Learning As He Went, This Enthusiast Built A Better-Than-New Porsche 944
Photography by Robb Pritchard and Rich End Productions
Porsche’s 944 model has never been considered as an actual alternative to the illustrious 911 to those who can afford the latter, but Belgium’s Ralf de Ridder has undertaken a stunning rebuild of the water-cooled transaxle model, at no small expense. Not simply “good as new,” his 944 has been built to a standard far beyond what even Porsche presented to the world, including a €10,000 paint job.
Ralf’s first loves were on two wheels, but competitive cycling takes up a lot of time, and his day job in a chair at the local nuclear power plant meant he didn’t have the time to stay in the shape needed to race, so his attention turned to cars. He was always into 1980s sports cars—such as the VW Corrado and BMW 850, he tells me—but fresh out of school—read: young and broke—Ralf had to make do with a Škoda Fabia…
But a neighbor of his had a 944 as a daily driver, and seeing it so often saw Ralf build an appreciation for its lines, and soon enough he wanted to buy his own. “I was building my house, and living in the garage while the rest was slowly under construction, and my girlfriend was eight months pregnant, so she went a little crazy when I told her I was going to buy a Porsche!”
The 944 has always been cheap compared to the 911, but a black S2 with burgundy interior at just €5000 (~$6000) was an especially irresistible price… and it was actually cheaper than his bikes had cost during his competitive cycling days.
But working on the house and looking after a new baby led to another a couple of years where the Porsche wasn’t a priority; Ralf got a little frustrated seeing his car in pieces. Unable to drive it, the solution he came up with was to buy a nice Maritime Blue 944 S2. And driving it on as many weekends as he could, he began learning more about the strengths and weaknesses of the 944, and more importantly, how to work on them.
A few year later, with the kids in school and the house just about finished, it was finally time to start the project 944. Despite having never undertaken anything like it before, Ralf wasn’t too daunted. “Even for a complete restoration, it’s not so difficult these days because you can find absolutely everything you need on the internet. Not just information, but instruction videos! Also my neighbor knows a lot about these cars, and said that if I needed some help, all I had to do was call him, so that gave me some some of security as well.”
Most people with a project car think about what kind of performance upgrades they can do, but not Ralf. “I am not a racing driver, I am much more of a Sunday cruising guy, so I wasn’t really interested in tuning it. I just wanted a car I could drive normally,” he says, continuing, “But I was never just interested in its looks alone, I wanted to work on the technical parts of it and decided to take the 30-year-old car and have the experience of driving a brand new, top of the range 944.”
But a few choice upgrades surely wouldn’t do any harm… especially if they were official Porsche options. Arguably the best OEM suspension setup for a 944 is the expensive M030 option, which had a host of upgrades including thicker rear torsion bars, height-adjustable Koni struts on the front, all-round adjustable Koni dampers, and stiffer springs. The front also had bigger front rotors and calipers, which also have a clever little cooling pipe to help the car deal with heavy braking. Ralf found a secondhand set and completely overhauled it. The M030 came with wider wheels, too, but one visual modification Ralf chose was to go with the Fuchs 944 Turbo S wheels.
Over a period of a few months the car was stripped down to its base components. “I wanted to have every piece off the car in my hands so I could see how it worked,” Ralf said. “The most interesting part of the build was overhauling the engine… discovering the masterpiece of engineering, seeing the camshafts, the timing chains, guiding beds, just seeing how it works, learning about everything. I loved it.” Once disassembled, the head was machined and the valve seats reset by a specialist company, but dismantling the pistons and bearings and cleaning it all up and re-assembling it was all Ralf—not bad for a complete beginner. “The emotions of starting the engine up for the first time after such work is something I will never forget,” he beams.
For the paintwork, Ralf’s friendly 944-owning neighbor suggested a company called CCR, just over the border in the Netherlands. Ralf was going to have it done in the same Maritime Blue as his other S2, as he thinks it looks much better for the lines of the car than the original black, but at the last minute, chose Volkswagen’s Beluga Blue instead. Although it looks wonderfully exotic, and gives the car a true supercar hue, it’s actually more often found on the VW Caddy, but suits the 944 nicely. Even though Ralf had done the prep work himself, it wasn’t cheap to paint, but he loves the result. “I get a lot of compliments about it, especially from people who know about bodywork. It’s a very well done job.”
And as he made such an effort for the look of the car, Ralf thought it was only right to do the same with the mechanicals as well. “I had it completely in parts, and before putting it all back together I got every single component either powder coated or zinc plated. When I got the pieces back from RenoProTech, I was amazed—everything was like gold. From then on I had the obsession to get the whole car that clean, and so there isn’t a single part that wasn’t zinc plated, or bought new. I had a real obsession with that,” he laughs.
Apart from the paint, the only things he didn’t do himself were the transaxle rebuild and the engine head. As he didn’t have the tools and the courage to do those, they were sent to be reconditioned by experts.
With the new color, the burgundy interior wasn’t a match anymore, and so Ralf had to look for a black interior to swap in. But the search for a suitable quality example took him far and wide until he found one which had the upgraded door cards. This meant he could install the top-of-the-range ten-speaker option.
Another personal touch was in the center console. “At work at the nuclear power plant I have a lot of dials to look at all day, so I thought it would be nice to have a few gauges to see how everything is with the car, and detect any problems at an early stage.” The engine oil pressure and temperature dials are standard fare for track cars, and there is a lambda probe for the oxygen ratio in the exhaust… and the exhaust is another of the few tasteful upgrades. “The 944 is a rather quiet car, so to make it sound a little sportier, I installed a complete system from Cargraphic. The inlet and exhaust manifolds were given a Zircotec thermal ceramic coating.”
For anyone who likes this startling 944, Ralf hopes it will serve as an inspiration for others to have the courage to do something similar with their project cars, as he began this gorgeous build with absolutely no experience. But it goes to show what can be achieved with a combination of curiosity, attention to detail and a dogged determination to make everything as good as it can be. A truly better than new Porsche.
And not only does Ralf enjoy owning and driving this special car, he’s currently doing the same with a Porsche 928 GT…