Practical Porsche

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Jul 16, 2012 | Porsche | Posted in Buyer's Guides | From the June 2011 issue | Never miss an article

The Porsche 911 is an automotive icon recognized throughout the world. That classic silhouette, still rolling out of factories today, dates back to the 1965 model year. Car enthusiast or not, just about everyone recognizes that shape.
Then there’s the car’s competition record. In short, the 911 has won everything, from local autocrosses and club races to the Paris-Dakar Rally and Le Mans. Whether it’s a stretch of asphalt or an expanse of desert, the 911 can conquer it.
The model is also associated with a list of legendary drivers. Our parents watched guys like Vic Elford, Peter Gregg and Hurley Haywood deliver the 911 and its variants to the winner’s circle. Today, a new generation of 911 specialists carry that torch: Patrick Long, Jörg Bergmeister, Andy Lally and many more.
Despite all of the trophies and admiration, the 911 has gotten a bit of a bad rap: Supposedly parts are expensive, the engines are weak, and the cars are tricky to drive at the limit. (Don’t forget, some reviewers complained that the Miata was too loud, so always take automotive criticism with a grain of salt.)
So, what’s the true scoop on the 911? Is it just an object of admiration for collectors and fanboys, or can it make a reasonably priced daily driver for today’s enthusiast? As with most things in life, a little information goes a long way. In short, you have to know where to shop.
The early cars are getting more expensive by the day and have a tendency to rust. The water-cooled cars can be expensive and don’t quite have that classic feel.
That leaves a sizeable group of good, honest 911s in a fair price range. Specifically, we’re talking about the 1974-’94 cars, many of which can be found for about $10,000 to $20,000. These cars cost about as much as a brand-new subcompact yet offer head-turning looks, excellent performance, strong club support and a racing pedigree that’s hard to beat. Porsche built these cars to a standard, not to a price point.
One more interesting fact: Prices for these cars are fully depressed and preparing to tick upward. We can’t guarantee that you’ll make money on one of these 911s, but there’s a better-than-average chance that you’ll at least break even.
Welcome to today’s Porsche 911 scene, where the price of admission is lower than you think.

More Than Numbers

All too often, talk about performance cars turns into a numbers game: zero-to-60 times, max g-loads, top speeds and fastest laps.
We’ll be honest with you. By today’s standards, these “midyear” Porsches aren’t the fastest things out there, at least in stock form. The 911 has always been a standout performer among its contemporaries, but what was fast for 1984, for example, won’t exactly send jaws plummeting today. These cars are more about the driving experience; they charm the heart instead of boggling the mind.
The ride is quite comfortable—especially considering the 911’s vintage—while visibility is excellent in just about any direction. The rear-engine layout offers impressive acceleration and braking characteristics, but the 911 is perhaps better classified as a GT car than a Miata-beater.
The steering can be described as nearly telepathic. Sometimes it’s amazing what can be done without the aid of computers, servos and motors. The engines are torquey, yet they don’t lose steam at the upper end of the rpm band. And with the engine at the tail end, the heat is where you want it—behind you.
These Porsches are quite durable, too. The 3.0- and 3.2-liter engines typically go several hundred thousand miles without requiring a rebuild. While these oil- and air-cooled engines present their own challenges, owners won’t ever be stranded by a bum water pump or radiator hose.
The cars also mix old with new in a practical package: Floor-hinged pedals and classic looks join forces with fuel injection and rust-resistant bodies. Think of the 911 as a painless way to experience an older machine—okay, there may be some pain involved periodically, but you’ll still be able to cruise with modern traffic.
One final argument: The cars’ sounds and smells are as definitive as their looks. That flat six emits a note unlike most others, while oil and leather produce a scent that’s hard to forget.
“They’re agile and efficient ’cause they’re light, have a low CG, and thanks to the wheelbase and rear engine position,” explains factory Porsche driver Patrick Long. “But what does that all really mean? It means you can drive the shit out of the car all day and usually be at the top of the time sheets!”
Is the Porsche 911 for everyone? Of course not. But for those who grew up on a diet of Civics and Imprezas, it could be an unexpected alternative.

