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Porsche 968 in focus

With 2016 marking forty years of Porsche’s transaxle family, Caesar Barton takes a look at the origins, driving characteristics and ownership aspects of the final four-cylinder evolution: the 968.

Genesis of the 968

Ever noticed how some dishes get tastier the second, even third time around?

How homemade Bolognaise, chilli and curries, perhaps enhanced by a touch of extra seasoning, become more appetising weeks and months later when awoken from the deep freezer?

Porsche has long known this: gradually adding a touch of horsepower here, a more sculptured dashboard there, stretching certain examples out for years – decades even (close to two in the case of the 928). Certainly it’s a tactic that was employed on the 944 – itself a development of the-then six-year-old 924 – from the original 2.5, through to the S, the short-lived 2.7 and finally the 3.0 S2, naturally aspirated 944s faithfully followed the gradual improvement template.

The dawn of the 1990s saw Porsche financially constrained, and with two front-engined models that originated around the time of Saturday Night Fever’s release, thoughts eventually turned to revisiting the idea of mid-engined roadster – though that would still prove to be a good few years off…

Originally intended as the 944 S3, stylistically the 968 closely resembles the love child of a 944 and 928. The bodywork remained largely unchanged from the 944 between the front and rear wheels, while the uncovered circular pop-up headlamps and smoother rump evoke the 928 (though with an admittedly slightly less ‘roubinesque’ posterior than the V8 GT’s).

Under the skin the new car’s 2990cc ‘big four’ gained VarioCam variable valve timing to produce 240bhp (compared to the 944 S2’s 211bhp) alongside an extra sixth ratio in the manual gearbox.

It was to be the last serving of Porsche’s four-cylinder transaxle dish (microscopically produced Turbo S & RS models excepted) and while highly competent in both coupé and cabriolet form, its Teutonic competence was no longer enough to safeguard sales from a new breed of Japanese performance coupés such as Nissan’s cutting-edge Z32 generation 300ZX, Mazda’s curvaceous Mk3 RX-7 and the fearsomely capable final A80 generation Toyota Supra Twin-Turbo.

In response to sluggish sales Porsche came up with a beautifully simple new variation of the 968: by removing the plus-two rear seats, window, mirror and central locking electrics (resulting in a smaller, lighter wiring loom) and modifying the suspension for a more dynamic ride, the Club Sport was born. The multitude of resultant plaudits came no higher than Autocar declaring it 'Britain’s Best Driver’s Car' in 1993.

 

Appraising and driving the 968

After more than two decades, the 968 – pictured here in slightly modified UK only ‘Sport’ trim (essentially a CS with a smattering of option boxes pre-ticked with the emphasis on daily usability) has matured into a handsome, distinctive shape whilst remaining immediately recognizable as a member of the Porsche transaxle family – though the frequently asked “Is it a 944? no? A 928 then?” becomes familiar.

Although only a scant 3cm longer (and no wider) than the 944 S2 it directly replaced, the 968 appears larger due to its more curvaceous extremities.

 

The black interior of this sport contrasts markedly with its vibrant exterior, and what it lacks in colour variation it more than makes amends for in terms of build quality. The oval dash exudes stoic solidity both visually and to the touch, while the theme of function and robustness continues with the centre console, door inserts and hard-wearing cloth ‘tombstone’ comfort seats.

Upon twisting the archaic key, the ‘big four’ awakens with a shudder that would horrify Weissach’s present-day NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness) specialists. Though admittedly gruff, the way the 968 shivers like an excited border collie ready for its walk lends the car an unrefined charm that has now been schooled out of all but the most lairy low volume Porsches.

Beefy aptly describes the physicality of the 968’s contact points, the clutch in particular. Unlike the aforementioned Japanese coupés which are renowned for their light controls, the 968’s clutch isn’t a pedal you ever engage without being aware of the process, such is its urge to return to its resting point. The weightiness makes absolute sense when pressing on, but is nothing short of a left-leg dominatrix in heavy traffic.

 

Sporting an additional sixth forward ratio over the 944 S2, the 968’s gearbox is perfectly matched weight-wise to the clutch, while its preference for unhurried changes is countered by a positive centring action.

What really draws aficionados to the 968, and keeps them loyal to the model, goes beyond the engine, the looks or the Stuttgart crest adorning the bonnet – fine attributes they undoubtedly are. Its crowning characteristic is arguably the exquisite chassis and the key to unlocking it: the steering.

If Lamborghini’s recently unveiled (and much maligned) LDS active variable-ratio power steering system represents the continued digitalization of the automotive helm, then let us savour the 968’s analogue hydraulic power steering in all of its exquisite ebullience.

Perfectly proportioned for the task of spirited driving and unadorned save for the horn, the 968 CS (and Sport) steering wheel has long been prized by 993 drivers. While the aforementioned air-cooled talisman’s charms need no introduction, when on the 968 the CS wheel conveys burly ballast so diametrically opposed to the 911’s darty demeanour that one can scarcely believe they have shared parentage.

Two defining attributes of the 968 combine to deliver one of the most enjoyable facets of the model: its eagerness to be steered by the throttle alongside the manner in which it pivots on its rear axle with just the merest of steering inputs, thus making obtuse-angle turnings a third gear affair largely dictated by the right foot (always entertaining in less than bone dry conditions…).

Of course such tomfoolery is best savoured away from the tightly-knitted back alleyways of Manchester’s Northern Quarter. A bastillion of the Industrial Revolution, the north-easterly section of the city centre has historically been home to cotton mills, workhouses and fabric wholesalers, though these days its urban aesthetic has become better known for artisan alehouses, raw denim retailers and premium pie purveyors.

