by Adam Towler
Originally published in 911 & Porsche World, published with permission
This article first appeared in 911 & Porsche World. I would like to thank the author Adam Towler and 911 & Porsche World for allowing us permission to reproduce it here on www.928.org.uk. Please follow @911PorscheWorld on Twitter. Please follow @AdamTowler on Twitter. Note that this article is not to be copied to other sites without the permission of the original author and the editor of 911 & Porsche World. We asked Adam if we could reproduce it here because it has the best modern written analysis of all the available models from a UK perspective. Have a read. It will make you want a 928 and might help you determine which kind - Angus
The 928 is a true enigma. It seems impossible for a journalist to write a story about the 928 without citing the car’s failure to replace the 911, or the perception that buying one as a classic car is a potential minefield. But this is the very same car that was deemed the future back in 1977, and with good reason. This is the car – the only sports car – to win a Car of the Year gong. Ok, say what you like about this motoring equivalent of the European song contest, but for a sports car to win outright – that’s something quite profound. It is a car that always tried to be many things on four wheels, but as the years passed, was tasked with becoming a quite different sort of vehicle: an aggressive sports GT rather than an all-round everyday supercar.
The 928 project is thought to have begun in 1971, with the 911 already seven years old and great uncertainty over what the decade ahead would hold for the motor car. Significant pressure from lobbyists in America was threatening to make life next to impossible for sports cars – particularly rear-engined, air-cooled sports cars – and this threat was soon joined by the first fuel crisis. At Porsche there had been great changes, with the family withdrawing from the day-to-day running of the company, and Ernst Fuhrmann taking overall charge.
Influenced by the conditions around him, and guided by his crystal ball, he dreamed a new range of front-engined, water-cooled cars, headed by a formidable sports car that could equally play the role of a cross-continent GT.
Porsche knew the 911s limitations of the latter and were fed up with watching Mercedes and BMW mine a niche of wealthy customers who wanted to journey at speed in comfort. But Fuhrmann also wanted this new super-Porsche to set new standards in everything from accident protection to corrosion resistance. It was to be all things to all men: a 2+2 capable of 150mph, useable everyday, but with the handling and performance to shame most exotica.
What appeared at the 1977 Geneva motor show was a futuristic and unusual looking big coupe, powered by a 4,474cc single overhead cam-per-bank V8 featuring Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection. Drive from the V8 was taken via a torque tube to a transaxle with the gearbox mounted ahead of the differential: either a five-speed dogleg manual, or a three-speed automatic sourced, ironically, from Mercedes-Benz. Weight distribution was claimed to be 51/49% front to rear.
The distinctive body design, by Wolfgang Mobius under the direction of Anatole Lapine, featuring ‘pop-up’ headlamps that remained uncovered even when laid flat, with doors, bonnet and front wings made from aluminium. Incredibly for the time, it had no obvious bumpers, these being hidden underneath plastic aprons styled to fit the car, and that could return to their shape following a minor impact. Today, we take such things for granted.
The suspension was sophisticated too: the front arrangement was a double wishbone and anti-roll bar affair, but at the rear Porsche broke new ground again and introduced the Weissach axle, a development of the semi-trailing arm setup, it countered unwanted toe changes during cornering, thereby reducing oversteer.
It’s hard not to fall for John Vaughan’s original 928 on first sight. If there’s a word that springs to mind it’s ‘pure’: pure in shape and pure in concept, this is the 928 as its illustrious creators envisaged at the outset. And what a car that was. A big car by the standards of the day, today it is almost dainty, and certainly lithe – particularly as it is unadorned by spoilers, and running on small, narrow wheels.
This particular 928 is even more special because it was the first example into the UK, and as such, saw service as the official Porsche press car. In fact, importers AFN had ordered a different spec but what turned up was this pre-production right-hand drive car, built in August 1977 and registered over here in February 1978. This is the car that appeared at the motor show, and in all those magazine clippings from the period. It then spent time as a training car and in storage back at Porsche UK in Reading, before John managed to acquire it in 1992.
Once he had it in his possession he restored the car, as it was bearing the scars of an unusual life by then, but he didn’t appreciate the significance of the car at first: today it joins a 924 Turbo and 924 Carrera GT in a superb ‘front-engined’ Porsche collection. Unique details abound being a pre-prod car: no glovebox, left-hand drive parts under the bonnet and marks on the headlamps from the type approval tests, to name but a few.
