The car with the wrong badge
Porsche 928 S4 (1987)
We gave the finger to the legend: the Porsche 928 got home under its own steam after the test. If we were to believe the rumours, this really is something of a miracle. As Mercedes-owners often say, the nearly two-meter long cambelt of the Porsche V8 is only good for one thing: to tow the car home after it has snapped.
This very 928, made in 1987, had more than 150 thousand kilometres under its belt at the time of the testing. And it purred like a well-fed cat in front of the fireplace on a cold, February evening, not even the smallest of its functions showed a glimpse of faltering. And boy, did we have a long day: lots of photo shooting, even more driving in the city, hitting the highway¸the long pedal was kept on the metal. And I wouldn't dare to disclose what speed the owner averaged when he took off for his home city, Kecskemét, after the session.
In 1977 Porsche was already planning to replace the 911 that was about a hundred years old by then, but not even the most adventurous designer would have bet that such a drastic change in philosophy would work out in reality. There was this small company from Weissach which had made a fortune and had become somewhat of a legend on the back of noisy, rear-engined sports cars that were kept driver-friendly throughout the decades with an immense amount of engineering bravado, but whose construction was out of date already in the days of Napoleon. How would you expect such a firm to switch to impeccably thought over, cool and super-modern GT's at the snap of a finger? It would have been like Bill Graham taking over the organization of the Berlin Love Parade.
And this was exactly what customers thought of this pro-level, huge Gran Turismo. Mind you, the press did its best to draw the public's attention to the 928's outstanding virtues. They rolled out the red carpet before the new car, odes were sung wherever possible. But a worrying recognition was made in the meantime. As we know, the “Designed by Porsche” branding does wonders to a pair of sunglasses, a digital camera, it had even done magic to the horrible first-gen Seat Ibiza by showing up on the timing cover. But it just didn't work on the 928. This model would have had a glorious life, had it an Audi logo, a BMW propeller, a Mercedes star or even a Lancia shield on it. But by 1977 standards, a Porsche was allowed to carry its air-cooled engine only in the rear. Full stop.
But this one had a liquid-cooled V8 up front and – for God's sake – its gearbox was in the rear. It even had a boot. Instead of the 911‘s bulging lamps it cast its Hella light beam on the road via motorized snail-eyes popping out of the bonnet, and it had a tendency to fall in the undergrowth arse-first only if somebody was really fool enough to desperately prove Newton had his physics wrong. It was safe. It was comfortable. It was even practical. Call in the priest, send for the undertaker, the end of the world has arrived.
In spite of its cold reception among the customers, the car won the Car of the Year award in 1978. No other sports car received this prize ever since, and this decision has become the strongest point for those who debate the whole raison d'étre of the COTY-award. The 928 beat BMW's 633 CSi and Mercedes' 450 SLC in the tests on the pages of the best-read German magazines, but even this wasn't enough for Porsche to make a profit on the model. Sales hardly climbed over 3000 per year – the tooling was planned for 8000... In 1987, the model's best year, 5400 were sold.
What a pity, because the 928 had some tricks up its sleeve. By galvanizing all of its panels on both sides, Porsche could give a six-year long anti-corrosion guarantee, thus it had the whole auto industry in its pockets. Only the doors, the front fenders and the bonnet didn't get the treatment – because they were all made of aluminium. The engine was moved back in the engine compartment as far as possible, the battery was sent to the boot too, to get the weight distribution even between the front and rear axles. And there was a torque tube – this massive piece of steel (also used by Peugeot for decades) connected the engine and the gearbox to each other, providing a safe housing for the prop-shaft sometimes rotating at over 6000 rpm, and also cancelling out the jerking effect often noticeable with rear-drive cars.
But of all things , the most attention was paid to the suspension. Imagine a pseudo-MacPherson arrangement, where not only the bottom, but also the upper part of the strut is supported by a wishbone. The springs were also adjustable by crowned nuts, like on motorbikes. At the rear, a Weissach-system was used, which consisted of two lateral and one longitudinal arm per side, plus an adjustable strut combining the spring and the shock absorber.
It is difficult to understand today how masses of customers could walk by a 928 without a feeling an instant urge to buy one, when the first cars hit the showrooms. The leather in the interior was sewn by hand, the glass areas were convex, and the car had no visible bumpers – the roles of which were taken over by impact-resistant, foam-filled, plastic nose and rear cones. A must today– an aerospace technology back then.
And that silhouette – timeless elegance was oozing from each panel. Even the used-soap shape wasn't like the Lux in the ladies' room, but rather of the abrasive-added workshop-style soap found in factories and repair shops. Marketing gurus would call it organic nowadays, but in fact it's just beautiful. The biggest luck was that the financing department let the prototype version make it into production without visible modifications.
Anybody who has the money for a basic-spec Astra today could buy himself a Porsche like this. András, the owner, got this very car for 3 million forints (about 13 thousand euros at the time) on a loan quite a few years back – and he had only 12 thousand left on his bank account afterwards. Not euros, forints. Seeing my eyebrows rush to the top of my head upon hearing this, he quickly added – when should I have bought a Porsche? When I'm sixty?
It is just as rude to ask about the fuel consumption of a car like this, as it is to question an American top manager about his wages. So naturally I asked this first. I got the answer. On a good day, rolling serenely on rural roads it may go as low as 11 l/100 kms, but an intermezzo in the city sends the number to 16-18, and if you get carried away on a twisty mountain road, do not expect anything below 20 l/100 kms.
But nowadays, 928's are usually kept as weekend cars, they are huge, albeit very good, toys for huge, good boys. When you hear about the 32 valves and the 8 cylinders, and you get to know about the rest of the whole machinery that is more complicated than the control tower of the La Guardia airport, you instantly envisage huge maintenance bills and unfathomable expenses when anything goes broke. But in this case, what you see isn't what you get.
This very 928 has been maintained by the same, highly qualified Porsche workshop for the best part of the last fifteen years. Detailed receipts rebut the arguments that this car is costly to maintain, since its yearly upkeeping costs have never exceeded 3500 euros. Of course, we're in cheap Eastern Europe, but even with higher service fees elsewhere, it wouldn't cost you more than an average family hatchback. A few days after our testing, András had the cambelt and all the rubber hoses replaced (none of them were bad, but being almost a quarter of a century old, it seemed wiser to get rid of them), all of that cost him 300 euros. With the value of the car slowly creeping upwards, nobody would call this a money pit.
But I also received some interesting details about why the ownership of a 928 turns into a nightmare for some. If the engine gets a proper warming up every time before hard use, it lasts at least 300 thousand kilometers without a major overhaul, with caring use this may go up to as high as half a million. The cambelt horror story is true, but only if the car is neglected. Imagine, you buy a car from 1988 with the odometer showing 180 thousand kilometers and a cambelt that had lived on the engine from its birth. Your right foot stirs immense power up front, you hear the silky-smooth running of the eight cylinders, and you really feel safe to head for the 7000 rpm limit.
The trouble happens when you lift your foot off the accelerator. The cambelt, which is on its third life by then, suddenly jumps a few cogs. The pistons, rushing up the cylinders, meet the valves that are still open because of the offset timing. Aluminium and steel shake hands, the former breaks, the latter bends. If you're really unlucky, one of the pistons can get stuck, the conrod tears itself free, and because the momentum of the car keeps the crankshaft rotating, in half a turn the rod punches a hole in the side of the cylinder block. In that case you might as well switch to a more benign religion and tow the car to a junkyard straight away. To make things worse, in this later, S4 version of the 928, you'll find both cambelt and timing chain. Mr. Serviceman, time to play Lego Technic.