In 1981 Waiter Riihrl and Jurgen Barth
finished seventh at Le Mans
at the wheel of a 2,479 c.c., four cylinder, 16-valve turbocharged Porsche. This front engined, RWD machine spent less time in the pits than any other competiitor and ran the entire distance without missing a beat.
As a proving exercise it was splendidly well-timed: two weeks later the road-going Porsche 944 was officially unveiled, powered by a normallly aspirated version of the four cylinder engine which had been seen in the 24 hour classic.
The engine in the race car developed 420 b.h.p. and even this was less than Porsche knew it could deevelop, as they had seen readings as high as 480 b.h.p. during test bed running, but they decided to detune the engine for Le Mans in the interests of reliability.
The story of the 944, of course, began when the original four speed 924 made its bow back in 1974. The idea of "popularising" the Porsche image was met with mixed reactions from those enthusiasts weaned and educated on the exciting rear engined 911 models.
But it didn't take long for the basic 924
to grow up. Quickly it received a five speed gearbox: then came a turbo-charged version, later a Carrera turbo derivative. But there were still complaints from the purists that this front engined Porsche wasn't a "proper Porsche
", whatever that might have meant.
Some critics went so far as to suggest that the 924 ought to have worn Audi badges, pointing out that if it had done so then everybody would have been fallling about heaping praise on the car, judging it on its own merits, without comparing it to the more exotic models in the Porsche range.
However with the 944, there was absolutely no justification for any further carping. Make no misstake about it, this was a "proper" Porsche powered by a quite unbelievably smooth four cylinder engine which could easily be mistaken for a six, or even a V8, from behind the steering wheel.
All this is combined with a chassis configuration that offered splendidly well balanced handling and high levels of grip and great fuel economy. It was the heart of the 944 which was particularly fascinating, not only because of the way it delivered the power developed but also because of its potenntial for future development. When Porsche originally planned the design of the 944's engine they were very keen to make use of as many components from the 928
as they possibly could. This enabled them to build the new engine on the same production line as the bigger V8, also utilising much of the tooling for the bigger model.
Like the 928, the smaller four cylinder engine employed a cylinder head and crankcase-cum-cylinder block moulded by Reynolds aluminum. Mounted at an angle of 30-degrees, the 944 engine had an over-square bore / stroke of 100 / 79.9 mm. and developed 163 b.h.p. (DIN) at 5,800 r.p.m. In deciding to opt for a four cylinder engine, overcoming the problems of vibration were foremost in the Porsche designers' minds and the solution they came up with was to use of the old Lanchester arrangement of two counter-rotating balance shafts running at twice engine speed, driven by a cogged double sided belt. A minor sacrifice had been made in terms of sheer power as a result, but this choice was well worth it and the the outstandingly smooth performance characteristics of the engine far outweighed any minor concessions that were made.
The five bearing crankshaft was forged from steel and the lightweight cast aluminum pistons were iron sprayed which enabled them to run directly in the linerless aluminum bores. As far as the chassis layout was concerned, the 944 retained the rear transaxle arrangement as seen on the earlier 924
derivatives, but there was a 3 in. wider track than on the 924
and stiffer semi-trailing arms meant that the wheelbase was slightly longer as well. Adhesion was well provided for with the adoption of I5 x 7 in. alloy wheels similar to those employed on the 911 range
, and your could option 21S/60VR Pirelli Cinnturatos.
The whole package was rounded off with attractively flared wheel arches in the style of the 924 turbo Carrera, although in this case they were not plastic but formed in steel, and the overall reesult was one of refined unobtrusive effectiveness. On first acquaintance, it was very difficult to believe that the 944 was powered by a four cylinder engine. Firing up willingly, thanks in no small part to the efficient Bosch all-electronic L-Jetronic fuel injection system (which, incidentaly, incorporated a fuel saving over-run cut out), the power unit was not only relaxed and free-revving, it also demonstrated a remarkable amount of torque (151 Ib.lft. at 3,000 r.p.m.).
Clutch movement was lightly progressive and the 944 moved away from standstill without any trace of shudder or judder - even a really quick start resulted in only a brief squeal from the rear tires and then a smooth race up to 60 m.p.h. in less than eight seconds. This may not have put the Porsche in the super-car class; but it was certairily not far away and the acceleration figures and the 137 m.p.h. quoted top speed only told a part of the 944 story.
Remarkable Mid Range Torque
The mid-range torque and flexiibility were quite remarkable and acceleration from 70 to 90 m.p.h. took a modest 10.2 seconds. Although the rev limiter was set at 6,400 r.p.m., there was little point in revving the engine past 5,000 r.p.m. for everyday performance motoring. Using the gears to full advantage, 60 m.p.h. could be achieved in second gear, 85 m.p.h. in third and over 110 m.p.h. in fourth. You'll be beating the fuel consumption well down into the lower twenties if you did that, though, but if you drove moderately quickly and took full advantage of the car's flexiibility, then 30 m.p.g. was easily within reach of the average driver. This coupled with the car's 14.5 gallon fuel tank made for a potential range in excess of 550 miles!