They're All Different, Too

While all 911s share a similar shape, each one is a unique animal. Where some manufacturers outfit several models with identical equipment packages, every copy of the 911 is a bit different thanks to an exhausting list of factory options. We counted more than 60 options just for the 1984-’89 cars.
Looking for a 911 fitted with a limited-slip differential, short-shift kit and sport seats? It’s probably out there, although be warned that the cars fitted with the really desirable options tend to fetch higher-than-average prices.
Enthusiasts often discuss one specific option code—M491—although cars so fitted tend to trade beyond our $20,000 price cap. This code was assigned to the Turbo-look cars. While they didn’t get the turbocharged engine, they did receive the big flares and corresponding upgraded brakes.
The long list of available colors further differentiates one 911 from the next. On average, figure about 20 standard paint choices for each model year plus a dozen or so available interior colors. While red has always been popular, don’t be surprised to find many variations of brown, tan, sand, gold and beige—hey, it was the ’70s and ’80s.
Porsche also offered—and still does—a paint-to-sample program. They’ll deck out a 911 in any hue, whether it’s officially offered or not. The color can come from their own model lineup or an owner’s imagination. There’s a premium for this service, and custom-painted examples still command premium prices.
Finally, Porsche offered the car in a few different body styles. The coupe has been a staple since day one, and the convertible finally joined the 911 lineup for the 1983 model year.
Then there’s the open-top Targa. While the Targa was an extra-cost option starting in 1967, today these cars fetch a bit less than the coupes—generally a grand or so. While there seems to be more demand for the coupes, the Targas do have their fans, including NASA Chief Divisional Director John Lindsey.
“The main reason I began looking at Targas was that my height made coupes a tight fit for me, and I knew the clearance with a helmet for the occasional autocross or HPDE would be even worse,” he explains. “However, once I began to drive some Targas during the search and particularly after I bought mine, I realized what a great hybrid of coupe and full ragtop the Targa really is.”
As he notes, the glass rear window is immune to the scratches and perma-fog that plague many traditional convertible windows. He calls the Targa a painless way to have an open-top car.
“You still get an excellent convertible experience with the car, and there are few things I enjoy more than stowing the top and blasting around listening to the delicious flat-six symphony in all its open-air glory,” he explains. “There is some scuttle shake and a bit of wind noise and leaking when things aren’t adjusted just right, but these irritations are pretty minor in the grand scheme of open-lid car ownership.”

Quickie History Lesson

We wouldn’t have the Porsche 911 if not for the car that preceded it, the company’s 356. While the Porsche definitely shares some DNA with the humble VW Beetle, upon its 1948 release the 356 became one of the first modern sports cars. After all, it featured monocoque construction, an aerodynamic profile and a fully independent suspension.
The sports car scene evolved quickly during the postwar era, and Porsche responded by delivering the 911 for the 1965 model year. The new car relied upon six cylinders instead of four and received an all-new body and chassis. However, some characteristics were carried over from the 356, including the rear-engine layout, air cooling and torsion bar suspension.
That original 911 quickly became a favorite among the sports car set. While the car’s outward appearance didn’t change much during those early years, Porsche kept pace with the rest of the field by gradually increasing displacement. The original 2.0-liter engine was eventually bumped to 2.2 and then 2.4 liters.
Today, these 1965-’73 cars are in high demand. The limited-edition variants fetch top dollar, while nice examples of even the standard models rarely dip below the $20,000 mark. While desirable, these early cars are not necessarily the best daily drivers. They can rust if allowed, and your odds of finding one with air conditioning are practically zero.
So, what’s the budget-minded enthusiast to do? Look a bit newer, as the 1974-’94 Porsche 911 offers tremendous value. These cars can be broken up into four generations, and each one has pluses and minuses.

1974-'77 Porsche 911

New impact standards for 1974 caused just about every manufacturer to rethink their cars' bumpers.

