Porsche’s 944 Turbo Cup was built for a racing series in the 1980s. We find one that has been road registered and reunited with one of its former owners.
Words: Wilhelm Lutjeharms
Photos: Charles Russell
Porsche’s transaxle cars have become more popular in the past few years than they’ve probably ever been. In fact, good examples of some of these cars command higher prices than some poorer quality air- and water-cooled 911s.
The 944 Turbo is widely regarded as one of the top transaxle cars developed by Porsche. Apart from perhaps the controversial 924 Turbo, it is the most affordable way to gain access to a turbocharged Porsche sportscar.
The Turbo Cup race car was a further development of the 944 Turbo with its 2.5- litre, four-cylinder engine. It won’t come as a surprise to many that Porsche decided to use these cars for the racing series. Eventually the Turbo Cup racing series was contested in countries such as Germany, France, Canada and South Africa, each of which lured privateers to some exciting race meetings.
These cars were sold from 1986 offering engines rated at 164kW, and it was only when they had proved their mettle on race tracks that Porsche released the 944 Turbo S road car in 1987, which featured a similar engine (and peak output figures) as the 944 Turbo Cup, then producing no less than 184kW.
The performance hike was mainly achieved via the implementation of a larger turbocharger running higher boost pressure and a revised engine management chip, but the redline remained at 6 500rpm and the catalytic converter was retained. Porsche codes for this model were M220 (locking differential, 40%), M298 (prepared for unleaded fuel, manual transmission), M462 (Sekuriflex windscreen), M593 (Bosch ABS), M666 (without lacquer and chrome preservation) and M754 (Turbo Cup model).
According to The Porsche Book by Jürgen Barth and Gustav Büsing, 100 versions of the 164kW car were initially manufactured followed by another 38 units. This was followed by only 35 examples of the more powerful 184kW derivative.
The Turbo Cup series also had significant success in South Africa. In 1987, LSM Distributors imported 19 of these 944 Turbo Cup race cars. Later that same year the first race took place at the well-known Kyalami circuit in Johannesburg. It would appear that, at the time, the car was also sometimes referred to as the 944 GS.
In 1988 Toby Venter (now the head of Porsche South Africa) won the championship and the following year, Sarel van der Merwe – one of SA’s most successful racers and also a Le Mans podium finisher – took the title.
The South African owner of this 1987 car – who is not only a serial Porsche owner, but a racer and current globe trotter with his air-cooled 911 – rediscovered this Cup in December 2016. He explains his history with the car: “I bought the car in 1991. By then the Turbo Cup series had already finished, but Porsche club racing was then starting out in South Africa. When I purchased it, it had less than 2 000kms on the odo. I started to compete in this car as a rookie on circuits like Zwartkops outside Pretoria as well as Midvaal. I raced it for two seasons.
“I eventually sold it to move on to building my first 911 race car (which he has famously driven through Australia and New Zealand). However, it was a fantastic race car and the stepping stone to my amateur racing career.
“Since then the car was never used in racing again, it was perfectly maintained and became registered for road use with no modifications.
“When I viewed the car for the first time in December 2016 since selling it, I looked out for a particular mark I knew my old race car had in the door frame. And, this car had it! I pulled the police records on the car – the documents confirmed that this car was registered in my name!”
I ask if he would ever sell it again, and he replies: “Never, it is now part of the family silver. I sold it when I didn’t know what it was – now I know!”
The fact that the previous owner road registered the car ties in perfectly with the initial aim of these cars, as they could have been registered for the road from the very beginning. You could drive them to the track, race them, and drive home.
A number of important upgrades were made to the car to make it suitable for racing. Overall, it was actually very civilised compared to the other race cars. The brakes, for example, were taken from the 928 S4 and included a Bosch ABS system. The chassis was fitted with stiffer springs and dampers, additional coils on the rear dampers, adjustable front struts, a faster steering ratio and a 30mm thicker front anti-roll bar and an adjustable rear anti-roll bar, to name a few.
When the power upgrade was given to the Turbo Cup, the suspension received further tweaks to cope with the additional performance. The transmission was also given additional cooling.
As I walk up to the Guards Red 944 Cup with its pure white, telephone dial wheels, it does look that bit lower to the ground than the standard cars. I pull the bonnet pins out, open the bonnet and take a look at the engine bay. It is hard to believe that this car has clocked up more than 190 000kms, obviously most of them on the road, but still, apart from the plastics which show their age, it is hard to tell it is a 34-year old car. In the engine bay, standard equipment also included the simplistic strut brace between the two suspension mounting points.
I open the door and immediately spot the black cross member of the full roll cage – wearing all the scuffmarks you’ll expect from its time as a race car and then years of being a road car. I slide into the Recaro bucket – the driver’s seat. It grabs and holds me solidly in place. If you wear anything wider than a 36-inch pair of denims you won’t fit.
