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Sophisticated Side

21 September 1999

By David Rubie

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Here's a proposal for you: How would you like to swig the last inch of Dom Perignon out of this bottle, it's gone a little warm and flat though. Not too attractive? OK, how about scraping your finger around the inside of this jar of beluga caviar for the last few morsels?

Still not interested? Want to buy a 1985 Porsche 928? You do? So what's the difference?

Not a hell of a lot, to be absolutely honest. Porsche have minted a series of evergreen 911's over the past 35 or so years. The practical supercar, object of envy and desire for many car-obsessed people over the years (me included). The 930 managed to carve a reputation as a supercar and an icon to those who can't drive... but can pose. Lucky for Porsche, as it turned out, as the 924, 944 and 928 have all been a bit iffy in the desirability stakes as time has marched forward. Why is this interesting? Perhaps it isn't, unless you've recently been reading the specification sheet for a 1985 Porsche 928 and wondered what it might be like. The specs certainly look good: the last of the leaded 928's with 4.5 litres of V8 under the bonnet produced a neat 300hp (even though the car was 1600kg plus - on the tubby side for what is ostensibly a coupe).

As it turns out, one of these vehicles drifted into my sphere of attention recently. The seller has placed an order for a Maserati 3200GT, loves the Porsche but doesn't really need it any more. I expressed an interest - thinking that 300hp of Porsche might just be the antidote I required to the incredible reliability of my daily Mazda MX-5. (The Alfa is broken again - my fault, long story involving a stray nut and the #1 cylinder intake valve.)

I told my wife about it, in a head-scratching way that she normally interprets as "there's another car turning up". The first thing she told me was that I wasn't allowed to sell her car this time. After that, her attention drifted off. I normally interpret this as "if you have to buy the thing, then buy it" - an unspoken OK as long as the sacred Jeep keys don't leave her surprisingly strong grip.

If the Porsche was cheap enough, I figured I might flog the MX-5 and try the German answer to a question nobody quite formulated. Who really needed a big, V8 powered car from a specialist sports car manufacturer? What were Helmut and Guenther thinking in the mid Seventies? It's the sort of idea that gets formulated between Oompah band songs, too much chicken dancing and way too many Lowenbrau's during Oktoberfest.

The 928 in question had a manual gearbox - pretty rare down under. This alone made it interesting. The owner lives in a financial sphere occupied by the very fortunate few, so you would expect a no-expenses-spared servicing regime. He's been running it in preference to a later model car as he couldn't find a manual 928GTS, and the later 928S4 had less horsepower initially than the 1985 model. So should, in theory, be a pretty safe purchase if the books look right.

Hmmm, 300hp, lazy V8, not too many manual transmissioned cars around. How much would you pay? $25k to $30k down here in Australia as it turns out. These cars are usually optioned to the hilt, electrical gadgets everywhere, fiddly switches scattered around like a packet of Anticols exploded inside, except they don't make Anticols in a gloomy blue/black. Along with many, many buttons comes a wiring loom as thick as your forearm. Usually, this wiring is visible underneath the dashboard where something has gone phutttt! This car was no exception. The unmistakable smell of leather surfaces on the seats gave a friendly ambience, but the relationship between the seats and the steering wheel wasn't so chummy. The car was nice, but not pristine, a few cracks in the leather and the dashboard - to be expected in anything 14 years old, but perhaps indicative of a harder life than a luxury car normally gets.

The engine had new timing belts, sounded powerful (actually, sounded damn magnificent) if a little tickety-tickety for a car with hydraulic lifters. A quick look under the bonnet revealed no horror stories although I wouldn't want to eat a meal of sauerkraut and schnitzel off of the rocker covers. In short, it was pretty good, not pristine. The four Falken tyres were a bit of a giveaway that the expected no-expenses-spared maintenance schedule hadn't happened. The gearshift was floppy (the owner has since had that fixed) but the car was perfectly serviceable.

It was in my price range. I didn't buy it. My wife was stunned.

"You've bought a car a year for very one of the past 6 years; what's happened?"

What's happened indeed? The MX-5 has made me soft. I like a car that starts first time, every time. I like a car that costs virtually nothing to service, doesn't leak fluids like a nursing home resident and doesn't cause $1000 dollars to disappear at random during the week. If I get the urge to get greasy, cut my hands and swear at something inanimate, $1500 worth of Alfetta does very nicely. The 928 has some undoubted virtues, but there's no drama to the thing. Usually, I can make plenty of excuses why some expensive-to-run car justifies itself in other ways ("Look at the styling" or "Check out the bizarre engineering") but the 928 is a fairly innocuous looking vehicle with an interior this side of plain boring. The lay-back headlights are interesting, but conspire to make the car look sleepy and confused rather than focused and exciting. The engine is pretty conventional (a clone of Mercedes V8 engines, as it turns out), the transaxle is unusual but not unique. For a car so expensive when new, it doesn't draw attention to itself (perhaps its very reason for existence).

In this way, the 928 is very German, with all the connotations that go with that (precision, but conservative engineering, ditto styling). The weight of years has stripped away the Germanic reputation for bullet-proof reliability and shown it to be more marketing than actuality. The endless parade of mechanical niggles awaiting a purchaser was writ large in the repair receipts in the glovebox: fixing the gearchange requires dropping the entire rear suspension, accessing spark plugs and oil filters is an exercise in time-wasting frustration. There's a reason why the 928 looks cheap compared to the 911 - it's not as good. The 911 seems to age better, they're simpler to fix, typically not as loaded with gadgets. More like a bottle of Grange Hermitage - to be kept, rewarding the owner with a complexity and growing character with each passing year, rather than gradually falling apart like a cheaper bottle of wine with a cork that doesn't quite seal.

The 928 should really be compared with the 7 series BMW and the S class Mercedes. All were priced stratospherically, all depreciated heavily once the new car sheen wore off. The second and third owners typically couldn't quite afford to, or didn't want to, maintain the cars properly. They all deteriorate to a point where they look like bargains but in reality are close to clapped-out with only their burnished badges left as a mark that they were once highly desirable motor cars. In the end, a dose of reality is required to put them in perspective.

A nice cold can of soft drink is much more refreshing than any warm, flat champagne. When you're thirsty, forget the fancy label.

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