Could DP Motorsport’s 924 Cargo have created a new kind of Porsche for the Eighties? Cargo Cult Driving the Porsche 924 estate car created by a race-preparation firm. Built by a company better-known for racing preparation and outrageous customs, this Porsche 924 shooting brake foretold the marque’s entry to the practical-sports niche, a full three decades before the Panamera Sport Turismo. Words Sam Dawson. Photography Jonathan Jacob.
Porsche 924 Turbo estate Good idea or crazy?
What is it about estate bodywork that elevates a car from mundanity to desirability? Perhaps it’s the greater opportunities the marketing department can hint at to justify your extra spending on more elaborate sheet metal and glass. Ordinary saloons are edged into a world of country-show poshness, stretched hot hatches become extreme-sports enthusiasts’ expresses, and coupé-based shooting-brakes – like the striking Porsche 924-based creation I’m slicing through the icy North York Moors with today – are the ultimate grand tourers. An ad-man’s dream populating an exclusive world of transcontinental blasts, ski resorts and concierges removing bespoke luggage sets from the expanded boot space. But this machine, the 924 Cargo, was created before Porsche became the commercial juggernaut it is today. Nowadays, the Panamera Sport Turismo estate looks almost predictable in a range that also includes two SUVs. But before the economic shock of the Nineties, Porsche was a purist marque. It only built sports cars. Definition-busting specials were left to Germany’s burgeoning tuning industry, firms like Gemballa, Buchmann, and Ekkehard Zimmermann’s Overath-based DPMotorsport.
Even if you’re familiar with 924s, opening the driver’s door of the Cargo is quite a departure. Deeply-padded, supple, high-quality grey leather dominates both in terms of touch and smell, giving the interior of Porsche’s cheapest car of the time the aura of an Aston Martin rival. The standard door cards have been done away with in favour of bespoke fan-patterned stitching, and there’s an American-built Fisher stereo system that would have been extremely expensive in the dashboard.
Unfortunately, this heavily upgraded interior compounds one of the underlying 924’s problems. An unyieldingly unadjustable steering wheel, set at a relatively low angle anyway, has to contend with a plumper, higher-bolstered seat, creating an even narrower gap to slot my legs into. Once inside, driver’s door shut, three things make themselves known. The door mirrors have been taken from a Kremer 935 racer and are near-useless on the road. A glance in the rear-view mirror reveals that the exquisite interior finishing panels stop short of properly trimming the inside of the rear hatch, and all Porsche badges have been ousted from the interior. In the middle of the steering wheel is the stylised, reads-the-same-way-upside-down ‘d+p’ logo of DPMotorsport.
‘It just happened to swoop in under the radar of the Swedish fiscal authorities’
Zimmermann’s Design und Plastik concern was originally known for building racing cars. It was Zimmermann who created the wild polyurethane bodywork modifications that gave the Kremer and Joest Porsche 935s the winning edge at Le Mans and Daytona. However, the coming of Group C eclipsed the production-based, privateer-favouring Group 5 class in which the 935 had been all-conquering. And a new influx of oil-rich supercar customers from the Middle East wanted more extreme performance and competition-derived bodywork than even the likes of Porsche was prepared to offer in standard production form. Cue DP Motorsport branching out into road cars. Most were 911 Turbo-based, 935-inspired creations, but 928-based widebodied aero-smoothed missiles followed before this 924 ‘combi’ emerged as an option in 1986.
‘Ekkehard Zimmermann was a designer, and was always a fan of vans and station wagons,’ explains his son Patrick, who runs DP Motorsport today. ‘The reasons for its creation were more visual, but they also had a nice side-effect for our Swedish customers!’ Stockholm-based dealer Josef Zirkelbach set up an outpost, DP Motorsport of Sweden, alongside his AMG-Mercedes concession, and noted an odd loophole that could potentially have found a new market for a Porsche estate. In Sweden in the Eighties, presumably in order to favour Volvo and Saab, estates and hatchbacks avoided the luxury taxes that made sports cars prohibitively expensive to buy. This 924-based estate car, which also demonstrated the various other bodywork and interior modifications that could be carried out on the entry-level 924 and 944, just happened to swoop in under the radar of the Swedish fiscal authorities, handily offering a sports car that didn’t come with a punishing levy attached to its purchase price, so that potential buyers might be more tempted to splash out on DP-Motorsport extras instead.
