A few of months ago, my wife Rhonda had a scary accident. She was rear-ended hard on the freeway, and it smashed her 2000 Ford Focus into the car in front of her and the center divider. Our little daily driver was "totaled" and claimed by the insurance company of the party at fault. Thankfully, Rhonda came out of it with some sore muscles but no other injuries. When it was time to choose the replacement car, I started thinking about a Porsche 944 Turbo. In my price range, it seemed the perfect choice: I'm a big Porsche fan, love turbo'd engines, and the 944's styling, with its curvy widebody and unique nose, doesn't look too outdated. A couple of days after the accident I proposed the 944T as a project to Editor Brown, and after he gave it his blessing, I began my hunt for the perfect specimen, the budget kept to a strict $10,000 limit.
The Porsche 944 Turbo was introduced in the U.S. in 1986 and was discontinued in 1989 (although reportedly there are a very few 1990-91 944 Turbos out there). To distinguish it from the normally aspirated 944, the Porsche 944 Turbo is also known as the 951, similar to how Porsche distinguishes different model years of the 911, such as 993 and 996. The factory specs for the 951 include a 217-bhp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with a KKK turbo pumping out 11 psi of boost.
In 1988 the factory introduced the 247-bhp Turbo S (aka 951 S) along with the standard 944 Turbo. The S sported a larger turbine housing, a limited-slip differential and a slightly beefed-up transmission with a transmission cooler. The car retailed for nearly $50k. In 1989, all 951s were built as S-spec cars, though Porsche no longer called it a Turbo S but referred to it as a 944 Turbo.
Hunting down the perfect specimen for this project began with searching the Internet every day for over a month, trying to stretch my pennies as far as they would go. The Turbo S was what I really wanted, but $10k seemed to only cover high-mileage examples with a little bit of work needed--I couldn't find any Turbo S models worth buying for under $14k. A couple of regular 951s were near-purchases, but the fact that one was near Chicago and the other near Detroit didn't motivate me enough to take that last step due to the additional shipping costs to California.
Finally, I came across an ad in the Auto Trader Web site that caught my attention. I knew it was a new ad, because I was keeping track of every ad out there, and I also knew that I had to act quickly. After a couple of phone calls and a successful CARFAX check, I immediately booked a $90 flight for the next morning to Phoenix, to buy the car and drive it home.
The taxi ride from the airport to the seller's place of business seemed to take forever--I was suffering in anticipation, and all I could imagine was finding all sorts of things wrong with the car, forcing me to fly back home in disappointment. The car turned out to be better than I had expected. A 1986 model with only 79k miles, it was in nearly perfect condition and everything was stock except for a performance chip. It had just been fully detailed, the leather was in excellent shape and the exterior was in nearly mint condition--it was obvious the mature owner took great care of it. He explained to me that he had searched for nearly a year before he found this 944 Turbo 6 years ago.
"This car is perfect," I thought, trying not to act too excited.
The owner showed me the receipts of maintenance work that recently had been performed on the car, including new timing belts, water pump and engine mounts. Thankfully, the car didn't show any signs of the dreaded oil pan gasket leak. The owner also supplied me with a 1-in.-thick folder of all the maintenance work done since he had bought it in 1997. After the exchange of $8,500 and a firm handshake, I started the 4-hour trek home on Interstate 10 through the desert .
With a silly grin pasted across my face nearly the entire way (I actually burst out laughing in excitement a few times), I kept an eye on the electronics; everything worked. It was over 110*F outside and the air conditioner was blowing cold, and the cylinder head temperature didn't creep over the halfway mark. Even with the ambient temperature as high as it was, I took advantage of being completely alone in the middle of absolutely nowhere for a couple of sprints past 140 mph from a fifth-gear roll-on at 80 mph. I couldn't believe how smoothly this 17-year-old car pulled at triple-digit speeds. After arriving home, I flushed the cooling system; summer was coming, and the Porsche was running a 50/50 water-coolant mixture. I replenished it with two bottles of Redline Water Wetter and distilled water for better cooling. When I crept under the car to undo the bleed screw, I was amazed at the cleanliness of the underside of the car; even the insides of the wheelwells were spotless.
Even though I suspected I wouldn't find any problems, for peace of mind I did a compression check. One thing I love about older cars is the ease of access to the spark plugs because there aren't the engine covers we see on most cars today. And as the Porsche doesn't have individual coils (unlike Project M3) to remove to get to the plugs, it turned out to be a simple, 10-min. job to test all four cylinders. Again, to my amazement and fist-pumping joy, the measurements were 130 psi for each and every cylinder.