Contrasting starkly with the chic semi-degeneration of the narrow ginnels that intersect Lever Street, the Speed Yellow Sport trades VarioCam vigour for second-gear stealth, its front splitter edging shark nosed from between russet bricked passageways. Foreign exchange students, returning revellers and early bird shoppers alike all glimpsing then double-taking the down town interloper on a bright and crisp Sunday morning.

Living with the 968

The 968 in all of its variations, leaving the tiny number of astronomically valuable Turbos aside, represents a largely pain-free ownership experience that happily assimilates itself into routine, drama-free usage while returning 25mpg across a tankful of combined urban, motorway and spirited cross-country driving.

As is good practice when purchasing/running a car with a cambelt, changing it (along with the balancer-shaft belts) within the four year/48,000 mile official recommendation (almost exclusively the former these days) is vital, while there is a good argument for replacing the belt rollers and water pump every second time. VarioCam sprocket tooth wear isn’t unheard of, therefore a thorough inspection every two years would be considered prudent.

Even taking into account legendary Zuffenhausen build quality, a couple of inherent design niggles managed to find their way into the 968 which, whilst annoying in the short term, can over time lead to substantial problems.

Water ingress under the fuel filler drainage seal (or by the pipe that’s inserted into it becoming detached) causes moisture to form in the offside sill and can lead to severe corrosion, while the front jacking points have holes for side skirt preserving spacer discs that can become muck traps and ultimately rot the steel.

The rubber beading that circumferences the lower half of the body perishes and shrinks, and whilst the replacement parts from Porsche are not expensive, it's a fiddly fix as the plastic skirts will have invariably warped to some degree.

The rear hatch seal, also a source of water ingress, requires evenly compressing all the way around in order to fit correctly and is a task that even seasoned Porsche technicians find finger-fatiguingly laborious.


Buying a 968*

A low mileage, unmodified Club Sport with the desirable combination of original bucket seats, no sunroof (in keeping with the pared-back ethos) and a comprehensive FSH will always demand the strongest money: certainly £35,000 + for the very best at the time of publishing, while CSs fitted with roll-cages and other track focused addenda fall below that price category as the model moves into the crosshairs of serious collectors who prize originality.

Bear in mind that while low mileage may seem attractive, lack of regular use is often the cause of chronic perishing of a vehicle’s rubber components (both internal and external) as well as seized brake callipers – besides, forgoing the enjoyment of driving any car in the name of “keeping the miles down” is a bit, well, OCD…

The UK-only Sport has for so long been the best of both worlds in term of balancing desirability, practicality and price, however excellent, sensible mileage (between 100,000 – 130,000) manual-only Sports are now in the £20,000 – £25,000 bracket and certainly set to rise further in the wake of the CS.

Which brings us to the launch models: the 968 Coupe & Cabriolet. Best value of the range right now would be an unmodified, manual Coupe on its original Cup 1 16” alloys, complete with non-CS/Sport luxuries such as leather and air-conditioning at £15,000 - £18,000.

The Cabriolet is perhaps the better recipient of the four-speed Tiptronic ‘box than the Coupe as it’s in keeping with a more cruising-orientated remit – though in either body shell the self-shifting transmission has a small yet loyal following, while the manual Cabriolet is probably the most affordable entry point into 968 ownership.

One thing’s for certain: whichever 968 you choose to suit your style, budget or driving preference, you’ll enjoy a rare-groove, last-of-the-breed treat.

* All suggested prices apply to the time of writing (Winter 2016) and will naturally change.

968 myths & facts

Is the UK-only Sport really a CS?

The Sport is indeed a CS by birth and is acknowledged so by Porsche in Germany with 306 RHD Club Sports optioned with the CS luxury package and a bespoke ‘Sport’ rear badge at Zuffenhausen. The Sport’s chassis numbers are included in the 1,923 CSs produced worldwide, however here in the UK the DVLA-issued V5 will list the model as 968 Sport and it is this, along with the chassis number that can be checked with Porsche UK which should be used to describe a particular 968.

Some Sport owners, keen to take advantage of buoyant CS values, have been known to list their cars as CSs - while technically true, if the car was originally sold here as a Sport then that’s how it should be described.

M030 fitted cars are better

The M030 suspension and braking upgrade option consisted of firmer springs, adjustable Koni dampers, stiffer anti-roll bars and more powerful cross-drilled brakes.

Spoken of with reverence in 968 circles, M030 fitted cars certainly would have had the edge on the racetrack; however the suspension’s lack of compliance makes it less forgiving than the standard set-up on (less than perfect) British asphalt.

Keeping in mind the sizable additional costs involved in replacing M030 components, along with the quality of modern aftermarket upgrades, and it becomes a less essential 968 attribute than you might have been led to believe…

M030 cars are all fitted with LSDs

968 option 220: Limited Slip Differential (allowing torque transfer between the driven wheels) was commonly, but not exclusively, specified alongside the M030 package.

LSD is desirable option for spirited drivers, and Quaife’s ATB Helical LSD can be retrofitted.

It has an Audi engine…

This misconception arises from the fact that the 968’s grandfather, the 924, premiered with a four cylinder 1984cc VW/Audi unit; however the 968’s 2990cc engine is all Porsche and a development of the 944’s original 2479cc M44/02 – itself originating as a development of one of the 928’s V8 cylinder banks…

Copyright © 2016 Caesar Barton

 

 

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