As I'm sure many of you have noticed by this point, classic Porsches play a pretty significant role in my automotive passion. Sexy as the latest Ferraris may be, the mechanical purity and engineering precision of Stuttgart's aircooled classics have always tickled the part of me that adores all things 'analog'. And while I dream of restoring my own 911E one day far in the future, in the short term I am fortunate to have a similar love for the oft-overlooked transaxle models of the late 1970s through early 90s.
Depending on who you ask, the transaxle models were either a colourful blip or an unsightly blemish in Porsche's automotive history. When they first arrived in the 1970s and 80s, the front-engined, liquid-cooled 924, 928, 944, and 968 were widely decried by luftgekühlt purists as blasphemous changes of course for the iconic marque. From Ferdinand Porsche's KdF-Wagen (later known as the classic Volkswagen Beetle) to the derivative 356 and eventual 911, Porsche had built a name around a consistent line of rear-engined, air-cooled road cars with graceful curves and a uniquely mechanical personality. With their misplaced engines and liquid cooling, the arrival of the transaxle models marked a significant departure from this established template. Hyperbolic and histrionic as this traditionalist reaction sometimes seemed, it was admittedly understandable within the brand's context.
The origins of the platform simply compounded these reservations. Marketed as a successor to the entry-level 914, the 924 had initially been designed for Volkswagen. For many purists, the arrival of this 'glorified VW' in the 1976 Porsche lineup seemed an underwhelming turn for the brand, sacrificing brand values and exclusivity for mass marketability. Admittedly, there was a degree of truth to such impressions. Sporting a 95hp 2.0L engine assembled by Volkswagen technicians in Neckarsulm, the 924 could claim neither the power, prestige, or even physical resemblance expected of a vehicle bearing the Porsche crest. It would take a long process of development before the 924 platform would come to perform to the standard expected of a Porsche in the 1980 Carrera GT, and, in 1982, the 944. Yet for all their teething problems, the transaxle models came to play enormously important roles in Porsche's technical and commercial development - perhaps none more than the 944.
Whereas the 924 had been sluggish for a Porsche and the 928 could be a careening danger to itself and others if driven anywhere but to the country club, the arrival of the 944 in 1982 brought a balance of performance and refinement to the transaxle lineup.
Building on the impressively balanced 924 platform, the 944 mounted an efficient new 150hp 2.5L four-cylinder engine, revised brakes and suspension, and handsome flared arches inspired by the Carrera GT. Though the humble 2.5 gradually grew into a turbocharged 2.7 (and eventual 3.0), the 944 was finally a proper transaxle performance car. And despite the puritans' objections, it sold in quantities Porsche would not surpass until the introduction of the Boxster.
Much as I enjoy seeing immaculately-detailed 911s, I have loved seeing all of the recognition that the humble transaxles have received of late. From the fantastic exhibit at the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart to the special corral at this year's PCA Porsche Parade at Jay Peak, the Porsche community has been paying a fantastic amount of attention to the early wassergekühlter as they celebrate the 924 platform's 40th anniversary.
Traditional favourites like the 918 and RS2.7 are neat and all, but I have long appreciated the sensibility of the 944. As ever more 911s and 356s are being retired to lives as trailer queens, 944s have retained their practicality as handsome performance cars for everyday enjoyment. With their handsome styling, exceptional balance and handling, spacious boots, relative affordability, and underdog legacy, the 944 appeals to the part of me that longs for a modest but well-composed enthusiast's car with Volvo taillights. Over time, an untold number of conversations with 944 drivers, racers, and mechanics gradually deepened my respect, adoration, and longing for these transaxle classics in particular, until finally I knew I had to do my best to find one for myself.
The final tipping point came in 2014 while wandering the Lakeshore area in Oakville, where I came across a gorgeous light blue metallic example. It was the first (and, until recently, last) 944 I had seen in such a colour, and the way it highlighted the car's lines cemented that spec in my imagination. Though anxiety over missing preventative maintenance windows may contrast with the relative indifference permissible among Jetta or Corolla owners, when given proper care many of these cars have brought their owners hundreds of thousands of kilometres of enjoyment - sometimes through sun and snow alike.
Living in the country after finishing my History degree at Wilfrid Laurier University, it was clear the time had come to upgrade from the 1:18 model sitting on my desk and start searching for a real one.
