It is a fact that most of us with an interest in roadgoing or race cars, will have a favourite model that holds a special place in our memory for some reason. That reason might be something significant that happened in your life where a certain car left an indelible mark in your memory, or might just be slow warming to a certain model that has built up over the years. In the Porsche model range, the 911 comes out tops for most enthusiasts of the Stuttgart marque, myself included. So, when I was asked to write a book on the Porsche transaxle family, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands, because it meant I would be able to get to know the front-engined models intimately. I was not disappointed!
The Porsche 924
We have all heard the comments that label the Porsche 924 as an Audi, but there were very good financial reasons for transplanting an Audi engine in the new 924. Firstly, when the project kicked off, it was intended to be a VW product, and so an Audi engine that was under development at the time was logically planned. Secondly, using the Audi powerplant kept the development costs way down, and buyers would benefit from the fact that the engine was already developed. Thirdly, it was only the block that was an Audi component, as much of the rest was Porsche componentry that was beefed up to give the 924 a sportier character.
One of the motivating factors behind the introduction of the new 924 was that it gave Porsche a two-model line-up. Since the company had started up for business back in 1948, they had only ever had just a single model to offer customers, with variations in trim and engine options. With just the 356 model on offer, followed by the 911 model, Porsche was at a distinct disadvantage in the market as these models were all above the financial reach of most motorists. The 924 offered starters in this field the opportunity of buying into the Porsche brand for a whole lot less money.
During its 13-year production run, the roadgoing 924 would be powered by the same 1984 cc 4-cylinder in-line engine, with the exception of the 924 S which was introduced in 1986. Variations in the 924 model range included a Turbo, Carrera GT, Carrera GTS and 924 S. Three 924 Carrera GTPs were entered in the 1981 Le Mans 24 Hours, and all three finished: sixth, twelfth and thirteenth places.
The Porsche 924 was introduced in 1976 and the model remained in production for thirteen years, during which time the company sold more than 150,000 units across all variations. By the standards of the bigger manufacturers this would be small fry, but for Porsche the 924 made a substantial contribution to the company’s coffers during some difficult years in the motor industry.
The Porsche 928
Although the commencement of the 928’s design and development process preceded the 924, it was only introduced after the 4-cylinder model. The idea of developing a model like the 928 had in fact been discussed within Porsche as early as 1968, and as it happened, the 924 and the 928 were developed in tandem. With hindsight, Porsche has never been a company to be frightened off by risks in the market, a factor that has stood them in good stead when other manufacturers were going to the wall.
The mid-1970s was a difficult time during which to introduce a high-powered V8 engined sports car, but market conditions showed signs that just such a niche model would find traction – and they were right. Where the 924 had broken a long-standing Porsche tradition by placing the engine up front, the 928 took the company in an almost completely new direction. True, the 911 was an expensive sports car, one that could only be afforded by a few fortunate drivers, the 928 attracted the ever-growing and sophistically-orientated, high-flying business executive. The 928 offered comfort, luxury and effortless power that could compete with any other competitor in this market segment. It was the pinnacle of exclusivity, and as such it was never really expected that this model would set sales records, but it gave Porsche yet another model in the now, fast-growing family line-up.
As it happened, the 928 was a very difficult car to design, especially some of the surfaces around the car’s B-pillar, side and rear windows. Getting the surface profiles and panel curvature right within the proportions of the overall car was a difficult task, and here the chief modeller, Peter Reisinger, did an outstanding job according to the 928’s project manager, Hans-Georg Kasten. While this new model would compete for the buyer’s attention in the tough, subjective luxury car market along with the likes of Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Aston Martin and Jaguar, the 928 would stand out as it did not look anything like the others.
The first two front-engined Porsche sports cars, the 924 and the 928, were revolutionary in every respect as they had no forebear to follow. Of these two models, the 924 followed what had been started when the project was still a VW concept, and so the design and development of this model was quite rigid, not allowing for much Porsche influence. The 928 on the other hand was Porsche’s first fully fledged in-house, front-engined development from the ground up, featuring a water-cooled V8 engine. While the 924 inherited some of Audi’s mechanical hardware, the 928’s engine was a completely Porsche designed and developed engine.
More than any other vehicle type, sports cars draw public attention, and as such attract more comment and criticism than other car types. Sports cars are also more susceptible to changes in social standards and believe it or not, fashion. In the Porsche family, the engineers were instructed to design and develop new cars that would enjoy a long life in the market. This philosophy was reinforced by Professor Bott who said, “It makes sense to keep the shape for a long time and to improve the car with better acceleration or better economy.” In other words, upgrading and improving a car was much cheaper than developing a new car from scratch every year or two.
