What could possibly go wrong?
(Unlike my usual posts, all the car pictures are of my 928) In 2011 I was the happy owner of a 2009 Kia Rondo that was fun to drive, and eminently practical with seating for 7, enabling me to carry my three kids (at the time) and any friends they might care to bring along, as well as my new girlfriend (soon to be my wife, praise God). I had lost most everything, financially speaking, in my divorce in 2008, and felt that I was just beginning to recover. Then one day, as I was dropping off the kids at their mother’s house, her fiance was in the driveway with either his BMW 3.0CS or his Mercedes Benz 500E and I got JEALOUS. I had been planning on trying my hand at flipping a car or two, and seeing if I could break even or make $100-$500 per car by picking up some low value classic cars, fixing an item or two, and selling them forward as I had my BMW 2002 and 633csi. My heart very quickly settled on a 1983 Porsche 928 S in Bronze Metallic with 128,000 miles on the odometer.
Room for 4, as long as 2 of them are little people!
It was the perfect car (in my mind) for a second car: fully depreciated, all original, iconic (see Risky Business and Scarface), rust-free and with seating for my three kids as well as me. The only knock was the automatic transmission. The test drive was a success with a very willing engine and responsive transmission, no errant smoke or noises, and most every power feature worked. I bought the 928 from an old used car specialist in Virginia for $4,300 and drove my new car home!
Mercedes Benz sourced 4-speed automatic transmission
When I was a teenager, the father of my buddy had two 928’s, the first was a 5-speed 928 and the second was an automatic 928 S. I only rode in the automatic and when I said I wish I could ride in the stick, he said actually the automatic is better. I remember reading much the same in the car mags at the time and a quick search of the internet reveals that in 1982, Car & Driver said:
Five nicely spaced transmission ratios help keep the underhood spirit alive, but here you find the 928’s Achilles’ heel. The 928’s shift linkage generated widespread bad reviews to the extent that most of us are avowed 928-automatic fans.
In fact the automatic was a 4-speed transaxle derived from the Mercedes Benz transmission (it was originally a 3-speed, but upgraded to 4-speeds for 1983), and was really quite nice, especially if one used the comfortable and easy to control t-bar transmission lever to control the gears. In normal usage, it started in second gear like the Mercedes, but by selecting 2, the car would start in first and hold the gear until nearly redline and then rip off a very fast shift into 2nd. Then I would shift into 3 and then drive to control the gears. I could accomplish controlled powerslides easily, as long as I shifted the automatic manually, and if the other controls were any guide, the clutch and shift linkage would have been quite heavy.
So I settled in with my car and got a few things fixed on it here and there. I considered fixing the air conditioning for $2,000 and decided against it, instead using the very small sunroof at every chance, and dealing with suburban Maryland’s heat and humidity by only driving the car occasionally.
Hatchback surprisingly practical for a GT
Otherwise, everything worked, and I could even fit my ice hockey bag comfortably in the hatchback. I got the car nice and clean and in good working order, listed it on Craigslist for $6,500 if I remember, and sat back and waited. Nothing, no interest.
Not to worry, I loved the car and I was happy to keep driving it. Once fall arrived, and the heat subsided, I began commuting in the car, and getting to know it better. A few things I discovered: the seating position on the floor was so low that after about an hour in the car, my legs would begin to fall asleep a little at a time. The controls, including steering, gas pedal, transmission lever, everything, were really heavy compared to modern cars. This was the Porsche GT, and yet, it was not light or luxurious in any sense that we would recognize today in my view. And the 928 was thirsty! I got about 9.5 mpg highway!
Then, stuff started happening…
Pontiac Tempest version 2: Torque tube driving rear transaxle
First, as I was driving in to the parking lot at the RIO in Gaithersburg MD, there is a ramp up into the garage, and at the top it has a hidden speed bump that blends in to the pavement. As I entered the garage, the underbody of the car slammed down on the speedbump, and the impact was quite hard. After that, the 928 developed a shake at greater than 75 mph that my mechanic identified as a damaged torque tube. I asked him about replacing it, but he said the only option is a used part, and we won’t know if it perfectly straight until after we’ve bought it and installed it, so it’s a high risk effort. I decided to pass and to keep my speed to 75 or less.
As an aside, the design of the 928 was a widely heralded 50/50 weight distribution approach accomplished through the location of the transaxle and battery in the rear of the vehicle, and as Paul covered here, it was not the first production car in America to use such a structure, but the second, following the design of the 1961 Pontiac Tempest.
It wasn’t a model of precision and quickness, but Porsche had to have something left to improve when it adopted a highly similar torque tube rear transaxle for their 928 and 924/944/968. The 968′s three liter four was only slightly smaller than the Tempest 3.2, and its ferocious torque showed to best advantage the benefits of a large displacement four with balance shafts.
Common Rail Fuel Injection
Then, one day I was driving along, and suddenly I smelled gas. I was able to get to the mechanic right away, and the diagnosis was the common rail of the fuel injection system failed, pouring gas all over the engine. Apparently, I was lucky my engine didn’t catch fire!
So anyway, I took it back to my mechanic to be fixed. When I got the car back, it had developed a hesitation in the throttle that had never been there before. The next day the engine died on me and I had to get a flat-bed to take it back to the mechanic. Their diagnosis: I had run out of gas. I still don’t believe that’s what happened, but of course anything is possible. They got the car back running, but the hesitation remained.
The disadvantage of integrated bumpers
Then (yes I know this is getting repetitive), I was driving to the market and when I was accelerating from a stop at a stop light that had changed to green, a guy in a CRV came flying up behind me and misjudged my speed and slammed into the back of my 928 (whammo!) and pushed me through the intersection. It felt way worse than it looked but he busted up the rear integrated bumper quite a bit. You can see the blistering paint above. I adjusted my online ad and price, now down to $4,000 and showing the damage to the bumper. Still no interest.
Then, when I took the 928 to the drive through insurance adjustment location, they had a dugout section of the floor to simplify examining the underside of vehicles. As I drove out of the area, the underside of the 928 didn’t quite clear the floor set up, and the edge of the opening tore a hole in the exhaust system. So I received an insurance check for $1,250 but I had a new problem to deal with.
It’s all downhill after this…
I decided to see if I might have better luck getting the hesitation fixed at a different mechanic. I searched out a new mechanic, and they said sure, bring it over. I hopped in the car and started to drive. Part of the way there the 928 stalled again. I was able to get it restarted, and as I was near the original mechanic, I quickly took at U-turn to head there. I gunned it up the overpass pictured above, and made it 2/3rds up the hill, and then the car stalled again. I put it in neutral, and rolled up to the top of the overpass. From there it was about 5 blocks to the mechanic. With the help of the downhill grade of the overpass, and some well-timed green lights, I was able to roll all the way to the mechanic, and into their parking lot.
Final resting place
And that was it. The car never ran again for me. I pushed the mechanic to find out the problem, but they couldn’t figure out why it was dead with 130,000 miles, and said they’d have to charge me to do additional diagnostic work.
Well I lowered the price to $2,000 for the non-running vehicle and finally I started getting some interest. Eventually a nice man named Christian came to look at and offered me $800 cash for it. I gave him the keys, and signed over the title, and together with the insurance money, I got out of the car for about $2,000 after having invested about $8,000 in it all told. It was an experience, but measured in fun per mile, it was terribly expensive. I haven’t bought a classic car since.