Coming in with such enthusiasm, the initial search was actually somewhat underwhelming. While the availability and affordability of something like the 944 is great for a young photographer like me, it also has its pitfalls. In a car that typically sells for under $10k, important maintenance such as timing adjustments or clutch replacements can quickly carry the cost of maintenance well beyond the market value of the car itself. As a result, the market is replete with 944s purchased, abused, and ultimately neglected as inexpensive, seemingly 'disposable' sports coupes. Given this, unless an owner is an enthusiast ready to pick up the wrench themselves, many have simply been left to fate.
After a handful of disappointing viewings and test-drives around southern Ontario, my infinitely-wise girlfriend Erica thought to look beyond the province and found a beautiful example in British Columbia. Reading the description it seemed to check all the right boxes - unmodified, manual gearbox and steering, brown interior, cookie cutters, no window tint, borderline-compulsive maintenance (including fresh timing belts), and even that glorious blue that I had yet to find again. The previous owner had purchased the car with his father's approval 11 years ago, under whose mentorship the car became a well cared-for member of the Wadolowski family. Upon moving his graphic design business out to Kelowna however, Ben no longer had the space for a summer toy and had to let it go. In a flurry of photos and correspondence that I still can't believe made this happen so quickly, a deposit was in his inbox and I had a flight booked to YLW.
Mere days after discovering the ad on Auto Trader, I was in British Columbia with the keys to a dream come true. And at age 21, it came almost a decade before I ever thought it would.
From here would begin a scenic journey to Vancouver Island, up to Jasper and down the Icefields Parkway, and back across Canada, covering just over 6000km in a week. With roof in the trunk and my little sister Melanie playing DJ, we turned our straightforward 3000km journey into an awesome adventure.
While I knew I had something special, conversations with several long-time 944 owners have brought my attention to just how lucky I was. 'Kenneth' (named with Mel's help) is factory finished in the gorgeous LM5Z/L30T light blue metallic from the 924, a colour which only made it onto a small handful of models produced in 1982 (06/82 in my case). The brown interior with sport seats and woven inserts only add to this, as do the clear windows unsullied by awful black tint. The front end has some pretty heavy peppering and I need to source some fresh wool for the driver's seat, but it puts a smile on my face every time. It won't be the shiniest car at the PCA UCR rally, but as far as I'm concerned my 944 is beautiful, and it's mine.
Though Kenneth has proven to be an impressively solid and mechanically-sound example, not everything could be expected to run perfectly on a car this old. I have had to contend with a few small electrical gremlins, the greatest of which presented itself just an hour after receiving the keys. Caught in Kelowna traffic on a 30° afternoon, the appearance of steam 4,000km from home had my heart sinking. After I got it pulled over and the panic subsided, however, I found that the cooling fans simply were not receiving any power. A direct line (with in-cabin fuse) from the battery to the terminal solved the issue temporarily, but after a new relay and a lot of time with a multi-meter it seems I will need to replace the two temperature switches. Even so, it has been a minor and survivable issue in an otherwise fantastic vehicle.
In addition to the technical experience that the 944 has brought, it has also been an important lesson as a Porsche enthusiast. Just as the transaxles may have been maligned by contemporary purists, it can be easy to want to do the same with the likes of the Macan and Panamera. Readily as a purist (myself included) might feel the urge to reject these everyday models as betrayals of Porsche's sporting history, their profitable existence ultimately does nothing to dilute a 911 or 944 driver's connection with their car. Some of Zuffenhausen's marketing may leave me rolling my eyes, but I believe that what sets Porsche apart is the focus on the driver, not the brand. Whereas marques such as Ferrari are as much about the cars as they are about the top-down values of rarity and brand exclusivity, Porsche sells a far greater volume to owners who simply want something enjoyable to drive. It's something we see in cars like the GT4, which trades the Ferrari-killing PDK for the pleasure of a proper manual transmission, or even the Panamera, which ultimately allows drivers to drop their kids at school without subjecting themselves to the blandness of an A6.
Porsche's decision to pursue the transaxle path 40 years ago might not have been the most popular, but just like their new direction with the Cayenne, Panamera, and Macan, each diversification has found loving adherents. Whatever I may think of the Panamera's rear end, or whatever a 930 driver might think of my 944, we all have our automotive passions. In the moment that I turn that small black key on the wrong side of the steering column and the Kenneth's little four-pot comes to life, nothing else matters. And as a driver, I'm pretty sure that's all that matters.