Who needs a 911? Why Weissach’s great-value GT is still a supremely capable all-rounder Porsche’s epic 928. There’s a bargain-priced Stuttgart Alternative that’s more practical than a 911 and just as impressive to drive, says James Page as he falls for the under-rated 928. Photography Tony Baker.
People’s tolerance of different Porsche products has changed over the years. The current range includes the 911, a couple of models that look a bit like the 911 but aren’t, the luxurious fourdoor Panamera, and an SUV. An SUV, for heaven’s sake – and one, what’s more, that is available as a diesel. A Porsche with a diesel engine. Think about that for a moment.
And then consider the unforgiving landscape into which the 928 was launched in 1977. Purists were up in arms at the thought of anything even front-engined wearing the famous badge, to say nothing of that powerplant being water-cooled. On paper, at least, it was all most unsatisfactory.
Perhaps the waters had been muddied by the recent arrival of the uninspiring but financially expedient 924, which also employed a frontmounted water-cooled engine. That smaller model had not been universally well received, and the potential for getting this new rangetopper wrong was highlighted by David E Davies Jnr of Road and Track magazine, who wrote that: ‘Cynics… tend to write off the 928 as a cross between a 924 and a Corvette.’
This really was the intended long-term flagship, too – and, at the time, the only sensible way forward for Porsche. Increasingly stringent emissions regulations made the 911’s future uncertain, and plans for its potential replacement were being drawn up as early as 1971. A water-cooled unit would satisfy the legislators and, while a V6 was given serious consideration, it was concluded that a V8 would be able to achieve the necessary performance targets with greater ease. The fact that many of these details were being decided upon during a fuel crisis displayed admirable optimism on Porsche’s part.
As you would expect of a ‘clean sheet’ car, the 928 featured sophisticated, modern engineering with few of the compromises inherent in the 911’s design. The all-aluminium engine, for example, was the first to be planned with Bosch’s K-Jetronic fuel-injection system specifically in mind. The transaxle layout helped with the 50:50 weight distribution, while the rear suspension benefited from the ‘Weissach axle’. This clever set-up employed a special link at the front of each lower wishbone to prevent the rear wheels from assuming a ‘toe out’ position under braking or deceleration. While a Porsche 911 owner would never dream of sharply backing off halfway around a corner – or would do it just the once before retiring hurt – a 928 driver could afford to do so with relative impunity.
Clockwise: in its element on switchbacks; great ergonomics compared to 911, with superb feedback from variable-assistance steering; tiny rear seats; deformable panels protect light clusters; signature telephone-dial alloys shod with 215/60×15 tyres.
Almost as controversial as the lack of an aircooled flat-six was the styling – to begin with, at least. The 928 was penned by Anatole Lapine, then Porsche’s head of design. Neatly summed up by one tester as a ‘flattened, rounded bullet of a car’, it owed nothing to the marque’s previous efforts, which surely goes some way towards explaining some reviewers’ ambivalence.
The shape was as thoroughly up to date as the oily bits beneath, with bumpers that were hidden by deformable polyurethane body-coloured panels. Aluminium was used for the doors, front wings and bonnet, while the rest of the structure was galvanised steel, and a new production line was installed at Zuffenhausen.
‘HERE IS A CAR THAT WOULD BE AS HAPPY ON AN ALPINE PASS AS THE AUTOROUTE’
This was a very different beast to Porsches that had gone before, and you can understand why there were misgivings from some quarters. The 928 was clearly trying to appeal to the disparate motoring tastes that ruled on either side of the Atlantic, and there was a danger that it could have fallen somewhere between two stools. At the very least, it must have seemed strange to pick up a motoring magazine of the time and find a Porsche being pitched against a Mercedes-Benz 450SLC.
To a large extent, any doubts were swept away on first acquaintance. Following its introduction at the 1977 Geneva Salon, the 928 was named European Car of The Year. There were those who found it capable yet difficult to warm to, but others were hugely impressed by the overall package. Clive Richardson of Motor Sport went so far as to say: ‘I can’t help feeling that it will spell the death knell for the (911) turbo,’ before adding that ‘Porsche anticipate being able to maintain 911 production for another four or five years…’
Even when the 928 was introduced, people commented on the timeless nature of the design, and there is little doubt that the early cars – such as Mark Pearson’s featured example – have aged incredibly well. What has changed is the impression of its size. Regarded in the ’70s as imposing and bulky, it now seems remarkably compact among modern traffic. It was, in fact, only 9in longer than the contemporary 911.
Bereft of the aerodynamic appendages of later variants, the Series 1 looks clean and lacking in fussy details. It’s particularly good in profile, the long bonnet and shapely cabin bringing to mind a younger, Germanic fixed-head E-type.