The distinctly Seventies Fuchs alloy wheels are the one remaining link between the 1986-built creation you see today and its origins in the previous decade. Seeking to keep costs down, Zimmermann sourced an early-1976 Copper Metallic 924 from Italy. He removed the rear section of the roof, welded in an auxiliary spaceframe, and skilfully blended in the rear section of a VW Passat estate roof, albeit with reshaped pillars and tailgate to maintain a sense of bespoke Porsche design identity, before respraying it in a more Eighties-friendly shade of Guards Red. While the other DP Motorsport Porsche estates would ultimately end up based on 944s, this example – the first that Zimmermann built – was the only 924 to be converted. Zimmermann envisaged a staircase of options leading up to the Breitbauversion (‘widebody’), including wings, side-skirts and wheelarch extensions that could ultimately turn a humble 924 into something reminiscent of a Carrera GT racer’s load-lugging cousin. The upgrading project was given the simple designation ‘I’.
For this first Cargo, however, Zimmermann stopped short of the wide-arched racer look. It did sport a visual update in the form of what appears to be the front bumper and auxiliary light assembly from a Porsche 944 Turbo. However, as current owner Andrew Mearns discovered when he came to replace the foglights, it’s actually a bespoke lookalike part tailored to the narrower contours of the 924’s body. Perhaps embarrassingly for Porsche, it all works – typical of a breadvan-shaped coupé, the 924 Cargo has a lower drag coefficient than the fastback it’s based on, a fact that emerged during the notoriously tough German Technischer Überwachungsverein (TÜV) test to homologate the Cargo as a DP Motorsport model in its own right. Once completed, this Cargo barely had the chance to grace a show stand before it was sold to Lilian Ericsson Cofre in Sweden.
It has added potency under the bonnet to make the most of it too, as well as demonstrating the aftermarket upgrading capabilities DP Motorsport had to offer to 924 owners. The 125bhp normally-aspirated engine the donor car was supplied with was replaced with a 177bhp unit from a 924 Turbo. Customised Porsche buyers prefer the other side of 140mph to a meek 124.
Turn the key, and that four-cylinder engine erupts in a barking baritone which never relents, even at idle and warmed-through. Pull away – even taking it easy in these very Scandinavian conditions – and initially it feels like it might be a bit of an over-announced letdown. Despite all the urgent noise and Eighties-supercar aesthetics, it trickles away smoothly, no different to a normally-aspirated 924. But this is merely early turbo-lag in action. I keep my foot down, stretching each of the gears with the notchy, long-travel lever, and beyond 3000rpm the Kühnle, Kopp & Kausch turbocharger begins to whistle.
There’s no sudden shove, but rather an insistent surge of torque. Its delivery is much smoother than I anticipated, and suggests a role as an urbane continent-shrinker rather than the downtown-Miami traffic-light Grand Prix winners that most other DP Motorsport creations appear to have been.
It’s still a noisy car though, the GT ambience threatened by the bark and snarl of the engine and exhaust. It’s testament to Zimmermann’s coachwork that there are no untoward squeaks or rattles from the structure or trim. I have to keep reminding myself that when this car was created, it used a six-year-old engine in a decade-old structure, but all it’d take would be the whispering refinement of a 944 engine coupled to that turbocharger, and it’d make a consummate grand tourer.
As it is, it’s not the relaxing experience it perhaps should be, and part of the problem is because of that turbocharger installation. The revised, 944-inspired nasal styling misses out on the row of four cooling ducts that characterise the 924 Turbo from which the engine is taken, so it relies solely on a single NACA duct in the bonnet for its required extra cooling, and this only seems to work when the car’s moving fast enough to ram air into it. Come to a halt, find yourself in stop-start traffic or merely crawl along beneath 30mph, and the temperature gauge starts to edge towards an ominous-looking red sector and not even the howling cooling fans seem capable of pulling enough air towards the radiator to chill it into submission.
But this means you have to seek out clear, empty roads and just keep driving it, and that’s no hardship at all. There must be more weight in the back of the Cargo’s structure – an extra chunk of sheet metal, more glass and an underlying substructure underpinning it must have a rear-biasing effect on the balance of the front-engined car. And yet it doesn’t feel it. The chassis the Porsche 924 sired – with its rear-mounted transaxle gearbox, honed further through the 944 and Porsche 968 – is one of the finest driver’s-car underpinnings of the late Twentieth Century.
