Tech guide Porsche 944

Tech guide Porsche 944

The 944 was the best-selling Porsche of all time prior to the arrival of the Boxster 986 andCayenne SUV, meaning there are plenty of examples out there to choose from...


Words Dan Furr, Richard Gooding, Martin Morgan Jones

Photography Adrian Brannan


What to look for when on the hunt

Launched in 1969, the 914 proved Porsche didn’t need to survive on a diet of rear-engined metal alone. By 1975, however, the two-seater’s time was up. That same year, the similarly radical 924 was launched. A failed project for Volkswagen designed by Porsche using a mismatch of parts from both manufacturers (including a front-mounted 125bhp two-litre inline-four), even the new car’s near-perfect 53/47 front/ rear weight distribution didn’t convince purists who were riled at a water-cooled configuration and non-Porsche origins. The first offering in the transaxle family was off to a difficult start.


Tech guide Porsche 944

Extensively developed throughout its production run, the 924 yielded high-performance Turbo and Carrera GT variants, as well as the 245bhp Carrera GTS. Sadly, despite their big power and impressive specification, the 924 failed to shake off the image of being a ‘Porsche with a VW/Audi engine’. In contrast, the 944 that followed was embraced as a Porsche in its own right.

The 944 was revealed at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1981. Looking as though the 924 had spent every waking moment in the gym after being picked on by the motoring press, the new car inherited its muscular, wide-arched styling from the aforementioned 924 Carrera GT. The wedge had a familiarity about it, but there was no wheezy VW/Audi engine for 911 fans to complain about. This time, a new 2.5-litre four-cylinder powerplant designed and developed by Porsche was used. It was essentially a variation of the unit proven under the bonnet of the 1981 Le Mans 924 Carrera GTP race car.

A development of a single cylinder bank from the 928’s V8 (and equipped with twin counter-rotating balancer shafts to suppress vibration), the base 944 engine pumped out 163bhp, just seven horses shy of 1978’s 924 Turbo.


Tech guide Porsche 944

Whereas the 924 was considered to be Porsche’s entry-level model, the 944 was marketed as a luxury sports car when it went on sale in the spring of 1982. Standard equipment included air-conditioning, electric windows, fog lights and tinted glass, all wrapped up in a 137mph performance package delivering a sprint to 62mph from rest in less than nine seconds. Priced at DM38,900 in Germany and £12,999 in the UK, the 944 sat somewhere in between the 924 and 924 Turbo. When it comes to parts availability, 944 owners are spoilt for choice.

Porsche Classic is continually adding to its portfolio of spares, while leading independent retailers, including Design 911 and FVD Brombacher, stock many OEM and aftermarket spares and tuning parts for all 944 model variations. Helpfully, salvage parts are also available in huge numbers. Tidy, low-mileage 944s retaining factory specification are beginning to fetch strong money, which is why now is a good time to consider buying an example to call your own.


IDENTITY AND SERVICE HISTORY

As ever, let's address the basics first. The 944 you’re looking at should display a matching Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on its V5 registration document and on the identification stamp on the offside inner wing (in the engine bay, behind the brake fluid reservoir).

Elsewhere on the V5 document, you’ll see the engine number. This is stamped into the nearside rear of the block, near the bulkhead. If dirt has built up, the characters might be difficult to see. A bright flashlight might reveal what the eye alone can't.

Spend a couple of quid at mycarcheck.com, where you can download a history report outlining any insurance claims, change of registration number, recorded mileage and whether there’s any outstanding finance on the car. You should also enter the vehicle’s details into the DVLA’s free-to-use MOT history database, which can be found at bit.ly/dvlamot. The service will return all test passes, failures and advisories registered as far back as electronic records are stored, which is helpful in identifying any ongoing mechanical or safety issues. And, if you have the V5 document number at your disposal, you can even see which test centre carried out each inspection.