The aggressive rear is dominated by the enormous hatch, with its vast expanse of glass, while at the other end it tapers to the instantly recognisable, shark-like snout.
Open the huge door and drop inside, and you are surrounded by that famous checker-cloth interior that sadly – to some eyes – disappeared on later models. On this car, everything is a different shade of brown, which serves only to heighten the period feel.
Even if the décor isn’t to your tastes, the cabin is impressive for a number of reasons. For a start, the build quality is exceptional. If somebody told you that this 928 was only 10 years old rather than 33, you wouldn’t question it. The doors close with an impressive ‘thunk’, and even the bonnet is supported by smooth, damped struts. The driving position is good and the seats excellent, while ahead lies an instrument pod that moves with the adjustable three-spoke steering wheel. The rev counter dominates the view forward in a 911, but here it shares equal billing with the 160mph speedo, with the auxiliary gauges arranged neatly either side.
The handbrake and headlamp-adjustment knob are down to your right, while to the left is a broad expanse of centre console with controls for the air-conditioning, plus the electric windows and sunroof. Everything is precisely arranged – unlike the 911, this is a masterpiece of ergonomics. You can even see out of the back remarkably well, thanks to the slimline windows in the rear quarters. What you can’t do is see the four corners too clearly, at least if you’re slightly short of stature, thanks to the low driving position and rounded edges.
‘IF SOMEONE TOLD YOU THAT IT WAS 10 YEARS OLD RATHER THAN 33, YOU’D BELIEVE THEM’
With the exception of the surprisingly dainty column stalks, everything feels big and meaty, too – an impression that does not wear off when the car starts moving. There is nothing lightweight about any aspect of a 928. At low speed, it feels almost lazy in its responses, and is quite content to potter around all day long. If you could afford the fuel bills, an automatic model would be perfectly docile around town.
There is always that feeling, however, of power being held in reserve. Straight-line performance is strong rather than scorching, on this automatic example at least, but Porsche did not get where it is today by trading on straight-line performance alone. The steering features variable assistance that lessens as the speed builds, and it offers superb feedback. It is beautifully weighted at all times, a quality that would be alien to many a Jaguar XJ-S owner, for example.
The brakes, too, are excellent, and the 928 always seems planted and secure – even at high speed. No less an authority than 1961 Formula One World Champion Phil Hill was impressed following an early track test. In many ways, it feels like a big 1980s BMW. Most of the time, you can waft along, the car as unassuming as can be, but plant your right foot and its entire character changes – it comes alive. It’s an immensely appealing Jekyll and Hyde act that is shared with the best products of Munich’s M Division.
Even though it was launched in the 1970s, this is a car that in image and feel belongs very much to the following decade. It is easy to picture one being driven out of London along the Chiswick flyover on a busy Friday evening, its high-flying owner slipping Ghost In The Machine into the tape deck as the traffic thins and he’s able to stretch the car’s legs along the M4 then out into the countryside, flicking up the headlamps that instantly transform the front end from intimidating predator to friendly ‘Frogeye’.
Clockwise: curvaceous Lapine styling has aged brilliantly; a symphony of 1970s brown, with funky Pasha upholstery; pop-ups give it a latter-day Frogeye look; trigger handbrake and headlamp adjuster by driver’s seat; all-alloy V8 mates well with auto ’box.
This has always been the 928’s most attractive trait – covering long distances at high speed and in supreme comfort. Had our imaginary owner wanted to truly escape London, he could just as easily have headed for the coast, enjoyed a restful crossing, and then charged across France, maybe with a couple of bags squashed into the tiny, sculpted rear seats that are ill-suited to human occupation. There have always been other cars that can pull off the same trick, but few that have offered such an all-round range of abilities. Here is a car that would be as happy on an Alpine pass as the autoroute that you’d just left.
As the 1980s progressed, however, it became clear that the successful businessman’s Porsche of choice was still the 911. And this despite the way in which the 928 developed: the S version arrived as early as 1980, with a 4664cc engine and 300bhp – good enough for 155mph. Externally, there was a subtle front air dam and a rear spoiler, while the standard equipment list was a little more generous.
By the time that the S2 was introduced in 1984, the automatic 928 was outselling the manual car by as much as three to one in the UK. Sections of the motoring press predictably railed against this, arguing that the manual was more suitable for a ‘driver’s supercar’, but for most people the self-shifter remained a better fit for the big car’s laid-back nature. At £30,679, the updated 310bhp model cost £6000 more than a BMW 635CSi and a hefty £9000 more than an XJ-S, although it still seemed like a relative bargain against the Aston Martin V8, which was the best part of £10,000 more expensive.
