Porsche 911, 928 & 944: Like a Virgin

14 January 2019
Author: Michael Stahl

I have a Porsche Design watch. A fake one. Twenty-five bucks in Singapore. Mostly it keeps pretty good time. Other times it runs slow, or stops altogether.

I also have a pair of Porsche Design sunglasses. Real ones. Cost a bomb in Berlin. I never wear them because they don’t suit me. But they said Porsche, so I wanted them.

People sometimes comment on my Porsche Design watch; I confess that it’s a fake. They find humour in this. They say, “of course, you’d be driving real Porsches all the time in your line of work.”

I’ve carried the bitter truth like a millstone around my wrist for too long. I’d never… you know, had one. Never driven a Porsche. Wouldn’t have had a clue. I £have been a passenger in four Porsches across the entire span of my life. An early 911, a blue 1977 Targa, a white 1960 356B Super 90, and the small matter of a 1973 917/30 Can-Am monster. But the offer to swap seats never arose. It's been a real Summer of '42 situation.

Imagine, then, a Porsche virgin stumbling into a massage parlour with a round-trip ticket. Porsche Cars Australia supremo Alan Hamilton was organising a 1988 model preview in Melbourne. Peter Robinson was on the guest list. Yes, Robinson, who's driven everything. I punched the wall, kicked the dog, answered the phone. It was Scotty. "You're on your way, Hermie ... "

What lay ahead was an introductory orgy of Porsches. Hamilton had assembled everything from the new 944S to the big bruiser 928S4, with a range of 911 Carreras in between. An of them lying in wait, for me. Oh, and some other guys.

Absent from the 1988 line-up is the "base" single ohc 944 model, now superseded as the entry-level Porsche by the twin ohc, 16-valve 944S. With Porsche prices here having more than doubled since 1985, Alan Hamilton had anticipated a heavy demand last year for the 944. It didn't happen. Hamilton now believes that potential 944 buyers turned instead to Japanese machines like the Toyota Supra or Mazda RX-7; while those still buying Porsches can well afford the 944 Turbo or the 911 series.

Of these I knew only engines, drivelines, prices, techo stuff. What driving sensations I knew had been formed only from reading road tests, and from what I'd heard from friends and journos over damp dinner tables. One friend had track-tested Pete Geoghegan's old racing 911 and had backed off over Oran Park's Dogleg. The next thing he saw was the concrete wall at BP Corner- through the rear vision mirror. "I tell ya, buddy," he'd said, "lift off for a second in a 911 and that's it. Bang! Dead meat."

Thus the 911 had always spooked me, without foot ever meeting pedal. Most of its storytellers echo that a 911 driven properly through a twisty patch will charm the sun from behind the clouds, the chipmunks from the trees and all God's cute critters from their burrows. Of course the storyteller has usually driven them such. It was on the cards I wouldn't.

Ah, well, at least I'd go out in style, hopefully near the end of a day spent hopping from one Porsche to another on a drive program that took us to Victoria's famous Great Ocean Road. What is it that Porsche owners say about "it is better to have loved and lost a 911 on a 75 km/h switchback ... "?

THE 944S

My first was the 944S. I was starting at the bottom-of-the-top, if you like. I'd heard . a bit about the previous, single ohc 944 and it hadn't been too thrilling. A Ford PR bloke told me he couldn't fit his legs beneath the steering wheel and so gave up in disgust. And my own mum, after driving one, said she preferred her Celica Twin Cam SX.

Armed with these in-depth analyses, I obviously couldn't expect too much of the 944S, in spite of its new cylinder head. The 944's in-line four-cylinder unit always was one half of the 928's big V8, and now that the 928S4 sports four valves per pot, so does the 2.5-litre 944S. Power is up to 141 kW on 95 octane ULP (it loses six kilowatts on 91 octane), an increase of 27 per cent over the single-cammer. Torque, likewise, jumps by 21 per cent to 230 Nm. Jeez, it looks alright on paper - and better in the car park.

Better yet from inside. It felt pretty much like a car to sit in- a sports car in fact, from the days when sports cars were something more than a Japanese luxo-barge with a two-door body. It even smelled European. The steering wheel is really close to my knees and it takes a while to find the cushion height controls on the side.

