A Porsche 944 Is the Best First Car for Car Nerds
It’s a front-engine, water-cooled nightmare. I have no regrets.
Car-loving teenagers can waste years wandering used-car listings knowing full well the only way they can afford their dream car is to rob a Kardashian and fence the jewelry.
Before I got my license at age 16, I went through a series of evolutions. I had to start by figuring out what kind of enthusiast I was (specifically, a lower middle-class one), which would inform the kind of car I wanted to buy. I looked for early Land Rover Discoverys, then-new Mk6 VW GTIs, Mk2 GTIs, used BMW E92 328i coupes, W211 Mercedes-Benz E55s—and everything in between.
I lacked focus, but I knew I wanted something unique, fun to drive, and, if possible, better looking than a Pontiac Aztek. I had just enough self-awareness to accept that I didn't need all the power, and that if I chose poorly I would be just another 16-year-old trapped in a mangled wreck of steel wrapped around two trees. I also realized that when my parents promised they'd buy me a car "some day," they meant in 10 or 15 years. So I doubled down saving my money.
After many months sweating the listings, I discovered that my only options were a Mazda Miata, an IROC-Z Camaro, and a naturally-aspirated Porsche 944. I chose the latter.
Buying a Porsche 944
Before ever driving one, I decided a naturally-aspirated 944 would pretty much be the perfect first car, for multiple reasons. First, because I could perfect my manual-driving skills; next, it was rear-wheel-drive, which meant the potential to do hoon-y things; and last but not least, it would probably break fairly often—which is a good thing if you want a no-excuses reason to become comfortable working on cars, and also if you like accumulating stories at your own expense.
My first 944 (yeah, I've since owned multiple) was a 1986 model, painted some wonderful purplish-red-maroon color, that I found on Craigslist. The car had been receiving some basic care from some Connecticut handyman, and I believe his reasoning for selling it was something along the lines of, "I've dumped far too much money into this crapshoot hoopty." After looking the car over with my slightly-more-mechanically-handy friend, Mathias, I promised the Connecticut handyman that I would buy it, and buy it I did. After my best attempt at negotiation, I got the seller to drop a full fifty bucks from the asking price, which led to me handing over $1,750 of hard-earned high schooler cash. I had just bought my first car.
An hour and a half into my two-hour drive home, the left rear wheel fell off.
Somehow, the lugs holding that wheel decided to break away. Maybe the previous owner maniacally loosened them with malicious intent, or maybe he wasn't as handy as I thought he was. Either way, I was stuck on the side of 287 in Westchester County, New York, and I needed to figure out how to keep the wheel on my car for the next 50 miles. This would not be the worst issue I experienced with this car. Not by a long shot.
It's possible that I actually created most of the major issues I experienced with my first 944. For some reason, shortly after picking the car up and nursing it home with the help of a mechanic friend who may or may not be legally insane, I decided the whole car needed completely new brakes, wheel bearings and fluids all around, belts, and other miscellaneous work. Thinking back on it now, I probably should've just stopped after doing the pads, belts, and an oil change.
I spent easily the price of the car, and then more, ordering new brake calipers and other parts that probably weren't necessary. But that's my own fault, and all part of the spend-and-let-learn education that comes with becoming a classic car owner. Here's what I learned: If you're looking for a car that's easy to fix and has reasonably priced parts, don't buy a 944.
Thanks to the help of our friends (and my former employer) at the Classic Car Club of Manhattan, I was able to get the car in the air to give it what I considered to be a thorough post-purchase inspection. With 944s, the key things to look for, generally speaking, is that the car's timing belt is still intact and in good health—if it isn't, the belt could break, and because the 944 uses an interference motor, it could destroy the engine—that the water pump is in good shape, and that the clutch isn't the original, rubber-centered one that Porsche put in the car 30 years ago. To make an embarrassingly long story short, after swapping the belts, the car was basically ready to go.
A year later, I blew the motor.
Okay yes, I blew the motor. But I don't blame the car for that.
When you own a 30-year-old car, there are things you have to do keep it running. One of those things is checking the oil. Now, it's not that I didn't check the oil regularly, because I did. I just didn't check the oil regularly enough. Also, the lack of tachometer didn't help.
Basically, I either over-revved the motor, or it died due to oil starvation. Either way, from what I can glean, it seems that catastrophic engine failure like this is relatively rare with 944s.
It Looks Damn Good
There aren't many cars that can be had in somewhat-running condition for under $2,500 that drive like one might expect a Porsche to drive, and that also look the part. But somehow, the 944 does all of that.
Between its slanted wedge front end and its extremely Eighties boxy wheel arches, the 944 has just enough beauty to attract confused onlookers, no matter the scene. "Is that a Ferrari?" some ask. Or, sometimes, "A Lotus?" I've heard it all. And not only will those sorts of questions bring a chuckle to a young car enthusiast teen, it will also boost his ego massively. For better or worse.
It's an Almost Perfect Vehicle for Car Control Practice
Though some lame-os might consider rear-wheel-drive to be a downside for a first car, I consider it very much an upside. RWD cars are undoubtedly the most difficult to control in inclement weather, and I learned that quite well when I decided to drive my 944 through Manhattan to work on some of the worst snow days of recent years' winters. Without snow tires, of course.
Navigating the snow-piled streets of New York City wasn't only useful for filling my necessary teenage adrenaline rush, it also helped me grow some muscle memory on how to correct oversteer and understeer in the worst of conditions, with the least useful equipment. Those skills were also helpful when I decided to rallycross (note: bad idea) my second 944.
Keep in mind, the 944 being RWD does not mean you will suddenly become Vaughn Gittin Jr. when sitting behind the wheel; with its 150-horsepower inline-four motor, it barely has enough power to get out of its own way, and if you try to power out of a slide, chances are, you'll end up having a very bad time. But that's just my experience.
It's More Confidence Inspiring than a Mazda Miata.
Though I haven't had much luck finding official safety ratings for the 944, what I've heard from people who've had the unfortunate experience of crashing their cars, is that they've come out relatively unscathed (depending on how bad the wreck was, of course).
Driving a 944 after driving an early-generation Mazda Miata, I was immediately filled with a sense of security that the small Japanese roadster was unable to fulfill. In a 944, you feel like there's a bunch of injury-preventing German steel around you—which, for me at least, gives me far more confidence while driving than the on-the-ground feel from a Miata.
Of course, that also led me to being more willing to do stupid things and pull stupid stunts while behind the wheel. But I guess that's the trade-off.
It Does the Motorsport Thing Quite Well.
Since I never considered either of my 944s to be track-worthy while they were under my ownership, I never put them on track. But I did autocross them multiple times, and also hit a rather harsh rallycross course with my second one. In both scenarios, the cars held up surprisingly well (I only broke a single coolant hose).
If you're someone looking to track your first car, the 944 can most definitely do that. Just make sure you have someone who at least kind of knows what they're doing to give it a proper technical inspection before lining up in the pits.
Here's Where to Buy Your Own 944
I found both of my 944s through Craigslist. As I mentioned earlier, the first one was $1,750. My second 944 was around $1,600, and was sold to me by a frail old Pennsylvania man.
I would not spend more than $2,800 on a naturally-aspirated Porsche 944. It doesn't matter whether you buy a seemingly-perfect NA 944 for $7,500 or a somewhat ratty, but running, 944 for $1,500. If you buy the $7,500 model, you don't know when things will break (and things will break), but if you buy the $1,500 car, chances are, most of the parts that are going to become non-operational are already at that state. So you're basically ahead of the game.