Thanks to looming bumper impact standards, the Porsche 911 received its first major face-lift for the 1974 model year. The thin chrome-striped steel bumpers that graced past models were replaced with upsized units that necessitated a shorter front hood. While so many other manufacturers had trouble adopting their own new-for-1974 bumpers, Porsche actually did a pretty good job.
Porsche’s 2.7-liter flat six, fed by Bosch CIS injection, became standard for the entire line. Unfortunately, there were a few issues to overcome. The 2.7-liter engine represented the final evolution of the original 911 powerplant, and its limits had been reached. The stock engine cooling system was marginal for this displacement, and things only got hotter once Porsche started to use thermal reactors to meet emissions standards.
Long story short, the materials involved had different expansion rates, causing many head studs to pull away from the engine case. Fortunately, this problem can be fixed with modern head studs that properly expand and contract. Many cars have been updated, yet the engine’s reputation remains damaged.
The heat caused the soft valve guides found in the 1974-’76 cars to fail early, too. Again, most cars have been properly updated. The usual fix involves substituting the original pieces with the silicon-bronze guides found in the 1977-and-up cars. These guides can last hundreds of thousands of miles.
While not a deal-killer, the stock fuel injection also requires a bit of driver participation. The Bosch system injects the correctly metered air/fuel mixture into the airbox; touch the throttle during warmup, however, and there’s a good chance the box will simply blow up.
The solution? Use the hand throttle found between the front seats to inject extra fuel into the system downstream of the airbox. (A warmup regulator added for 1976 eliminated the need for the hand throttle.) Another option is to install an aftermarket popoff valve. They run about $30.
The 1974-’77 versions represent the least expensive way to pick up a Porsche 911. Prices for good ones start near $10,000. Sure, these cars have a few issues, but they should be resolved in most decent examples.

1978-'83 Porsche 911 SC

The 911 SC ushered in similar looks but some key improvements.

The standard 911 became known as the 911 SC for 1978, and some new equipment came with the name change: bigger flares plus more displacement. The thermal reactors were also replaced by traditional, cooler-running catalytic converters.
The engine bump wasn’t simply a result of engineers fitting bigger cylinders, as the 911 SC received a new aluminum engine case. The displacement increase added more performance to the package, but the big news had to do with engine life. Combined with a cooler engine compartment, the all-aluminum setup helped quell the head stud problems that plagued the earlier cars.
The result? Hop online and you’ll find owners who’ve covered 200,000 or even 300,000 miles in their machines without needing an engine rebuild. Prices are currently fair, with good coupes starting in the low teens. As usual, the coupes tend to outpace the Targas.
The 911 SC didn’t see a ton of changes during its lifetime, although a top-down version joined the lineup for 1983. It represented Porsche’s first true convertible since 1965.

1984-'89 Porsche 911 Carrera

The tweaks keep on coming.

The 911 continued to evolve, receiving a displacement bump as well as a new name for 1984. The model, now officially called the 911 Carrera, enlarged its engine capacity to 3.2 liters by borrowing the crankshaft from the turbocharged model.
The Bosch CIS injection, available on the 911 since 1973, was finally superseded by Bosch’s Motronic DME. Like many cars from the period, this one measured incoming airflow with a vane-style meter and used an ECU to control spark and fuel.
A problem that had plagued the 911 since its inception was resolved with this version: Porsche replaced the original spring-loaded timing chain with one fed by hydraulic pressure. These Carrera-spec tensioners can be retrofitted to earlier cars, by the way, and it’s a popular upgrade.
The 911 Carrera’s biggest change came for the 1987 model year, as the Getrag G50 transmission replaced the 915 unit that dated back to 1972. Porsche paired the G50 with a hydraulic clutch.
Both are five-speed units, but each one has its supporters and detractors. The 915 has a reputation for being a bit balky, yet it’s also a little lighter. The G50 has stronger—and thus heavier—internals and can handle more power. Then there’s the feel: Most agree that the G50 setup offers smoother shifts, but some say it eliminates some of the car’s charm by being too smooth.
Whatever the outcome of the debate, G50 Carreras usually fetch a grand or so more than their 915-equipped counterparts. Prices for a good, early Carrera start in the mid-teens.

1989.5-'94 Porsche Carrera 2 and Carrera 4

After 15 years, it was time for a face-lift.

