Q. Hi, guys! I’m a full-time student and part-time valet parker. I’m about to turn 21, and I am enthralled with the idea of a 1987 Porsche 944S as my graduation present. My dad had this car when I was little (he had gotten it as a present after having completed his Ph.D.), and I have such fond memories of just my dad and me driving around in his Porsche. Unfortunately, my dad hit a bobcat circa 1996-ish, and the Porsche was replaced by a Honda Prelude before my 5th birthday. As fate would have it, my uncle owns a 1987 Porsche 944S (five-speed manual) and is looking to sell it. While I trust my uncle, I was wondering what “problem areas” specific to this car, or any older Porsche, I should look out for. Also, the Porsche in question has spent most of its life in cold climates (New Hampshire, North Carolina and now Minnesota). Does this mean a whole other range of issues to look out for (my dad mentioned some concerns about salt)? My dream car is so close that I can taste it – I just need to make sure that it’s in good shape.
RAY: Specific problem areas for this car? Well, Porsche owners report a lot of wallet problems. Is it too late to change your major to finance?
TOM: This is not a cheap car to maintain and repair. And since the one you want has been on the road (at least theoretically) for more than a quarter of a century, it WILL need repairs.
RAY: Maintenance, too. The timing belt needs to be changed every 30,000 miles on this car, for instance. That’s not cheap.
TOM: But if you’re in love with it, and you have realistic expectations for it (e.g., you buy a bus pass for backup transportation), then I’m all for people buying their dream cars. I mean, what fun is life if you spend it all driving a Camry, right?
RAY: But you do need to have it checked out thoroughly before buying it, even though (or especially because) you’re buying it from your uncle. I’ve always taught my kids never to trust their uncle.
TOM: Me, too. So go to the “Mechanics Files” on the Car Talk website, www.cartalk.com. Use your uncle’s ZIP code to find some highly rated, trusted mechanics near him.
RAY: Then call a few of them and see if any of them know German cars, and if they’re up for doing a thorough physical on an old 944S.
TOM: Once you find a mechanic who’s willing to check out the entire car, front to back, have your uncle take it over there and leave it for the day.
RAY: The mechanic should first check for a “deal-breaker.” That might be rust that threatens your safety or the car’s structural integrity (your dad is right that salt and corrosion could be a problem). A deal-breaker also might be a major engine or transmission problem, or anything else that would cost thousands of dollars to repair.
TOM: If there are no absolute deal-breakers, then you can get a report of the other stuff it needs – brake shocks, Exxon Valdez-size oil leaks, fuel lines, exhaust system, catalytic converter – and what the total cost would be to make it safe and as reliable as possible.
RAY: Then you can take that amount and subtract it from what your uncle wants for the car. My guess is, he’ll owe you money.
TOM: One of the nice things about this car is that it was one of the early cars with air bags and anti-lock brakes. And if your car is so equipped, and those things are still working, then we can fully endorse this idea in good conscience.
RAY: Provided you know that your ownership experience is going to include a certain degree of undependability, and some unpleasant financial surprises. But if you feel that’s a reasonable tradeoff for driving your dream car every day (or at least the days it’s running), then go for it and enjoy the car.
Q. Why is it that it always seems to be second gear that fails first in a manual transmission? I have been perusing my local Craigslist ads for cheap cars for a while now, and it seems to me, from the listings, that this is the problem gear. Is it due to the setup of most transmissions? If so, what type of standard transmission would cause this? Or is it due to driver error coming out of first? Just curious.
TOM: I think it’s a supply-and-demand issue.
RAY: I agree that second tends to be the gear that often fails first on a manual transmission. It’s probably because it’s engaged more often than any other gear.
TOM: Think about it: You shift into second more often than you shift into anything else. You engage second every time you shift out of first. You shift into second every time you downshift from third or fourth. And because it’s such a useful, low-speed gear, you choose it a lot, particularly if you do in-town or city driving.
RAY: So those synchronizers – which are brass rings that keep the gears from clashing when you shift -- simply get more use, and tend to wear out before the others.
TOM: It’s not always second that fails, and we certainly do see other gears go first. But generally speaking, all other things being equal, it’s the synchronizers in the lower gears that get more wear and tear. So, in this case, second is first.
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