Sports Day The 924 Carrera GTS sat atop the 924 family tree. What you see here is one of only 15 Clubsport versions ever built… Story: Andrew Frankel. Photography: The Peterson Automotive Museum.
924 Carrera GTS
The 924. There are those who regard it as an interesting and under-rated chapter in the Porsche story, others who regard it as nothing less than an imposter, a failed Volkswagen project powered by an engine from a van. In truth it was all of these things and more. But what few would have denied at the time is that it could do with a couple more reasons for the Porsche faithful to hold it closer to their hearts.
And you can’t accuse Porsche of failing to respond: the 924 first went on sale in 1976 and within two years the van engine had gained a turbocharger, raising its output from a paltry 125hp (or as little as 110hp in emissions-choked America) to 170hp which brought its power to weight ratio perhaps closer to that of the 180hp 911 SC than many had expected. With stiffened suspension and disc brakes all round, this was much more the kind of car people had hoped for and expected. As a thing to drive it was a mighty step forward. But still its credibility remained in question.
Remember that when the 924 was introduced, Porsche customers had only ever known air-cooled engines placed behind the driver, latterly most of them with six-cylinders. The front engined, water-cooled 924 was just too big a leap without further bolstering its credentials. So what did Porsche do? What it always did when faced with a new and interesting challenge: it went racing.
As it always did when faced with a new and interesting challenge, Porsche went racing…
Porsche wanted to race the 924 for many reasons. First, by the time the 1980 season came around Porsche found itself between front line racing cars: the 936 was apparently obsolete (though it would come out of the museum to win Le Mans in 1981) and while plenty of privateers were racing 935s and 908/80s (which were thinly disguised 936s), the factory was not involved. And the 956 was barely a twinkle in the eye, as the Group C regulations under which it would race would not come into play until 1982. So the race team had itchy feet and the 924 presented a new challenge: Porsche’s first front engined, water-cooled racer.
A racing 924 would also do much to improve the 924’s reputation in the short term and, in the longer term, prepare the ground for the Porsche-powered 944 which, though merely an evolved 924, was always regarded as a proper Porsche because, by the time of its introduction in 1982, the 924 had become entirely rehabilitated among the cognoscenti. And the reason for that was racing.
Sort of. I don’t think even among Porsche fans many people know that a Porsche 924 came sixth at Le Mans in 1982, beaten only by four purpose-built prototypes and one 700hp 935. Given that it qualified 46th on a grid of 50 cars, it was a staggering achievement.
Nor I am sure will all but the most ardent of enthusiasts know that two more came 12th and 13th respectively, the latter driven by Derek Bell in his first factory drive for Porsche. But almost everyone will remember the road car without which none of them would have been able to race: the 924 Carrera GT.
Like so many of Porsche’s most revered road cars, the 924 Carrera GT, like the 1973 911 2.7 RS, was a car of the purest expedience, a necessary evil required to homologate the racing version. This time the formula was Group 4 which first required 500 street examples to be built, though by the time the 924 Carrera GT was in development, this had been relaxed to 400 units.
A concept of the car appeared at the 1979 Frankfurt show, but the real thing came into that rare category of a car that actually looked a lot more mean and special than the design study from which it was derived. The Turbo’s four nostrils were retained but a new front spoiler with plastic front wings and dramatically flared rear arches gave it a unique appearance. Forged 7- and 8-inch aluminium Fuchs rims were fitted, but it was really the increase in track by 59mm at the front and 79mm at the rear that gave the car its look.
The car was lower by 15mm, its engine boosted from 170hp to 210hp, a higher output per litre than even the 911 Turbo was giving at the time.
The first race car, known as the Carrera GTP, then took it to a whole other level. The structure was stiffened, and an all-new body created from glass-fibre. Porsche pulled its usual trick of getting around rules that said the original springing medium had to be retained, by leaving the torsion bars in place, but rendering them entirely redundant with racing titanium coils at each corner. Brakes came from the 917 while engine power went up to 320hp, and with it came reliability sufficient for three cars to survive 24 hours of flat-out racing. Not bad for an engine that started life in a van… It was ready to race at Le Mans in 1980 but, without the road cars having been built, raced in the GTP prototype category much as the 911 RSR had raced as a prototype (and won the 1973 Daytona 24 Hours) before it could be homologated as a GT racing car. Which is why at Le Mans in 1980 this clearly road-derived machine found itself in the same class as the Rondeau pure race car that took overall victory.
The street Carrera GT cashed in big time on the success of its racing sister, and suddenly the 924 was flavour of the month among Porsche cognoscenti. In fact according to Karl Ludvigsen’s essential ‘Excellence Was Expected’ Porsche bible, 406 were made, 75 coming to the UK and selling for £19,000, more than three times the average annual salary of a UK worker at the time.
