Curbside Classics: Porsche 924 & Volvo 244 GL – Suddenly It’s 1980!

(first posted 10/23/2017)          This Porsche 924 recently took up residence in front of the misnamed Willow Tree Apartments. We’ve walked by several times, but I just didn’t have the urge to break our pace to stop and shoot it, having shot others years ago. But then yesterday it was joined by this very complimentary Volvo 244. What a fine pair they make; sleek and boxy. If this was a mid-century house instead of the Willow Tree, it would look like the setting for an upscale family’s set of cars from about 1980.

I had wrongly assumed that we must have long done a proper CC on the 924. We haven’t, although we got pretty close here. And we did a Vintage Road Test of a 924 Turbo here. Well, a thorough look at the 924 is going to have to wait for another day, but let’s give it a bit of a tribute.

A quick review of its origins: The 924 originally came about because Volkswagen and Porsche both needed/wanted a replacement for their joint venture, which had been created for the 914, sold by both companies in Europe, and only by Porsche in the US. The 914 was none too successful in Europe (more so in the US), so development of a replacement was undertaken by Porsche, as part of their long-running contract with VW to develop new concepts and build prototypes, but the components came from VW’s vast parts catalog.

In 1973, VW and Porsche dissolved their joint venture, and the project (EA425) rightly landed back with VW who had been footing the envelopment bills, to the tune of some $70 million. VW CEO Rudolf Leiding planned to sell it as either an Audi or VW, but not as a Porsche, which threw Porsche into a bit of a panic.

But in 1974, a very difficult year for VW, Leiding suddenly left. New VW General Manager Toni Schmucker needed to cut costs and re-focus, and VW was already overextended bringing their new FWD Golf and Passat to market, so he sold back the rights to the EA425 to Porsche, for $60 million, but with some concessions to VW regarding where it would be produced. Meaning it had to be built at a VAG-owned factory (the former NSU plant at Neckersulm), and staffed by VW employees. Essentially, VW was building a car full of their own parts, engine and technology for Porsche to sell.  And so Porsche did, and it sold pretty well, and became a key component of Porsche’s big expansion in the late-70s, along with the 928.

The VW parts bin raiding was to be seen everywhere under its sleek skin. The 924 used a rear transaxle, but the torsion bar semi-trailing arm suspension was borrowed from the Beetle, and the half shafts came from the 181. The rear transmission only had four forward gears initially, and that was a shortcoming, given the rather weak-chested engine. The new Audi three-speed automatic was also available, a first for Porsche, but an important part of making the 924 accessible to young professional women in the US, who suddenly saw a Porsche as a hot brand and just needed to have one. And it was relatively affordable to them, starting at $9,395 in 1977 ($38k adjusted). I saw plenty of that demographic in red 924s in LA at the time; sort of the update on the secretary’s Mustang in 1965.

The 924’s VW engine was an evolution of the first Audi four stroke four designed by Mercedes. Yes, the auto industry in Germany has always been a bit incestuous; it’s no surprise they recently got charged with collusion by the German federal prosecutor. Doh!  In this case, the displacement was upped to 2 liters, and the pushrod head gave way to a new SOHC head. The same basic engine also found its way into the VW LT van, as well as AMC Gremlins, Spirits and Concords (AMC was going to build it themselves, but only just imported them for a few years).

Making 95, 110 or 115 hp for the US market (depending on year), the 924 was faulted for its modest performance. Even the somewhat more powerful European version was dunned for the same shortcoming, but handling, steering and brakes were almost universally praised.

The first step in dealing with the 924’s performance deficit appeared in 1979, in the form of the 924 Turbo. It brought a big jump in power, to 170 hp, along with a big jump in cost. It turned out that the sweet spot lay somewhere in between, in the form of the 944.

Needless to say, these early 924s were a starting point, and did not belie their humble VW origins, as this picture makes clear. But over the 20 years that this platform was steadily developed by Porsche into the 944 and 968, it morphed into something rather different. And much more expensive.

The 924 was a surprising car for Porsche to build sell, its first with a front engine, and water-cooled at that. A year later, the similarly laid-out 928 arrived. The two of them were to eventually replace the 911, which was considered to be obsolete. We all know how that turned out.

I’m not sure of the exact year of this Volvo or the 924, as Carfax drew a blank with both of them. But as best as I can tell, 1981 was the first year for the quad rectangular headlights in the US. What can I add that hasn’t been said here before?

The front end design isn’t exactly refined or sleek, by any measure. Might as well be a Buick Century. But then the Volvo sort of was a Swedish Buick.

This one is proudly sporting a Lambda Sond badge. Volvo was the first to use this, an oxygen sensor, co-developed with Bosch, a critical (and soon universal) device to provide feedback to the fuel injection system in order to allow the catalytic converter operate at maximum effectiveness. Prior to it, catalytic converters were “dumb”, and their effectiveness limited. The oxygen sensor was the single most important breakthrough to allow gasoline engines to meet the much tighter EPA standards of 1980 and beyond.

I owned a 1983 GLE very briefly, like a few weeks. When the five year company lease on my ’86 MB 300E was about to expire in 1991, the buy-out amount specified in the lease seemed to stiff for me, and my neighbor was getting rid of their cream-puff Volvo. So I bought it for some very reasonable amount.

It obviously wasn’t in the same league dynamically as the W124 with its creamy smooth and powerful six and very advanced suspension, but there was something inherently charming about the Volvo that suited me fairly well. I’ve always preferred narrow but tall cars, and the 244 certainly was that. The ride was a bit cruder, and the 2.3 L four made its presence known, but not objectionably. It worked fine for me for my 20 minute freeway commute, but any thought of replicating high-speed weekend joy rides were out.

As it turned out, the leasing company was willing to very substantially drop their price for the 300E, so I just couldn’t resist and bought it. Fortunately another neighbor really wanted the Volvo too, so it was easy to pass it along. But I left it with fond memories, and I’m rather surprised I never ended up with another. A 240 wagon would have made a practical car for me after our move to Eugene. Of course that’s what at least half of the parents at the Waldorf school drove back then.

This 244 is in the care of loving hands: Artisan seat covers.

As timeless and durable as a redwood tree.