Talking about the Porsche 911 with enthusiasts is like tiptoeing through a lion’s den. Of course, the 911 is a legend — even the most begrudging Porsche haters are likely to cop to this. But there’s a yawning canyon between devotees and detractors. To Porschephiles, the 911 is the evolution of a flawed form — a rear engine/rear-wheel drive combination engineered to near-perfection and inching ever closer with each successive generation. To naysayers, it’s the last stubborn holdout of an evolutionary dead end, an over-hyped, oversteering status symbol. And whatever your opinion of the car, remember not to be flip either, because the cliche is true: Jokingly call the 911 an over-engineered Volkswagen Beetle to a group of Porsche owners, and you’ll be lucky to make it out alive.
A desperately needed clean break
Like any great debate, the truth is lost somewhere in between, and, if found, there’s a good chance it won’t please either party. That truth is this: By the 1970s, Porsche believed it had a perfect compromise, and it ended up becoming one of the most underappreciated and misunderstood sports cars of the past 40 years. Because like any classic, even the 911 went through a period when it wasn’t a classic. It was just old, and Porsche came to believe that there was more to automaking than focusing on one aging model. It planned to phase out the 911 for a lineup of new sports cars led by the 928, an avant-garde V8-powered grand tourer that would point the way to its future. And after a decades-long detour, it turns out the company was right.
A stellar look for its time
For 911 disciples and Porsche haters alike, put aside your preconceived notions for a moment and try to picture this: It’s 1978, the Chevrolet Caprice and Oldsmobile Cutlass are the best-selling cars in America. The convertible is all but dead, and the roads are awash in baroque models like Broughams, Limiteds, and Landaus. Then, suddenly, you see this low-slung sports car with lay-flat headlights, no chrome anywhere, flush taillights that look like something out of Battlestar Galactica, and an interior layout that most automakers would end up copying until the end of the century. That’s the 928, and if it didn’t live in the shadow of such an icon, it would probably be one itself.
Porsche’s next chapter
Power was never an issue for the 911, which was a fantastic racer and had a strong cult following. But having the engine slung out beyond the rear axle made them a handful for most drivers, and the car’s oversteer could prove lethal for overconfident or under-experienced drivers. By then Ferrari, Lotus, and Maserati had made the leap to a mid-engined layout — something even Mercedes-Benz and the Chevy Corvette contemplated. BMW, Mercedes, and Jaguar all had new powerful grand tourers, and there were rumors that U.S. safety regulations were threatening to outlaw the rear-engine layout. Suddenly it began to look like the aging 911’s days were numbered.
Learning from the mistakes of the past
In 1970, Porsche tried to diversify and crack the entry-level sports car market by collaborating with Volkswagen. The result was the 914, a sluggish mid-engined car with an engine borrowed from a Volkswagen van that was all but shunned by the sports car community. The company began to believe its future may lie in the standard water-cooled front-engine/rear-wheel drive layout and in 1976 launched the 924. It was thoroughly modern and unlike any Porsche that had ever come before it, but it was a mixed blessing. It looked great and handled like a dream, but it was criminally slow. The car’s lone powerplant was an Audi-sourced 2.0 inline-four; the very same engine that was licensed out and found in the AMC Concord sedan and DJ-5 mail Jeep. Not exactly the company you’d want to keep with your Porsche. Add to it the fact that it was the first Porsche ever offered with an automatic transmission, and that it cost twice as much as the faster Datsun 280ZX, and it quickly became clear that the 924 wasn’t going to be the silver bullet Porsche had hoped it would be.
The right car for the right time?
But for its next attempt at a front-engined car, Porsche got it right. At the beginning of the decade, Ferry Porsche challenged his designers to find all the faults in the 911 and build a car that would succeed where the 911 failed. Debuting at the 1977 Geneva Motor Show, the 928 was a show-stopper, and from the get-go, it was the anti-911. It had a front-mounted 4.5-liter V8 that produced 237 horsepower — not bad considering the 930 Turbo packed 253 — had 50/50 weight distribution, and four-wheel disc brakes. The 928 also boasted a fully-independent suspension, with the rear pivoting to aid in cornering (dubbed the Weissach Axle), preventing the unpredictable oversteer the 911 was infamous for. Inside, the cabin was a departure from other sports cars, with its integrated instrument cluster and a dash, console, and doors that blended to create a cockpit-style layout.
The European Car of the Year gets mixed reactions
But when the 928 hit showrooms, it was met with a mixed reaction. To 911 loyalists, it was the hated replacement. To others, its avant-garde styling and high price tag made it seem like more of a risk than the traditional BMW 6 Series and Mercedes SL-Class. But as a car, the 928 did everything Porsche intended it to do. It won the 1978 European Car of the Year Award, the only sports car to ever win the distinction, and quickly earned the reputation of being one of the world’s best grand tourers. It could out-accelerate the 911 in anger yet be driven in comfort across entire continents.
From outlier to trendsetter
By the early ’80s, the 924 and 928 were no longer a threat to the 911, but together, the three models had given the brand one of the best sports car lineups in the world. And time had matured the water-cooled Porsches too. The 944 was added in 1981 to give the 924 line some added punch, just as the world seemingly came around to the forward-thinking styling of the 928. Once it was no longer seen as the 911’s replacement, it became universally acknowledged as one of the best grand tourers in the world. In 1986, the design of Madza’s second-generation RX-7 was heavily influenced by the front-engined Porsches. And in 1990, Nissan followed suit with its new 300ZX, which also bore more than a passing resemblance.
The end of a long road…
By the mid-’90s, Porsche was in financial trouble again, and the aging 924/944 (merged to become the 968) and 928 were phased out without replacement after 1995. And while the debate still rages on among Porsche snobs as to whether or not these cars are “Real Porsches,” the company itself seemed to think they were. The 911 swapped its air-cooled powerplant for a water-cooled mill in 1998, and a front-engined model returned to the lineup in 2002 with the Cayenne. While the idea of a Porsche SUV rankled the faithful to no end, it followed in the footsteps of the 924 and 928. Suddenly, Porsche went from a struggling sports car builder to having a competitive lineup again, and the success of the SUV gave the company enough money to expand its sports car lineup to what it is today.
… or is it?
Nearly 40 years ago, Porsche needed a fresh start, a break from carrying the weight of the past, and the 928 was the answer to the company’s existential crisis. What makes a Porsche a Porsche? Is it simply the engine placement? A direct bloodline that can be traced back to Ferry Porsche’s Beetle-based car? The 928 is the resounding “no” to those latter questions. It may not have gotten a chance to evolve as long as the 911 did, but the car’s legacy is seen in every non rear-engined Porsche available today — and that’s every car in the lineup except the 911.
So to settle the argument: The 928 isn’t just a real Porsche, it’s one of the most important Porsches ever built.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.