The rise of the Porsche 964

If you’re not already kicking yourself, you should be. A few years back, the Porsche 964 was a bargain. Relatively unloved by enthusiasts, it lived in the shadow of the 993, and potential fans lived in fear of the big bills legend said it could create. Not anymore. Today, the 964’s rightful reputation is restored as the classic Porsche that’s anything but an old-school 911 with modernistic abilities – and one that is thoroughly worthy of consideration by modern eyes. Here’s why you should act now before prices become even higher…

Why is it the best?

Launched in 1989, the 964 is arguably the 911 that most faithfully combines modernity with the classic elements that made the car famous. Much money was spent at the time with the aim of making it a car for the Nineties while still retaining the visual appearance of a model from the Sixties.

It could almost be considered a modern classic, given the dual aims of updating it as much as possible while keeping cosmetic alterations to a minimum. For those who have dreamed of a ‘real’ 911 that performs as well as a modern one, the 964 may be for them. Yes, it has impact-absorbing bumpers, smooth body kit and some Nineties-esque colour options, but look at what remains intact: the silhouette, the upright wheel arches, even the exposed drip rails that give it such a period look. Yes, the 964 is the Eagle E-Type, born two decades earlier.

The 964 range is supremely creative, too. This was the first modern 911 to benefit from the lifting of the shackles that an impending death had on the range. Since Porsche boss Ernst Fuhrmann’s threat to kill off the 911 in the Seventies, development of Porsche’s most famous model had slowed. Or, more accurately, stopped, save for the odd update to ensure it met emissions laws. Fuhrmann’s replacement, Peter Schutz, rectified some of that in the Eighties – that’s how the 911 lived on and how the 3.2 Carrera came to be such a well rounded model – but the chance hadn’t yet arisen to indulge in the full lifting of the development and investment clampdown. The 964 was it.

The specific development intent was to bring the model as up-to-date as possible. By now, the 911 was 25-years old: this was to be the car that would ensure it lived on for another 25 years. Such lofty intentions are, of course, why the development costs spiralled out of control – Porsche quickly made up for any lack of investment cash on earlier 911s here – but the level of detail engineering that the car benefits from is another reason why it’s so desirable nowadays.

In short, the 964 is a celebratory Porsche. It’s the one that would ensure the 911 continued to thrive rather than live in the shadow of being quelled. All the development within it was done with the future in mind, rather than chasing to offset legislation or desperately try to give the car a lift without actually spending any cash. The contrast between previous 911s is both subtle in places and blindingly stark in others – and it is this dual appeal that makes the 964 such an intriguing machine.

What were the highs reached by the 964?

As it was the first 911 to have the development cash tap turned on, the 964 was able to bring some glorious developments despite only being on sale for five years. This was on top of the launch car’s high-tech 959-inspired four-wheel drive transmission, new M64 3.6-litre engine, improved heating and air con system and electronic rear spoiler. All of a sudden, the 911 was high-tech – and there was plenty more
to come.

One of the most awe-inspiring is the 911 Turbo, a car so fearsome in its later 3.6-litre guise that Top Gear was moved to create a very memorable spot celebrating its sheer speed. You know the one: Tiff, Millbrook, a mint green 964…

But even this wasn’t as fantastic as the rightly idolised Carrera RS models. These were, in spirit, road-going versions of the new Carrera Cup racers hitting the race tracks across Europe in the new F1-supporting race series. They arrived in 1991 and, yes, the name-check with the original Seventies 2.7 RS and 3.0 RS was intentional. Porsche was determined to remind everyone RS equals lighter and more powerful.

They didn’t have the complexity of the Turbo, but a committed weight-saving programme saw ten per cent removed from the curb weight. This is taking the modern classic theory to an extreme: electric windows, electric seats, car stereo, climate control – all were removed. Even the interior light went, as did the sculpted door trims, door handles, plush carpet and heated rear window. It was brilliantly basic, and an absolute dream to drive. One of the best 911s ever: that’s some high.

So, two special series that were right from the off. Porsche sensibly realised this and ensured that they were developed, too – ultimately, into the Turbo 3.6S and Carrera RS 3.6. Again, it was a mark of how things had evolved: this was the era of continuous development at Porsche, something that started with the 964 and led to the multitude of 997 that we see today. Another reason why the 964 is so significant: it showed it can work.

What is it like to live with?

The 964 was the first Porsche to introduce the modernity we all take for granted. Specifically, it pioneered advanced onboard electronics and diagnostics, wind tunnel-tuned aerodynamics and even a flat underbody to produce a drag coefficient lower than any previous 911 (and lower than the later 993, too). The development costs may have rocketed well out of control at the time, but the benefits today are a Porsche that is more advanced than you’d expect of a car more than two decades old and has such a genuinely classic appearance.

The Carrera 4 is arguably the most foible-free 911 on the road. It can be driven quicker and with more confidence than any other thanks to its drivetrain, which is loaded with grip and traction. The Carrera 2 is almost as fuss-free: the back of your mind has to bear a bit more responsibility than the four-wheel drive alternative, but it’s still a low-fuss partner on the road.

