By Sivan Goren and photography by Henrie Snyman
Hear the word ‘Porsche’ and you’d more than likely picture a rear-engined beast like the ubiquitous 911. The German marque is, after all, synonymous with brute force in the rear which is cooled by the atmosphere. But in the ʼ70s, ʼ80s and ʼ90s along came a bunch of four-cylinder Porsches that were front-engined and water-cooled. Most Porsche purists would ignore these and pretend they don’t exist, much like you would with an embarrassing family member (and as they did with the mid-engined VW/Porsche lovechild, the 914 – click here to read our story on the 914). What the haters don’t want to admit, though, is that the Porsche 924 and 944 are not only super-cool, usable modern classics but they might have actually played a part in saving the 911’s hot little bacon.
Like the 914, the 924 began as a collaboration between Porsche and Audi (owned by Volkswagen) but after VW decided to focus on the Scirocco instead, Porsche bought back the design and went forward with the project. Because of the generous use of Audi and VW components, as well as the fact that the car was manufactured at the Audi plant, many Porsche loyalists claimed that the 924 was in fact nothing more than a VW in Porsche clothing. (Nasty! But ok, they might have had a point.) The 924’s heritage may have been slightly muddy but the truth is that its front-engined, rear transaxle set-up made for a well-balanced car that provided great handling and decent performance. And it did fairly well, with 150 000 produced, but many were left feeling slightly underwhelmed and wanting a bit more.
Enter the 944, which was produced between 1982 and 1991. This car, like the 924 before it, was not aimed at traditional Porsche drivers, who would only have scoffed and jeered at this new breed of Porsches. The company’s strategy was to target the slew of up-and-coming wealthy yuppies – and the strategy paid off. In fact, the 944 became the most successful sports car in Porsche’s history until the Boxster and 997 Carrera came along. But this time, the product was 100% pure Porker, so even the naysayers couldn’t dispute its pure-bred heritage – despite that pesky front-engine thing.
The plan behind this new wave of front-engined sports cars (apart from a much-needed-at-the-time cash injection – Porsche wanted to try the high-volume/lower-price sales strategy) was to eventually phase out the 911 format which had become a little long in the tooth, not to mention pricey to produce. Not only was it cheaper, the 944 was altogether a far more practical car than the 911. The interior, although fairly basic, was very functional – you could even fold down the (slightly larger than the 911) back seats to make extra boot space.
Being a four-cylinder, it was also lighter on fuel and maintenance was easier with a more accessible engine. Although the 944 was more powerful than its predecessor, it was still not enough for some… until the Turbo came along, followed by the Turbo S a few years later (the creativity of German manufacturers as far as naming cars knows no bounds). A few other versions of the 944 that incorporated the letter ‘S’ followed, including the 944 S2 in 1989 – a version that many consider the best 944 and the largest production four-cylinder at the time.
In South Africa, these cars were very expensive back in the day in comparison with other cars in similar classes. Consider this: in 1985 a brand-new Porsche 924 would have cost you R52 500 and a 944 would have set you back a cool R69 000; the Alfa Romeo equivalents of similar classes and specs cost a third of the price of the Porsches! That being said, nowadays these cars can be found at reasonable prices and because they are not trailer-queen valuable, they are imminently drivable and make ideal daily cars – not to mention great fun to throw around on the track.
Production of the 924 and 944 is a thing of the past, and despite Porsche’s fears about the 911’s looming demise, it stood the test of time and is still in production to this day. Is the 911 a great car? Undoubtedly – I don’t think many would disagree. Would it have survived if it were not for a couple of front-engined, water-cooled four-cylinders that came to the fore when it counted? Probably not… but don’t tell the haters I said that.