The 911 has always sounded, from the outside at least, like a Hoover Lark with a full dustbag. Somehow the 944S exhaust punches out a similar, deflating note. Dawdling out of Melbourne I admired how the super-firm ride still managed to accommodate joining strips in the freeway, and also noted how most of the Porsche's controls were very firm 'n' German. And boy - does that steering tram-line! The wheel wriggles about in one's hands with each road contour. No, at low B-road speeds, the 944S doesn't make a lot of sense.

Even the engine didn't sound too happy- at least, not until it crawled to 4000 rpm or so. On song, it still couldn't be fairly described as a sweet-running, custard-smooth unit, and off the mark it felt almost sluggish. I was becoming disappointed that my first Porsche was going to be a dud.

Beneath it all, however, the Porsche obviously had very little in common with Japanese "competitors" like the Starion, Supra, etcetera ... all of which seem so innocuous as to be irritating by comparison. Movements about the Porsche cabin must be more deliberate; there's the positive gearshift, the firm but perfectly-placed pedals, the treasure hunt for oddly-placed minor controls. I had most of this foreplay sorted out by the time we were well clear of Tullamarine, and ready to, you know ...

The whole trick is to loosen up, relax. I'd been concerned about the steering's tendency to wander and flicker along the road, and while the steering itself isn't at all heavy, my arms were becoming sore from constant tiny corrections. Hell, I was nervous. When the revs climbed nearer the 6800 rpm redline and our velocity threatened to upset the roadside cabbage stalls, the 944S and its driver began to work together.

The thing tracks true as a die once you've built enough confidence to let the steering wheel have its little dance. Dialling the revs between 4500 and 6500 leaves an adequate supply of grunt to thread the 944S quickly and efficiently through meandering terrain, but in tighter going you're left wanting for more poke. While this baby is not impressive for its sheer grunt, the matching of its impeccable chassis balance, roll stiffness and throttle response makes it quick from point to point.

But I could never really consider it a "supercar" in the bitchy bad-tempered sense. It was just too friendly and normal. Still, this 944S was brand spanking new. And I was her first, too.

THE 911 CARRERA TARGA

Perhaps the setting was appropriate. A glance at the drive program really set the mood; I was to drive the 911 Carrera Targa after a brief picnic ... at Hanging Rock. Spooky place for a spooky car.

It was a caramelly colour called Nougat Brown, and blended well against the gum trees and jutting maze of rocks. How old the Targa looks in a line-up of 944 Turbos, 928S4s and 911 Cabriolets. Each of the 911 Carrera range is available this year with the optional Sport body package, which includes the suspension, brakes and sexy guards and wheels we've come to know and lust for on the now-defunct (in Australia) 911 Turbo. My 911 Carrera Targa - she who must be obeyed, and all that - didn't have the Sport pack. Sitting there with her top off, a Porsche virgin like myself could easily have mistaken her for a half price 1985 model -or a '75 model, for that matter. Were I shelling out $153,000 for the privilege, however, I dare say I'd be able to spot the difference.

Did you know they still have Volkswagen pedals? I didn't. No, really! The pedals, hinged at the floor, recall the Beetle, and they're offset to the left. Likewise the gearshift rattles about in a very Beetlesque fashion. But this is a Porsche, and the steering wheel is the same as that in the 944S. I notice, though, that the Targa's seat has a greater electro-aerobics capability than the others, with the cushion whirring forward and back as well as up and down.

I gunned the 911 away from the Picnic. Grabbing second gear wasn't quite the drama that the diagram on the gear knob would suggest. It had reverse to the far left and up, and fifth to the far right and up. Seemed silly, but hey, the 911 is claimed to be as old as I am, and I know that this car had been driving me silly for all our lives.

It continued to drive me silly, with my friend's words of warning still ringing loud in my ears. Behind me there was the conspicuous, huffing growl of the famous flat-six; a great iron weight threatening to sling me backwards off the road just like a tennis ball in a stocking. I drove as though I was on ice, quickly but oh-so cautious.

There were other Porsches on the road, but none mattered. This one was mine. We felt our way around each other. I eased her through rolling grasslands, daring not to turn into any corner without the 911 slowed and set up to her satisfaction. I kept some drive fed through the rear wheels around each corner, punching the throttle pedal hard as the road unfurled ahead.

And I didn't realise it, but together, we'd been getting faster and faster. I became more daring. I began to turn in harder, with throttle off, letting the rear end roll around into its favoured stance before punching on the gas again. I let the steering wheel bounce and jar about in my hands; even in a straight line, the 911 bucks and kicks like a machine that resents being as powerful as it is.

