Had it been built, the Porsche 984 would be at the top of its game in 2020. It would have escaped the merciless mandibles of beater culture and the clean examples left would be trading hands for unreasonable sums on your favorite classifieds site. We'd be celebrating this roadster, had Porsche not abruptly canceled the project.
Porsche's most affordable car, the 924, was beginning to show its age in the early 1980s. Executives approved the development of a new entry-level model called 984 that would have picked up where the mid-engined 914 left off. Design work started in 1984, but engineers weren't starting from scratch. They drew inspiration from another aborted project they had worked on for SEAT — which wasn't owned by Volkswagen at the time — and was shelved when the Spanish firm decided it had bigger things to worry about than making a low-volume sports car. It was in the middle of a busy divorce from Fiat while trying to hammer out the terms of an alliance with Volkswagen.
On paper, the Porsche-SEAT (PS) and the 984 projects were similar in the sense that both were light, handling-focused two-seaters created with an affordable price point in mind. Porsche had no desire to become a mass-market brand, but it needed to lure younger enthusiasts into showrooms in order to boost its annual sales. It predicted the a vast majority of the 984s built would end up on the sports-car-hungry American market.
Porsche gradually shaped the 984 into a two-seater with a remarkably modern design for a car born in the middle of the 1980s. Its low front end wore round headlights and horizontal turn signals, a look that borrowed styling cues from the 911, while its rear end received a set of simple lights that stretched into the quarter panels. Product planners envisioned several variants of the car, including one with a two-piece folding hard top (pictured).
Inside, the roadster looked like a hodge-podge of purpose-designed components and parts borrowed from other models. Anyone who has logged seat time in a 944 will recognize the instrument cluster, among other bits. The two passengers sat low, and trunks on either end of the passenger compartment allowed them to store their gear.
Nearly everything under the sheetmetal was 984-specific, including an air-cooled, 2.0-liter flat-four engine mounted in the back and bolted to a five-speed manual transmission. It would have sent anywhere between 120 and 150 horsepower to the rear wheels, though period documents suggest Porsche planned a four-wheel drive model. Test drivers clocked its zero-to-60-mph time at approximately eight seconds, and its top speed at 136 mph. More significantly, the prototype shown in our gallery tipped the scale at merely 1,940 pounds, a figure which makes it about 200 pounds lighter than the first-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata introduced in 1989. Granted, one is an obscure prototype and the other is a universally-loved production car, but the difference in mass illustrates the type of roadster engineers had in mind as the 984 inched towards production.
Porsche tested the 984 extensively, notably on its test track in Weissach, Germany, and the first examples could have arrived in American showrooms before the end of the 1980s. This was not a secret; after-hours project few inside the company knew about. Most of Porsche's top executives had seen it, and many liked it. Its career derailed when the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by 22.6% on October 19, 1987. Also known as Black Monday, this crash triggered shock waves that were felt across the world and wreaked havoc on America's economy. The new-car market wasn't spared, and hoping to put Americans in a small sports car with a premium price suddenly sounded like an optimistic but doubtful premise. Porsche canceled the 984 in early 1988.
And yet, Porsche continued to devote a considerable amount of energy to the creation of an entry-level model. This matter became increasingly urgent in the early 1990s as its sales collapsed. Some of the lessons learned from the 984 project were funneled into the development of the original Boxster, which made its debut as a close-to-production concept car at the 1993 edition of the Detroit Auto Show. It looked nothing like the 984, and its engine was mid- rather than rear-mounted, but the two drop-tops were on the same branch of the family tree.