Porsche were worried about fuel prices at the time of launch, and eventually introduced the car with a relatively mild version of the V8, as already stated. With ‘just’ 240hp the expectation is of relatively leisurely performance, but the V8 has terrific flexibility, and when roused, a lovely note. The manual gearbox isn’t the quickest, but gets easier as you master it, but the strangest thing to anyone new to 928s is how far the pedal box is set to the outside of the car – the accelerator feels as though it’s almost in the wheel well.
With relatively soft suspension, the 928 has the relaxed gait of a long-distance GT, but underneath that veneer of comfort you can soon detect the inherent ‘rightness’ to the chassis, mainly through the fine balance due to the weight distribution and the stability from the Weissach axle. It’s a car that feels at home in fast corners, where you implicitly trust the excellent steering and smile as this 34 year old car hammers through another curve with ease.
Inside, you feel as though you’re sitting low in a big, muscular car, with a broad dashboard and a long nose beyond that. It’s an experience to savour.
Colin Connolly’s Guards red 928 S is the culmination of a long-held dream. Ever since Autocar Magazine gave away a cutaway of a red 928 in his youth he’s wanted one, and finally three years ago circumstances allowed him to buy this 928 S with 83,000 miles on the clock. Since then he’s covered around 8,000 miles in it, and even driven around the Nurburgring Nordschleife.
Colin drives his 928 with hand controls, but no adjustment is required for me to take the ‘wheel and I’m soon revelling in the extra grunt of the S model. Launched two years after the original for the 1979 model year, and sold in tandem with the standard car until the latter was withdrawn in 1982, the S was a much more potent device, featuring a 4,664cc version of the ‘M28’ V8 with 2mm larger bore size, higher compression ratio and twin exhausts. That meant 300bhp and 283lb ft of torque, still with a choice of manual or automatic gearboxes, while outside the pure lines of the original were embellished with front and rear spoilers and a side-rubbing strip. Alloy wheels were upgraded to the slot type of design you see here.
Colin’s car is the far more prevalent automatic version, and while just three speeds sounds quaint by modern standards, the V8 covers the gaps very well – almost like a four-speed 911 Turbo where you have a gear per typical road situation.
This car also features a recent suspension rebuild with Koni adjustable dampers, lower ride height and Toyo tyres, and the result is a surprisingly nimble car that resists roll keenly and is a lot of fun to work up to its limits – turning into a fast corner requires one steering input and then a hold: always a sure sign of accurate steering and a balanced chassis. It’s a huge amount of fun.
The S2 badge was only adopted by the UK, but it essentially denotes an upgraded S model with a bit more power – now 310bhp and 295lb ft thanks to Bosch LH-Jetronic injection, fully electronic ignition and a further rise in compression ratio – that enabled a top speed knocking on the door of 160mph, a four-speed automatic ‘box from Mercedes-Benz (although this had already been used on US 928s) and ABS.
Alan Chambers’ Garnet Red S2 is what’s known as a 1986.5 model, meaning it retains the S2 engine but features the suspension and braking changes (four pot Brembo front calipers) that were ready for the forthcoming S4 model at the time.
This standard, automatic S2 is a fine example of the archetypal 1980s 928, a big, bad GT for storming Autobahns and consuming long distances, always ready to pull off an overtake with the roar of that mighty engine in front. It’s not as sporty to drive as the tweaked S, but the reassuring weight of the controls – without ever being clumsy or hard work – gives you instant faith in what the car is doing, and the four speed ‘box means the gears shuffle through much quicker than the long drawn out bursts of acceleration of the older car. There’s no doubt, either, that with 310bhp the 928 had become a seriously quick car, and it still feels it to this day in S2 guise.
This S2 is Alan’s first Porsche, and he’s typical of the type of enthusiast who has got into 928s in recent years. He “wanted something with a stonking great V8 in it”, looked at lots of examples and did his homework – easy enough with the amazing support from both the PCGB 928 register and 928.org.uk, the dedicated 928 owners site online. The fuel consumption makes him sit up and take notice, but the rewards for weekend driving are there and for a relatively small outlay he’s able to enjoy what was at the time, the pride of Porsche’s fleet.