Other 964s have more speed, dynamism and involvement, but all share the same core strengths of the range: reliability, dependability and modernity. All have electronics that try to keep things operating no matter the external conditions and stress, as well as including the ability to tell you if something is going wrong and the reliability to ensure you can throw it onto modern roads with much less anxiety than older classic Porsches.

Less than a decade separates the 964 and the 996. The latter is not considered classic or antique yet, and many drive it daily with the expectation that it will do all a modern car can. But thanks to the advances made with the model, this is something you can, to an extent, do with the 964, too. It has a similar in-built ability to be dependable and as lacking in fuss as a much newer car. Which, looking at it, is something many perhaps don’t expect. And therein lies the beauty…

What about the running costs?

Mention the 964 to some, and they’ll immediately respond with breath sucked through their teeth before going on to mention the difficulty of routine servicing and other such worrisome tales. Listen to them, and you wouldn’t even consider buying a 911, let alone a 964.

But the reality is, as always, different. Many will mention the selfdestructing dual-mass flywheels, for example. Most of the problematic ones will have been replaced by now, though. Yes, routine maintenance is more difficult than on earlier 911s, dye to the packed engine bay and electronics overlay. But never underestimate the brilliance of Porsche experts: they have found ways of minimising 964 labour bills. Yes, oil leaks are common, and can be more serious than some realise thanks to the aero underbody panels catching and masking the drips. But really, all 911s leak to some extent. As long as it’s not too bad, it should be fine. Certainly nothing unexpected.

The bigger issues are buying a 964 with unexpected faults. Many, for example, assume that they don’t rust. Wrong: they do – but it is the relative dismissal of that which means some can be caught out, particularly as the rust can be hidden behind those polycarbonate bumpers and the smooth-look sill panels. Don’t be dismissive; check everything.

The arsenal of onboard electronics that keep it running can also be a curse. If electronic niggles have crept in, expect to spend a lot of time and perhaps a fair deal of cash to diagnose and resolve any issues. There are more sensors aboard a 964 than on any 911 previously, so it’s vital you make sure all are operating as they should and don’t dismiss any that aren’t. This is an area where the running costs of a 911 can spiral.

Overall, though, don’t believe the myths. The 964 is now old enough to have been seen by every expert in the field. Their collective wisdom has ensured that any fearsome running costs associated with a 964 have long since passed. Yes, some areas will be more expensive than others, but this should be weighed against the areas in which the car brings benefits: extra reliability, for one, and the ability to shrug off ambient conditions that would cause concerns with other 911s for another. Don’t write it off because you fear running it could be a ruinous headache. By 911 standards, it really shouldn’t.

Are there any 964’s that may disappoint?
Of course, not every 964 quite reaches the highs of the best. The majority of them are likeable in some form, as nothing detracts from the fundamental feel of the car, but there are some models with quirks and characteristics that haven’t found unanimous appeal.

The launch Carrera 4 is the obvious example. The first four-wheel drive Porsche was intentionally created to be sophisticated, stable, loaded with traction and free from the traits that made the 911 notorious in the Eighties. In doing so, though, Porsche had made it do something else – understeer. On the circuit, it was very obvious, meaning those who wanted to exploit the easily found lurid slides a 911’s engine location made easy to access would be disappointed. However, many more loved the newfound assured cornering – this would soon be the Carrera to please non-believers.

Another debatable 911 is the Tiptronic. Using a four-speed torque convertor automatic, it came with the then-revolutionary feature of steering wheel-mounted buttons for shifting up and down, but it was the combination of relatively lazy shifts and only having four gears that made its reception lukewarm. The fact that a 911 without a stick-shift was anathema to some also didn’t help. How times have changed…

The Speedster is also a confusing proposition. Clearly, it was confusing to Porsche itself, too – that’s why there’s two of them: the 1989 3.2 Carrera-derived model and the later 964-derived model. While the chopped-down windscreen, simple (RS-style) interior and that bug-like rear were distinctive, the model never quite achieved its aims of being a more simplistic, pure recreation of Fifties ideals. It missed the spot, making the compromises it bought with it all the more stark. That’s why Porsche sold less than a thousand, despite wanting to sell three times that.

Speaking of roofless 911s, Cabriolets will always be considered by some to be a disappointment. The Carrera 3.2 Cabriolet was almost a rush job, a modern development under the radar of 928-loving Fuhrmann and then launched as rapidly as possible by an enterprising Schutz. The open-top 964 benefited from more years of development consideration, and thus has the refinements to demonstrate this. It’s that bit neater and more cohesive, both to look at and use. Despite all this, it may remain a disappointment, but that’s nothing to do with the 964 this time.

Comments (2)

  • Jay

    Nice article, great read. I look forward to the purchase of my 964 in the future.

  • jonny filsinger

    Very well researched and written article. I do disagree with the cabriolet being a disappointment. I’ve had two coupes and I love my cabriolet just as much. All have been great and very maintenance free. You are absolutely correct that the value is on the rise for the 964. Two years ago I was offered $21k for my 1990 cabriolet with 38000 miles. This year I have turned down $31k twice and $28k from a dealer. Sometimes I’ll entertain the thought of upgrading to a 993, but when I go out in the garage and look at my 964, I always change my mind. The shape of the 964 is so classical Porsche. Enough of this writing, I’m going for a drive in my red 964.