It's important to remember the massive number of 944s built during a near ten-year production run means these cars (not including Turbos and their derivatives) have never been considered exclusive, leading values to plummet a few years back. Thankfully, the tide has turned, but be aware many surviving normally aspirated 944s are likely to have been in the custody of owners who weren't prepared to shell out for required servicing and maintenance in accordance with manufacturer instruction. Check documentation and paperwork thoroughly. Don't be afraid to walk away — there are plenty of good 944s out there for you to choose from.

Full service history, ideally accompanied by invoices for any work undertaken, is desirable when buying any 944. This might be difficult to achieve with cheaper cars — the conventional front-mounted, four-cylinder M44 engine powering the 944 (plus the 924 S and the 944's successor, the 968) is a home mechanic-friendly bit of kit, meaning many 944 engines have been serviced by their owners. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, providing paperwork is available to prove a sensibly observed maintenance schedule. Pay special attention to the most recent paperwork in the car's history file. This should indicate which jobs are imminent, affording you the opportunity to negotiate a lower purchase price.

Take advantage of the Suncoast Parts Porsche VIN decoder (bit.ly/suncoastvin), which will provide you with a Porsche-specific build sheet in exchange for just $10. This document will let you know exactly how the car left the factory, including standard model specification and any Individual Equipment items. That said, Porsche record keeping was notoriously bad at the time of the 944's introduction, meaning the older the car, the less detail you can expect to be presented with. The vehicle equipment sticker (hidden by the tailgate carpet and repeated beneath the bonnet and in the owners manual) will give you option codes highlighting all factory-fit equipment.


SWITCHES AND ELECTRICS

Common problems with 944 electrics are bad earths, corroded terminals, faulty switches, and/or bodged repairs. Alarms and immobilisers are frequently troublesome. Oh, and the battery light, an integral part of the alternator charging circuit, must have the correct bulb, not an LED.

Check if the rheostat (variable resistor used to control current) on the dashboard light switch works. If it doesn’t, the switch will stop working soon. And check the headlamp motor’s internal switching (controlling open/ closed positions), which can fail. If a headlamp won’t raise when the switch is in the dip or main position, and if it won't lower when turned off, check the relay mounted on the motor itself. Thankfully, second-hand motors and headlamp assemblies are cheap and plentiful in supply. The Bosch airflow meter can cause trouble. Luckily, it can be reconditioned. ECUs are less problematic, although dry joints are not unheard of. ECUs can also be reconditioned. On the topic, the DME relay (actually two relays — one powers up the ECU, the other relates to the fuel pump) is a known weakness. Solid state replacements are now available to buy – we recommend you carry a spare.

Check electric window operation. The channels can be warped or dirty, possibly causing light scratching on the glass. Test the electric sunroof, electric seats, mirrors, aerial (later cars have the aerial integrated with the windscreen), heated rear window, rear wiper, headlamp washers (although the washers are often disconnected) and tailgate release switch. Check the fuel gauge is working, too — sticky senders are a common complaint.


EARLY MODEL OVERVIEW

Just like the 924, the 944 was built at Audi’s former NSU factory in Neckarsulm, with the all-Porsche engine transported from Zuffenhausen. Disc brakes were fitted at each end of the 944 in order to deal with the shrugging off of increased performance (compared to the 924), while even better weight distribution was achieved with a 51/49 front/rear balance. To begin with, the 944 shared the 924’s interior. What it didn’t have in common with the much-criticised older car was a ‘non-Porsche bitsa’ reputation. Yes, the 944 borrowed much of its style, some of its oily bits and most of its cabin furniture from the 924, but it was ordained as a ‘proper’ Porsche. It suited the era’s mobile phone-toting yuppie to a tee — more than 26,500 944s found homes in 1984 alone, half of all cars sold making their way to the USA.

By 1985, the 944 was rolling on Teledials (wheels so-called because they resemble the dial of an old telephone) and had screamed past the 55,000 sales mark. It’s worth remembering that despite the split opinion the 924 found itself generating, the model held the title of being Porsche’s fastest-selling Porsche. The 944 eclipsed its stablemate’s achievement — after its first year of sales, the 944 accounted for more than fifty-one percent of total Porsche production. The car saved the manufacturer’s bacon at a time when its coffers looked decidedly empty.