Admittedly the underlying 1976 924 lacks the power-assisted steering that usually helps you make the most of the sharp helm, but the sense of viceless poise and nicely damped, manageable body roll as the Cargo negotiates the undulating, slippery Yorkshire moorland lanes makes the car feel like a larger, more substantial, perhaps more dependable Lotus Elan. One thing’s for certain – I’d far rather be driving this car in these conditions than any rear-engined Porsche, and although I’ve never been to Sweden so I’m speculating wildly here, it’d surely make more sense than a 911 on the kind of bumpy, loose-surfaced roads that play host to the Midnight Sun Rally too.
‘This is no tweedy shooting brake, nor is it cheapened by skirts and spoilers’
I pull over in a layby to allow the engine to cool, and step back to admire the Cargo as a piece of design. It gets more appealing the longer I gaze at it. Several coachbuilders attempted 944-based shooting-brake conversions – Belgian outfit Artz actually beat DP to it – but with their wider wheelarches there’s something conventionally, self-consciously butch about those, the extra bulk at the rear emphasising a theme of brawny stockiness. Sadly the 944-style nose upsets the Cargo’s visual balance a little, but elsewhere it’s a beautiful collection of simple, gentle lines. Even the softened edges of the tailgate and the twin-radius sill-to-sill curve viewed head-on from the back mean the rear roofline manages to avoid abruptness. I actually reckon it’d look better in white. Rather than some Eighties German tuner-special, all garish colour-matched innards and wild aerodynamics of dubious effectiveness, there’s a spacecapsule purity about the Cargo. Yes, it’s a shooting brake, but it isn’t one in that tweedy English coachbuilt tradition, all chromed roof-rails, wooden shotgun racks and exposed dovetail joints. Instead, it’s part of a very specific late-Seventies design moment absolutely encapsulated by the Porsche 928, of the clean-sheet modernism of the late Sixties meeting aeronautically-inspired post-oil-crisis efficiency measures, yet before the arrival of the crowd-playing skirts-and-spoilers that cheapened so many car designs in the Eighties.
In fact, because in part of a general lack of identifying marks, I forget I’m looking at a Porsche at all. Had Lamborghini decided to follow up the Espada with a new four-seater hatchback grand tourer to go alongside the Countach LP400 in 1976 or thereabouts, I imagine it would’ve looked something like this.
So did it succeed? Well, perhaps not in the way DP Motorsport intended it to. Just eight Cargos were built at Overath in the end, all other examples on wide-bodied 944 bases, the cost of the conversion actually outweighing any tax-busting advantages in Sweden. However, it helped facilitate the company’s transition from building racing cars to specialising in the bespoke modification of Porsche road cars. In retrospect, it helped DP Motorsport survive the tough economic conditions of the early Nineties, when the market turned against wildly bewinged 935-lookalike flatnose 911 Turbos and towards subtlety and affordability. Although the radical restructuring job involved in creating the Cargo wasn’t revisited, the sense of leaving no Porsche neglected, no matter how apparently humble, remained. Alongside lightweight parts for track-day enthusiasts with 993s, 996s and 997s, Ekkehard also created the DP86, a 911 GT3-inspired partial body conversion for a 986 Boxster.
Under Patrick’s guidance since 2002, DP Motorsport continues to exist, still on a cottage-industry scale, but strong, riding the backdated-911 wave and still even building the occasional Kremer-style 935 lookalike if requested. With cars like the Panamera Sport Turismo, Porsche itself – along with much of the niche-market-exploiting mainstream German motor industry – has stolen the thunder of much of the country’s once-vibrant tuning and conversion aftermarket. But compared to the DP Motorsport 924 Cargo, Porsche’s own in-house estate simply isn’t very elegant. The fact that something so accomplished and coherent came from a small aftermarket operation, accidentally exploiting an obscure tax loophole, in an era when subtlety had taken a holiday, defies all the odds.
No squeak or rattles from the carpeted rear end, despite the car’s prototype provenance. Kremer 935 mirrors provide pub-talk kudos but are useless in the real world Lashings of plump leather elevate this particular 924 into Aston territory. A Passat rear end was artfully blended into the rear end to create a flat-roofed loading bay. As part of its makeover, this 924 received a 924 Turbo powerplant. Despite its newfound practicality, the DP 924 is still a bona-fide driver’s car.