Sketchy Sports Car Legends: 1985 Porsche 944 vs 1990 Mazda Miata

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It’s time for another Shitbox Showdown! Today, we’re looking at a couple of legendary sports cars, in anything but legendary condition. First, let’s see which level of sedan difficulty you chose:

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Huh, I was not expecting that. I bet if the Jag’s engine were in one piece, the vote would have been tighter. But you chose the safe and easy path. Honestly, I would too. That Jag is beyond my abilities.

Before we get to today’s cars, I just want to say a quick word about “boring” cars, a charge that was leveled against the Nova by a few commenters. Honestly, I don’t find any car boring. No, not even those. Or those cars that you’re thinking about. They’re just used in boring ways. Puttering back and forth to work in something like that little blue Nova is indeed boring, but what about autocrossing it? Or driving it from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine using only two-lane roads? Or using it to visit every National Park in the lower 48 states in reverse chronological order? Not so boring then, is it?

Alright, I’ll put the soapbox away. Let’s look at some cars. Today’s choices are both renowned inexpensive performance cars, both great handlers, both with a strong following even today, and both turning the corner from old and affordable to legitimate classic. But both need some help to get back to anything like their former glory.

1985 Porsche 944 – $2,100

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.5-liter inline 4, 5-speed rear-mounted transaxle, RWD.

Location: Sparks, NV.

Odometer reading: Unknown.

Runs/drives? Yep, according to the seller.

Almost from the moment that it was introduced, the Porsche 944 was synonymous with yuppie affluence. Miss Christina drove one. So did Sam Baker‘s crush. More expensive than the entry-level 924, but more approachable than the 911 or 928, the 944 was the car you could almost daydream about owning one day. And the fact that it handled great and was no slouch on acceleration (for the time) didn’t hurt, either.

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Unfortunately, this 944 is not going to turn many heads these days. Its Guards Red paint is faded to a morose matte orange, it appears to be missing both exterior door handles (very common for VW/Porsche/Audi of this era; they broke if you looked at them funny), and it wears a set of wheels from a newer Porsche that don’t fit well. The 944 has the same problem as the SN95-era Ford Mustang when it comes to aftermarket wheels: If you don’t match the wheel offset to the width of the fenders, it just looks stupid.

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The ad is light on both description and photos, so we’ll have to make some of our own observations. The car “runs fast” but “needs TLC” according to the seller. It looks to me like “TLC” includes a good chunk of the interior. I don’t know if the window was rolled down for the photo, or if it won’t go up, but if it’s the latter, I imagine something from the Nevada desert may have made this car its new home. Watch where you sit on a test drive.

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If it does indeed run well, what we may be looking at here is a good candidate for a cheap track car. Or – here’s a thought – a Gambler car. Everyone does safari 911 builds; why not a 944?

(Image credits: Craigslist seller)

1990 Mazda Miata – $2,495

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.6-liter inline 4, 5-speed manual, RWD.

Location: Pacifica, CA.

Odometer reading: 228,000 miles.

Runs/drives? Yep.

The Mazda Miata should need no introduction. For more than three decades now, it has been the darling of car-lovers everywhere: an inexpensive, sharp-handling, soulful little twisty road companion. And the amazing part is that list applies to the 2022 model the same as it does to this 1990. The Miata is like that friend from high school who shows up to the reunion looking at least as good as, if not better than, they did back then, but you can’t even be upset or jealous about it, because they’re just so nice.

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I was lucky enough to own a 1991 Miata, in similar condition and with similar miles, for many years, so this all looks familiar to me: the little 1.6 liter twin cam engine with its valve cover designed to look like an old Alfa, the snug bucket seats, the high center console, the short stubby shifter that changes gears with the flick of a wrist, the dashing top-down profile that just makes you want to get in and drive.