The highly anticipated 944 Turbo landed in late 1985. Given factory codename ‘951’, the turbocharged model's air-to-air intercooler worked with a water-cooled KKK K26 turbocharger to push power up to 220bhp with 244lb-ft torque. Compared to the normally aspirated 944, the Turbo was a monster. Zero to 62mph took close to six seconds, while top speed was (literally) boosted to 157mph. Four-piston Brembo brakes, sixteen-inch staggered alloys, stiffer suspension, an aerodynamic underbody, a rear lower spoiler and an integrated polyurethane front bumper made the Turbo an enticing dish. The 944’s updated dashboard design was ported over to the Turbo, and with it came a boost gauge. Drivers needed to keep an eye on the speedo – the blown 944 was the fastest four-cylinder production car of its time.

Ballistic performance didn’t come cheap. Costing DM72,500, the 944 Turbo’s price translated to approximately £25,000 in the UK. The steep windscreen ticket didn’t deter a car-buying public with a thirst for speed. Indeed, more than ten thousand 944 Turbos were sold in 1986, proving more than ever before that Porsche products remained attractive regardless of their price point. Even so, because the 944 was getting so expensive, as a precautionary measure, the 924 was reinstated in the USA after being pulled from price lists after the 944’s arrival. In 924 S guise, this comeback model made use of a detuned version of the 944’s stock 2.5-litre lump and ensured an entry-level offering was present in Porsche dealer showrooms.

ABS and front airbags became standard 944 equipment in 1987. This was a world first, as was the model’s ability to produce the same power with or without a catalytic converter. An S-badged 944 appeared a short while later. Normally aspirated power and torque shot up to 190bhp with 170lb-ft torque. The 0-62mph sprint was equally impressive, clocking in at close to seven seconds. Topping out at 141mph, the £27,977 S borrowed some of its tech from Porsche’s 1981 Le Mans engines. Later, in 1988, a newer high compression engine saw the standard 944 pump out 160bhp. The big news that year, however, was the arrival of the 944 Turbo S. With 250bhp and 258lb-ft torque, the limited-run model was the most powerful road-going 944 yet. Not only did it feature a bigger turbocharger than the older 944 Turbo, it included a limited-slip differential and bigger brakes as standard equipment.


INTERIOR

Commonly referred to as the 'oval' design and shared between all 944s in the wake of the comparatively prehistoric 'square' dashboard and centre console borrowed from the 924, this updated dash is a masterpiece of ergonomic design and still feels fresh, despite the decidedly analogue switchgear. The centre console is curved and the dash layout sensible, with the exception of the included LCD clock and lap timer, which requires a passenger to take care of button-pressing when the car is on the move.


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The worst problem on 'square' dash cars is the dash top, which cracks in the heat of the sun. There are options here, from relatively cheap used items to very expensive, new, modern, manufactured replacements shipped from Germany. The oval dash is more resilient, but will still cause problems if the left out to bake for long periods — the vinyl covering can lift.

Like most old cars, 944 seats bear witness to care and mileage. Front pews can split along the seams and the driver’s side bolster is a known wear area, while leather seats can need reconditioning. The majority of interior fixtures and fittings, including carpets, are easily obtained. Most 944 seat fabrics are also readily available. The seats themselves were shared with the same-age 911. Sport seats with deeper bolsters are a desirable 944 feature.

Where present, 944 air-conditioning doesn't freeze you like a modern car's system will, but it makes driving on a hot day much more pleasant. Check the system delivers cold air and the fan operates on all of its four speeds. Replacement parts can be expensive, but re-gassing is cheap. A leak test, however, is a good idea if the system's refrigerant has expired.