I was a bit puzzled about the location of the turbo under the hood. Unlike most turbocharged engines I've seen, where the turbo is on the exhaust side of the cylinder head, the 944's turbocharger sits under the intake side, right under the intake runners. Needless to say, these intake runners become extremely hot to the touch after an easy, short drive. Although air flow through the runners is likely fast enough that it doesn't get overly heated, I'm a big believer in heat shielding and heat dissipation. So, I'll be shielding these two components from each other in the very near future. To register the car in California requires a "smog check"; the car passed with ease. This was followed by a trip to the weighing station, where the 944T tipped the scales at 3,060 lb with a full tank of gas.
Project 951 is starting life as a strong car. So nice is it, in fact, that at times I'm trying to talk myself out of modifying or upgrading it. But, as a project manager and car geek, it's my job and my passion, so I'll jump in with both feet. As it's the first Porsche I've ever owned--well, second, if you count the 944 Turbo I bought dirt cheap a few weeks ago only to turn around and sell it to make a few extra bucks--I expect to learn a great deal about the 951 as this project progresses.
Project 951 will undergo some driveline, suspension and interior revisions to maximize performance in every category as well as minimize weight. However, unlike some of our more radical projects like Project M3, Project 911 and Project "Maxed Out" MINI, this car will be kept completely streetable, with minimal changes to factory appearance. The goals are 2,900-lb wet weight and more than 300 reliable horsepower at the wheels. My new 944T will be equipped only with that technology that's deemed appropriate to handle the increased power output.
Stay tuned; several noted performance companies are lined up and ready to go. Project 951 will undoubtedly be a project to remember.
Looking for a 944 Turbo?
In order to get the most for your money, be prepared to search, as I did, the classifieds all over the country. Porsche 944 Turbos, although readily available, are over 15 years old, and finding one that doesn't need extensive work may take time. If you've got the cash to spend--let's say over $15k--you won't have a hard time finding a pristine example with less than 50k miles, possibly even a Turbo S. But if your budget is less, like mine was, it's time to be careful in your shopping. First and foremost, I never purchase a car without running a CARFAX first. It's cheap, it's fast, and it can give you a good idea about the car's history, including accidents, fires, odometer rollbacks or even junk titles. Additionally, it can supply you with the number of previous registered owners, whether it was ever purchased in an auction, and whether the vehicle ever passed or failed smog inspections. Visit www.carfax.com for more info. Although the "Kelly Blue Book" is sometimes a helpful tool in finding out what one should expect to spend, it didn't work for me. It's obvious that supply and demand still rules the marketplace, especially when the supply is low and the demand is high as in the case of Porsche 944 Turbos. Expect to pay one and a half to twice the "KBB" private-party pricing for a real nice car.
Certain used cars have problems a potential buyer must watch out for. In the case of the 951, one should be aware of any leaks, especially one from the oil pan gasket. Harmless and inexpensive as it may sound, the labor involved is extensive and can set you back $600. The timing belts on these cars should be replaced every 25k to 30k miles. Cars that have had the gasket, timing belts, clutch and even the water pump recently replaced are a great start. You should also inspect tie rod ends and ball joints.
The one car I was looking at in Chicago had a history of a fire, according to CARFAX. After further investigation, I learned it was a minor fire under the hood, but because the insurance covered the repainting of the hood due to the bubbled paint, it's now on file. However, what to learn from this is the car you're buying should not show any signs of weak or brittle fuel lines.
Exhaust manifold cracking is uncommon, but the manifold should be checked regardless because of the expensive replacement costs.
If you have a chance to test drive the car, by all means do so. There shouldn't be any excessive vibration in the cockpit, and the engine should idle smoothly at around 1000 rpm. When driving the car, the oil pressure gauge should read at or above 2 bar. The cooling temperatures should be below the third white line. However, although the first bargain 944 Turbo that I bought and sold ran pretty hot, I immediately flushed the cooling system with distilled water and a couple of bottles of Redline Water Wetter and noticed the temperature gauge thereafter rarely read past the first white line.
The car should drive smoothly off boost and should display a smooth, yet aggressive burst in power when the turbo begins to spool at a little before 4000 rpm. At this point the boost gauge should read a couple of lines below 2 bar (on the factory gauge 1 bar equals atmospheric pressure, i.e., zero boost), indicating the stock 10- to 11-psi boost pressure. After your drive, jump out and look under the car. If several drops of oil are present, it could be a few different things, including the dreaded oil pan gasket leak.
If the car you're looking at is in the more upscale price range--say over $9,000--you should expect to receive most, if not all, records of the work performed within the last several years. It's also important to know if the car has had its oil routinely changed.
Finally, it's always a good idea to have a car you're serious about taken to the local Porsche mechanic for a thorough inspection. Being that it's a simple, less than 10-minute task to perform, the motor should be compression tested. If possible, have a leak-down performed as well, but this may set you back another hundred bucks. Once you're satisfied with the vehicle's overall appearance and driving characteristics, the CARFAX checks out, and the mechanic gives his blessing after a thorough inspection, it may be safe to hand over the dough and drive off in your new 944 Turbo with little worry. --PM