FULL-FRONTAL ASSAULT

By Graeme Hurst with photography by Mahomed Ozayr Abdulla

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The famous Porsche badge is rightfully synonymous with rear-engined, air-cooled entertainment but that association – which is undoubtedly flawed in some respects – was arguably so deep it came at the expense of one of Stuttgart’s finest designs.

It must have been hugely frustrating for Porsche’s board – especially given the German fixation for perfection – to have gone to the trouble, back in the early ʼ70s, of sponsoring a clean sheet replacement for its ageing (and by then, increasingly criticised) 911 format and then face what was effectively a customer backlash as demand for the rear-engined forerunner continued to soar. And that in spite of an undoubtedly super-sophisticated sports GT that was so accomplished it won European Car of the Year – an award more usually reserved for family saloons than a super pricey top-end market offering.

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But passion, especially when it comes to all things petrol-driven, can fly in the face of logic as the men in Stuttgart no doubt realised after they were forced to sign off various evolutions of the 911 to appease the market. We can thank them for that as – fast-forward four decades – our collective hobby would be a heck of a lot poorer without the likes of a 930 Turbo or GT2.

Those icons also cast a permanent shadow over the 928, which was launched in 1978 and remained in production for close on 20 years, going through five iterations – which is testament as to how avant garde the original design was. Thankfully, those same enthusiasts are now fast realising that the board’s efforts to engineer the 928 need to be celebrated and, by all accounts from dealers, demand for these V8-engined coupés is surging.

The 928 story goes back to 1971… remember that the 911’s design began its drawing-board gestation almost a decade before and, although a frontrunner in the sports car world, it had acquired a reputation for being tail-happy which was increasingly exacerbated by ongoing power increases. The higher operating temperatures and associated engineering tolerances and materials that air-cooled designs necessitated also made it pricey to produce, and increasingly difficult to tame for US emissions regulations. A switch to a water-cooled format would sort both those problems while placing the engine up front would aid crash protection and circumvent the predicted eventual ban on rear-engined cars in the USA.

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But all that meant a serious rethink, which the Stuttgart carmaker’s then-new CEO Ernst Fuhrmann was happy to entertain. Previously the company’s technical director, he convinced his board to underwrite an all-new design for a front-engined, two-plus-two coupé, and engaged Anatole Lupine to style it. His efforts delivered the smooth and unadorned futuristic hatchback shape we have come to know. With its flush detailing and integrated body colour bumpers, the 928’s curves were about as far as a draughtsman could get from Butzi Porsche’s icon while still using paper and ink.

And the step change wasn’t only skin deep: the curves were wrapped around some exciting technology, starting with a 4.4-litre all-alloy, overhead cam V8 engine and – in the quest to achieve near 50:50 weight distribution – a transaxle rear, which was mated to a multi-link ‘Weissach’ rear end, a piece of marketing spin inspired by the name of the company’s testing facility.

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The use of uninterrupted styling extended to the interior, which featured a heavily sculpted dash and centre console and floating, height-adjustable instrument binnacle. For a carmaker routed in a rear-engined, air-cooled format with simple (almost spartan) interiors, this was a radical departure. But it paid off when the 928 won that COTY award in ʼ78 after more than 50 international motoring journalists gave it their vote when it was launched at the Geneva show. The award was an enormous boost, and sales were initially spectacular with 5 000 928s leaving the showroom floor in the first year alone.

Looking at early road tests one can see the attraction: with the Bosch K-Jetronic fuel-injected V8 good for 180kW – along with 348Nm of torque – performance was eyebrow-raising for the late ʼ70s with 0-60mph-in-7-seconds ability and a 140mph top-end whack, as the UK mag Motor recorded.

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It was heady stuff, but not quite into Aston Martin or Ferrari territory. Cue the 928S, which followed just two years on after an impressive 17 000+ sales run and boasted a capacity boost to 4.7 litres and 221kW metrics. That’s when our local press got their hands on one, with CAR magazine’s August ’81 test full of praise for what was then the fastest production car to come their way (with a 228.2km/h needle reading). But the performance came at a price: R58 850 through importers Lindsay Saker – this when a locally assembled BMW 535i (itself no slouch) could be yours for R22 750.

CAR’s test car was the same colour and manual spec as the 928S we have here. Get behind the wheel and you’ll quickly understand why it made such an impression nearly 40 years ago. The ergonomics were way ahead of the competition at the time with a low, ensconced driving position that amplified the car’s solid, GT feel – as does the V8’s wide spread of torque which is strong enough to let you pull off in second gear if you fail to spot the manual box’s dog-leg shift pattern.

Even in ‘modest’ (compared to later models) 221kW spec you’re left in no doubt that the there’s plenty of grunt under your right foot. Performance is impressive, although the car’s wide stance and solid hewn-from-granite feel masks the sensation of speed to a degree. The transaxle layout means the gear linkage exhibits quite a bit of momentum and gear changes are quite long, deliberate actions – much like in an Alfetta GT.

