Off-Roading a 1986 Porsche 944 Safari Tribute Is About Style, Not Speed
There’s a certain feeling of mischief in completing a deep-sand donut with a car that was more meant to crank out Nordshleife laps than fording streams.
It was only after we entered the stream and started to sink that it occurred to me: We probably should have tested the depth first. As the car inched forward, water sloshed just below the window frame, and the exhaust sounded like it was gargling. Halfway across, I had some serious doubts about whether we were going to make it. The lifted 1986 Porsche 944 Safari tribute on knobby tires struggled to find grip, and for a moment I thought we were floating.
Earlier, the owner of this marvelous creation, Joseph Symond, met me just before the river crossing in the San Gabriel Canyon Off-Highway Vehicle area (OHV). It’s a big sandy, rocky, dry riverbed at the bottom of a canyon where you can pay a $10 fee to spend all day exploring and testing the limits of your truck, ATV, dirtbike, or in our case, modified sports car. The only snag is that you must ford a river to enter the park. The crossing is like an off-road litmus test just 50 yards inside the entrance gate; if you get stuck there, you certainly do not belong.
The park rangers took one look at the 944 and asked about our intentions. We told them we wanted to test it out and take some photos. Their advice, which we heeded, was: “If you make it across the first stream, do not go across the second stream.”
It was one big “if” followed by an even bigger “if.” They warned that the second crossing was more treacherous and led to much deeper sand. Without a doubt, they expected to have to pull us out of a hole.
1986 Porsche 944 Safari Tribute Review Specs
- Auction estimate: $40,000 to $70,000
- Mileage: 159,000 miles shown
- Powertrain: 2.5-liter inline-four | 5-speed manual | rear-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 147
- Wheelbase: 2,400 mm (94.5 inches)
- Weight: 1,355.8 kg (2,989 pounds)
- Weight distribution: 51.05 front | 48.95 rear
- Ground clearance: 10 inches
- Quick take: This highly modified Porsche 944 was originally born for paved roads, but now tackles dirt, sand, streams and with relative ease.
How Did We Get Here?
Weeks earlier, when I convinced Symond to partake in this venture, I assured him the stream would barely be a trickle, given our current state of extreme drought in Southern California. I said this with zero on-the-ground knowledge. I’d visited this area a few years prior with an Isuzu VehiCross—which had no problem crossing the stream—so a Porsche 944 with 10 inches of ground clearance would be fine, right? What could go wrong? In hindsight, this was a massive dice roll.
We were the second vehicle into the park that morning, the first being a lifted Jeep, naturally. I loaded my gear into the 944, and we agreed it would be best for Symond to get us across the stream and into the park. As we neared the entrance, I saw immediately that I had critically underestimated the depth and flow of the stream. I thought it would be a few inches of water trickling over rocks, but it was at least a foot and a half deep with a few bigger boulders off to each side.
I asked Symond if he wanted me to hop out and test the depth or scout for big rocks. He waved me off and said, “We’re all the way out here already, let’s just go for it.” (Disclaimer: Don’t do this, ever. It’s a terrible idea and it could cost you your life. We are idiots.)
He gunned it, and all of a sudden we were in the water. As the big tires grappled against the silty creek bottom, I experienced a flash of clarity. If this thing got totally flooded, it would be 100 percent my fault. Shit. The side exit exhaust sounded strangled as Symond brapped his way across and finally, into more shallow water. Somehow we emerged on the other side. We heaved a big sigh of relief, and off we went, trundling down the expansive dry riverbed.
Childhood Dreams Do Come True
As a child, Symond was inspired by the iconic Paris-Dakar Rally, which featured various Porsche models sporting the Rothmans livery. So much so that years later, during the pandemic, when other people were learning to make bread, Symond set out to create a 944-based tribute to the Porsche and Rothmans Paris-Dakar Rally efforts. He found this specific 944 in quite a sorry state in July 2020 and has since transformed it into the Safari tribute you see today.
This 944 is heavily modified and has been gone through with a fine-tooth comb. Symond wanted the car to be as good as it could possibly be, and as a result, there are very few parts of it, if any, that have not been removed, inspected, and in most cases, bolstered. The most important thing to note is this: a stock Porsche 944 has 4.9 inches of ground clearance. With the lifted suspension and taller tires, Symond has added another five inches for a total of 10 lofty inches of ground clearance. This would come in handy.
The engine is, for the most part, stock. Down the driveline is a custom exhaust with side exits that let the brappy four-pot sing as close to your ears as possible. The suspension is also a fully custom setup supplied by Ceika Performance. The folks at Ceika worked extensively with Symond to create a fully adjustable four-wheel coilover package featuring new hardware, bushings, and pillow camber plates for a wider range of adjustability. Control arm bushings, trailing arm bushings, spring plate bushings, caster blocks, and various other small parts were sourced from Elephant Racing. The whole thing is tuned specifically for rally use.
