story by jason gonzalez photos by pablo deferrari

I enthusiastically talk about my Porsche projects with friends, clients and strangers alike. I show lots of pictures and yammer on about swap meets and auctions, cruises and tours, track days and club racing, and all things Porsche. I have branded apparel, decals, business cards and stationary. I run a full-blown rescue, restoration and racing operation. I eat, sleep and breathe 944s. My enthusiasm is contagious and people often find themselves wrapped up in the emotion that I bring to the table.
They will be eyeing up one of the cars in my shop or pick one from the storage lot and start customizing it in their mind and our conversation. They say the things that move the car from where it sits to the highway, race track or the driveway at their home. Then, without fail, they find themselves caught in the moment and begin to withdraw a bit before the same two words cross their lips, “How much?”
Now, the answer to that question is different for everyone, but I’m going to try to share a little of what I have found while trading in water-cooled Porsches.

I deal in 944s. They are the “Poor man’s Porsche,” right? They were reasonably priced compared to other Porsche options when they were first introduced and still, for the most part, cost less than their contemporary, rear-engine siblings. Non-runners are available for as little as a couple hundred bucks while pristine special editions with exceptional documentation, low mileage and pedigreed ownership or race history can bring more Deutschmarks than their original window stickers suggested. With all this in mind, how do I answer their question? With a question of my own, I suppose – “What do you want in your garage?”
So, before we even think about numbers and options, let’s talk about the concept of investing in the ownership of one of Porsche’s front engine water cooled cars. My colleagues and I will revisit this column later with guidance to each of the various water cooled models. For now, though, I am going to spend a few minutes thinking aloud about how much it really costs to buy a drivable 944.

Like all vintage sporting cars, there are myriad different things to consider. Again, like other collectibles, the question that a buyer needs to first ask of him or herself is – “What do I really want?”
There is a classic mantra when buying a Porsche and it’s to buy the newest, finest example you can afford. Well, I’m going to suggest something a little different. I consider the cars I work with and throw that theory out of the rhetorical window. Instead, I think about what I want to have when I finish. What is my ultimate goal and what can I as an owner, bring to the table? You may be reading this and thinking– sure, you have a shop with tools and you are a professional – you’d be correct on those counts, but that wasn’t always the case. I started out in the same way as many of you who are considering jumping into the shallow and diluted Porsche gene pool. The major difference between us being that I didn’t have me to explain to me that I was opening Pandora ’s Box. With that in mind, I hope you will enjoy this article, and moreover find it helpful when deciding if you’ll be joining our ranks.
So, let’s get to it. We need to start with a couple of questions. Answer them honestly because, frankly, if I’m not building a car for you the answers are not relevant to me and like any relationship, if you start it out based on lies and misconceptions, it can only end one way, poorly.

1) What kind of car do I really want? Is it a Porsche that you seek, or specifically a 944? What is it about the 944 that makes you want one? Have you driven a 944?

2) What is my timeframe? Do you have some cash burning a hole in your pocket? Have you been saving for a car? Do you need something to drive immediately or are you looking for a seasonal project?

3) Will your car see daily, weekend, track or combination use? Will you count on your 944 to get you to and from work or school? Will it be your only car? Will you just spend your time caring for the car and only share special moments with it? Will you try to bump up the performance of the car and get involved in club activities, HP driver education or racing? Would you like to do all of the above?

4) Who else will enjoy the car? Is this a project you’re planning to tackle with a father or son, sister or brother or spouse? Will that person want to spend time working on the car or driving it? Will club events, cruises, organized tours or racing be enjoyable to someone else beside you?

5) What are my assets? Tools, talent, mechanical skills, a shop or garage, a friend or acquaintance willing to help with simple maintenance or major work. Don’t forget cash.

6) What are my liabilities? No garage, fear of tools, mechanically challenged, don’t like dirt, mean wife, broke.
These are the first questions to consider. More will follow. They often include queries such as “what was I thinking? What’s wrong with me? And, of course, “Am I really this stupid?”

So let’s say that after you’ve gone through this exercise, you determine that you do, indeed, want to own a Porsche 944. You have some basic tools and you’re not afraid to get dirty but will likely leave the biggest jobs to the pros. You have a garage to keep your new (to you) GT car in, but not the greatest area to do the really big work. Finally, you’ll be keeping your Sonata so when the Porsche is down, you’ll be able to get to work to scrape up for the next round of updates, repairs, maintenance, or other random and unforeseen expenses. Good honest answers.
So, how much?