SUSPENSION AND BRAKES

Struts and dampers on the 944 are long-lived, but be sure do the usual checks for leaks and play. Cars fitted with the optional M030 suspension can have the dampers overhauled by Koni in the UK. New shocks are available, but at a huge cost (the fronts in particular) from Porsche, which is why it's worth considering alternatives, such as 944 dampers from GAZ, which offers a range of adjustable units designed for fast-road use, as well as for 944s destined to spend time at a track. The steering rack (manual and PAS) is robust but can leak, and the power steering hose is well known for seeping. Check the fluid level and only ever use the recommended fluid when replenishing. Inspect hose fittings for leaks.

Front suspension wear on later cars means the entire lower arm needs replacing. Drop links are robust. Bushes, including polybushes, are widely available. They don't cost the earth, either. And in case you want to personalise your Porsche, bear in mind even on 944s fitted with wide wheels and tyres, wheel bearing problems aren't typical.

The rear torsion bar set-up can weaken and sag, but is usually hassle-free. Speak to the chassis tuning wizards at Center Gravity, Suspension Secrets or Tuned UK for suspension evaluation and to optimise handling for your driving style and the roads you're likely to travel on. A set-up for mainland Europe, for example, will be different to one for the UK. The 944's brakes are powerful and progressive. Where fitted, the ABS system should work effectively and unobtrusively. Even with spirited driving, the discs/pads should see 25k miles.


OWNER IMPRESSION

911 & Porsche World reader, Mike Clarke, is the proud owner of the wonderfully original 944 starring in our photographs. «I've always liked sports cars from the 1980s,» he says. «To my mind, the 944 is one of the best. When I was made redundant after twenty-one years of continuous employment, I decided to use some of the payout I received to buy this car. I didn't want a project. I was adamant I'd buy a near mint example of the model, which I could just get in and drive. When I saw this 944 advertised with Old Colonel Cars, I knew it was the modern classic I'd been looking for.» The Porsche's accompanying folder of paperwork is far beyond what any buyer would expect to be presented with, even from the most cherished of vehicles. «From the moment the car left the showroom, the original owner documented all of his journeys, noting dates, times and mileage, even if only a short drive.»

Completely unmolested, this 944's only change from factory specification is its stainless steel exhaust system, a replacement for the original mild steel part, assumed beyond its service life. «I took the car to Steve Bull Specialist Cars, an independent Porsche servicing, maintenance and sales business near where I live,» Mike continues. «The company's technicians gave the underside a thorough going-over and couldn't find any evidence of rust or welding. They confirmed this is a really original example of a normally aspirated 'oval dash' 944. I'm getting huge enjoyment out of the car, which was first registered in August 1986.» We assume he intends to keep it in the manner it has become accustomed. «Absolutely,» he confirms. «I've bought the car as an investment as much as a plaything. It will always be kept in the dry, only coming out sunny days.» What advice would he give any 911 & Porsche World reader eyeballing this article with a view to hitting the classifieds? «There's a lot to be said for the 944 Turbo, but force-fed 944s tend to have more problems than those with normally aspirated engines. All 944 powerplants are largely bulletproof, but there's less to go wrong with my car — no failed turbocharger, auxiliary water pump or turbo seals to worry about. The standard M44 2.5-litre inline-four is fairly basic by comparison, but it's still quite torquey. To be honest, I was open to the idea of buying an S2, powered by the three-litre M44, but my main purchasing criteria was mileage and overall condition. I looked at a few S2s, but this much earlier model came up at the right price.» Those with a keen eye might notice an unusual feature in the dashboard binnacle.

«There's a fuel economy gauge providing a reading of miles per gallon,» Mike smiles. «It sits in the same spot as a Turbo's boost gauge.» We joke we'd rather not know how much petrol we're using. «I didn't buy the car to drive fast, though it has plenty of pull, which is useful for swiftly pulling out of busy junctions. I'm not going to break speed records with this 944, but the engine feels responsive and the way it delivers its power is very smooth. This is a comfortable car, too — there's loads of cabin and luggage space. Any 944 is a huge amount of fun, even at moderate pace, largely due to the near equal front-to-back distribution of weight.» Above all, he recommends prospective 944 owners buy their car from a reputable Porsche specialist or a classic car dealer. «Buy the best 944 you can afford, rather than the one with highest specification,» he advises. «Also, use a recognised specialist familiar with transaxle models for ongoing servicing and maintenance.»

