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The car with the wrong badge

Porsche 928 S4 (1987)

28/03/2013 00:37 | Comments: 


The guy behind the idea of the English-language Totalcar site, the, also serving as an editor at the Hungarian , our mother site. Serial collector of sorry old things that have internal combustion engines in them, as a newfound religion, Zsolt is keeping a family under the terror of rust. Being in the business for the best part of the last 19 years, he landed at Totalcar after serving at a huge round of printed automotive magazines. Has a wife, two small(ish) children and a pet rabbit.

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Porsche once thought this snail-eyed UFO, this V8-engined mongrel of a sports car will step in the place of the beloved 911. They proved wrong. But with a BMW-badge, things could have been different.

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kept driver-friendly throughout the decades with an immense amount of engineering bravado, but whose construction was out of date already in the days of Napoleon.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.

928-fans say that such things happen only to brainless users, because an owner who keeps the car maintained according to the book will shrug off all these worries with a smile. He knows that all the bits of the suspension are as strong as if they had been designed for a truck, all the other mechanical components are also over-engineered. Rust usually isn't an issue, but broken plastic body mouldings on cars which have seen a lot of boyracer use usually make the exterior look shabby.

It isn't so on our test car. There are only minor scratches to be seen here and there, even the twelve electric motors adjusting each seat work perfectly. The air-con does the Winterfresh-stuff properly, there isn't a single unnecessary warning lamp showing on the instrument panel. Don't worry, this car isn't perfect either: every time the right door is slammed shut, the grille of the aftermarket Blaupunkt speaker takes a flight to the footwell.

The detail that caught András's attention after acquiring the car was that most automated functions can be made to work manually. The bootlid can be opened remotely from the inside and with the key as well. The central locks can be popped up from the inside with large, rotating knobs and it is possible to bring the headlights to vertical position by pumping a rubber cap on each side in the engine bay. Injection of fuel is looked after by a relatively simple Bosch KE-Jetronic system, and the valves don't need to be looked after, since they have a hydraulic tappet adjustment. All 32 of them...

We crawl along the streets of the old factory site in first and at the gate we turn the car's nose towards the nearest country road. András is driving, and he's barely pressing the accelerator. Fiat Pandas and Chevrolet Sparks blast by us at alarming speeds, whilst the needle on our speedo hardly passes the 60 mark. If this is the way the owner treats this gem, I shouldn't be the one to do anyything worse to it – with this in mind we swap places and I take the wheel.

Just to feel something of the Porsche buried under thick layers of leather, sound deadening material, and rubber bushes, I dial up a cautious 75 on the speedo. It's a heavy fight. Every pothole, every rut in the road, even the road kills that have not yet completely become smelly, two-dimensional stickers on the asphalt try to twist the steering wheel from my grip. The engine emits an almost inaudible sigh, and apart from the rumble of the wide tires, the only noise you can actually hear is the creaking of leather on bigger bumps. Well, such a large herd of cows should start to complain when they are being pushed about, shouldn't they? Even if they've been dead for 26 years...

But I felt absolutely at home with the speed, so I could understand András. This car is a quarter of a century old. I also have some classic cars, and believe me, they don't like to be hurried. When I ask too much from them, sooner or later something breaks as a rule, the engine starts to stumble, I have to get used to some new noises. An old car should be treated respectfully – and this one has 320 PS on tap to tear its components apart. Anyways, why should I be pushing it? This specimen has only a wretched, four-speed Mercedes auto ‘box', the same type that you would find in the fashion-roadster Bobby Ewing had in Dallas. A proper performance-disheartening equipment. But I would be an absolute flop to tell my friends that after having a date with a mint 928 S4, I didn't get any further than the petting stage.

In the meantime we reached the M0 highway ring around Budapest. A dense queue of lorries awaited us as usual, we could hardly find a spot to enter the flow. I started to overtake the endless stream of trucks and by that time we might have been doing 90. Beware, the limit is 80 kph on this road... “Come on, push it!,” shouted András from the other seat at this moment. What? Push it? We are already cruising above the legal limit and we're driving on the M0 which has more hidden lasers on it than a cargo container full of smuggled Samsung CD-players.