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I don’t know what’s going on with the weird two-tone job on this one, but at least the body is straight and rust-free. It does need a new top, but it’s not hard to install that yourself, and duct tape will do fine until you get around to it. It wears a nice set of aftermarket wheels, and the seller says it has new brakes all around, and a current California registration, so you should be able to drive it away without worry.00j0j 8azmpx02jraz 1320mm 1200x900

The seller does note a few little problems. It has a broken trunk latch and a “malfunctioning” pop-up headlight on the left side. I’ll bet I know exactly how it is malfunctioning, because mine did it too: the stop on the motor is worn out, so the headlight will cycle up and down on its own, over and over again, as if the car is winking at everyone. It’s funny the first few times.

(Image credits: Craigslist seller)

And there they are: two sports car icons with a cheap price of admission, but needing some work to bring out the best in them. Which one is more your speed?

Quiz Maker

 

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51 Responses

  1. It’s interesting how a simple poll with the “right” options makes me agree with commenters I’ve forever disagreed with (on every topic), while disagreeing with those I always seem to be of the same mind. Experiences and their effect on reason, fancy that.

    Having had a square dash 944, and now in a 2-year restoration of a 951 (i’m close to being done!), I know all too well how hefty the tax is, how infuriatingly good they are at extracting the last shred of anger in you – the amateur mechanic, but also how amazing they drive (and look!) when sorted. The rustiest bucket of clattering bolts will take my vote over any Miata, any day of the old week. Yeah, I am not being reasonable – at least not by a generally-accepted definition.

  2. HELL NO on that Porsche. Thats one of those cars that you either buy a nice one or you dont buy one. Id imagine you easily have $2500-3000 tied up getting that turd up to snuff mechanically doing the work yourself, provided you dont have to rebuild the gearbox or engine. New engine and gearbox, more like $10k plus worth of just parts alone. Also these are a pita to work on, transmission sits in the back ala C5/C6 Corvette

    Miata might be worth it, says its in California so hopefully no rust. Really just depends on how hard of a shunt it took and how fubar the unibody got bent. Would be a fun thing to flog mercissely on the track and parts are reasonably priced unlike that Porsche.

  3. Looking at that Miata body and paint job… I’d be concerned that the paint was holding that body together.

    944 bodies, on the other hand, were fully galvanized at the factory. Rust usually isn’t a huge problem. Although this car certainly looks questionable. And interestingly, “Guards Red” paint is a single-stage enamel. You can “cut and polish” it…. sort of like refinishing hardwood floors. All the trim will need repainting… but the body might not be a total loss (paint-wise).

    But this is… the least desirable 944 model. Rubber disc clutch. Least powerful engine ever offered. (Not even the 16-valve “S” or “S2”… let alone a turbo). And the early interior.

    If it were down the street from me… I might low-ball it for the few parts I could use as spares on my Turbo (which I bought for not _too_ much more than this… not counting the 3 years of wrenching and 3-ring binder full of receipts for parts) and part out the rest. Our maybe turn it into an autocross car with a lift and an LT swap? Hmm. The latter, I think.

    But this 944 will never be a good candidate for restoring. It would cost a fortune (even if you did the work yourself)… and you’d be left with… the least desirable 944.

  4. This is a tough one.

    The 944 is an “early dash” model. The 85.5 dash and interior is so much nicer. Not that that’s really an issue here… since that interior needs to be gutted.

    Part of me says 944. But only because I have an 86 turbo and I love it. But it’s in much, much better shape than this. The other part of me says Miata… because I _don’t_ have one.

    If I didn’t have the 944 (951) already… I’d probably go for the Miata. And find a nicer 944.

  5. I scrolled down, selected the Miata and then came back to read the article after that.
    It’s no contest as a current NA6 owner, a car that I have daily driven for 7 odd years, even in rough shape, I’d take another one over a 944 any day. My financial situation is the only thing holding me back from having a fleet of those little cuties.

  6. Something about the 944 strikes a cord. It is the Porsche most of us can afford.

    Sure it needs work, but you are buying a running platform for a project. You are not investing here, rather buying something you like.

  7. Man, this is a tough one. The Mazda is probably the more sensible choice in regards to reliability and parts availability, but that paint is mortifying. The sheet metal is probably (maybe?) fine underneath, but a proper respray would be a total waste of money unless you strip it first. The desert dwelling, presumably rust free 944 is the champ at teasing my inner masochist out in this round.

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