Featured: This 'Budget Baja Build' Began With A Porsche 924S That Was Once Purchased To Enter A Golf Tournament

This ‘Budget Baja Build’ Began With A Porsche 924S That Was Once Purchased To Enter A Golf Tournament

Patrick Stevenson By Patrick Stevenson
April 17, 2019
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Photography by Patrick Stevenson

I saw this unique 924S for the first time at the Porsche Experience Center Los Angeles during one of the #MorningShift gatherings held there each month. Aside from the Porsche factory rally cars that get carted around to the big events and display stands, I think it this build was my first encounter with a transaxle Porsche prepared for less-than-smooth surfaces. In person, the chunky BFG KO2 tires, functional and scarred skid plates, bug-eyed array of rally lights, and integrated winch really set off the otherwise pedestrian styling of the 924 body. It’s certainly not a homely car in stock form, but in the company of hot-rodded 911s and 356s and other classic P-cars, the 924 is usually the one you walk past at a show without much thought.

Chris Harrell and Michael Prstojevich, the co-owners of this much more arresting interpretation of the four-cylinder fastback, brought it down from Portland, raced almost 5,000km along mainly off-road routes in the Baja XL Rally, then made the return trip back to Oregon and made some time to chat about the experience.

Patrick Stevenson: So, this is a fairly unusual build for a Porsche 924, how did it all start?

Chris Harrell: It was innocently enough, Mike decided to sign us up for a Baja XL, and of course we didn’t have a car to enter with at the time. Since it was a year away we weren’t too worried about that though—plenty of time to buy or build… or both.

A sane person (or two) may have considered the “what to drive” problem solved once I’d purchased a new Toyota 4Runner Off Road. Purists and newbies alike would have given a quick thumbs-up to this being legitimate and logical option for adventuring thousands of kilometers through the back roads and dunes of Baja, CA. But apparently we aren’t sane, nor are we purists or newbies. So instead of making the logical, rational choice (but a bit boring) choice, we set our sights on a mechanically-solid Porsche 944 as the basis for our rally entry… because who wouldn’t want to own and drive a Baja 944? 

PS: I know a few transaxle rear-wheel drive Porsches rallied here and there over the years; was there any particular inspiration for your build?

CH: Although we may not admit it for the record, it’s probably true that the recent trend of Safari 911 builds provided at least a kernel of guidance for our choice of marque. But, even if so, the real inspiration is better explained by our appreciation for rally cars of the period, such as the 924 (both turbocharged and not) that raced in the Rallye Monte Carlo—and we’ve seen and read about the original cars plus some cool tribute builds that have been made in their wake. The challenge for us was to find, purchase, and prep the right car and stay on top of our budget. Or as Mike put it, the lipstick on a pig approach. 

As we considered our options in the market, it became clear that using a 944 to build a car for the rally actually made a lot of practical sense. Some real considerations: the rather low projected cost to acquire the right “good bones” vehicle; the front-engine/RWD platform (with 50/50 weight distribution); the relatively unstressed naturally-aspirated four-cylinder that’s happy to run on regular unleaded fuel (Mexican gas can be sketchy); the hatchback shape with plenty of room to carry the stuff we’d need to carry; and finally, the remarkably ahead-of-its-time comfort of a transaxle Porsche.

PS: The plan was a 944, but clearly you ended up with something different—albeit not radically so. How did that happen?

CH: Well, we began our search for a 944, and after looking at several in varying conditions and prices in the Portland area, we still had yet to find the right car. By this time it was mid-to-late summer, and with the event coming up at the end of January we knew we’d have to start getting underway with the prep of a car we didn’t have. And that’s when we saw the ad on Craigslist for this 1987 924S—basically a narrow-bodied 944 with an early 944 interior—in Vancouver, WA for just $2,500. 

We met the owner and the car in person and were impressed at the condition—especially for the price. It was cosmetically clean inside and out, other than some guardrail rash on the passenger’s side, and it seemed to run well, although it did have some minor mechanical issues to address. 

It turns out the owner had essentially purchased the car for its VIN so that he could satisfy a requirement that he be a Porsche owner in order to play in a golf tournament with a friend—who says a car’s only source of utility is transportation, right? This was the least expensive (but running) Porsche he could find at the time, so he bought it, but he no longer needed or wanted the car once he’d played the tournament. We negotiated the price down a bit due to the anticipated mechanical repairs, and suddenly we had a 924S to prepare for the Baja XL and a lot more money left over than we’d hoped for!

PS: It sounds like you had a good base to start with. And what a life this thing’s had. Can you tell us about the build process once you acquired it from the golfer-owner?

CH: In addition to our partners at Asfolt (a company that specializes in making bespoke Porsche interior pieces) and RetroGrade Motoring (automotive apparel), Mike and I both have extensive product backgrounds, which resulted in a very specific look and build of the finished product… but this also made it difficult for us to stick with the lipstick-on-a-pig approach to the build, and we took it a bit further that that considering we didn’t really have much of a pig to begin with.

At the same time, we needed to keep keeping the costs down because building a “budget Baja” Porsche was our goal from the start, not to let it run away into something beyond what we set aside for this project at the outset. In fact, this is what the project was really all about—sure, we wanted to have a good time, but we also realized we had an opportunity to create something that would be just as cool as a Safari 911, but for significantly less capital.

We chose Matt Crandall and Avant Garde to assist with the project because of convenient geography (Portland-based, like us), Matt’s racing history and knowledge (including his passion for off-road vehicles), and because they were as enthusiastic as we were about doing something a bit further outside the box.

Avant Garde did much of the mechanical work, but we maintained the overall vision of aesthetics and build simplicity, and also selected many of the critical elements, such as the luggage rack (provided and installed by Yakima at their HQ, at their cost), the Warn winch, the Braid wheels, the light setup, and the livery (briefed by us and created by Avedis Djinguelian).

We deliberately swapped out the hood and nose for 924 Turbo (931) parts because we prefer the look, and we liked the idea of a “reverse” approach to the non-homologated, non-turbo’d 931 (engines had to be swapped out due to homologation issues) that raced Monte Carlo in 1979 ahead of the actual Turbo 931s in 1980. 

By the time the car was ready for its license plates, we only had a few days for shake down drives (isn’t that always the case?). So we took the car out on some rural gravel back roads on a very foggy and rainy late Friday night in January, and subsequently proclaimed it ready for Baja a few hours later! We shipped the car to Chris’s brother’s house in Venice, CA, and picked it up the evening it was delivered. Perfect timing.

PS: Thank you Chris and Mike for sharing the amazing #BAJA924S build story with us. We will have to continue this conversation about how it performed in the Baja soon.

CH: We’d be happy to!

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For those interested in the specs of their 924 build, some key pieces are bulleted below:

The car:

The modifications:

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