The Porsche 911 more or less followed a bulk-up regimen for its first quarter century. Engines got bigger and induction setups kept pace with modern technology, but the car’s basic architecture remained in place. The first truly significant changes for the 911 occurred partway through 1989—enough to warrant a new type number, 964.
For one, there was an all-new suspension. Coil springs at all four corners replaced the original torsion bar setup. A new floorpan was part of the redo, and for the first time all-wheel drive was an option. (The all-wheel-drive cars carried the Carrera 4 designation.)
The body also had a revised, love-it-or-hate-it look, as it sported a smooth bumper on each end. A retractible rear spoiler limited lift without detracting from the car’s original silhouette.
Then there was the new 3.6-liter engine. While bigger is usually better, this powerplant had some initial problems. The ones built up through 1991 didn’t feature a head gasket, and the seal tended to leak. Fortunately, many of the engines have been fixed by now, either under warranty or by owners.
The new engine also featured two spark plugs per cylinder fed by a twin-distributor setup. The two distributors were connected by a belt, which was prone to giving out and leaving cars stranded. The belt retails for only about $7.
One more problem that plagued original owners: Cars built up until May 1992 received a dual-mass flywheel that can fail.
The 964 came out of the box with some pretty damning problems, but most of the good cars have been fixed by now. Whether it’s because of those issues or the polarizing styling, prices can be quite fair these days. We’ve seen good Carrera 2 coupes available in the middle to upper teens.

Variants That Break Our Budget

Through the years, Porsche has done a great job of offering multiple versions of the 911—something for every need and budget. For example, Porsche’s 2011 American lineup includes 22 versions of the 911: hardtop, Targa or convertible; with or without a turbo; two-wheel drive or all-wheel-drive; and so many other choices that you need a spreadsheet to keep track. The company even brought back their two-seat Speedster model. When shopping for a 1974-’94 Porsche 911, don’t be surprised to see a few interesting submodels pop up. If there’s a downside to these particular cars, it’s that they currently trade north of our $20,000 self-imposed cutoff.

911 RS America: Porsche revived their Carrera RS moniker for the 1992 model year, releasing a lightweight, high-output, street-legal version of their famed 911. One small problem: It wasn’t available stateside.
As a make-good of sorts, the American market received the RS America in 1993 and 1994. The car received the standard Carrera 2 engine and drivetrain but got a sportier suspension, 17-inch wheels and a slightly simplified interior. The flip-up rear spoiler was replaced with a fitted piece.
Thanks to the RS America’s slightly Spartan nature, Porsche initially had trouble selling these cars. According to, the company only moved 701 examples. Today’s market has honed in on this limited-edition offering, and good cars now fetch $30,000 to $40,000.

Turbo: Looking for a 911 with some more punch? Starting with the 1976 model year, Porsche’s Turbo could be purchased stateside. A turbocharged version of the 964 was also available in somewhat limited numbers.
The changes between the naturally aspirated car were fairly obvious: A turbocharger and displacement increase—3.0 liters through 1977, 3.3 liters after that—boosted power. Other upgrades included bigger brakes, flared fenders and that now-iconic whale-tail spoiler. It’s a fast, fast car that still holds its own.
What’s not to like? While they’re a bargain considering the performance and investment potential, current prices are $25,000 to $50,000 for a good one.

Speedster: The original Porsche Speedster was a low-slung version of the 356. Porsche brings back the Speedster every now and then, and the car made two appearances during the ’80s and ’90s: in 1989 and then from 1993-’94.
Both Speedsters followed a similar formula: chopped windshield, two seats, and a top many would classify as “barely adequate.”
These revivals of the Speedster were produced in limited numbers—only about 3000 total between the two production runs—and that only increases their current value. Figure $40,000 to $50,000 for a 1989 model and $60,000 to $70,000 for a 1993-’94 Speedster.

Porsche Parts: Not Always a Budget Killer

One of the biggest swipes against the 911 has to do with prices for parts: They’re too expensive, some note. Well, part of that is true—and part of it isn’t.
Rebuilding a Porsche engine is an expensive proposition. The cylinders can’t be rebored, and figure $2800 to $4200 for a set of original Mahle cylinders and pistons—the exact cost depends on model year and compression ratio.
If there’s a bright side, the engines used since 1978 tend to happily rack up the miles. Also consider the fact that Porsches do without several parts; their air-cooled nature and mechanical clutch tend to keep things simple. (Brief reminder: The mechanical clutch went away after 1986.)
A comparison between the 911 and a fan favorite, the early Miata, shows that some parts prices aren’t too far out of line.

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