We see it all the time on social media and forums…”I just got this 19xx 944. What upgrades can I do to make it better?” Well…
We will get this out of the way first. The 944 engine in all its various forms is about as good as it gets without injecting a (literal) ton of money and engineering into it. In a time when the Toyota Corolla was making 75 horsepower, the 944 was making twice that and more. The 944 eight-valve engine responds well to a camshaft upgrade – the Web Cam – but further modifications can get expensive and stress other components to the point of unreliability. If your goal is to make your street car engine more powerful and you are on a budget, you will probably be disappointed. If you’re building a race car or track-day weapon, refer to famed NASCAR driver and car builder Banjo Mathews who had this sign in his shop – Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?
The secret to the 944 family of Porsches is in its handling and to some extent its brakes, adding in the excellent driving position and overall comfort. The eighties was a curious time for the automotive industry. While previous generations of cars – especially American cars – were heavy on design (and weight!) with big V8’s in the 60’s and anemic four-cylinders in the 70’s, they also lacked a lot of the equipment and features that we have learned to take for granted. The 80’s 944’s incorporated many of these “new” features like air conditioning, four-wheel disk brakes, power steering, power mirrors, and others. These things help keep the 944 “young” even after some 30-40 years – they are things that we want and expect in a car. But they don’t have things like stability control, traction control, radar warning devices or automated steering control. They have just the stuff we need.
There are two classifications of work here…one is “deferred maintenance,” the other is “upgrades.” The difference should be obvious. We find most of our “rescues and rehabs” to need all of the basics. Belts, rollers, seals, water pump, fluids, etc. These should be first on the list. Then there are upgrades to consider. If you are doing maintenance, should you replace maintenance items with “upgraded” parts? Well…
So here are the UPGRADES that most can agree upon – and we acknowledge that some won’t agree on these. What is offered here is just food for thought.
ENGINE. As we said in the past, not a lot to do here unless you want to change the camshaft. The very early cast headers can be replaced with the newer Porsche headers, although unless you are doing a lot more internal engine tricks, investing in race headers won’t do a lot of good.
BRAKES. In SCCA Improved Touring we are required to use the stock calipers and rotor sizes, but we can use whatever brake pads and rotors that we want. The stock 944 brakes are pretty good, and in most cases just need to be properly maintained. You can add additional visual stopping power by powder coating the brake calipers. Rotors – some like to buy and mount cross-drilled and vented rotors. Our experience is that on the street, these expensive changes do little to improve braking performance. Drilled rotors on our race cars crack at the holes, so we don’t use them. Recently there has been a trend towards using Volvo 240 front calipers on the front of the 944 – a good writeup on Rennlist is found here.
TRANSMISSION. Not a lot to do here unless you find a Limited Slip transaxle. Also check the gearing to be sure that you’re not messing up the factory gear ratios as paired with your engine and its capabilities. As part of normal maintenance, clean and re-grease your CV joints and inspect for wear or damage. You will need a special 12-point Allen head (“Cheese head”) socket in your toolbox for the CV Joints.
FRONT SUSPENSION. Front struts are normally worn out on any car that has been neglected. We have found a few recently where the strut inserts weren’t just worn out, they were actually broken. Replacing them isn’t too difficult, and for street use we have been using KYB inserts for a while – inexpensive and they work well. If you want to go all-out, Bilstein or Koni is the way to go. On Series I cars and 924/924S cars with steel control arms, look at the ball joint to see how it is attached to the control arm. If it is held in with rivets, it is original and should be replaced. Bolts? At least they have been replaced once. Ball joints on Series II cars are mounted in the arm with epoxy, and there are replacements available – or you can opt for all-new control arms. Check the control arm and front sway bar bushings, too. The right side rubber bushings tend to suffer from leaky power steering. Damaged rubber bushings should be replaced, or you can opt for plastic (urethane) bushings for that competition feel. If you are replacing rotors, do the front wheel bearings at the same time. Good insurance.
A note, too, about struts and strut inserts. In 1987, Porsche introduced a front strut for the 944 that is “sealed,” meaning that you cannot repair the front strut with an insert. Until recently, your only course of action was to replace the entire strut. If your car has sealed struts, Koni has introduced a kit that allows you to install a strut insert with some modification – a modification that is definitely NOT reversible. However, it is better than the cost of an entire strut.
With all this in mind, check the size of the front sway bar. (Use your metric wrenches to gauge the size – if a 20mm open end wrench fits over it snugly, it’s a 20mm sway bar!) There were many sizes that were delivered on the 944. Going with a turbo sway bar around 25mm can improve handling, but remember too that the sway bar works with the front springs. An additional upgrade would include coil-over adjustable springs with a higher rate. For street use, a 250-300 pound spring with a turbo sway bar can help front-end handling quite a bit, especially when pairing with a set of Koni adjustable sport shocks and plastic bushings.
We also hear about the need for a strut bar across the engine compartment. The reason for this device is to provide support for the shock towers at the top of their stress point. With a bone-stock suspension in street driving, this isn’t an issue. When you pile on the coil-overs, Koni’s, turbo sway bars, plastic bushings and all that, a strut brace would probably make sense.