The one thing I will ask you to keep in mind is that 25-30 year old German sports cars will vary in price based on your local area, the seller, your resources to recover a car and the distance and time you are willing to cover in order to find the right car at the right price. I live in New Jersey. I typically shop NJ, NY, PA, CT, MD and DE. But I have gone to VA and even FL to pick up cars. I have a trailer and a pick-up truck. I calculate my raw trailering cost at about .25 per mile or about $250 for 1,000 miles. If you need to rent, borrow or pay someone to get a car for, to or from you I suggest you can expect to spend between .50 and $1.00 per mile based on where the car is being towed from and to.

If your answers were like the ones I suggested a couple paragraphs earlier then you will be looking for a running, driving car. That, alone, is an important criterion to begin with. Many 944s become yard birds after falling victim to some form of “no-start” that isn’t curable by the average owner. You can begin by giving extra consideration to cars that use the words “driven daily” in their listing. I will often take a car with 200,000 miles over one with 30,000 if I’m looking for a car to drive regularly. It had to run well and often in order to accumulate that kind of mileage. The cars with peculiarly low miles only had to sit and languish. So, you can start by identifying a few cars that catch your eye that are listed as solid runners. With some variation for geography, you should expect to see running, driving cars priced at $2000 and up. The “and up” amount will be dictated by how much more the car has to offer. While options and features may play into this equation, they are not typically going to influence price as much as service history and cosmetics. We’ll get into that next. For now, it’s time to start test driving. If you’re shopping for a good driving car you should not even concern yourself with the next set of guidelines until you know the car feels right.
What feels good to each of us is going to vary but some simple things I look for are a smooth start and no warning lights for oil pressure and water temperature specifically. The idle should be smooth between 750-1000 RPM. The car should not smoke and should certainly not smell like oil or antifreeze burning. Listen for knocks and learn the difference between lifter tick and rod/piston knock. I prefer
to start the car myself – from cold – and then to try and let the car sit and idle and walk around for a few minutes in order to allow the cooling system to work. The fans should come on when the needle makes it about 5/8 of the way up and the car should not get hot just because it isn’t moving. The other important idle test is oil pressure. Expect to see between 2-5bar. When the car is cold, 4.5-5bar pressure is fantastic. After it warms up, the oil pressure can get down into the middle 2 bar range, but much lower is a warning sign.

Once it passes a sit and idle test go for a drive. This is a very subjective part of the buying process because everyone’s expectations are quite different from one another. Some information I, personally, try to gather is the condition of the brakes, clutch, synchronizers for second and third gear and a feel for the condition of suspension. The shifter should have some, but not much, play in it. The motor should run smoothly and build power from 2500-6500 RPM. I don’t rev other people’s cars to redline without asking, but I will spend most of my test drive time in lower gears to ensure the car has ample mid-range torque. I feel that that’s the best indicator of the condition of the engine’s internals. Continuing along, the suspension should not make much noise and there should be minimal vibration from the steering wheel. Well, how’d she do? If the car passed all of the touch and feel tests, you’re probably in a $3000 and up vehicle. Again, the “and up” is determined by additional information.
Now it’s time to get down to some of the intangibles. I sometimes buy cars with the intention of building a race car or just for a specific part or parts, and if that’s the case, I do not concern myself with the following. However, if I am buying a car to keep and drive or to rescue and resell, I am concerned, first and foremost, with certain critical service items. The most important ones are in the paragraphs that

Porsche’s 944, along with its predecessors and successors, has an interference motors. This means that if the timing belt, chain, tensioners, pads or other critical parts within the valve train locomotion system fail, that it’s game over for the car’s cylinder head. In the unfortunate event that a car goes through such a failure, recovering it often costs more than the initial purchase price of the car. Therefore, the timing belt service question is among the most important things to consider in your purchase decision. If a car hasn’t had a service, it doesn’t rule it out of consideration, but it does pretty much mandate that will need to address it yourself, at your cost. You will need to know a specific date of the last service,
down at least to the month and year, the mileage at the time of the change, which components were replaced or updated and who performed the work. This needs to be shown on paper. Most of us can tell when we’re being lied to. My rule of thumb is simply that if there is no official document reflecting anything that was supposedly performed on a car, then it didn’t happen -period. The generally accepted service interval for a belt service is 3yr/30,000mi. If this is a job you will need to have done for you, plan to spend about $1000. Add that to, or include it in the price of the car we’re considering. Let’s say the service was just performed by a reputable shop and the seller produces a receipt from a 3-inch thick binder filled with other receipts and pictures. That’s very good news. We’re now talking about a $3500 (and up) car.

