS 3.6 despite the wide shell and wheels, with aluminium doors helping
‘You don’t just notice the extra clout over a Carrera, but also the incredible enthusiasm this engine shows for creating it’
‘While the RS doesn’t have the low-rev pull that makes the 928 feel so effortless, you’re soon into the zone where things get exciting’
to bring the weight down to 1210kg (2668lb).
That, however, wasn’t enough for Porsche’s Weissach motorsport department, which teased the flat-six up from 256 to 296bhp by extending the stroke to liberate another 200cc, fitting lightweight, higher-compression pistons and rockers. And it’s not just the extra clout over a contemporary 248bhp Carrera 2 that you notice, but the incredible enthusiasm this engine shows for creating it. The throttle response is fantastic, the crisp bark of the intake and exhaust urges you to try harder, and while the RS doesn’t have the same low-rev pull that makes the 928 feel so effortlessly rapid, it spins up so quickly that you’re soon into the 4-5000rpm zone where things really start to get exciting, and on your way to the 7200rpm redline. Porsche quoted a 170mph top speed for the 3.8, 1mph less than it claimed for the 928 GTS, and hampered no doubt by that giant rear wing. But it also claimed 4.9 secs to 60mph, putting the rear-engined car half a second ahead to the yardstick.
But if there’s a surprise, given its looks and its rawness, it’s that the RS is far less intimidating, far easier to push than its swagger suggests. As with most 911s, particularly those running big back rubber, the handling is biased towards understeer, and while the RS 3.8 is a fast car in absolute terms, its performance is easily contained by the grip and traction those fat wheels and big rear wing deliver.
Of course, it’s only on a circuit and at much higher speeds than we’re able to achieve today that the true benefit of much of the RS 3.8’s specialised componentry and set-up can be experienced. The irony is that most of the best-driving 911s are now too valuable for all but the most masochistic owners to experience fully as Porsche intended. Even those with an abundance of talent. Such as Franchitti, previous owner of this 22,000-mile stunner, who told us that his RS never felt a handful thanks to its abundance of grip over power, but that: “It was too original to drive it how I wanted to. So I turned it into part of a Daytona Spider.”
If you fancy your chances with either of these cars, it’s predictably the GTS that’s the more realistic ownership proposition. While 928 prices deservedly rose dramatically in the middle of the previous decade as this fantastic grand tourer underwent something of a rehabilitation, it’s still possible to get into a standard car for £20k. And although this GTS sold for more than three times that thanks to its low mileage, fine condition and the rarity of its manual gearbox, leggier, full-historied automatic examples of the 2831 GTSS built do crop up for £40,000.
That seems like great value for one of the least numerous Porsches, particularly when you consider that you’ll struggle to get into any kind of air-cooled 911 for similar money these days. But the 928 isn’t a 911. It couldn’t replace the 911 in Porsche fans’ affections in the 1970s and ’80s, and certainly can’t now. The 911 is Porsche, as far as most people are concerned, which is why, despite a slight softening in prices over the past couple of years, demand for 911s and, more pointedly, the most special 911s such as this RS 3.8, will always far outstrip supply.