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Two years on, the 928 got an additional 7kW and anti-lock brakes – along with an S2 badge. CAR’s test team got its hands on one in January ’86 but that had the four-speed auto box, which was actually a Mercedes-Benz design used under licence. It was a popular choice in the 928’s life thanks to the V8’s superb raft of torque, and the test team reckoned it was the better version – unlike a Ferrari or a 911.

Ah, yes, the 911… turn to the back pages of that same CAR issue and you’ll see the 911 was still on offer for around R40k less than the R153 145 needed for the keys to a 928S. And that listing is the fly in the ointment in the 928 tale. Porsche’s prediction that the US authorities could outlaw rear-engined cars never materialised, and sales of the 1978-launched 911SC had been so strong that the company re-worked the model significantly to update its emissions and performance with the 3.2-litre Carrera.

Launched in ’83, the new Carrera clearly hit the mark with enthusiasts who still yearned for that chainsaw-like howl and twitchy road manners. The same year as that price listing, the 911 enjoyed an all-time sales peak of 17 000 cars; a number the 928’s most popular derivative, the S4, couldn’t even match over four years. It was quite an accolade for the 911 when you consider that the original design had debuted 22 years before.

That S4 – launched a year later in ’87 – was another marked evolution, thanks to a switch to four-valves-per-cylinder technology (in the interests of better emissions). Up front it now packed 235kW which translated to 262km/h, assuming you were brave enough to find out. And it looked subtly different with a revised front and rear bumper/light treatment and larger rear spoiler. There were improvements inside, most notably with electrically adjustable seats and an LED-based warning panel to notify you of things like tyre pressure changes and act as a trip computer with data on fuel consumption, range and distance travelled available when required – state-of-the-art fare for a late ʼ80s luxury car.

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Again, having fun behind the wheel was exclusive with the price of the 1990 example we have here propelled up to a heady R449 800 (thanks to rampant inflation), which was R145k more than a Mercedes-Benz 560SEC. But those who could afford it wouldn’t have been disappointed, even if opting for the no-extra-cost automatic option: it feels every bit as brutal as the manual S2 with no sign of the extra horses going astray in the drivetrain while the seamless cog-swapping adds to the refined, GT persona.

1990 might have marked 12 years into the 928’s design, but the engineers in the depths of Porsche’s Stuttgart HQ didn’t rest on their laurels: a year earlier they had already launched the GT which now sported 243kW under the bonnet. This example is another manual, which, with the added power yet again amplifies the 928’s enormous performance. Floor the throttle in second or third and this sophisticated coupé rapidly becomes a fearsome projectile for which you’ll want plenty of tarmac to gobble up, although it’s nowhere near as nerve wracking as, say, a 911 Turbo: it feels attached to the road in every way with no threat of a sudden pirouette if you let go of the loud pedal in a corner.

The 928’s near-perfect weight balance plays a big role in that perception, as does the 225/50 (front) and 245/45 (rear) ZR16 rubber, but that Weissach rear end has a hand in things too: it’s designed to provide a degree of passive rear-wheel steering to increase stability while braking during cornering – a product of Porsche’s engineers’ aim to banish criticism of tail-happy handling that ended up dogging the 911’s image.

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In GT spec the 928 is a desirable car, but it wasn’t the end to the 928 story. For the 1992 model year, Porsche again extracted more power with a capacity boost to 5.4 litres with the GTS – a mighty 257kW and 490Nm offering that gave 168mph, autobahn-munching ability with 0-60mph in 5.4 seconds – proper super car stuff that impresses even now, over two decades on. Our press never got the keys to one, but the UK’s Motor did and commented that “only a Ferrari 512TR (Testarossa) was faster around Millbrook’s proving ground, but it cost twice as much!”

That performance kept the 928 on showroom floors until 1995 (at a lofty R644 918 here in SA) when Porsche finally shelved its radical front-engined offering to focus exclusively on the 993, the then-new mid-engined Boxster, and the upcoming water-cooled 996.

Porsche’s 928 remained in the shadows, with those lucky enough to own one perplexed as to why the market hadn’t cottoned on to what was, and still is, a formidable car for the money. But that’s fast changing as word spreads and the 928’s robust engineering and build quality shine through all these years later. Early pre-S examples, with their funky Pasha-check interiors and cleaner lines, are the purist’s choice but there aren’t many around. A leather-finished S4 automatic is probably an easier find, while only around one in five 928s is a manual so you’ll need to hold out for one of those. For true collector value, the GT and GTS are the clear winners as they’re the rarest with just 2 078 and 2 904 respectively delivered worldwide. Either way, the 928’s long and varied production run means there’s a range of values, giving the model wide appeal – an appeal for a serious performance icon that’s been for too long in the shadows of its famous six-pot sibling.

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