During the brief moments when my eyes left the road, I glanced at the instrument cluster which places the large tacho smack-dab in the centre. The speedo, calibrated to 260 km/h and no hollow threat, is obscured by the steering wheel, and at any rate, the reflections on the instrument glass are so bad you can't see anything anyway. This car is to be driven from the ass, pure and straight. It's trouble when the brain interferes.

I dunno about this one. The 911 does indeed have its own peculiar magic, but it's not all I'd hoped. It is obviously a very quick car, but with all the hullabaloo, all the noise, it must be conducted with plenty of respect at speed. It's a lot more chuckable than I'd been led to believe; but I've been since told that today's 911 is infinitely more forgiving than those of yore, and that the rear wing - now standard on all 911 s - makes as big a difference as its physical size suggests. But it's loud, it's rattly, and it doesn't feel very sophisticated.

The same feeling ingrained itself further when I later drove the horny-looking 911 Carrera Sport Cabriolet, and the pure Carrera Coupe. Perhaps I was simply doing it all wrong.

THE 928S4

"You'll like this next section," Hamilton said as the convoy rolled into Newstead bound for Ballarat. "Plenty of long, flat-out stretches." Real 928 territory.

What a remarkable car. If its physical presence isn't imposing enough, consider the five-litre V8 under the white pointer bonnet. Consider that it has quad cams and more valves than Dr Christian Barnard would know what to do with. Top speed 270 km/h. What a remarkable car. Yes, I know I just said that.

Dead easy to drive, the sleek silver 928S4 loped along like a cruise missile. Plant the sucker at 200 km/h and it just surges forward, sitting flat and solid. You don't treat corners gingerly at all in this beastie - you attack them. If it has limits of adhesion, they're someplace I don't want to go. Its character is entirely different to the 944's; where the smaller car is nimble and agile, the 928S4 has all the brusqueness of a fat German banker.

I hear the manual transmission 928 is a disappointment. Controls too heavy and slow, they say. This auto is exactly as it should be, in harmony with the big V8's astonishing power delivery. Down low there is pure, squat-on-the-haunches grunt. Up high, where the four valver per cylinder really starts breathing, it just wails with pleasure.

Storming into corners and standing on the brakes in the 928S4 and you find that the stopping power is every bit as immense and effortless as the going power. There's none of the 911 's hesitant weaving and carry-on, none of the 944's lightness. Just four fat claws tearing out the tarmac. A real Ali number, this.

What a remarkable car.

THE 944 TURBO

What a fat pig that 928S4 must be.

The 944 Turbo is everything I had expected for my first. Absolutely effortless blasting at 200 km/h plus, the brilliant chassis never ruffling a feather, the elastic power availability...

The harder I pushed the 944 Turbo into corners the more it felt at home. From within the bum-hugging seat, the only sensation of which the driver is aware is a gradual increase in lateral G-forces. The tyres don't squeal, the car doesn't move around on the road; this machine is simply from a supernatural landscape.

And so easy to drive! The steering wheel will still kick about, but so reassuring is the 944 Turbo's behaviour that it's a cinch to throw it around.lt's a car to make your Aunt Millie look like Stirling Moss.

The turbocharged, single ohc engine behaves precisely as all turbomotors should. It delivers its grunt like a taut rubber band, anywhere in the rev range. Squeezing the throttle at 200 km/h gives you a real push in the back, quite distinct from the 928S4's surge forward.

The difference is this. In the 944S, one attacks a corner with smoothness and plenty of revs stashed under your belt. In the Turbo, one arrives and thinks, "Hmmm, I might take this one sideways." And do so 30 km/h faster. The key word is balance. The chassis. The power delivery. The balance of one to the other. A more ideal package is difficult to imagine.

Those Porsche purists who decry the 944 Turbo as a poofter's chariot are, simply, up themselves. Sure the 911 is a very rewarding car on the occasions that the road, the weather and the driver's state of mind are all in gear. On the Great Ocean Road in the 911 Carrera Coupe, it was just so in the late afternoon. But that mentality I equate to the wife who thinks her husband's the greatest guy on earth because he didn't bash her last week.

No, the 944 Turbo is the one. Along the Great Ocean Road once again, behind the wheel of the Turbo, towns were arriving almost at each breath. I glanced down at my fake Porsche Design watch and thought it was running slow again.

But in truth the real Porsche beneath me was keeping bloody good time.

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