But all this can be seen as acting in a merely preparatory fashion to the creation of the car you see here, the ultimate 924, the Carrera GTS. And if you thought the Carrera GT was expensive, consider that adding that one additional letter to the name near enough doubled its price…
The Carrera GTS can best be thought of an evo version of the GT, permissible under the regulations because the car upon which it was based was already homologated. Race versions could then be made which would trade on the conspicuous success of the Carrera GTP and be sold to private teams, providing another lucrative revenue stream for the factory.
You can tell a GTS from a GT instantly just by looking at the front, where the pop-up headlights have been replaced by lighter, more aerodynamically friendly Perspex covers. The front spoiler was more aggressive too. Using aluminium for the doors and bonnet helped drop weight by 58kg so it stood in road car configuration at just 1,179kg which, while light, was not significantly different to the weight of a standard street 911 SC of the era. As confidence in the strength of the engine had grown significantly, Porsche felt it would take another rise in boost pressure from 11psi to 14.5psi, yielding 245hp at 6,250rpm and, probably more important and significant, a thumping 247lb ft of torque at 3,000rpm.
This might sound a little peaky in these modern days where peak torque arrives just above idling speed, but these were still early days in the development of turbocharging and such a low peak for so much torque from such a small and highly stressed engine was impressive stuff: the 911 Turbo of the era required fully 50 percent more revs before it would provide all its shove.
How fast was it? I’ve seen 0-60mph times of six-seconds flat quoted for the GTS and a top speed of 155mph which, in the real world, made it significantly quicker than the SC of the era (remember 911 0-60mph times are always flattered by their rear engine traction).
And that was the slow one. If you were persuaded to add yet another third to the price paid, you could opt for the Clubsport version, although only 15 of the eventual 59 customers did. Club Sport engines produced 275hp, had plastic side and rear windows and a weight I’ve seen quoted as low as 1,045kg. This was the ultimate 924 for the road but, for racing, it permitted one more step to be taken.
This was the Carrera GTR, the aforementioned customer car, but upgraded in every way over its GTP predecessor apart from its appearance which was required to follow closely that of the road car. Boost pressure was raised to 21psi, almost double that of a street Carrera GT, which gave 370hp – 50hp more than the GTP racer – and a fairly astonishing output for a 2.0-litre van engine given it had to put up with 24 hours of racing.
The GTRs did well in racing, and 17 were sold, though in truth they were not latterday RSRs which could and did challenge all-out racing cars in the right conditions. At Le Mans in 1981 a GTR driven by Manfred Schurti and Andy Rouse came 11th overall, winning the IMSA GTO category, a title taken again the following year by a private car entered by the BF Goodrich tyre manufacturer. In the US teams developed their GTRs further, creating spaceframe chassis and eventually squeezing over 400hp from the engine. But by then Porsche had thought of a whole new way of bringing the 924 closer to the hearts of Porsche fans.
Indeed had anyone been able to scrutinise another car entered at Le Mans in 1981, they might have been surprised by what they found. This car came seventh, partly because it was driven by the dream team of Jurgen Barth and Walter Röhrl, but partly also because it had a secret under its bonnet. For there lay an engine unlike any fitted to a 924. Sure it still had four cylinders and turbocharger, but it had a twin cam, 16-valve head, a displacement of 2.5-litres and had never been near a van. In testing it had given over 500hp. The game was given away in race records that describe the car as a ‘944LM’, and while that was stretching the truth a little as it still used a 924 chassis, the engine, or at least its bottom end, was indeed that of the 944, which would be announced less twin cam head and turbo, almost as soon as the race had ended. And unlike the 924, no-one ever doubted the right of the 944 or indeed the 968 it sired, to be considered as a proper Porsche.
Sadly I have never driven a Carrera GTS – they are few and far between. But a couple of years back I did spend a day in a Carrera GT for this title and was thoroughly charmed by the experience. For while it felt quick, it was not the power I noticed so much as the torque and the ease with which it was delivered. I loved the gearbox with its proper dog-leg first gear, and felt the outright performance was akin to that of a modern warm hatchback. The suspension was soft by modern standards, but supple too, and it was a delight to row it over some decent country roads.
But so too was its character slightly but significantly at variance with its appearance. It looked like a total road warrior, a no compromise, no prisoners kind of car that would require commitment and a skilled hand to master. In fact it was nothing of the sort, but a smooth, easy and engaging kind of car from a time when the 911 alternative was still more than capable of being something of a handful.
So while I really liked the Carrera GT, it did leave me wondering what a sharper, lighter, more powerful and more sharply focused version might be like, a Carrera GTS in other words. A couple of years later I’m still wondering. If anyone out there is in a position to satisfy my curiosity, I would be happy to confirm my availability for that, or a drive in a Clubsport variant, at very short notice.
THE PORSCHE EFFECT The Petersen Automotive Museum in California is hosting ‘The Porsche Effect’ exhibition until 2019, of which this vehicle is part. For more information visit www. petersen.org/porscheeffect
Adding that one additional letter to the name near enough doubled its price.