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Here's What a $180,000 Porsche Was Like In 1994

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author photo by Doug DeMuro July 2017

I recently had the chance to drive a 1994 Porsche 928 GTS, which was the flagship Porsche in 1994. This point is illustrated by its asking price: Back in 1994, these were going for $88,000, which translates to roughly $180,000 in today's money. One hundred and eighty grand. This begs the question: Exactly what did one hundred and eighty grand buy you almost 25 years ago?

I really wanted to find out, so I borrowed this 928 GTS from Platinum Motorcars in the Detroit area, which is this excellent exotic-car dealer with tremendously varied inventory. Theirs was a really nice one: a very clean, reasonably low-mileage example with an automatic transmission -- certainly not the enthusiast choice, but perhaps better suited to the character of the car, which was intended to be a luxurious "grand tourer" alternative to the more frenetic 911.

Actually, that's a bit of a misstatement, since the 928 was never intended to be an "alternative" to the 911 -- it was intended to be the replacement. More on that in a minute.

First, let's discuss some history of the 928. It debuted in the late 1970s, a Porsche with a front-engine V8 -- a far more traditional setup than the brand's previous models. It went through various incarnations over the years -- 928 S, 928 S4, 928 GT; a 3-speed automatic, a 4-speed automatic, a 5-speed manual; four different V8 engines sized anywhere from 4.5 to 5.4 liters -- but the "GTS" model was the last, as it was offered from 1992 to 1995. More importantly, everyone agrees it was the best: It had the most grunt (350 horsepower), the most modern styling and the nicest interior. And so, in the 928 world, the GTS commands a substantial premium over other models.

With the history lesson out of the way, let's discuss some of the interesting peccadilloes of this particular car. There are a lot of them.

For instance, the sunroof opening is approximately the same size as a lined note card. The button to reset the odometer is larger than the button for the power locks. The rear seats have four air conditioning vents, all aimed up at the ceiling. They also have their own sun visors that come down directly in your face. The fuel door includes a flap that says "OIL OK?" The rear three-quarter window is one of the strangest-shaped pieces of glass in automotive history. The headlights are exposed ... but they still pop up. The door is manually locked and unlocked with the twist of a circle. The trunk button is a giant rubber thing on the floor. I could literally go for days.

But I won't, because I think it's no surprise this car is quirky. It came out in the 1970s, it was around through the 1980s, and they tried to stretch it into the 1990s. So it's a hodgepodge of various different eras, and technologies, and design elements, and by 1994 it had all been strung together in a weird way, with little regard for appearance or ergonomics, since Porsche knew the car was going away soon anyhow.

There was, however, a lot of regard for performance. As I mentioned, the 928 GTS used a 350-horsepower V8. That figure still sounds like a lot now, and it definitely sounded like a lot in 1992 when this thing came out. Back then, the V8-powered Ferrari model of the day, the 348, only had 300 horses. The Acura NSX only had 270. Even the Ferrari Testarossa barely had more grunt than the 928 GTS, offering "only" 390 horsepower from its massive V12.

And yet, on the road, the 928 doesn't feel all that fast. The main culprit is undoubtedly the 4-speed automatic transmission, which both delivers the car its "touring" character and also keeps it from feeling like a real rocket ship. The surprise second culprit is the accelerator pedal: It's surprisingly hard to push down, requiring you to really commit to going forward with any verve. This is a car that doesn't like to be pushed hard every time a traffic light turns green.

But it is a relatively capable cruiser. I was surprised how insulated I felt in the 928, in spite of its 40-year-old roots. It was smooth, and comfortable, and relatively relaxing, and the automatic transmission actually aided that experience. It was nice to simply get in the car and drive, knowing you were cruising along in an automotive shape that most people no longer have the chance to see. It also felt solid and stable on the road, just like you'd expect a German car to -- even after 25 years.

And yet the 928 didn't excite me all that much. I personally love its appearance, and I love its quirks, and I love the fact that this is the "final" one, but it just didn't have the performance or the excitement to keep up with most of the other sporty cars I've reviewed lately. But, in spite of that, I think it's undervalued at its current market price of around $50,000-$70,000. The 928 GTS has transcended the era where value is based on performance; it's now in a world where value is based on significance. And to me, the 928 GTS is a significant car: the rarest, last, best version of the car that was supposed to kill off the 911.

That's right: The 928 was supposed to kill off the 911. You see, Porsche realized the whole "rear engine" thing was a bit of a complication, so they rolled out the 928 with the intent of replacing the 911. It had better packaging, it was more practical, it had more room, it was faster, it was more luxurious, and it was more profitable -- but there was a problem: People still liked the 911.

As the 911 was barreling towards cancellation, a famous moment emerged. Porsche's chief executive in the late 1980s was an American named Peter Schutz, and he sensed the growing disappointment among his employees about losing the 911 in favor of the 928. One day, while in a meeting with Helmuth Bott (then Porsche's director of research and development), Schutz and Bott were discussing the future of the brand in Bott's office, next to a chart showing the life cycles of Porsche's products -- with the 911 ending and the 928 continuing into the future. As the discussion progressed, Schutz took a marker, stood up, walked to the board, and extended the 911's line, off the chart, onto the wall. The 911 would live on.

This story has become Porsche lore, and a lot of Porsche enthusiasts discuss it like a tall tale -- assuming that "saving the 911" couldn't have really been that simple. Interestingly, a friend of mine happened to recently become acquainted with Peter Schutz, who's now retired and living back in the States. One night, over dinner, he asked Schutz if the story was true. Did he really draw the line? Did he really save the 911? Schutz confirmed it, noting that Bott was "grinning like the Cheshire cat as I did it."

But while the 911 was saved, that stroke of the marker -- off the chart, on to Bott's wall -- was simultaneously the death warrant for the 928. After spending the day with the "ultimate" 928, I must say I enjoyed it -- and I'm happy I got to check it out. But I'm glad the 911 was spared.

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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Here's What a $180,000 Porsche Was Like In 1994 - Autotrader