George Harrison’s 1980 Porsche 928S
Baby You Can Drive My Car — A post-£106k-resto drive in George Harrison’s Porsche 928S. We take the ex-George Harrison Porsche 928S, fresh from a £106,000 restoration, for its first shakedown. Words Richard Mason. Photography Jonathan Jacob.
In George Harrison’s 928S Reliving George Harrison’s days of driving his 928S from new
The 928 is Porsche’s equivalent to Bob Dylan ditching his acoustic guitar for electric. The fans hated it. It just didn’t look like a Porsche. Think about it – even the first-gen Cayenne SUV had a hint of 911 in its nose. Yet in the Seventies the 928 was planned as the 911’s replacement. And this is the point, the Seventies challenged motor manufacturers like never before. The Middle East fuel crisis was sending oil prices into the stratosphere and Ralph Nader waged war with his book Unsafe At Any Speed giving particular attention to the rear-engined, air-cooled Chevrolet Corvair, to which the 911 was some sort of transatlantic spirit animal. Porsche concluded that a radical change was needed – especially in its vital US market, where emissions, economy and safety were suddenly mainstream. The 911 along with soft-top cars didn’t look like the future.
While 1977’s 928 was conventional in terms of its water-cooled front-engined layout, it was groundbreaking in its technology and clinched 1978 European Car of The Year – unheard of for a ‘sports car’. Ex-Beatle George Harrison, a Porsche fan with two 911 Turbos to his credit, would have been aware of the normally aspirated 4.5-litre 928 V8 and its promise of no turbo lag. The second iteration, the 928S, clearly drew him in with its 4.7-litre engine giving 306bhp and 0-60mph in 6.2 seconds, buying this example in 1980. We can now get a taste of what Harrison experienced back then, thanks to current owner Mike Pickles who has commissioned an as-new restoration of that very car.
Mike is keen for me to get acquainted with the car. He enjoys it through the reaction of others. ‘You’re sitting in the very seat George sat in and holding the same controls he touched. Notice the seats have black stitching, which was specified by George.’ Surveying the interior is a familiar reminder of the late Beatle’s automotive preferences – black over black, with a black flourish. Settling in, it’s easy to get a purposeful driving position, the electric seats having three planes of adjustment. The steering wheel angle is adjusted via a whale-tail-shaped lever under the column; it only permits vertical adjustment not horizontal, but the instrument binnacle moves with it, helping to maintain a clear view of the instruments. Space is enhanced by the centre console sloping away towards the windscreen, yet the heating and radio controls are still easy to reach.
Firing up the engine initiates a growling V8 warble. Before heading out I check the controls. Twisting the light switch appears to levitate the headlamps, Lamborghini Miura-style – a supercar-worthy feature not shared by its competitors of the day such as the Mercedes-Benz C107 SLC, Jaguar XJS and BMW 635CSI E24.
In a strange car it’s sensible to know how to get out in a hurry. I pull a small button on the door armrest, it comes off in my hand. Skilfully I fix it to discover that by pressing it the armrest extends towards me for comfort. Neat. The door is locked by a mysterious rotary knob whose function I discover later when I can’t get out.
Harrison had specified the no-extra-cost, five-speed manual gearbox of the dog-leg variety; first gear is the counter-intuitive left and back manoeuvre leaving the other four ratios in the racing ‘H’ sequence. Depressing the moderately weighted clutch, which engages just over half way up, I select first. The Porsche is reluctant to move. Of course, the handbrake. Where is it? Frantic seconds of searching reveals it on my right next to the door, invisible under that extended armrest. It reminds me of an Austin A35 that I once tried. Little else in here does.
Accelerating gently, the V8 growl is amplified with the windows down and tiny electric sunroof open. Surprisingly there’s no wind buffeting, no doubt an effect of the aerodynamics. Gathering speed through twisty B roads, the input needed is effortless, the balance near perfect. It’s far cry from its oversteering predecessor. Porsche used a transaxle, helping achieve a 50/50 weight distribution, which is welcome on a car weighing 1500kg. The power steering is perfect on the move, so much so that I question whether it is in fact power-assisted because it feels heavy at parking speed.