ANY 944 IS A HUGE AMOUNT OF FUN, EVEN AT MODERATE PACE, LARGELY DUE TO THE NEAR EQUAL FRONT-TO-BACK DISTRIBUTION OF WEIGHT

S2 AND CABRIOLET

As the decade was drawing to a close, the 944’s star was beginning to fade. Numerous shuffles to the engine line-up took place in order to reinvigorate the range. The 944 Turbo gained the sixteen-valve unit from the Turbo S, and the standard car’s engine was bored out to 2,681cc in the pursuit of 165bhp. The 944 S became the 211bhp three-litre 944 S2 and was offered as a Cabriolet in 1990. With a soft-top engineered by American Sunroof Corporation (ASC), the Cabriolet was solid, but going topless was a fussy operation, with the roof needing to be manually detached from the upper windscreen frame. It was characteristically expensive trim — the S2 Cabriolet had a price tag of £36,713 in the UK and almost $53,000 in the USA.


ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION

Properly maintained 944 engines can cover 250k miles before requiring major attention. Oil pressure should be over 4bar at speed and between two and three bar at hot idle. Look for evidence of regular maintenance using premium oil, quality filters, premium belts and a known-brand water pump. There shouldn’t be excessive oil leaks. Be sure to check for coolant and oil mixing — oil cooler seals and head gaskets can fail due to age. Heat shields should be in place. All M44 inline-fours are interference engines. Cam and balance belts must be changed every four years. Some specialists recommend a new water pump every belt change, along with rollers and tensioners. The rollers, tensioners and water pump definitely need changing every eight years, as do the front oil seals. Tappet rattle is not unknown when cold, but shouldn’t be noticeable when hot. If it is, expect camshaft and valvetrain wear. Engine vibration points to worn engine mounts.

On sixteen-valve 944s, a chain between the exhaust and intake cam allows the exhaust camshaft to drive the intake camshaft. Tension is maintained by an oil-fed tensioner. Over time, the tensioner pads will eventually wear out or break. Replace them at 45k-mile intervals.

Even with standard suspension, the 944 sits low to the ground. Consequently, stones can perforate the radiator. Check for coolant leaks, oil in the coolant and the condition of the hoses. The coolant overflow tank can fail. New replacement tanks for normally aspirated 944s are in plentiful supply. Inspect fuel lines, particularly flexible hoses. If in doubt, replace. New fuel tanks can only be obtained from Porsche — from 1985 on, all 944s were fitted with plastic tanks. The fuel pump can fail, but it’s an easy and not-too-expensive fix. The in-tank filter is also easy to replace.

Given regular oil changes, all manual transaxle units (and limited-slip differentials) are long-lived, although worn synchros are not unknown. A sloppy gear lever is likely to be a worn rear linkage — a straightforward fix.


BODYWORK

All 944 models were fully galvanized, although they are not particularly resilient to the effects of corrosion. Pay particular attention to the sills. These are famous for rotting, and if the outside sills are showing signs of rust, you can bet the inner sills will need to be replaced, too. In all likelihood, unless the 944 you're looking at has been garaged its whole life and has rarely been used in inclement weather, the car will either need its sills replacing or it will have had them sorted already. A telltale sign is the jacking point arrow — aftermarket repair panels don't feature this indentation, though OEM parts do. Genuine front wings are available, though new rear wings are unobtainable. Fortunately, the strong number of 944s built means there are salvage options available.

Be sure to check the floorpan, bulkhead, jacking points and suspension mounts for corrosion. Additionally, look for evidence of crash repair. Panel gaps are large, typically seven millimetres. Any discrepancy usually indicates repair work. Hatch leaks point to a worn seal, blocked up spoiler drains, or both. Blocked drain hoses can cause sunroof leaks. The removable electric roof generally works fine, but the microswitch can fail. The nylon gear can strip, due to becoming brittle with age, but replacement parts are cheap. The plastic hinges break, but are also inexpensive.

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