Curbside Classic: 1992-1995 Porsche 968. Phoning It In.

I’ve been seeing a few 928s lately. Here in Melbourne, they appear to have found a band of (mostly well-heeled) loyalists who enjoy using them as daily drivers.

Not so much the 924 and 944, though. A couple here and there, but they’ve mostly dried up. I can’t even remember the last time I saw a 968. Until this one a few months ago.

In the early 1990s Porsche was spinning into disaster. A record high profit of $173 million for 1984/85 had come off the back of many a stockbroker bonus, but the global financial downturn from 1987 triggered a 40% drop in production. 1992/93 saw a staggering loss of $122 million.

These were the days of long ago when Porsche was but a wee sportscar maker with no family models to hedge the portfolio.

Sure, they’d thought about it now and then. But in the wake of the financial decline their most recent attempt, the 989, was left to wither. Handsome though it was, it wouldn’t have passed the golf-bag criterium.

They did have form in the discount field, though their involvement had always been somewhat inadvertent.

Max Hoffman cajoled them into producing a cheap(er) strippo from the 356 cabriolet.

The 912 came about because what else do you do with a superceded engine that still ran sweet? Unfortunately, 1966 saw twice as many 912s sold than 911s.

The 914 couldn’t decide if it was a Fiat or a Ferrari.

The 924 was a car they designed for someone else, then kept it for themselves when the opportunity arose. Smart move. Front-engined, water-cooled, anonymously-faced and soft compared with the 911, it won over many hearts and sales were great.

On the back of its success, Porsche brought us the 944 in 1981. The Audi-sourced 4cyl was replaced with one of Porsche’s own loosely derived from the 928’s V8. Performance became the focus with added aero for the body. As had the 924, the 944 earned a turbo model with a notable boost in capability. This period saw even the faithful warming to the idea of a front-engined water-cooled Porsche.

By the mid 1980s Porsche had started tinkering with another small car, possibly as a replacement for the 924/944.

It was another inadvertant foray, based on work done for SEAT. Porsche created a baby jet with a mid-mounted boxer 2 litre four. The 984 was posited as both a rag and hardtop convertible, and would have AWD for racing. Development was halted in 1987.

And so the 944 became the 1989 944S2. The engine was enlarged to 3 litres, helping the car deliver 0-60 mph in 6.5 seconds. The exterior took on the revised visage of the Turbo; an attractive upgrade but even more anonymous.

The 944S3 looked more like a Porsche. So they discarded the model name for another. The logical choice for the next number – 964 – had been already used on the 911. They went 4 better.

Porsche justified the new name with a claimed 80% new or modified content. The engine was still the 3 litre, though it was now hooked up to Porsche’s new VarioCam timing system and Tiptronic transmission. Induction and exhaust were modified, a dual mass flywheel and a 6 speed manual were introduced, and the platform tweaked.

In other words, a 924S4.

At first glance, the upgraded face was a rehash of the 928. However it does feature a small but significant difference.

Where the upper seam on the 928’s bumper was a straight line, the 968 featured lines that instead followed the trunklid seams and curved under the headlights. The language was used awkwardly on the 984, and perfectly on the 965.

It found its true home on the 911. A crucial element in helping the 993 (top right) overcome the heavy jaw of the 964 (bottom left) and sending this classic shell off in true style. This seamline also led to the much-derided (but loved by me) fried eggs on the 996.

It was first seen in public on the 968, plastered on in the name of consistency.

Though never intended to see daylight, the raised headlamps say much. Where the floating pods on the 928 were a superbly-crafted hidden gem, the 968 application demonstrates the presence of a significantly lower care-factor.

The rear lost its party; the disco floor was replaced with the smooth stylings of 928S4.

The whole styling exercise recalls the Jaguar 420. An older junior model updated late in its life with senior-looking sheet metal. But where the 420G and 928 have the visual breadth to support their expansive curvature, both the 420 and 968 suffer mostly for their relative narrowness.

Cars that looked decidedly less than the sum of their parts.

The public too was nonplussed about the 968. First year sales numbered over 5000 (a jump of 2000-odd over the final year 944), but declined for a four-year output of 12,776.

In contrast, 163,000 944s had been built over nine years.

Was the 968 the Beverly Hills Cop 3 of the 924 range? The collar-up cabriolet was seen briefly in that auspicious motion picture, being stolen by Axel pretending to be a parking valet (guffaw).

It wasn’t all sarcastic mirth. The 1993-95 Club Sport was a 100kg lighter strippo with a 0-60 of 5.6 – 6.3 seconds depending on your source.

In an episode mirroring the early 912; the UK created the 968 Sport model based on the Club Sport but with rear seats, electric windows, electric release boot and central locking. It undercut the standard 968 by £5500 and outsold it 306 units to 40.

You could get to 60 in 4.7 seconds in one of the sixteen 1993 Turbo S examples. Or even faster in one of the four 337/350 bhp Turbo RS racers.

There’s no doubt the 968 was a capable car.

But it emerged at a time when the Europeans were showing signs of lag. Japanese performance had taken a quantum leap, the shapes were fresher, the experience refined and the sticker more pleasing.

Despite it being a Porsche, the 968 couldn’t meet this value-proposition.

And so it was to the Japanese that Porsche turned to help them out of their financial mire in 1992.

With Wendelin Wiedeking leading the charge, Porsche implemented lean production and continuous improvement under their own label of ‘operational excellence’. It was an enormous undertaking shepherded through by the then 40-year old Wiedeking’s blunt drive.

By 1996 profits were returning and the amount of hours spent building a 911 had nearly halved.

The 968 was likely a hindrance to Wiedeking during this period. After 17 years of having Audi build the 924/944 for them, Porsche took production of the 968 in-house at Zuffenhausen – a decision made before the losses arrived. Accommodating this new but dead-end model into a rapidly evolving line system would have felt like an exercise in futility.

In 1995, Porsche canned the 968 along with the 928.

Waiting in the wings was their first bespoke junior.

One might say the 968 was Porsche by-the-numbers.

On the other hand, this is the ultimate refinement of a model from a company that has earned its stellar reputation by consistently and brilliantly developing a base model over long periods of time.

Your call.