There’s bags of feel, unlike the XJS which is over-assisted, and the Mercedes-Benz SLC C107 with its vague recirculating ball system. For the luxury GT market this car was aimed at, it’s clear why 80 per cent were automatics – its bountiful torque makes the 928 an obvious suitor for the optional three-speed autobox which was supplied by Mercedes. Offering only a manual would have been an instant dealbreaker for many Americans.
At speed I find the shifts easier, all the while keeping a mental note of which gear I’m in. The dog-leg gate tries to wrong-foot me; accidentally I discover that car will pull away in third.
Pressing on through twisty lanes sends the adrenalin rushing but for no good reason, the 928S is always planted on the tarmac. The power brakes need encouragement although adjusting the seat helps to get the ideal angle of shove. North of 2500rpm the V8 pulls with urgency and uproar, while road noise increases with speed. Later I discover that the rear suspension turrets intrude into the cabin, no doubt helping to telegraph noise inside.
The 928 is everything the 911 isn’t – spacious, opulent, smooth, effortless and clinically efficient, with none of the angst associated with tail-happiness. It’s a clear break from Porsche norms, or at least those of that era, with innovations such as passive rear-wheel steering increasing stability during cornering and braking. Although the suspension is firm, even potholed British roads don’t unsettle the 928, and bumps that do infiltrate are addressed by the Swedishly comfortable seat.
Settling into a steady cruise, I ponder the massive challenge Porsche had set itself with the 928. It was alienating loyal customers and simultaneously invading the territory of German arch-rivals Mercedes and BMW, not to mention Jaguar, Aston Martin, Lamborghini and Maserati. Yet the 928 remained in production for 18 years, a sign of certain success even if the 911 did survive beyond its supposed replacement.
The 928 doesn’t outpace its competitors in all respects; it’s less accomodating for a start. Although the rear passengers are treated to their own sun visors, there’s nowhere for their legs. Image is another 928 minus, the Porsche name having being enmeshed in the sports car segment and the 911 casting a long shadow. Not an issue today though. Interrupting my ponderings, the engine signals that some cylinders have gone awol. Power is down requiring more gear shifting; up to now it would pull effortlessly in any ratio. The misfire becomes more apparent and I’m glad of the manual gearbox giving me better control of the situation than an automatic would. Mike warned me the car hadn’t been used since the restoration in April 2019. Even modern classics don’t like inactivity.
In Harrison’s time he was fortunate to be living near the respected Porsche engineer Chris Maltin, based in Henley. Chris would have sorted this misfire out in no time. Chris sold George not only the 928S in 1980, but a rare and – naturally – black 924 Carrera GT in right-hand drive. Harrison’s cars were a familiar sight around Henley on Thames, home of his 30-acre estate, and the Oxfordshire A and B roads suited the 928 perfectly.
Harrison was a fixture of the Thames Valley Rocker Set along with Joe Brown, Jon Lord and Ian Paice of Deep Purple to mention a few. Paice recalls Harrison showing up in cars that were often faster than anyone else’s. Then there were trips to The Crooked Billet pub where Harrison would have jam sessions. Fans would linger outside his home and occasionally be rewarded by him stopping to sign autographs. A faded black-and-white photo captures one such moment with the 928S. But when John Lennon was murdered in December 1980, Harrison withdrew, fearing the same fate might befall him, as it almost did in December 1999. He sold the 928S in 1983 with about 11,000 miles on the clock. In the next decade he favoured Mercedes with AMG modifications like a black 500SEL AMG, now also owned by Mike.
Ironically the 928 never replaced the 911. Dreaded draconian US legislation never materialised and both models sold side by side, placating 911 fans while attracting a new customer segment for the boulevard cruising 928. All told, ten evolutions of the 928 appeared, with the S4 breaking the land speed record for a normally aspirated production car in 1986, clocking 171mph at Bonneville. Porsche sold 61,000 cars from 1978-1995, with the 928S accounting for 8000.
Today’s Panamera sits on the shoulders of the 928 via the one-off four-door 928 made in 1987, and the 1992 Porsche 989 that never went into production. Maybe a four-door Porsche back in the Seventies would have been more than the fans could tolerate. However, in retrospect, the 928 created a new and evolving segment. Today enthusiasts marvel at its innovations and performance equal to its iconic ancestor.