The Porsche 928 was launched to the press at St. Paul de Vence, on the French Riviera, in February 1977. Dr. Fuhrmann announced that the sports car would undergo changes in the future, as top speed and performance alone were no longer satisfactory attributes to sustain the genre. What he meant by this was, that the profile of the sports car buyer was changing, and these cars were increasingly being bought by people who did not necessarily have the driving skills to manage an out-and-out sports car. Such a driver needed comfort and safety, which added weight and increased vehicle dimensions, all of which could not be accommodated in a stripped-out sports car just a step away from the race track. In addition, the business world was producing Chief Executives earning big salaries at an increasingly younger age, and with the growth in the number of women in top positions in the economy, a sports type vehicle needed to offer luxury along with impressive performance.
Between 1978 and 1995, Porsche sold 61,056 units of the 928 model across the range. While this averaged just 3600 units per annum over a 17-year period, this was a fairly small number, even for Porsche. However, and perhaps most importantly, Porsche was able to add a third model to its range, and this enhanced product mix helped the company through some difficult years. In the year of the 928’s introduction, 1978, the new Porsche sports car was selected as the Car of the Year, earning it the distinction of being the first sports car ever to receive such an accolade.
The Porsche 944
Where the 924 and 928 had been entirely new models for the company and as such, these cars required a large investment by Porsche. The final two transaxle models that followed, namely the 944 and 968, were improvements of the models that went before.
It is acknowledged by most that the 924 suffered (unjustly) from the fact that it was powered by an Audi engine. Introduced in 1982, the 944 on the other hand, was 100 per cent a Porsche, and a substantial step up from the 924 that it replaced. Although it was intended to replace the 924, the two models ran alongside each other with more than 4000 units of the 924 S being produced in 1988.
While the 944 had to follow the lines of the 924 in general terms, it was an altogether more aggressive looking and purposeful sports car. The 944’s engine was one half of the V8 that powered the 928 and incorporated 4-valve technology for improved performance and economy. Porsche engineer Paul Hensler explained, “A body shape has to last us twenty years, perhaps more. It is natural, therefore, that we should concentrate on powertrain development.”
In 1989 Porsche launched the first Cabriolet to be offered in the transaxle family. Porsche had noted customer trends and acknowledged that not every Porsche customer wanted their Porsche for pure performance driving purposes. Between 1989 and when the model was replaced in 1991, Porsche sold around 7000 Cabriolets alone.
Between the years 1982 and 1991, the Porsche 944 outsold the previous high-selling 924 by some margin, with 161,130 units being sold during this 10-year period. During its time, the 944 would be powered by three different capacity engines, the 2.5-litre, 2.7-litre and 3.0-litre, this last unit being the largest capacity 4-cylinder engine in production in the world at the time. The 3.0-litre engine was described by the engineers and many customers, as the sweetest engine that Porsche had produced.
The Porsche 968
The Porsche 968 had the shortest production run of the four transaxle models, being produced for four years only between 1992 and 1995. It is said that the last of the front-engined transaxle Porsches was indeed the easiest to drive and the most comfortable. The 968 inherited the 928’s pop-up headlights and the body language, while unmistakeably a progression of the 924 and 944, showed a return to softer lines.
First introduced on the 1992 Porsche 968, VarioCam was a variable valve timing technology that varied the timing of the intake by adjusting the tension on the timing chain that connected the intake and exhaust cams. Although it had been introduced on the 964 in 1990, in another first for the transaxle family, the option of Tiptronic transmission was offered on the 968 in 1992.
In true Porsche tradition, the 968 was offered in Clubsport trim in 1993. Although the 968 was Porsche’s final model in the transaxle model line, the engineers could not resist producing a Turbo S model which produced over 300 bhp and had a top speed of 174 mph. The 968 was never intended to compete in motorsport, but three 968 Turbo RS models were for competition for selected customers. Unfortunately, as the model was to be discontinued, the Turbo RS suffered from underdevelopment although it did fare reasonably well in the ADAC GT Cup in 1993. The one and only 968 Turbo RS that was entered in the 1994 Le Mans 24 Hours had to be severely detuned in order to last the distance, but it unfortunately crashed out of the race.
The transaxle models in motorsport
Porsche sports cars have always benefitted from motorsport, in fact this has been a core value behind their model development right from 1948. And so, it is unsurprising that all four of the transaxle models played their part in this theatre as well. Porsche will be quick to admit that the 911 has been the mainstay of their motorsport activities since its introduction in 1964, but the 924, 928, 944 and 968 have all played an important role in carrying the company flag when competing on the international stage.
All of these details and more can be found in a book written by myself and published by Crowood Press (2015), Porsche 924/928/944/968 – The Complete Story. This book was reprinted in 2019 and can be purchased here.
Porsche transaxle production
|Model||Model Run||Production||Units P.A.|
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Porsche Werkfoto