The 1987 S4 was heavily re-engineered, with a facelifted body that reduced drag by 13% plus a 5-litre, 320bhp version of the V8. It would be offered in stripped-out Club Sport and SE guises, eventually morphing into the 330bhp GT and 340bhp, 171mph GTS.
Over the course of its near-20-year production run, the 928’s rivals had progressed from BMW 6 Series to 8 Series, Ferrari 400i to 456 and Aston V8 to DB7. It was testament to the quality of the design – and the engineering that went into each successive update – that the Porsche still felt as modern as any of them.
Perhaps the 928’s biggest short-term problem was that the 911 was still around, and, to many people, still defined what a Porsche should be. The firm’s über-GT was therefore lumped in with the ‘other’ models such as the 924, 944 and 968. Depreciation struck immediately, and struck hard. These were, after all, hugely complex cars and could be eye-wateringly expensive to run.
As their status has risen, values have correspondingly crept upwards – but not to anywhere near the levels of the 911. At the time of writing, a quick search revealed two cars that were on offer for £6000, one of which was an S2 with full service history and 72,000 miles. There were loads of examples of all ages between £10-20,000, and only a 1992 GT with very low mileage was beyond the £30,000 mark.
Almost throughout its life, the 928 has been one of the best second-hand buys in terms of bang for your buck, and nothing has really changed. There is little doubt that it goes about its business in a serious and slightly aloof way, but this is a cosseting GT not a back-to-basics roadster or a highly strung supercar. More than 30 years after it was launched, it is a classic that can still dispatch huge distances with ease, or simply be relied upon to sweep aside the stresses of modern life and provide a therapeutic blast along your favourite section of country road. It is truly an all-time great.
Thanks to Porsche 928 Club
THE OWNER Mark Pearson
“My grandfather bought this car new in 1981. It was his second 928, in fact – he’d previously owned a secondhand one. I used to ride in it when I was young. I’ve always liked Porsches and am into the older motor sport models – the 917 and 908, in particular.
“The car was passed on to my father in about 1996, but it didn’t get used all that much. It’s had a few periods like that through its life – it’s still covered only 26,000 miles – although it’s always been garaged, which helps to explain its condition.
“It came to me in 2010. When I started using it, various things needed doing. It’s had a new fuel pump and filter, and the injectors were ultrasonically cleaned. The rear CV joint was replaced, too. It’s been okay since then – even the air-con works. “People have said to me that I should change the wheels, but I always say ‘no’. I want to keep it original – it’s still got its period radio, for example. It’s exactly how I want it, and I’ve got too much history with this car to ever part with it.”
What to look for
“Condition must come first to avoid ending up with a money-pit,” says David Hemmings, the 928 registrar at Porsche Club GB. “The Official Porsche Centre network offers an 111-point inspection that can be pricechecked beforehand. Anticipate paying up to £250, but it might preserve your sanity! “Engines have proven to be very reliable for an all-aluminium V8. Look through all of the previous service bills, to judge which expensive items have, or have not, been replaced. Expect to pay less than £350 for an interim service and less than £700 for a main service – but that can vary widely with local labour rates. Owners of low-mileage cars can settle for an oil and filter change every 12 months. Budgeting for a cambelt swap is an absolute must, at least every four years – at around £400. Joining a club can give you access to discounted parts.
“Many keen owners go into the purchase of a 928 expecting to undertake some of the ‘easy maintenance’ themselves: most jobs can be done, but have a fall-back position as well. “Well-preserved cars look as if they might be enjoying a gentle but steady increase. If you have only £10,000 to spend, go for an early S4 (1988-1992). If you have nearer to £20,000, look for a GTS (1993-1995), which has rarity value – only 250 were imported into the UK. Good early 928s are fast approaching 40, so they’re hard to find. If you want economy, forget it – they all just about manage 20mpg on a run.”
|1981 Porsche 928
galvanised steel monocoque, aluminium doors, front wings and bonnet
|all-alloy, sohc per bank 4474cc V8, with Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection
|Max power (DIN)
|240bhp @ 5500rpm
|Max torque (DIN)
|257lb ft @ 3600rpm
|five-speed manual or three-speed auto, driving rear wheels
|independent, at front by double wishbones rear lower wishbones, upper transverse link; coil springs, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r
|power-assisted rack and pinion
|215/60 R15 alloy
|ventilated discs, with servo
|14ft 7 in (4445mm)
6ft ¼ in (1836mm)
|4ft 4in (1316mm)
£19,499 (1981, GB)