It would be unreasonable to describe the 944's combination of handling and ride as "perfect", put it was not far short of the perfect compromise. The 944 managed to combine amazingly secure, neutral handling with a ride that could be described as "firm" rather than "coarse". Road testers of the day did note however that there was rather more road noise than would be expected of a Porsche, particularly when the Cinturatos fould their way on to cats' eyes or large potholes.
The Porsche 944 had a reassuring touch of understeer, but this could be killed at a moment's notice simply by easing your right foot mid-way through a corner - the transition being gentle and progressive. You needed to be more caution in the wet, not because the 944 was deficient in any way, but because its high level of dry weather adhesion lulled the driver into a false sense of security. The brake pedal response was also a little on the fierce side; it didn't need much pressure to lock the front wheels in the wet! With servo assisted ventilated discs all round there was never any indication that the Porsche was underbraked for its performance.
Inside, The 944 Differed Little From The 924
Internally, the 944 produced little in the way of surprises, being very like its predecessors in the 924 range. The steering wheel was mounted in a vertical plane and many people found it too low for their taste. It was not adjustable, so tall drivers found themselves either sitting too far away from the wheel, or compromising themselves by squashing their legs up beneath the bottom of the wheel rim in order to gain a more commanding driving position. In view of the fact that the 944 and its stablemates were some of the few cars which actually offered a driver's seat with plenty of rearward adjustment, the lack of an adjustable steering wheel seemed something of a contradiction. It's had been the same since the 924 came on the scene in 1977, and many believed it was something that should have been remedied in the 944.
There was sufficient room behind the comfortable, if slightly hard, front seats for a couple of young children to be carried in relative comfort, but this was a driver's car and every facet of its character had been evolved to cater for the man behind the wheel. The rear positioning of the gearbox meant that there was plenty of room in the footwell for nicely spaced pedals, complete with a rest pad to the left of the clutch pedal. Immediately ahead of the driver was the speedo, rev. counter (red lined at 6,400 r.p.m.) and auxiliary gauges dial (including water temperature and fuel gauges). The rev counter also included within its upper segment an "econometer" - ala Holden VB Commodore
. Gimmicky it may have been, but there were not too many cars capable of motoring along the freeway at 98 m.p.h. with the "econometer" registering around 35 m.p.g.
Auxiliary controls were familiar to anybody who had driven a Golf or an Audi. On the right hand side of the steering column was the windscreen wiper / washer control, while the indicators / headlamp dip / headlamp flasher control was on the left. The lights were switched on by a master switch on the right hand side of the fascia, although flashing the lights in daylight (without the pods up) only activated the spotlights set within the front bumper. Within the centre console there were also three smaller dials which looked after the oil pressure, battery condition and clock. There was a good quality National Panasonic radio / stereo unit fitted as standard equipment with four speakers.
As far as the stowage of luggage is concerned, the 944 had a usable amount of space below its counter-balanced tailgate although you could hardly describe it as lavish. When the rear seats were upright there was a roller blind that could be pulled back to hide the contents of the luggage compartment from prying eyes. Within the cockpit area there was a small lockable glove box, a centre arm rest cubby hole containing a tape rack and deep receses within each rear wing. The ventilation system was adequate if you needed cool air, but a little difficult to juggle between hot and warm air and although the three-speed fan worked efficiently there seemed to be comparatively little ram effect from any of the fascia vents without that fan turned on.
As long as you could make do with two seats, or only have a couple of small children, and you were in any way, shape or form a driving enthusiastic it was very difficult to put forward any reason for not buying the Porsche 944, particularly given its extremely reasonable price tag. You couldn't argue against it in terms of reliablity or high standard of finish, it was in no way awkward to operate and its fuel consumption was frugal. It was flexible and docile in traffic, yet cruised with contemptuous ease well in excess of 100 m.p.h.
The Demise Of The 924
As a result of the 944's release, Porsche decided to withdraw the 924 lineup from the US market (the 924 came back to the US market six years later as the 924S model). The 924's credentials as a "real Porsche
" were doubted, and it struggled to shake off the VW stamp from peoples minds. The cosmetic changes to the 944 may not have been all that dramatic (and even the interior stayed the same until the -85B models arrived), but the switch from the 2 liter Audi/VW powerplant to a genuine 2.5 liter Porsche engine made all the difference. The result was a truely spectacular car that could live up to its badge in a way the 924 coulnd't.