An extensive job like a clutch replacement on a Porsche 944 requires research, patience, money, skill and hope. We had next to none of these.
After only a quarter mile of driving in my “new” Porsche 944 post picking it up off Craigslist, I knew that a clutch job was in my near future. Every time I was on or off throttle, the car would jerk and buck forward and back like I was riding a ramped horse. That was no comforting feeling.
For those unfamiliar with the 944’s drivetrain setup, these cars are powered by a (rather feeble) 150ish horsepower Porsche inline-four and mated to a rear mounted five-speed transaxle by use of a torque tube. Similar layouts have also been used in cars such as the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, several modern Aston Martins, and modern Corvettes. So yeah, the 944 is basically an SLS.
What most of these cars don’t have in common, however, is the rubber-centered clutch disc that the 944 utilizes. And aren’t the owners of all those other cars lucky for that one.
Back when 944s were put on sale, the whole rubber-centered clutch concept seemed to work rather well. They were used in 944s because they (supposedly) allowed for smoother gear changes and what not. Unfortunately the Porsche engineers did not foresee what thirty years or 150,000 miles down the line would do, so the rubber chunks in the center of the clutch discs are prone to literally falling apart, thus making the car undrivable.
This was the problem I was facing.
Symptoms of a rubber clutch failing are a bit different than symptoms that’ll show when a normal, sprung clutch is on its way out. Generally when normal clutches are on their way out, power won’t be getting to the transmission from the motor, which means the clutch is slipping. When a clutch slips, the friction points on the disc can no longer handle the power from the motor, so the car will begin to not want to go anywhere. You will notice your revs will climb, even if you’re in gear, but the car will not actually move.
On a rubber centered-disc clutch, that can still happen, but what is generally more common and more unique to these clutches, is that a slack will begin to become noticeable from inside the car when getting on and off the throttle. It may feel like driveshaft slack, a transaxle issue or similar, but usually, it’s just your shitty old rubber-centered clutch decomposing. When this happens, it’s incredibly difficult to be 100% certain on whether it is your clutch failing or not, but if you drive a 944 and your car bucks forward and back every time you get on and off the throttle, your clutch is probably using its limp home tabs (shown above), and you probably need a clutch.
Once I completed my extensive price-checking research, I decided that the only way to get this job done would be to round up some friends and call in a few favors. It would be convincing my friends to slave over my car with only free pizza in return and spending $460 in parts versus about $1500 or $2000 (including parts and labor) depending on the shop I chose. I kept telling myself I didn’t have the time to do it. Hell, I even drove the car to Maine and back on the shitty clutch. But I knew it would break on me sooner or later, and I didn’t want to be that stereotypically 944 owner broken down on the side of the road, again.
After begging my boss at Classic Car Club Manhattan and the head mechanic, GJ, they both reluctantly gave me permission to pull my 944 onto a work lift for a weekend night and borrow some very necessary tools. The clutch kit had been ordered and everything was falling perfectly in place. I recruited Jovan and Mathias, two friends that are much more mechanically knowledgeable than I am to help, and from then on, I was on my way.
Because the 944 has the transaxle in the back and the clutch up front, everything would have to come down. We began pulling the exhaust off from the headers back. Then unbolting the axles using the cheesehead socket that we were lucky enough to have access to. When the axles were loose and the torque tube was unbolted from the transaxle, we began unbolting the crossmember that the transaxle was mounted to, got the transmission jack in place, and dropped the transaxle. So far so good.
When the extended pizza break was over, we continued to soldier on, deeper into the world of 944 wrenching, to depths we sometimes wish we never got to. Thankfully, most things went pretty much seamlessly until we had to remove the bellhousing from the back of the engine. That was when hell broke loose.
Because of a small retaining pin that holds the clutch fork in place, which also holds the bell housing together, we were nearly unable to get to the clutch assembly. By this time it was nearly 4 AM. Our energy levels were decreasing rapidly and we were running out of ideas. That is until Jovan pulled out a slide hammer, welded one thing to another, and used the magic and the strength sent from the gods of wrenching to rip out the clutch fork pin.
For Jovan, Mathias and I, the removal of that dreaded pin was one of the most satisfying moments of our lives. But the job was far from done.
After cracking open the bell housing, we began unbolting and removing the different parts of the clutch assembly. It wasn’t until the old clutch disc came out from behind the bellhousing that we were 100% sure that it was on its last legs. But when it did, trust me, we were sure.
We could finally see the light. That is, until Mathias cracked the reference sensor bracket in half and took a reference sensor out with it.
Without the working reference sensor, the thing that sends timing and necessary spark speed information to the 944’s computer, we were basically SOL. We could’ve put the whole car back together perfectly, but without that reference sensor sending info electronically to the ECU, the car would have no hopes of starting. And where were we to get this random 30 year old German car part on a Saturday morning? Time to call in some more favors.
Using one of the local automotive retailer/wholesalers, I was able to get an OEM Bosch Porsche 944 reference sensor dropped off within just a few hours. But it had its price. It cost me nearly triple what it would’ve cost me online! But hey, supply and demand.
By 7AM, the car was beginning to come back together, but Mathias and Jovan had left to get some properly deserved rest. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that luxury since my next work shift happened to be at just 9AM.
Though Jovan couldn’t return to assist further, Mathias came back toward the end of my work shift and we began buttoning everything back up.
By doing this job as a DIY, I spent $460 on the clutch kit and $155 on a reference sensor same-day delivered. Additionally, I still need to order a replacement speedometer speed sender ($80) which was broken during the job, as well as the reference sensor bracket ($35).
Through the hard work, broken parts, “new experiences” and various struggles, it still beats giving $1500 to a mechanic.
Special thanks to Zac Moseley and Classic Car Club Manhattan for their prolonged support of my sad old project cars. Also thanks to CCC head mechanic (and autox legend) GJ Dixon letting us “use” his tools.
Photo Credits: Brian Silvestro