The Transaxle Era exhibit. Photos courtesy of Porsche AG.
From Porsche’s earliest days, its road-going models used air-cooled engines mounted behind or just in front of the rear wheels. In 1976, the Stuttgart automaker deviated from this formula, introducing a water-cooled car with the engine in the front and a transaxle in the rear. Controversial at the time, the move proved successful for Porsche in the long run, spawning four model lines and selling nearly 400,000 “transaxle” cars over a 19-year period. A recently opened exhibit at the Porsche Museum, The Transaxle Era: From the 924 to the 928 pays homage to the 40th anniversary of Porsche’s breakout models.
The Porsche 924’s hatchback design added to the car’s practicality.
Porsche’s first transaxle model, the 924, debuted in 1976 as a replacement for the aging 914. Developed (at first) in conjunction with Volkswagen, the 924 was initially designed as a product for both Porsche dealers (as an entry-level offering) and Volkswagen dealers (as a halo model). Rising costs and falling profits saw Volkswagen back out of the deal to concentrate on the development of its own water-cooled offerings, leaving Porsche to soldier on with the car alone. As Terry Shea wrote in the September 2014 issue of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, the 924 may have used Volkswagen and Audi components to cut costs, but its design was all Porsche, coming from the drafting table of Harm Lagaay.
Power for the 924 came from an Audi-sourced 2.0-liter, overhead-camshaft, fuel–injected four cylinder engine, rated at 125 horsepower in Europe (and the rest of the world) but initially reduced to 95 horsepower to meet U.S. emissions standards. A four-speed manual transmission (later updated to a five-speed) was standard, but buyers could also opt for another first from Porsche – a three-speed automatic transmission.
A Porsche 944 showing its driveline layout.
The Porsche 924 soldiered on in a variety of forms (including the base model, the 924 Turbo, the 924 Carrera GT, and the 924S) until 1988. By then, its role in the Porsche lineup had been largely usurped by the Porsche 944, another transaxle model that had evolved from lessons learned developing the 924 Turbo.
1986 Porsche 944 Turbo.
Introduced in 1982, the Porsche 944 used the 924’s chassis, but eschewed the earlier model’s Audi-sourced engine. Instead, the 944 used a 2.5-liter four that was derived from the 5.0-liter V-8 developed for the Porsche 928. Though more expensive than the 924, the 944 offered better performance and additional refinement, and was introduced at a time when robust sales meant that Porsche no longer needed an “entry-level” automobile.
1995 Porsche 968 Cabriolet, the last of the transaxle Porsches.
The 944 remained in production from 1982 to 1991, spawning a Turbo variant, a 944 S variant, a 944 S2 variant and a 944 Turbo Cabriolet version that was verbotene Frucht in the U.S. market. Perhaps as a testament to the quality of its design, the 944 was ushered into the sunset by a remarkably similar but updated transaxle model, the 968. Though produced for just four model years, Porsche managed to sell nearly 13,000 examples of the 968 worldwide, counting coupe, cabriolet, Clubsport, Turbo S and Turbo RS models.
1982 Porsche 928 models.
The transaxle Porsche with the longest lifespan, however, was the Porsche 928, which remained in production from 1977 through 1995. Initially intended as a replacement for the Porsche 911, the 928 shifted the company’s focus away from sport in the direction of grand touring, which is, perhaps, why purists immediately rejected the idea. Instead, the two radically different Porsche models, one powered by an air-cooled flat six positioned above the rear wheels and the other by a water-cooled V-8 mounted atop the fronts, coexisted in the showroom for nearly two decades.
Porsche 928 S4 Cabriolet concept.
The Transaxle Era: From the 924 to the 928 will highlight 23 transaxle models, many of which are on display at the Porsche Museum for the very first time. Production cars, race cars, prototypes and concepts will all be shown, demonstrating the evolution of the Porsche brand as well as the influence of transaxle models on later production. The exhibit, which opened on April 27, runs through October 16, 2016. For more details, visit Porsche.com/Museum/En.
Those considering the purchase of a Porsche 924/944/968 may want to read “Porsches for the Frugal” from the July 2011 issue of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, while those considering a 928 GTS may want to read Jeff Koch’s Drive Report of this model in the same issue.