Before we reached the smoother and slightly more forgiving hard-packed sediment and sand, we endured a quarter of a mile through a sort of cobblestone, albeit composed of grapefruit-sized rocks, where each rock sat at a different height and orientation. The 944 has rally mods, but this type of bumptious surface would be a torture test on any vehicle, let alone one with a modified street car chassis. Without the racing harness to keep me firmly in the seat, my head would have smacked the inside of the roof many times. We bounced our way through it.
We found a friendlier hard-packed and sandy area and set to work giving the car the rest of its first off-road shakedown. Symond took off on the labyrinth of trails while I hopped from dune to dune, capturing the Safari-style Porsche in all its sand-flinging glory. The exhaust is loud, so I never lost track of the car, but with an open differential and only two drive wheels, this vehicle was not what I would call quick on the sand. In the deeper, softer stuff, the rear would sink down and shoot tendrils of sand into the sky, hopping forward in a blare of side-exhaust sound.
We did this until we got the car stuck, which was certainly something we should have planned for, given the lack of a locking differential. The rear wheels sank deep into the sand, and only one was spinning. We weren’t close enough to any shrubs or large boulders to attach the winch, so we had to dig out the drive wheel.
We stuffed rocks and sticks under it hoping to gain an ounce of traction, without much luck. The car seemed high-centered. Within a few minutes, a Toyota Tacoma came into view, so we flagged him down. The driver was delighted by the sight of the Porsche, and was even more delighted to tell us how we were lucky we were not driving a Jeep, because if we had been he wouldn’t have helped us.
This seemed like the perfect opportunity to test out another one of Symonds’ additions to the 944: the winch. Our Tacoma pal backed up to the Porsche and we hooked up the winch. Slowly, the little sports car pulled itself up and out of the hole. Unhooked from the Toyota, Symond tossed me the keys.
“Take it for a rip,” he said. That was all the encouragement I needed.
This Time, It Wasn’t About Speed
My driving experience is mainly road-based, so driving what originally started as a street car off-road was a new experience for me. I won’t ever pass up the chance to partake in some spirited driving, especially in a modified Porsche, though. Symond is planning to sell this car eventually, so I assured him I would do my best not to break it. (After my assurances about the stream crossing, I wouldn’t have been be surprised if Symond was more than a little worried as I strapped into his meticulously crafted creation. But he wasn’t.) I slotted the shifter into first gear, and away I went.
The suspension is obviously much taller than the stock 944’s, but still had a taut feel. I avoided the bigger rocks and found a sandy path that wove up and down through some dunes. The car felt eager to tackle whatever dips and curves were thrown at it on the little circuit I carved out. In the deeper sand, I was able to provoke some nicely predictable oversteer, catching the rear and burying the throttle out of a figure-eight and sending sand up like a rooster tail.
This off-road area is not conducive to high speeds in the way a dry lakebed like El Mirage is. I wove my way back and forth through the small trees, enjoying the quick steering rack and free-revving four-pot. I was having more fun than should be possible, deep in a California canyon bottom, testing the limits on an untested 30-plus-year-old modified German street car. It felt a bit like borrowed time ‘til getting stuck again, but the car never hesitated.
Symond and I took turns marveling at the solid feel and the overall impressive performance for something never intended to do what we were doing with it. The fact that we would have to re-cross the creek in order to depart loomed in the back of our minds. We decided to call it quits while our luck held out, and headed back to the stream. This time I waded across first and found a massive rock we narrowly—and luckily—avoided on the way in.
Safely across the stream a second time, we dusted off and took stock. What we had just pulled off had seemed like it would be easy the night before, over a beer or two. But now, having done it and looking back, there were some major risks involved, and we had been fortunate to avoid the worst. Scouting your route will go a long way on any off-road adventure, and we did not approach this with the amount of information we should have had to safely navigate with a car like the 944 Safari.
Clocking some seat time in this car gives me pipe dreams about a long dirt-road trip across vast, otherwise inaccessible lands. We confirmed what anyone could probably guess: This 944 is no Tacoma, Jeep, or F-150. Sure, the car is more prepared for non-paved environments than most vehicles, and it proved itself impressively capable on our ill-advised adventure. But while the knobby tires help it spit sand, at the end of the day it’s still a modified street car.
This 944 would probably have no problem tackling anything that could be handled by a much newer, much more expensive Taycan Cross Turismo with offroad tires. There’s a certain feeling of mischief in completing a deep-sand donut in a car that was more meant to crank out Nordshleife laps than it was to ford streams. But the car also begs to be tested further, pushed on a longer off-grid ramble. With this shakedown complete, I’m planting more bad ideas in Symond’s mind. And despite my spotty guidance on our first streaming adventure, he might just keep listening to me.
The dry lakebed at El Mirage really doesn’t sound too bad from over here. And they don’t normally have streams in the desert, right?
Jonathan Harper is a photographer and writer based in Los Angeles, California.
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