A brave and modernist masterpiece from Porsche – of all people.
During the early 1970s, contemporary music’s centre of gravity saw a shift away from the UK and America, Eastwards to Germany, where so-called ‘Kosmiche’ bands like Can, Cluster, Faust, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Neu! forged an alternative soundscape, laying down a sonic basis for the post-punk, new wave and electronic music that followed. Dismissed at the time as ‘Krautrock’, without its influence, music would most likely have evolved in a very different direction.
Porsche’s 928 is one of perhaps six outstanding car designs from the 1970s, a half-dozen vehicles that in their own disparate manner, eloquently spoke of the new; of a future that for a whole host of reasons, never quite came to pass. And while the German sportscar specialist arguably made a riskier, more commercially significant car in the 2002 Cayenne, the 928 remains the most thoroughly modern production car ever to bear the Stuttgart crest.
Difficult as it is to believe now, by the early 1970s, Porsche’s heartland 911 model had become a liability. Sales, especially in the vital US market were falling. Cramped, noisy and uncompromising, the 911 was increasingly viewed as an anachronism, one which it seemed would struggle to meet both customer’s more sophisticated expectations and more to the point, proposed US legislation for safety, noise and emissions. Porsche MD, (and brilliant former engineering director) Dr Ernst Fuhrmann viewed the 911’s death as both inevitable and desirable – especially within a post-Nader US environment.
The 928 programme was initiated by Fuhrmann to address these concerns, providing Porsche with a modern upmarket 2+2 personal luxury grand turismo competing directly with similarly conceived machines from European rivals. Having selected a front engine configuration, Porsche engineers decided upon a 90° V8 to power their new GT, since the venerable flat six was seen as being incapable of meeting forthcoming legislative hurdles. The SOHC all-alloy 4474 cc water cooled power unit they developed was state of the art, but in this as with virtually every other aspect of the 928, marque orthodoxy would turn on its head.
With a view to optimum weight distribution the gearbox was rear-mounted. The ‘Weissach Axle’, a complex and elegantly realised double wishbone arrangement (as at the front) with additional pivot points both at the top links and additional ‘swinging links’ at the forward extremity, was designed to ensure accurate wheel geometry and dial out the notorious lift-off oversteer that bedevilled the rear-engined models. A torque tube linked engine and transmission – a five speed manual unit of Porsche’s own design or an automatic sourced from Mercedes-Benz.
Styling would be another Rubicon, not just from marque norms, but prevailing industry trends too. While everyone else was following pied pipers, Giugiaro and Gandini in producing dart-like projectile forms, Porsche’s newly appointed design chief Anatole Lapine and stylist, Wolfgang Möebius were looking elsewhere. Lapine had spent his early career with Opel and GM in the United States where he had imbibed influences from a different vessel.
The 928’s rounded, organic forms went contrary to everything being produced at the time and were said to have provoked much controversy within Zuffenhausen. With cues derived from Porsche’s 1973 conceptual FLA ‘Long Life Car’, the 1977 928 was a trailblazer – not just in form, which was remarkably prescient of the decade that followed, but in its treatment of materials, both inside and out. Soft but at the same time marvellously taut, the 928 was a breathtakingly confident and determinedly modern design statement, yet one rooted in practicality and fitness for purpose. While there was style aplenty, of frippery there was none. No, this was a serious motor car – sci-fi ‘Pascha’ upholstery notwithstanding.
There were a number of flies in the ointment however. A significant one being airflow. Having selected the more outré of the 928 styling proposals, the car’s aerodynamic deficiencies were, according to Car magazine’s Mel Nichols, somewhat glossed over. It seems the recessed front auxiliary lamps created turbulence which owing to the manner in which the bonnet’s transition to the windscreen was managed, allowed air to remain turbulent until it reached the roof. Then as it broke away at the roof’s rearmost point, the flow once again became disturbed, creating drag-inducing vortices in the car’s wake.
In launch specification and with the distinctive ‘telephone dial’ alloy wheels, the 928’s drag coefficient and CdA was bettered by the cheaper 924 model. Mechanically, the V8 engine was criticised for a lack of horsepower – Porsche claimed 240 bhp, but early units failed to achieve it – and a lack of refinement. The drivetrain too lacked polish, a distinct driveline vibration being felt within the vehicle’s torque tube. Despite its sophisticated chassis, the 928 rode harshly and lacked compliance – additionally the steering suffered from excessive castor action, proving heavy and tiring for fast b-road travel.
So was it a suave GT or a more focused sports machine like its 911 cousin? Nobody seemed sure, especially Porsche themselves who attempted to hedge their bets by attempting to appeal to both camps. The compromise didn’t pay off, because had the 928 sold in the projected volumes, the 911 would have died in 1980. But with 928 production cut by 50% while the older car was being made and sold at twice its volume, Porsche simply couldn’t afford the bullets to kill the Neunelfer off. It’s believed the 928 programme was only amortised a decade after its introduction.
An improved 928S model debuted in 1980 with revisions which addressed many of the early model’s shortcomings, but defaced its visual purity with rubbing strips, air dams and spoilers. Car’s Mel Nichols hailed it as “the kindest of the very fast cars, the easiest of them to apply, the easiest to trust.” Time and again however, this was to prove the 928’s biggest draw yet most glaring drawback. Neither compliant or spacious enough to play the sybarite, nor compact, light or fast enough to appeal to the diehards; for those raised on the 911, the necessity to tame its wayward and bipolar nature was viewed as a ritual mortification the hedonistic 928 simply wasn’t equal to. Furthermore, many traditionalists absolutely loathed the newer car’s radical appearance.
It’s clear not only marque aficionados were divided over the transaxle models that had become synonymous with Dr. Fuhrmann, a bitter gulf was developing between modernisers and the traditionalists within Zuffenhausen, Ferry Porsche himself amongst the latter number. In 1980, Fuhrmann stepped down; indeed some suggest he was ousted by factions hostile to his stewardship. His successor, Peter Schutz was clear in his mandate – his 1981 reprieve of the 911 essentially sealing the 928’s fate as marque flagbearer. Despite this, it lived on in typical Porsche fashion, going through several further iterations, each time gaining performance and exclusivity, yet losing stylistic appeal with each less convincing facelift. Yet to the end, its fundamental enigma remained. Production ceased in 1995, with slightly over 61,000 built.
The 928 was a failure in that it couldn’t achieve its objective – to wean the marque faithful off the 911. The irony being that Porsche achieved its goals with the older car anyway, which does suggest an element of futility. But hindsight is always 20:20. The 928 remains a car of immense depth, perhaps the only truly cerebral Porsche – the sort of expensively developed and forward-looking vehicle the company would run a screaming nautical mile from now.
Veteran writer and intellectual, LJK Setright said of it, “The whole thing was a magnificent tribute to man’s conviction that he should press on undaunted, leaving the moralists to pass judgement on his performance when they were good and ready.” The German ‘Kosmiche’ bands’ influence proved fleeting, but for a time, contemporary music sounded thrillingly new. Similarly, despite a brave foray into modernism with the 928, we nowadays seek automotive advancement from Zuffenhausen in vain. Porsche only looks backwards now.
We recommend this more design-focussed review of the 928 by Driven to Write contributor Kris, here