I am more than six foot tall and therefore I find the driving position slightly awkward. I want to sit close to the steering wheel, but as I move closer the steering wheel forces by legs apart, but my legs can’t open up as the bucket seat keeps them together. Turn around and the bare, stripped-out luggage apartment is apparent, so is the rest of the roll-cage. Some of the original race cars were trimmed in carpet at the back.
However, even though being a race car, the rest of the Cup is actually fairly conventional. There are the small (unusable) rear seats, a comfy passenger seat, full dashboard with the ventilation system, glove compartment and the full dial set. These were all standard fitment at the time, except for the passenger seat. The cars did come with mounting points for the passenger seat, however.
The only non- standard item fitted some time during the course of the car’s lifetime is the small, fake carbon-fibre panel around the one gauge and kill switch – otherwise this car is stock totally standard and as it was in period.
Today the performance figures of these four-cylinder cars might be sniffed at, but remember that the claimed weight of this car is only 1 280kg.
Turn the key and after a second or two the motor turns over and immediately settles. There is instantly more sound intrusion into the cabin – even at standstill – compared with any other 944 road car. The gearbox has a direct shift action, albeit longer throws if you compare any shift length to Porsche’s 911 GT3 manual gearboxes. Still, for a 1980s gearbox it is a joy to use. The three-spoke, Alcantara-clad racing steering wheel is a direct reminder of the car’s heritage, while the roll-cage bars behind the A-pillars and above your head are also strong cues of the car’s aim.
It also takes only a few yards on the road to realise this car is stiffer and a more focused machine than any road-only 944 – or 911, for that matter. As we head out to our selected mountain pass for the morning’s proceedings I switch on the headlights with the large knob to the left of the steering wheel and the angular front lights pop-up – very 1980s!
As we pick up speed it is noticeable how much of the exterior noises infiltrate the cabin. However, I can still comfortably talk to my passenger, something that would have been much harder in a totally stripped out racer. I wait for the fluids to warm up, which does take a good 10 minutes on this chilly Cape winter’s morning. Cold air is beneficial for turbos though and the first time I press the throttle the needle eagerly rushes to 5 000rpm. I change gear and immediately appreciate the whack of mid-level torque this engine offers.
Without thinking twice, I push the throttle flat and below 2 000rpm nothing happens, but just before 3 000rpm you sense the turbo is almost ready to unleash its full boost (you can also watch the boost dial) and then, as the needle runs to 6 000rpm, the Cup thrusts forward with zeal. You can even change gears before this mark, as it is really between 4 000rpm and 6 000rpm that the engine performs at its peak.
At a time when we are used to road cars that deliver more than double these figures, it is refreshing to experience how much fun such a modest engine output can deliver. Franschhoek mountain pass is a favourite route for motoring aficionados in the Cape Town region, and it also suits the 944 Turbo Cup perfectly because it’s made up of a number of straights stringed together by multiple corners.
The whistling and whooshing sounds from the exhaust system dominate my hearing as I push the car slightly harder. Through the one hairpin, I lean on the throttle earlier than I should as the Cup exits the corner. As expected, the rear axle moves slightly off course, but it is very predictable owing to the relatively low friction of the tyres.
Although this is a front-engined car, the nose is stubby and you never feel like you have too much weight or bodywork in front of you – again, nothing like the experience with some of today’s GTs with their vast bonnets. Body lean is kept to a minimum when you turn the wheel, which further adds to driving involvement.
Although the Turbo S was the highlight of the 944 range, I wonder why Porsche never thought of making a Turbo Cup road car. You have to consider the challenging periods Porsche went through at the time, but it would have made a great sports car.
In April 1988, a 944 Turbo Cup car was the featured star on the cover of South Africa’s oldest and most authoritative automotive magazine, CAR. This racer was put through the magazine’s full road and track test procedures. The result was a respectable 0-100km/h acceleration time of 5.65-seconds and a true top speed of 263km/h, while the speedometer was indicating 282km/h. Up to that point, it was the fastest top speed the magazine had achieved during a documented road test.
Clearly impressed by the Turbo Cup, the writer ended the test with this: “Somehow you immediately establish a sympathetic rapport with this car on the track. It must be an ideal racer for both the experienced driver and rookie. Now, how do we get our hands on one?”
How coincidental then, that this Guards Red 944 Turbo Cup was the owner’s first Porsche racing car, when he was also a rookie. Following the morning’s outing with the car I discuss my findings with owner.
He had taken the car on an extended drive a couple of weeks before and admitted that he had run the car to its top speed. Having experienced how this car pulls to 200km/h, I tend to believe him. Now all I want is a 944 Turbo in my garage.
Specifications – Porsche 944 Turbo Cup
Engine: 3.0-litre, 4-cylinder, turbopetrol
Power: 184kW at 6 000rpm
Torque: 350N.m at 4 00rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual, RWD
0-100km/h: 5.65 seconds*
Top speed: 263kph*
Kerb weight: 1 280kg
*Tested by CAR magazine