Vicariously living through your friends’ car purchases is one of the simpler pleasures in life. My friend Andrew recently began to shop around for a Porsche 944; a front-engined, rear-mounted gearbox, rear-drive water-cooled Porsche sports hatchback from the ‘80s. He used to have a 1986 Garnet Red 944 automatic in his college days that he bought for $500, restored a bit, and sold for $4,700. He missed it so there we were, looking at dilapidated old Porsches.
Our search began with a classic Craigslist cruise. We couldn’t swing any Bring-a-Trailer quality examples, and honestly couldn’t be bothered with overpriced garbage anyways. We picked out some listings at around $3,000-$5,000 and sent some texts off.
We heard back from one: a clean-looking 1985.5 base. The ‘85.5 and newer got much-vaunted interior and suspension updates, upgrading the original VW bones and gothic dungeon interior of the ‘82-’85 cars. We found a cheap, high-mileage, stick-shift example that seemed to look OK. The makings of a responsible purchase were all there.
A date and time was set quickly. Midday on a Friday we ventured to Camarillo, a city about an hour out of Los Angeles. Seemed legit enough, since the address checked out to somewhere reasonably upscale. That sort of thing usually translates into a well-kept machine. I was coming from somewhere else so I met Andrew and his dad at the seller’s house, where I saw not only a 944, but also a BMW 835i that the seller owned too. I might have made an offer on the 8-series. Alas, it’s for another time. I moved on to the 944.
The body looked pretty OK and straight. That is, until we got around to the front. We noticed a little bit of panel gap weirdness in the ad, but this was straight-up funhouse stuff. The hood was horribly misaligned, and the fenders were a little janky. Big, big red flags. We pressed on.
We popped the pretzeled hood, and dug around a bit. It was around this time that the seller did the classic backpedal:
“Yeah, I know in the ad it says the full timing belt service was done, buuut… the balance shafts may have been installed 180 degrees off, it’s an easy mistake to make…” the seller trailed off, gauging the reaction.
Andrew and I gave each other a knowing look. This car was working out badly, and we weren’t buying it at any price. That was before some more discoveries.
There was just a loose wire hanging out in the engine bay, coming from somewhere important. The seller “wasn’t really sure” what it was for, but “the car runs totally fine!” I traced the wire back to an unplugged knock sensor, a reasonably important sensor that tells the DME when the engine is about to explode. Good stuff. Even better, I found some writing on the windshield washer reservoir detailing what seemed to be compression and leakdown for the four cylinders of the engine. Suffice to say, they didn’t look good.
Other than the seller continuing to stammer about timing belt services, the rest of the engine was a bit dusty but fine. We decided to take it out for a test drive to see if it at least drove nicely. The first startup wasn’t promising. Andrew turned the key to start it, and the engine violently bucked and kicked the entire car. I swear to you, reader, that the car was ringing like a bell. Another crank and it started decently. I reached for the window switch to get some air in the car, and it popped out of its socket impotently. Flopping the horrendously deteriorated gear stick into the first, we took off.
Vibrating away, it was abundantly clear that the balance shafts were 180 degrees off. This engine was shaking itself to bits. It ran like shit and made even less power than the old automatic ‘86 944. Shifting it was hilarious, resulting in a classically terrible wah-wah-waaah drivetrain rocking motion. Good lord, we were not buying this car, but we were dying laughing.
Our quick test drive over, we pulled back in, promptly offered the seller pennies, and walked away from the deal. The car was way too sketchy to even make a solid base out of. Our search continued.
After some discussion, we upped the budget. Andrew didn’t want another normal 944. At our price range, we were just gonna keep finding bad examples. We pumped those numbers up to $10,000. Now we were sort of in Turbo territory, maybe clean S territory. A 944 Turbo, well, had a turbocharger from the factory and claimed around 220 horsepower. A 944 S was a twin-cam 16-valve version of the normal 2.5-liter M44 engine that had around 190 HP.
Right after we made this decision, we found a promising-looking 1987 Turbo about 20 minutes away from us listed at $10,000. An email was sent and the seller got back to us within 15 minutes. In another 5 minutes, we had a meeting set up later that evening. We were getting excited and prepared for a thorough inspection of the more complicated Turbo. I was mainly there for any overarching mechanical problems, while Andrew knew the nitty-gritty of 944s, knowing deeply mundane things like the correct windshield seal for the car. We make a good team.
We set off into the golden California sunset to a Vons parking lot in Sunland, a short drive from our base in Northridge. We pulled up, texted the guy, and waited. And waited. Waited some more. After 30 minutes of no response from the seller, we went home, defeated once more. How hard could it be to buy a 30-year-old Porsche?
At least it was a short drive this time, but the disappointment in the car drive home was palpable. This was a strong candidate. We got back to Northridge and began furiously searching once more when Andrew’s phone rang. It was the guy who just flaked on us!
“Should I pick up?” Andrew queried excitedly.
We all know what happened next. He picked up, listened to a medium-length explanation involving middle school children and their homework, perforated with apologies, and expressed hope that he was still interested. Andrew, being weak-willed in the matter of old Porsches, accepted the explanation, hung up the phone, and started shooting texts over to our guy for another meeting time.
I was suspicious of his story, and I was convinced that he just had another buyer back out. I told Andrew to give him a hard time tomorrow, as part of the game plan for the actual inspection of the Turbo.
“Hit him hard, and bargain hard. Call the bluff.” I said, citing the experience of over a dozen transactions on Craigslist.
“Nah man, seems like a good guy,” Andrew replied, sagely.
Being in complete disagreement over strategy, we got some sleep for the night. We arranged a mid-morning meeting at 10 a.m., now at the seller’s house, so there was no escaping the unbridled excitement of two twenty-somethings buying an irresponsible car.
The next morning, I was wary of the quality of the car. The ad described a few issues that could be deal-breakers, and I wanted to approach with heavy caution. Andrew agreed, and we did… until we pulled up to the house. No less than five 944s littered the property, with three out front and two in the back vigorously disassembled.
Naturally, we began to foam at the mouth with nerdy joy. The seller came out to greet us with much-appreciated clear communication about the car, and deep knowledge about 944s in general. On the test drive, he urged Andrew to “take it to 6,000, see how it feels”. It was the absolute best owner possible. The car presented even better.
Coated in the rare Ocean Blue metallic with a black interior, with a recently replaced engine and broken odometer. The windshield seal was wrong, and the hatch seal was broken. The list ends there. A totally and utterly dry engine top and bottom, and a dry transaxle out back complimented a mint interior and stellar driving characteristics, we were completely flabbergasted at how good the Turbo was. We both gave each other the we’re gonna buy this shit dude look as soon as we met the owner. The rest was just a bonus.
After some pretty soft deal making by Andrew (sorry man!) they agreed to $9,500 as the sale price because of the faulty air conditioning.
Now, we have a 1987 944 Turbo in the Car Bibles extended family. So far, the car has been flawless and hasn’t burned or leaked any oil as described in the ad. I tooled around in it for a night and I’m jealous, to say the least. I had no idea that these cars drove so well. Somehow, this car found us, and it’s shaping up to be a real keeper.
Finding it was kinda tedious, but queuing up my favorite songs from Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed, feeling the classically turbocharged surge from the baritone four-cylinder, and appreciating how good it really is, is something I won’t forget. Bring the ’80s back, indeed.