I’ve never been one for the Porsche 911. Yes, I know about its sublime handling and addictive drivability. And, yes, I'm well aware of the model’s racing pedigree, having seen fields of the things at Le Mans. And, yes, I know it's an automotive icon – it appeared, after all, on pretty much every birthday card my grandma gave me.
What was so bad about putting an engine in the front of a Porsche and cooling it with water? And why shouldn’t the firm borrow some bits from Volkswagen? As long as the result was something fast, attractive and fun to drive, what was there to complain about?
For Porsche purists, the answer was plenty. Their sweetheart marque made rear-engine, air-cooled sports cars and everyone knew what they were supposed to look like. This new breed, with its new motors and new bodies, simply didn’t fit the bill. Like when Dylan went electric, the brand snobs believed that Porsche simply wasn’t allowed to change its recipe.
Which was their loss because, after a stumbling start, the rest of the world received enjoyable, well-equipped and capable sports cars that suffered few of the limitations of the 911.
First came the Porsche 924 in 1975. Developed by VW during the oil crisis of the Seventies, it was a balanced, well-built and stylish thing, with a long, sloping nose and panoramic rear window, but also a bit pricey for a car only as fast as a 3-litre Capri. Porsche would bolster its performance four years later by sticking a turbocharger on the engine, but its middling reputation would prove tricky to shake.
Around the same time, the German marque also launched the thoroughly modern 928. Wrapped in a sculpted, slender shell and underpinned by sophisticated, fuel-injected engineering, it was hailed by some as the end of the Porsche 911. Bold claims? Perhaps, but it was nonetheless quite the package, a V8 machine as happy darting along B-roads as it was devouring autobahn miles, all the while holding its driver in luxurious comfort. And things only got better.
As generation after generation of the 928 hit the streets, each more advanced than the last, Porsche also sought to address the flaws of the 924 with its successor, the 944 – and that it did, delivering a more powerful, focussed and refined experience that evolved to become, by the late Eighties, the supercar challenger its price tag demanded, good for 150mph and a very good time.
Then, in 1992, the ultimate four-pot Porsche arrived. With a body derived but distinct from its predecessors, the 968 was Stuttgart to the core, an updated 3-litre engine sitting under the hood and a six-speed manual at the driver’s palm. Poise, balance and comfort were a given, while 240bhp meant it went like the clappers, especially in stripped-back Club Sport guise.
So, not only had Porsche proven it could make a fantastic front-engine car, but it had essentially done so four times over. Yet, despite the performance, the driving appeal and the refinement, not even the 968 could lose that not-a-911 label.
Reviews were largely positive in spite of the high price tag and, across all the 924, 928, 944 and 968 variants, Porsche sold hundreds of thousands of examples, but none would never reach the iconic status of the 911. If they’d been sold as Volkswagens – or almost any other make – they’d have been lauded. Instead, they were criticised for lacking the cachet of those fabled three digits and under-appreciated in the shadow of their much-vaunted cousin.
Things, though, have changed. Die-hards might still scoff at the front-engine fleet, but while they attempt to footnote something fantastic, the wider market has put its snobbery to bed and woken up to the capabilities of these once-snubbed sports cars. Which means you should probably go out and buy one.
See, while most classic 911s are well out of reach for mere mortals, these Porsches remain more accessible, their time in the sun having only recently begun. Prices have already risen over the last five years (in some cases doubling since 2010), but there’s plenty of room for values to keep going up as popularity increases.
For something reasonable that you can drive every day, try a 924S ($10,000-$15,000) or 944 S2 ($15,000-$20,000). If you’ve got more to spare, a well-kept 928 S4 ($22,500-$31,000) or straight 968 ($25,000-$31,000) should see you smiling, while a hard-to-find 924 Turbo ($20,000-$25,000) has particularly strong investment potential.
Buy smart and you’ll get the whole package: a comfortable sports car with good looks, enjoyable GT performance and a celebrated badge on the nose, without the unfortunate associations of 911 ownership. Oh, and a very good chance that its worth will go the way of Porsche’s most famous creation. After all, a motoring magazine dropped through my letterbox recently and there was something different on the cover – a Porsche with an engine in the front. I read the whole thing.
Words: Chris Rowlands