Harrison’s 928S, which passed through seven other custodians before Mike had the winning bid for it at auction in 2017. ‘I bought it because I am planning a design museum called The Butterfly – although it’s still a chrysalis – and I wanted a 928 for the museum. To me cars have a beauty in their design that inspires future generations. Just think of all the great car designs. I knew the auctioneer, Omega, and dropped by to see the 928 en route to Manchester Airport. I was going to America. I never even sat in it and didn’t think I could afford it. I submitted a bid and left for the States. I was shocked to hear I was the top bidder.’
The vendor, Raj Sedha, paid just £2000 in 2003, buying it at auction for spares. He didn’t realise the significance of George Harrison until his wife explained. By now the speedo read 119,000 miles. After light restoration Raj decided to sell, securing £37,500 after commission, although Mike had stumped up £45,000. Mike sent the car to CL Classics in Braintree Essex. ‘You’ll never believe this but their address is Harrison Drive. My intention was to get the car back to what it was like when George had it. I’ve hardly driven it since I got it back. Too busy with my business.
‘I think this car is special because of its fresh design. The curved rear side windows are a thing of beauty. The rear is sheer elegance blending in with a shark-like nose. Who would have thought of that? And yet it works. I’m told the rear spoiler’s missing but I think it looks better without.
‘For me it’s that intersection of design and music that makes this car magical. George was a perfectionist, I think that’s one of the reasons he bought it. I wish I knew why he sold it. Maybe because he ordered the Mercedes-Benz 500SEL AMG V126.’
TECHNICAL DATA 1980 Porsche 928S
- Engine 4664cc V8, sohc per bank, Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection
- Max Power 306bhp @ 5900rpm
- Max Torque 295lb ft @ 4100rpm
- Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
- Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted
- Suspension Front: cast aluminium wishbones, anti-roll bar, coil-over dampers. Rear: Weissach rear axle with passive rear wheel steering, independent coil springs, transverse upper links, semi-trailing bottom arms and anti-roll bar
- Brakes Servo assisted ventilated discs with ABS all round
- Weight 1500kg
- Performance 0-60mph: 6.2sec
- Top speed: 158mph
- Fuel consumption 28mpg
- Cost new £30,000
- Classic Cars Price Guide £9k-£24k
Harrison owned the 928S for three years and 11,000 miles. Now it’s restored to as-new condition, owner Mike gets to taste that experience.
‘The 928 is everything the 911 isn’t – spacious, opulent, smooth...’
The handbrake that tried to hide itself away. 928S equipped Harrison with 306bhp and no lag from its 4.7-litre V8. 928S equipped Harrison with 306bhp and no lag from its 4.7-litre V8 Retractable headlights for that supercar loo. The 928 handling beats the longer Mercedes and Jaguar, which lack its agility. Extendable arm rest at the touch of a button. Rear passengers are afforded sun-visors, but little legroom.
‘Look, he’s not wearing black...’ V5 shows George acquired the 928 on 10 August 1980. On autograph duty, early Eighties.Unique rotary twist door lock Writer Richard sits in George’s throne of V8-backtracked contemplation Teutonic nterior untouched since George’s day, wearing well.
£106,000 restoration took George Harrison’s Porsche 928S back to where it once belonged.
OWNING GEORGE’S 928S
‘After I got the 928 I needed to find a competent restorer,’ says owner Mike Pickles. ‘Anglia Car Auctions recommended CL Classics in Essex. It took the car in September 2017 and sent me bills every month. I’ve got at least twenty invoices for body and engine work. Someone added them up and told me it comes to £106,619.81.
‘I wasn’t involved in the restoration, I just asked CL to get on with it because I’m not really into mechanical things in that way. But I do know it had a bare metal respray using five assorted primers.
‘Spare parts are expensive — £445 for a heater blower motor, for example. The engine is the only part that’s needed minimal work. Even so it required a new radiator and water pump, timing belts and plugs. Then there was the suspension, brakes and drive shafts, which all needed renewal or refurbishment. The one thing I won’t change is the interior – the seats, gear knob and steering wheel are those that George used when driving it.