In this series, Affordable Exotics, we'll be focusing on, well, exotic cars, but not those that are made of "unobtanium." Instead, we'll draw attention to high-performance machines that regular folks can afford.
Porsches are some of the most popular cars that wear the "exotic car" label. They are fast, fun to drive, well built and greatly admired even by non-motorhead types. Although Porsche has built technological wonders such as the Turbo Carrera, the groundbreaking 959 and the spectacular new Carrera GT, they have also sold lower-priced models that allow mere mortals to experience the thrill of Porsche ownership. Today the Boxster fills the entry-level role, but older Porsches that still provide serious sports car thrills can be had for bargain prices. Here are some affordable Porsches, plus a couple that can deplete your wallet if you're not careful.
356 Coupe (1950-1965)
The 356 was the first volume-production Porsche, nicknamed "the bathtub Porsche." The company hoped to sell 5,000 cars, but when production ended in 1965 Porsche had moved an amazing 76,302 examples! These were very well built compared to most sports cars of the era, and are reasonably well served by the aftermarket industry. There were a number of models, with the convertibles (Speedster, Convertible and Cabriolet) bringing big bucks today. The coupes are cheaper, with a wide price spread from $3,500 for rusty examples to over $45,000 for rare, restored models. Expect to pay from $13,000 to $25,000 for an average driver. Look out for rust, which can be a serious problem. Some unfortunate 356s have been retro-fitted with VW engines, which cuts their value by half to two-thirds.
912 and 912E (1965-1969 and 1976)
When the six-cylinder 911 came out in 1965, Porsche added the lower-priced 912 with a four-cylinder engine borrowed from the 356. These were slower and cheaper than the visually identically 911, and are relative bargains today. There were two versions, a coupe and a "Targa" convertible with a built-in roll bar. The 912 was dropped at the end of the 1969 model year, when it was replaced by the 914. In 1976 Porsche resurrected the name for the 912E, a 911 with a two-liter four-cylinder 914 engine. It was embarrassingly slow and only sold for one year until it was replaced with the 924. All 912s are prone to rusting, and badly corroded examples start around $3,500, with usable drivers in the $5,500 to $10,000 range. The 912E is rare, but valued about the same as the earlier 912s. Be aware that the 1965-1969 912 engines are little, if any, cheaper to maintain than a 911, but the 912E engine is easily serviced and can be modified with VW speed parts for better performance.
The mid-engined 914 was an entry-level Porsche that replaced the 912. Although designed by Porsche, the 914 was built by Volkswagen who also sold it as a VW-Porsche in Europe. The 914 did well until the much more stylish Datsun 240Z stole the market in the mid-1970s. The first 914's had 1.7-liter, four-cylinder engines (the VW Type IV), but 1.8-liter and 2.0-liter versions were later added. There was also a rare 914/6 model with a two-liter six from the Porsche 911, which is a joy to drive. The four-cylinder 914 was plagued by mediocre assembly quality and a listless engine, but today many 914s have been warmed up with VW speed parts and the great-handling 914 is a potent autocrosser. The very nicest 914s sell for around $6,500, but clean drivers can frequently be had in the $3,500 range.
The 924 was not exactly a gold-medal model for Porsche, as the Audi-derived engine ran rough and delivered lackluster performance. The 924 was replaced in the American market by the 944 in 1983, although the 924 remained in production in Europe. The 944 was an upgraded 924 with wider fenders and a refined, more muscular Porsche engine. In 1987 a half-breed model was brewed up to provide a cheaper entry point to Porsche ownership. The narrow 924 body was stripped of luxury items and treated to the 944 engine to produce the 924S. Although marketed as a low-buck model, Porschephiles were surprised to find that the 924S was actually faster than the 944 due to lighter weight and less frontal area. Best news is that the rare 924S is overlooked by collectors and can be found for $4,000 to $6,000.
944S2 and Turbo (1986-1991)
The 944 was sold in huge numbers and thus has low resale value ($3,000 to $6,000). However, there were two special versions that are worth looking for. In 1986, the 944 Turbo was added to the line, with a 220-horsepower engine that offered blistering performance (with a top speed of 162 mph). Plus there are tuning parts that raise output to over 350 horses. Yet all this can be had for $6,000 to $15,000, depending on condition and year.
Porsche also offered two special naturally aspirated performance versions, the 944S and 944S2. The 1987 944S had a twin-cam, four-valve version of the 944 engine with 190 hp and impressive performance. The 1989 944S2 had a three-liter upgrade of the 944S, combined with the brakes and suspension of the Turbo model. It produced 208 hp and a top speed of 149 mph. Look for 944S and S2 models in the $4,500 to $10,000 range.
The Porsche 911 has been in production since 1965 and is still going strong. There are a lot of them on the market, in a bewildering number of models. The 911S models were the fastest, but are prized by collectors and thus sell for more money. The slower 911, 911L, 911T and 911E models are generally $2,000 to $4,000 cheaper than the 911S versions. Early 911s range in price from $7,000 to $18,000, but repair and restoration costs can be very high, so get the nicest one you can afford. Avoid the optional Sportomatic semi-automatic transaxle, which is not nearly as desirable as the manual gearbox.
Not all Porsches have been classics, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are bad cars. Here are a few models that perform just fine, but are not the best way to spend your Porsche bucks.
The Audi-engined 924 was not highly praised due to annoying vibration from its large four-cylinder engine, high noise levels and mediocre performance. However, they were inexpensive (for a Porsche) and a large number were sold until the Mazda RX-7 blew it out of the market. Still, what fun is a Porsche that a Honda can easily kick around? Cheap at $2,000 to $6,000, you get what you pay for. For not much more you can get the improved 944. In 1980 a 924 Turbo model upped performance, but they are more expensive to maintain and many have been abused. Amazingly, the Turbos sell for about the same as the regular 924s.
The big 928 was a great touring car, but never sold in the numbers Porsche expected. Once touted as a replacement for the 911, it was phased out in 1995 with little fanfare. They are expensive to maintain, and with relatively low resale value, and many have not been properly taken care of, leading to monumental repair bills for unsuspecting buyers. In 1987 the improved 928S4 model came out, which have more value than the earlier models. Early 928s sell for as little as $5,000, but don't even think about fixing up a rough example. Some have even had Chevy engines installed, but these have low resale values.