What is there left to say about this cult-car that hasn’t been said? That it isn’t competitive in racing 30 years later? That its look and aesthetic hasn’t stood the test of time? That it’s technology wasn’t cutting edge and doesn’t hold up compared to the drivability of new cars? Or have you already written off every single question, and now expect a puff piece about how the 951 still measures up, three decades later. It became a feel good anthem to the merits of an overachiever, punching above its weight from a humble origin, that had finally come of age during the time of West End Girls by the Pet Shop Boys.
Thirty years ago, in a move completely expected, the 944 Turbo (or as we prefer to call it behind garage doors, the 951), was released to a market of frothy-mouthed yuppie executives who immediately knew the car would be an instant hit. Critically, the machine was hailed as the vindication of the existential 924 concerns, addressing every weak point (absent price) to make this the saner and safer alternative to the sometimes homicidal 911 turbo. As an evolution to the 924, and it’s later 924 turbo variant, this model was a bit different than many other Porsche turbo predecessors and set a new standard for performance and efficiency through technology.
The 1985 Geneva Auto Show had this display for the cars introduction, a bit different from the typical engine cutaways, illustrating the ideologically-pure Stuttgart platform:
Porsche’s design philosophy of model evolution was far more transformational in the 944 than it was in the 911. The 951, as exemplified the above famous factory advertisement, was far more than the addition of a k26/6 turbocharger and it shepherded in a significant model enhancement in the platform, including a new aluminum suspension, interior design, HVAC, and numerous body changes. In all, this was the car that the 944 was born to be. And while it was already great, having earned repeat mentions in the annual Car and Driver’s 10 best list, the 944 became spectacular in this one stroke.
"These cars can go a quarter million miles under the right maintenance regimen."
Looking back through the evolution, the genesis of the model as a rebooted development project with VW… a partsbin special with a rabbit front suspension and Type 1 variant rear suspension, transformed to a technological tour de force, and as usual, the evolution comes from racing. The 1981 924 GTP Le Mans car (more on that here
), was a proof of concept for the performance and durability of the new 2479cc engine that would power the transaxle model for more than a decade after that race’s checkered flag was waved. While the GTP car had a 16 valve head, and 400 horsepower, two elements the street cars wouldn’t have from the factory, the performance potential of this car was revealed (resulting in its own racing series, the Turbo Cup and a hot Sabine Schmitz at :11).
The car that is the spiritual successor for the 951, before the wolf in 924 clothing/GTP,
may actually be the stellar Carrera GT, where 924 got some sexy hips (oh, you’re interested in hearing more on that? Got you covered there too
) and some flashy aero bits. Now all it needed was real world drivability and compliance.
Let’s start with the best part, the engine: Electronic boost regulation with knock control kept cool by an after-run coolant pump, Ceramic exhaust ports, cast directly in the head and sodium filled exhaust valves. Alusil cylinder liners, for the forged rotating mass with a VERY stout crank. Partnering this all with one of the first modern electronic engine management systems that combined boost with ignition and fuel delivery, its arguable that this is one of the few designs from the era that legitimized and solidified the concept that turbocharging could be both reliable and explosively entertaining. These cars can go a quarter million miles under the right maintenance regimen.
But that’s not nearly the end of it, and the laundry list of enhancements over the base model reads like a supermodel’s measurements. Four-piston Brembo brakes all-around, mounted on a highly revised and lightened, firm yet somehow still comfortable suspension, yielded the most nimble and reliably controllable Porsche yet. Attach that to the most slippery automotive body the world had seen at that point, routing air through no less than six heat exchangers (water, oil, a/c condenser, transmission oil, power steering fluid and turbo-intercooler).
In 1986, the carryover-from-the-924 interior was retired, and transformed into a more modern (for the time), intuitive and efficient spread, with hugely improved ventilation and amenities. Elements like automatic climate control, revised Recaro seats (with improvements to the seating position) all laid out for business. It is a comfortable place, quite durable and tends to cleans up well.
So after digesting those seats, it’s easier to accept that these cars were a technological tour of force at the time. The 951 exists where real-world drivers and the “numbers cars” (where the car is great on paper, but notsomuch when you have to live with it) are one in the same. They make stellar touring cars, eating up large stretches of mileage easily and without discomposure to the driver. They will sit in traffic, idle and manage to keep themselves and you cool at the same time for hours in desert summers. It will do 150mph without complaint in conjunction with these previous two scenarios. It met global emissions and still is pretty clean by todays standards. Last month, my 951 engine passed fewer emissions in a sniffer test (17 HC) than a dog fart, and blows the 2015 VW TDI lineup out of the water. I don’t particularly care that I can challenge myself to get 30mpg out of it, if I drive it like James May, but it’s a good thing.
Pretty stellar, right? The best value of nearly any performance car you could want, dead sexy, frenetically fun and a real world daily driver... all from 1986. Then it dawns on you: This might be the blueprint for the worlds first true real-world supercar. This couldn’t have happened with anything Italian, British or other classic exotic car maker of the era, this is the secret sauce…
Alright, reality check… a 2016 Toyota Camry with a V6 can pretty much put down the same skidpad, 0-60 and other such benchmarks as our storied hero… 30 years later. The true test of any car, however, is those who choose to take up it’s cause. How many people would independently pour their lives into a design. That is the legacy of the 951, the number of businesses and careers it launched, the amateur, club and historic races it continues to win in it’s class, and the people who have created a lifestyle around these cars. 30 years have aged the car gracefully, it holds up as a design: a competitive platform, a basic mode of transportation, a collector’s item and museum piece. It remains a magnet and a benchmark, and despite the fact (yes, it’s a fact) that the performance that was once blistering in a street car is now the same as a beige Japanese econobox/appliance, it took 30 years for that to happen. In the meanwhile, us flussigers have taken up the task; modified, maintained and upgraded the model to keep this one of the most respectable members of the Porsche transaxle family.
So, the verdict: Does anyone have any doubts about this car’s sustainability and that its present appreciation is warranted? That the 951 is not just nostalgia for the era of new-wave synthpop and excessive turbo lag? That there is no plausible deniability for the existence of volumes of recent praise from Jalopnik, Top Gear and pretty much any respectable automotive journalist? Right there is the reason we need a dirty-30 party for a proper modern classic, and it is deserving a victory lap. The residual is that after three decades, the 951 remains a scrappy and practical example of how to supercar without going over the top.
Happy Birthday to the Porsche 944 Turbo, here’s to three decades of greatness: PROST!
*image sources from author's collection and Jerry Forthofer. all photos remain copyrights of their owners.