2 December 2008

World of Porsche

German precision, racing heritage and many thousands of fanatical owners around the world.

More from less. In a nutshell, that’s Porsche. Back in the 1950s, that meant “Giant Killers, tiny aluminum 550 Spyders and steel 356 Speedsters that humbled larger, sophisticated, more powerful cars.” Today, it means sporting road cars with small, efficient six-cylinder engines competing in segments full of V-8s and V-12s.

Some say that with Porsche you have to pay more to get less. Those same people probably haven’t driven one. Take Gerry Burger, the National Hot Rod Association’s Individual of the Year in 1985. He decided he wanted to go fast around corners, too. That led Burger to Porsche.

Following Porsche guru Bruce Anderson’s golden rule – “buy the newest, best Porsche you can afford” – Burger picked up a pristine 1988 Carrera Cabriolet after learning 1987-89  911s are a sweet spot. Soon, he was wrenching on the car himself. “Porsches can be surprisingly simple to work on, with basic maintenance and possible upgrades well within the skill of a good backyard mechanic,” Burger says.

Based on an interest in track driving, Burger later bought a 944, known for its outstanding balance, and currently has his eye on another. “That new, mid-engine Cayman is interesting ...” he says.

Humble beginnings: the 356

When the 356 arrived in 1948, it stood out. Its price was high, its size tiny, its inverted bathtub form was unlike anything else – especially the British sports cars that were catching on in America. Something else set the tiny rear-engine, air-cooled car apart: quality. From paint to interior trim, the Porsche left no doubt it had been well made.   Even so, Porsche struggled in the United States until 1954, when visionary importer Max Hoffman finally got the car Ferry Porsche didn’t want to build: the 356 Speedster. Ferry never liked the car or the idea because he felt the car too crude, too rudimentary and too limited in terms of equipment for his tastes. Put simply, he viewed it as a car too stripped down to be a Porsche. But it was a hit, with a low, chrome-ringed windshield removable for competition.

Today, the best Speedsters command prices in excess of $200,000, even though more than 4,100 were made. In fact, any good open 356 in top condition is a six-figure car these days. While good open 356s have become prohibitively expensive, nice coupes can still be had for $30,000 if you aren’t picky about whether the car is from the 356 A, B or C series.

You need not concern yourself with A, B or C if you’re dealing with a convertible or a Carrera, which is Spanish for “race.” The Carrera represented Ernst Fuhrmann’s powerful, but complicated, four-cam flat-four version of the 356. Carreras came in coupe, Speedster and cabriolet forms.

The 911

The 911 replaced the 356 in 1964 and is still going strong today. Its basic form – raised headlights with a long, sloping roofline – is among the most recognized automotive shapes in the world.

Automotive historian Randy Leffingwell believes something else is the reason for the 911’s (and 356’s) enduring popularity: rear-mounted engines.

“The configuration, originally chosen for packaging benefits, results in unique handling characteristics that provide challenges many drivers seek,” he says. “The downside, in early models, was lift-throttle oversteer, though engineers now have tamed this nearly to extinction. The upside, then and now, is incredible traction out of turns. The key, then, is to drive into turns ‘slow in, fast out.’ Do it right and there’s no other driving sensation quite like it. That’s the thrill that addicts repeat customers and entices first-time buyers.”

The 911 truly defined the Porsche legend. Its design, widely attributed to Ferry Porsche’s eldest son, F.A. “Butzi” Porsche, was, in fact, heavily influenced by 356 designer Erwin Komenda.

The 911 broke from Porsche tradition with its horizontally opposed, air-cooled six-cylinder engine. The first 911s displaced 2.0 liters and produced 130 hp. Along with their smoother, more powerful engines, they boasted real improvements in the suspension department. Today, 911 addicts seem to favor 1965-73 “early 911s,” 1978-83 911 SCs, 1984-89 Carreras and 1995-98 993s. King among early 911s is the 911S, which started with 160 hp from just 2.0 liters and topped out at 190 hp from the 2.4-liter version. Early Ss command big money nowadays, often in the high five – sometimes six – figures.

In addition to the coupe, 911s were available in Targa form from 1967 to 1982. However, for 1983, 911 SC finally revived the true convertible Porsche. When it comes to the 911s, collectors and enthusiasts generally favor coupes and Cabriolets. Perhaps this is because Targas lack the 911’s iconic roofline. Or maybe it’s because they’re known for leaks and squeaks.

Porsche Club of America (PCA) autocross stalwart Terry Zaccone loves his Targa, a 1968 911L with more than 410,000 miles – and 40 years’ worth of competition. One repaint, three engine rebuilds and three transmission rebuilds later, Zaccone – the original owner – still drives it cross-country to PCA’s annual Porsche Parade, then competes in it. “I might be buried in it,” he says.

The 912 and 914

Worried the 911 was too expensive, Porsche introduced a simpler, 356- powered version of the 911 for 1966. Called the 912, this “four-cylinder 911” has earned its own following for its light weight and excellent handling. The 914, a joint effort between Porsche and VW in 1970, replaced the 912 as the entry-level Porsche. With its mid-engine and removable “targa” top, the 914 was offered with a VW four or 911 six. It was a triumph of packaging, offering plenty of room for two and luggage, plus the ability to stow its hardtop in one of two trunks.