REAR SUSPENSION. The 944 rear suspension started life as a complete unit taken from a VW Van in the mid-1970’s. Torsion bars with diagonal “banana arms” and straight steel trailing arms. The Series I 944 retained the 924 steel banana arms while the Series II and 924S have improved alloy banana arms, along with some other improvements made along the way. It is good to note here that the Series I rear shocks have a smaller mounting hole in the bottom of the shock than the later alloy rear suspensions, so the Series I cars take a different rear shock absorber. The Series I also takes a different configuration of rear axle bearings.
Some 924, 944 and 924S cars were delivered without any rear sway bar, although the mountings are still there if you wanted to retrofit one. The rear sway bars are generally small thickness – 14-18mm are the most common. If your car does not have a rear sway bar, you will need to source the entire assembly, including the bushings, clamps that hold it to the body and the eccentric bolts that hold each end to the trailing arms.
You may choose to change the torsion bars to provide more “spring rate” to the rear, but this is not a job for the faint of heart. In most/all cases, changing the torsion bars requires you to drop the rear suspension as a unit. We generally do not change the rear torsion bars for this reason. However, the addition of a nice 18mm sway bar and some Koni’s greatly improves the performance of the rear suspension, especially when coupled with a 25.5mm front sway bar, 250lb springs and front Koni adjustable Sport shocks.
If you are going to drop the suspension to replace the torsion bars, it’s also a good time to renew the bushings, maybe even going with plastic/urethane.
STEERING. Power or don’t need power? The power steering systems on our cars leak. Some more than others, but they do leak, and fixing those leaks can be expensive and time consuming, and then…well, they’ll leak some more. We have been very successful on “depowering” the power steering rack and eliminating the power assist completely. There is a little more effort required when stopped (parking), but otherwise there is little difference. See the article on depowering a rack here.
Switching to an early 944 manual rack is also a possibility, but the power rack has a little quicker steering ratio, so we like that choice better. If you want to switch to a manual rack from an ’83 944, make sure that you get the intermediate steering shaft with it – it’s a different length.
WHEELS AND TIRES. This is always a great question – bigger tires and different wheels. What will fit and what won’t? What about spacers? Can I put this wheel with this tire on the front? A majority of 944’s and 924S’s have phone dial wheels, with early 944’s wearing “cookie cutters.” These are generally 15″ in diameter and 6″ or 7″ in width. Admittedly, the choice and supply of 15″ tires is getting pretty slim, especially for street-type performance tires. There are 16″ wheels that came on some cars in 6″, 7″ and 8″ varieties.
While we could spend a couple of pages talking about what wheels will mount on what models, it would be wiser to just talk about a few basics. There are two “offsets” that you will hear about – “early” and “late.” The early offset is around 23mm, and the late offset is around 53mm, with a few others thrown in for good measure. The difference in the offsets has to do with the position of the hub relative to the body. Remember that these cars have their birth back in the 70’s with the narrow-body 924. When the 944 arrived and improvements started showing up, the offsets started through an evolution. The addition of larger brakes also meant bigger diameters to clear the larger brake calipers.
Wheels from other models can fit a 944 or 924S with 17″ and even 18″ diameters. One issue, though, is the size of the circle that goes over the hub in the middle…some later wheels do not have enough clearance at the hub to fit it properly. So there is a huge variety of wheel combinations for the 944 – whether your favorite will actually fit your car is a matter of trial and error, backed up by the tire that you want to fit. With the wheel and tire on the car, on the ground at ride height, check for interference with the body. Check:
- Rear tire touching the top front of the rear wheel well
- Rear wheel touching the trailing arms
- Front tires touching the springs
- Front tires touching the front inside wheel well on full turn
- Front tires touching the rear inside wheel well on full turn
- Front wheels touching the strut
Doing a “wheel check day” in the driveway with your friends and their Porsches is a way to check what will work and what will not. Try many different configurations to help you make your decisions. Checking out Google Images of 944’s to see what others have mounted on their cars is also helpful. Remember too that while a certain wheel size may work, mounting certain tires may cause a problem. Trial and error.
Here are some ideas…
SWAP. Swapping the engine for an LSx or Audi/VW turbo is very popular these days, and we will not talk about the pros and cons here. We have done a couple of swaps with LSx and LT1’s and we have seen a lot more. They totally change the car’s power band while doing little to change the handling characteristics. We have seen 650 HP twin turbo LS3’s and 330 HP LS1’s, and they are wonderful cars. Here are some points to consider, though.
- Doing the conversion is more difficult than you think.
- Regardless of what you read, there is always some fabrication involved.
- It will cost you more than you budgeted in most cases.
- You may have to compromise on things like power brakes, power steering and air conditioning.
- The possibility of recovering what you spent on parts when you go to sell it is tiny at best.
- They are great fun to drive.
There are plenty of websites and forums out there to help you with a swap!
So here’s a lot to think about. We know that not everyone will agree with what is said here, so let us know with your comments. Remember, though…safety is always first. Take care of the safety items before you go after the performance.