“How will you know what a 928 is like, if you don't use that damn pedal properly?!,” he continued, still almost shouting. Wow. Here's this otherwise wholly normal guy, who was avoiding the stones on the street one by one when he was driving. It might also be interesting information that he has just recently paid back the last loan-instalment on this car. I also knew by then that the car lives in one of his friends' garage next to the radiator during the winter, otherwise it resides in András's own, unheated, albeit carpeted and regularly vacuum-cleaned garage. Must I really stuff it? This must be a bad joke.

It didn't come naturally, but my right foot buried the pedal as I was told. And this humongous piece of German steel walking on elephants' feet suddenly stretched its legs, wiped its eyes and set off for the horizon as if it was made of balsawood. Man!

The steering became lighter, it was full of feel at once, the gearbox jumped from one speed to the other like popcorn in the microwave. Our entire earlier low-speed struggle started to look like pushing a wheelbarrow stuffed full of pebbles in deep mud. At around 4500 rpm another magic happened: the big barge squatted on its rear wheels, lifted its front apron like a speedboat at a race in Monaco, the V8 started to roar, firecrackers were lit and all of a sudden we were doing 170. WHO CARES ABOUT LASERS? You've got just one life.

Apart from the penetrating rumble of the engine, only the roar of the tires became more apparent. The Falkens on the car are a bit wider and have a lower profile than the ones specified by the factory, they aren't too new either, so some of the noise can be ascribed to them. There are two facts you should know about the 928: 1) it was the first car you could have a conversation in at the speed of 250; 2) this was also the first for which you didn't need a runway to stop from 250. Both of these would require proper tires. András knows about the problem and will be switching to new ones soon. Wishing not to be too picky, I stopped making remarks – I didn't want this friendly day to end up in a complete overhaul of a perfectly good car...

By the way, the 928 also doubles as a proper family hatchback – if you have the perverted inclination to use it as such. The child seat fits in the rear, it has a boot of more than 200 litres, and if you have to carry larger items, it is variable too. The suspension could be called acceptable, the seats are just about perfect.

And the car oozes character too. There are the headlights, for example, poking in your view like tentacles of some giant snail. When you adjust the height of the steering wheel, the instrument cluster moves together with it – I wonder if this feature gave Nissan the idea for the 350Z? There are four sunvisors in the car... yes the passengers in the rear also get a pair to avoid a sunburn. And that burgundy leather... Famous poems have been written on lesser subjects.

I gave the car back to the owner for the last, short stretch of driving (I can't imagine why, but we had to stop to fill up the tank...). And András, who was so gentle with this car when I first saw him driving it, sent the pedal to the metal in a style I couldn't believe. This is how I got the taste of speed from the passenger seat in this car. It can really, really move. You just have to get over the petting stage quickly and start the spanking – real hard.

The story of a Big, German Muscle Car

The first series of the 928 from 1977 could run to 240 kph, had telephone-dial alloy wheels with five holes, its small, rear lights were recessed, and its 4.5-litre, 240 PS engine was hardly stronger than present day hot hatches. The 928 S variant that could already do 250 kph, arrived in 1979, with an engine cranking out 300 PS as a result of having been enlarged to 4.7 litres. This version got a power hike to 310 PS in 1983, and from then it could reach 255 kph. In those days even the German manufacturers didn't feel the need to suffocate their cars with the self proposed 250 kph limit that became the standard since then – maybe, because there weren't too many cars around that could show up this kind of potential. The 928 S4 – the car used in our test – came in 1986. It had a 4.6 litre, four valve per cylinder engine having 320 PS and a top speed of 270 (automatic version: 265) kph. Two even stronger variants were still in the pipeline after the S4: the GT in 1989 with 330 PS and 275 kph, then the GTS in 1991 with 350 PS, but the same performance.

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