Ultimate flat sixes

When asked what Ferry Porsche liked in his own cars, longtime Porsche engineer and racing director Peter Falk says, “The car should not be too hard – it should be soft-driving.” Even so, the company’s racing success garnered the attention of hard-driving enthusiasts who wanted some of Porsche’s racing magic on the road. That led to machines like the 1973 Carrera RS 2.7 and 2.8, which won the Daytona 24-Hour and the Targo Florio.

But a new king-of-the-road 911 was on the way. That car was the 911 Turbo, also known as the 930, with its fat fender flares and whale tail. With more than 260 hp, later versions could do 0-to-60 in less than five seconds.

A new ultimate Porsche appeared in 1985. With all-wheel drive, twin-turbo charging, air suspension and more, the 959 was Porsche’s way of telling the world its 911 concept was far from dead. Priced at $295,000, it’s said each of the 337 examples built cost Porsche more than double the selling price.

Meanwhile, the 911 Turbo caught up. For 1996, the 993-based Turbo featured 400 bhp, twin-turbo charging and all-wheel drive.

Front-engine Porsches

When Ernst Fuhrmann took charge of Porsche in the early 1970s, the “Father of the Four Cam” – an engineer to the core – saw a future very different than Porsche’s past. To meet future fuel economy, emissions and safety standards, he saw the future as front-engine and water-cooled. The sleek looking 924 was first out the gate in 1976. But with a 2.0-liter Audi four strangled to 110 hp by emissions gear, the 924 struggled in the U.S. market, despite its fresh, clean look.

More successful was the 928, introduced in 1978, seen at the time as a potential 911 replacement. A true grand touring 2+2, the 928 featured V-8 power and stunned the world with its cutting-edge styling and high-tech construction. By 1992, it displaced 5.4 liters and put out 350 hp. The car meant to replace the 911 never did, but it lived on for 17 years and earned a strong following of its own.

The most successful front-engine Porsche was the 944 introduced in 1982. It looked like a racing version of a 924 with its beautiful flared fenders and wide stance. It was powered by a new inline 2.5-liter four (essentially half of a 928 V-8), which put out 143 hp and offered stellar handling. With a base price of $18,450, it added up to long waiting lists at dealers.

A turbo was added in 1986 and normally aspirated 16-valve 944S and 944 S2 models followed, but a weak economy and Japanese challengers didn’t do the ever-more-costly 944 any favors. The 968, introduced in 1992, was a radical refresh with hints of 911 and 928. It brought more performance and myriad improvements but was deemed too little, too late and too expensive.

Water-cooled, take two

In 1993, Porsche shocked the world with its Boxster concept car. Its design hinted of the 550 Spyder, but the car’s true inspiration was the 718 RSK. Even so, its look was contemporary and public reception made production a no-brainer. The resulting 986 Boxster debuted in 1996, prompting rave reviews from the press and yearlong waiting lists at dealers.

The Boxster was a critical car for a reason beyond sales, however. From its seats forward, it shared all of its architecture with the next watercooled 911, the 996. Though the two looked awfully similar up front, Porsche took care to separate them in performance terms. The Boxster produced 201 bhp and would reach 149 mph, while the 996 boasted 296 bhp and a 174-mph top end. While 986s and 996s suffered from cost-cutting measures as a result of tough times at Porsche during their development, Weissach’s engineers succeeded in making them the best driver’s Porsches yet.

Even so, prices for 986s and 996s are soft. Good Boxsters can be had for less than $15,000, good 996s for less than $30,000. There is a catch, though: Their all-new flat sixes haven’t proven to be nearly as reliable as many earlier flat sixes.

Pete Stout, editor of the Porsche magazine Excellence, says he still believes in the cars. “I heard the horror stories – and they are scary for good reason – but bought a 1999 Boxster with 60,000 miles and sold it after 40,000 more miles with only a few issues – all rectified with bills that didn’t have commas in them. Today, it’s got 120,000 miles on its original engine and is still going strong. Yes, there is a risk with these early 986s and 996s, but they offer 85 percent of the goodness found in their replacements, the $50,000-$100,000, 2005-on 987s and 997s. With risk comes reward, and, in terms of driving, the rewards here are big.”

Take the plunge

When buying your first Porsche, there are three important things to remember: research, rust and condition. Learn as much as you can before you buy. Despite Porsche’s well-earned reputation for reliability, every model has its mechanical pitfalls. Generally speaking, rust should be a deal killer. Yes, it can be fixed, but it’s a bad way to start. Hire an expert to do a thorough inspection of the car; in the long run, it always returns the favor when it comes time to sell.

Remember that while 911s are always desirable, the “other” Porsches have a lot to offer. Porsche 914s and Boxsters can be appreciated for their superior mid-engine handling and open-air experience. 928s are unbeatable GTs with standout style, and the oft-maligned 996s are better driver’s cars than their 993 predecessors. And all of these are relative bargains. That’s the thing with Porsches: Not only do they do more with less, there’s always a way to have more fun for less dough – and figuring out how to do that is half the fun.
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To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Winter 2008 issue of Hagerty magazine.

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