For the last six years I have been the proud owner of a 1986 Porsche 944. It’s a naturally aspirated model I purchased for just $2700 back in high school. It was the first car I bought for myself, and it’s helped guide me on my automotive career path. The 944 is rightfully regarded as great-handling and well-styled, and makes regular appearances on lists of affordable sports cars. That said, my particular Porsche has also lived up to the rest of its reputation; it’s a bit difficult. In fact, I might go so far as to say that my 944 experience has been an endless headache.
My teenaged ambition of owning a slick sports car was far from a unique occurrence. Of course I was a bit strapped for cash at 15, and my parental credit line wasn’t enthralled with the idea. I got a job to address that issue, and quickly earned enough to forgo their assistance. Living in Michigan where muscle cars still reign supreme, I yearned for V-8 power, but the insurance company thwarted that plan and I was advised that a four-cylinder option may be more appropriate with my budget. I begrudgingly began my hunt.
By the time I was 17, I’d been enticed by the 944 and the concept of owning my very own vintage Porsche for cheap. When I spotted a listing for a low-mile example at a local dealer, my father and I went to investigate. With a tremendous low-ball offer and the fastest handshake in car-buying history, the Porsche was mine. The dealer’s willingness to take that offer should have been a sign of what was to come.
I’ve since come to learn what many 944 owners already know: Because prices were so low for so long, many ended up in the hands of folks who don’t care much for a maintenance schedule. Sometimes several sets of hands, as I’m the fifth owner of my particular 944.
The horror born from years of neglect has reared its ugly head time and time again with my car. Take the cooling system I’ve just replaced, for example, which was thoroughly gummed up by the previous owner’s predilection for mixing coolant types. Or consider the litany of gaskets and hoses that had aged out of their useful service life. Mismatched spark plugs were a surprise as well, as were the pieced-together brakes.
Using the 944 as my daily didn’t seem to help my situation either, as other aging components began to let go. A broken shifter fork was misdiagnosed as a failed clutch, so I underwent the 16 hour process of cursing the invention of the transaxle. The front mounted clutch and long torque tube meant everything needed to come off the car, including the exhaust, the axles, the transmission crossmember, torque tube, and the bellhousing itself. Combine that with two timing belt services and several additional flatbed rides and my investment in this “cheap sports car” has likely tripled in six years’ time. The car probably needs more than that, if I'm honest; I really should throw in a new window regulator and put new seals in the sunroof. Despite having a mere 70,000 miles on the clock, the 944’s age has consistently made itself known.
That’s the real dirty secret of the Porsche 944. It's a great sports car, with impeccable handling and decent grunt from the 2.5-liter four-pot. It can be quite reliable; many owners swear their cars are bulletproof. Of course, that reliability is related to proper upkeep, which many of these machines just haven’t received, especially not with genuine components. Getting back to that healthy place isn’t cheap, either, and honestly requires an owner to do some of their own wrenching if they’d like to retain a savings account. Even with access to a fully-kitted garage, I’ve still found the process taxes my 20-something finances. And with the newest Porsche 944 coming in at 30 years old, one can assume this issue doesn’t get easier from here on out.
The solution to this problem seems simple enough: Buy a 944 with a proper service history. That’s surely an option, but remember, this is a Porsche after all. Prices have started to steadily creep up on nice examples, far beyond the $2700 I scooped mine up for. That’s also raised the floor on ratty examples, which in itself puts great 944s out of the reach of many enthusiasts.
This is not meant to talk anyone out of purchasing a cheap Porsche 944. I absolutely adore my car and have no plans to send it on its way anytime soon. I am also lucky enough to have other exciting vehicles at my disposal, which makes it easier to accept when the 944 is down for the count. That said, let my experience be a counterpoint to those who say it’s a Miata alternative for the budget-minded enthusiast. It may start that way, but the 944 will give you headaches.
Many, many headaches. But if you’re a young enthusiast, that might be exactly what you’re looking for. I learned how to wrench on this car out of financial necessity, and that’s a skill I’m glad I learned. Its rear-wheel drive layout and great weight distribution taught me about driving on the limit, while at the same time, its low power output kept me out of trouble. I also got to feel like a rockstar driving a Porsche to high school, an experience I wouldn’t want to trade. More than anything, however, it taught me to love driving. I just wish I hadn’t spent so much of my money doing things on the cheap.