This utterly superb S4 automatic belongs to David Hemmings, PCGB’s 928 registrar, 928 author and a worldwide authority on 928s. David is one of those people who, cut in two, would probably have the word Porsche written right through them. Through the 1970s he owned both a 914 and then a succession of 911s, but he switched to the big 928 in 1980, buying new, in the pursuit of improved motorway cruising ability. In 1995 he bought this then three-year old S4 and feels he’ll never sell it – but might add a late-model 997 to the fleet in years to come.
The S4 was a pivotal point in the life of the 928, ushering in not only a facelift of the exterior for the 1987 model year, with smoothed front and rear aprons, flush windscreen glass and tail lamps, plus a wing-type rear spoiler that all greatly reduced drag, but also in UK at least (the USA had got the 4-cam engine in a so-called S3 model slightly earlier) a new, 32-valve, 4,957cc V8 that produced a thumping 320bhp with a more energetic top end.
This very late production S4 feels very fresh, almost as if it left the local Porsche centre just a few years ago: refined at a cruise but with a lovely seam of acceleration as the engine revs out keenly towards the red line when you call upon it.
By now the 928 had become a slightly isolated model at the top of Porsche’s model range, alongside the 911 Turbo in terms of price and performance but offering something very different. By the late 1980s it was clear that the 911 ‘idea’ was something that was very much here to stay, so where did that leave the resolutely expensive 928? And should the 928 therefore become more of a grand tourer or stick to being a different kind of sports car? Porsche gave off every sign of not knowing themselves, as the subsequent series of alternative models to the S4 show. It really wasn’t the 928s fault: even back in the early days Autocar Magazine had placed the car in a slightly awkward no-mans-land between what they saw as the sports car choice – the 911 Turbo – and the outright GT choice – the Jaguar XJS. With its levels of road roar in the cabin and firmer ride, the 928 would always trail cars like the big Jag in the comfort stakes.
928 S4 SE
The SE is a rare beast. It is believed just 42 were sold in the UK, with this being one of four to have been delivered in silver. The SE was in effect a UK market version of the even rarer 928 Club Sport sold in Germany and the USA. That car was said to be around 100kg lighter than the S4, but the SE put back most of the creature comforts lost in the Club Sport process.
The Porsche Motorsport engine features many of the parts that would later be used in the GT model – new cams, ecu map and exhaust - and this 5-litre lump feels instantly energetic, especially given the shorter ratios for the five-speed manual ‘box. Performance is strong and the shorter gearlever controls a change much quicker than on the original 928 manual also present on the day. Porsche quoted a 0-62mph time of just 5.6 seconds.
But the best bit is the handling: this is one of those large cars that, to use a motoring cliché unfortunately, shrinks around the driver, and that’s mainly due to the steering. With different geometry the ‘turn in’ is much sharper: in fact, you only need to nudge the ‘wheel to get the nose moving for a corner, and yet it retains all the feel and the nice weighting of the standard S4 rack. It’s a car you just want to grab by the scruff and drive hard thanks to the firmer springs and dampers, lightweight alloys and wider rear track.
Naturally, finding an SE for sale today isn’t easy, but it’s probably the most enjoyable car to drive here today, and a car that sets the bar high for any potential replacement that Porsche may be considering.
For 1989, Porsche tried a two-pronged attack on the market, unveiling the GT to sit alongside the S4 model as its much more hardcore, evil twin brother. The GT was available with a manual gearbox only, along with the ZF limited slip differential, and in time Porsche would make the S4 automatic only – and around 80% of 928s buyers opted for the slusher ‘box in any case.
Updates to the big V8, first seen on the SE, took power to 330bhp, and on Simon Thorpe’s car that figure has been boosted further by a much more freer flowing exhaust system that ends in a tailpipe more like the 88mm gun of a Tiger tank. As such, this car is believed to have about 360bhp, making it the most powerful car here, but it’s actually quite difficult to get a fair reading of the acceleration available because you’re constantly under the effects of the bellicose sonic barrage. The NASCAR-style soundtrack from this 928 makes the V8 in a Panamera, even with a ‘sports exhaust’ fitted from the factory, seem about as imposing as a 912 with steel wheels.