Akin to timing belt service and, in my opinion, second in importance is the cooling system. I endear these cars as “water coolers”. You could call them “water killers” if they’re allowed to get into uncomfortable cooling situations. They run hot. They were built by a company famous for air-cooling and oil-cooling their cars. The systems are robust but they definitely require attention. Most specifically, I want to know about the water pump and the thermostat. There are a few minor electrical components associated with the cooling system but my experience shows that on running cars they typically hold up quite well to the test of time and mileage. The suggested service interval for a water pump change and its related components varies on who you speak with, but I like to see it with every other belt change– so at least every 60,000 miles. Again, if there is not a receipt for this service, I consider that it hasn’t happened. Back to our test car – let’s say it ran cool and the receipt shows it was just done along with the timing belt service. It costs another $500 to have it done while the belt service is taking place, so
that documentation, for me, adds the same to the price of the car. Now we’re at $4000.
Finally, there’s the clutch. This is the most expensive, and about the most challenging, service item to contend with. These cars left the factory with a rubber centered clutch. It was a brilliant design making for a smooth and quiet ride and a wonderful delivery of power from the motor to the transaxle. Most rubber disc clutches lasted 10-15 years. The key word and element to consider, however, is rubber. That is what the disc was made from. After years of use, abuse, neglect or care, rubber still dries, it cracks, it crumbles, it fails. Not to say that many don’t hold up, but a receipt for a fresh metal clutch is a very valuable piece of paper. A car with a fresh timing belt, water pump and clutch is probably a gem. Buying
or selling, before anything else, I expect to be talking in the $5,000 range when this is the case. Make note of everything that does and doesn’t work. Windows, lights, gauges, hatch and hood struts, door locks. The more little things a car needs can be an indication of big things it needs. I like buying Porsches from people who like owning Porsches.

Paint and interior, wheels and tires, stereos and other power accessories will round out the “and up” category. A buyer can expect to spend $5,000 and up for a normally aspirated Porsche 944 in good running order, with recent service and with good documentation. Tool kits, manuals, books of receipts, records, pictures, spare parts, covers and countless other little things often come along with the purchase of a 25-30 year old Porsche as well. They’re par for the course though. They shouldn’t ever cost anything additional. Don’t be dazzled by crates and tubs full of spare parts and extra things. Be dazzled with a giant binder of receipts for major service and little things like oil, cleaning products, filters, inspection reports and old registration receipts. People who keep nice cars typically keep nice records of them. Cars like this will cost a little more. They are worth it.

Every so often, you will come across a car with records that date back to the original window sticker. Take a look at it. You’ll be amazed. These are cars that are 25-30 years old. The window stickers will read from the mid-20k range all the way to 40k or more. Adjusted for nothing more than time and the CPI, you are shopping for a car, that by today’s standards would be $60-80,000. I bring this to your attention for two reasons. First, so that you can recognize how lucky we are to be able to buy a special piece of automotive history, timely and amazing, even by today’s standards for a minute percentage of its price. Secondly, I bring this to your attention and ask that you really stop to consider the challenge before you. It takes time, attention and money to take care of a $60,000 sports car, even if it only costs $5,000.

Jason Gonzalez owns and operates
R7 Racing & Restoration in Bayville, NJ


Joe Sharp
01/02/2014 21:01

Just read Jason's article, very nice.

But the best part is that the red 944 in the pictures is MINE!
I bought it in November 2013

So eat your hearts out

Noah Walt
01/03/2014 00:15

Reading this article makes me want a bigger garage and open its door to all the local hobo water-coolers. Wonderful article Jason!

Don Riggs
01/03/2014 10:36

What a terrific article, makes me proud to own a 44 and be part of the fun. Jason is not only extremely knowledgeable regarding the 944 platform, he is a kind dude that is willing to help others.

Joe Howell
01/10/2014 17:36

Great article, thanks Jason.

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    Porsche 944

    The product of the 924GTP Le Mans car, this is the car that saved Porsche from financial ruin. Made from 1982 through 1991, this perfectly balanced machine sporting the largest production 4-cylinder engine, became the darling of the race track and sporting Porsche driver. The Turbo variant was arguably one of the best Porsche ever made.

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