To drive it’s very similar to the SE but without perhaps that last little degree of agility. There isn’t quite the delicate incisiveness to the steering, but we’re talking minute differences here. Overall, in just a short drive it’s hard to think much at all beyond the rumble from the V8: if Porsche ever built a muscle car, this would be it. The ride quality is quite firm, even by modern standards – certainly a long way from the easy going nature of the original, and the road roar is amplified too. As you would expect, this really was Porsche taking the 928 concept and making a sports car out of it, albeit one very different from a 964 of the same period.
After the tweaked GT, I wondered whether the 5.4-litre GTS might be something of an anti-climax. No chance. The GTS was the final incarnation of the 928 and the sole model that lasted to the end of production in 1995, with a capacity hike thanks to a longer stroke crankshaft that took power to 350bhp despite milder camshafts to keep a lid on emissions. It doesn’t take much work to liberate quite a lot more power from a GTS.
It’s easy to spot a GTS model as the rear wheel arches are swollen to accommodate wider rubber, while there are ‘Big Black’ brakes up front, ‘Cup’ mirrors and a stronger manual gearbox. Most GTS models were automatic, as per usual with the 928, but this rare car owned by Bob Fennell is of the three pedal and stick variety.
The GTS feels like the S4 and GT models combined, and then taken a step further. The performance is modern car quick, with both excellent torque and plenty of power; it’s a car that would give a modern 911 a run for its money, and the gearbox has a slick but mechanical quality about it. Although it’s a fair bit quieter than the GT here, it feels if anything slightly faster. The ride is softer than on the SE and GT models, but it’s pitched just nicely for a road car – in some ways this feels like Porsche taking the 928 back to the beginning: the combination of a grand tourer and a sports car all rolled into one. This, then, is the sort of Porsche for the long drive to the South of France, but to enjoy on the Cold de Turini once you’re down there as well.
No wonder there were many who mourned the loss of the GTS in 1995. Today, apart from the rather out-dated switchgear, it feels like a car that wasn’t ready to die at that time.
Although Porsche built 61,056 928s, with the car staying in production for 18 years, there will always be a ‘what if’ surrounding this wonderfully exotic, extravagant, glamorous machine: thoughts of ‘what if’ it had completely replaced the 911, and ‘what if’ it had been received differently in the marketplace will always be amplified by the fact that Porsche still to this day hasn’t chosen to replace it. In some ways the 928 was and still is an underappreciated car – and an undervalued one, tainted by the public’s perception that they can be an expensive nightmare to run. The passionate owners’ scene will tell you differently, with a few key provisos.
Even in the racing world the 928 never got a fair chance, with only sporadic appearances for a car that, on paper at least, had plenty going for it as the basis for a competition career. Let’s not forget, too, that the 928s V8, when turbocharged, would have been the perfect engine for a 962 Group C/IMSA replacement, thereby extending Porsche’s competitiveness in this area by a good few years. Instead, the money was wasted on an embarrassing Indycar flop.
And so to this test. All the cars on the day were a pleasure so there’s no winners or losers in this story, merely a comparison between them. Even so, personally speaking there are cars that grab either affection or admiration a little bit more than others.
The original is just a wonderful ‘thing’, and no extensive Porsche collection should be without one. The S was a surprise, particularly with the upgraded suspension – a car with much of the charm of the original, but with big-chested performance and a dialled-in muscle car feel. The automatic S2 is perhaps the most laid back of all the cars: a grand tourer with V8 brawn and bite under your right foot when you require it. The S4 shares that branch of the family tree, but adds a good deal more top end power and modernity – it’s a car for the big occasion, the big drive; the big arrival. The SE feels like a very different car from most of those in this test, and its’ precision and pace make it much more of the sports car that Fuhrmann and Bott were originally envisioning. It’s quite a surprise – a car that demands to be driven and responds with urgent performance and quick responses to everything it does. The GT shares those same genes, albeit not quite as aggressively in the chassis – but Simon Thorpe’s car counters with the most thunderous soundtrack imaginable, and brutal performance.
And then there’s the GTS – the other car here, along with the SE, that feels noticeable different. Objectively, and viewed as an engineering exercise, it is clearly the best car here, although not necessarily any more fun or likeable. More comfortable and refined than the SE and GT, yet with massive, modern-era punch, it links the strands of the S2/S4 and SE/GT family to create a super-928, perhaps cut down in its prime. Drive a good one like Bob’s car and you’ll be amazed: and you’ll wonder why Porsche still hasn’t got round to replacing it…