It’s not like Porsche to be behind the curve on anything, but only now has it seen fit to mark 25 years of the first water-cooled 911, the 996. This is despite the actual debut taking place at the 1997 Frankfurt motor show, which was held in September of that year. Still, better late than never – 996-generation Porsche 911, this is your life.
As we move further away from the 1990s, so Porsche’s predicament at the time become an ever more distant memory. But things really didn’t look so good, with an ageing and expensive line up. Hence a couple of momentous decisions for the 996. Not only would it switch from air- to water-cooling, it would also share pretty much everything up to the B-pillar with the then-new 986 Boxster. It was a bold move, unheard of for Porsche at the time, but it really was a case of desperate times and desperate measures for Porsche. The press release suggests that Chief Designer Harm Lagaay was aware that the mid-engined Boxster and rear-engined 911 could get mistaken for one another, but there was a bigger issue at hand: “The pressure and the imperative of saving the company was the top priority.” Wowsers. It also meant that the 1993 Detroit motor show Boxster concept, plus production variants of the 986 and 996, were being worked on at the same time, to ensure there wasn’t a delay between show cars and production ones – with orders hopefully coming in as a result. And we all know it worked out pretty well, the Boxster launching in 1996 ahead of the 911 a year after.
For this big anniversary, Porsche has also interviewed August Achleitner, who has a very long job title at Porsche and was essentially overseeing the 996 project. He has suggested that the old air-cooled, two-valve-per-cylinder engines were “at the end of the road technologically in terms of emissions and power” by the mid-1990s, so had to be changed. Porsche experimented with an air-cooled engine that had a four-valve head, but that work because of “various hotspots that we couldn’t get a handle on”, according to Achleitner. Back in 1989 a compact V8 even went in the back of a Porsche – what a car that might have been – though that was also “discarded”, and so we ended up with water-cooled, four-valve boxer engines. And you thought the decision was made just to upset traditionalists.
Despite what’s often suggested now, the 996 was received well in the media, and proved a smash hit with customers. Up until the entire 997 range came on stream in 2005, Porsche sold 175,000 of the 911s with the fried egg headlights, from the first GT3 in 1999 to the GT2 of 2001, and the Targa with the big sunroof to the epic all-wheel drive Turbo. The GT2 was the first Porsche with standard ceramic brakes, and the GT3 apparently came about by chance – it only happened because motorsport rules changed, so a road legal homologation version could be made. Achleitner concedes that the “commercial success and the unit numbers were not great at first” – remember when hardcore Porsches were only bought by a committed few! – but, of course, the GT3 story came good for everyone in the end. And the 996 was where it all began.
With such a milestone being celebrated, and with so many 996s being sold, it would be remiss not to have a peek in the classifieds to see what might be bought for the big birthday. Sadly, the days of decent £10k cars are gone, though there are nice autos and cabrios around £15,000. This Carrera 4 coupe looks a nice way to spend £16,995, with the six-speed manual and the all-important IMS/RMS issues seen to in 2019. Up the budget to £20k and a car like this – a low mileage Carrera 2 in Lapiz Blue – is available. And if ever the 911’s status was in doubt, check out the more desirable 996 Carrera specs. This 10k-mile Targa is £40,000, and this lovely C4S manual (with the X51 Powerpack) is almost £50,000.
Those willing to accept an auto or a cabrio can get a 996 Turbo for £35k, with manuals kicking off at a bit less than £40k. Which looks like pretty good value given the engine and the values attached to so many other Turbos. As ever, there’s scope to spend a lot more, and if the budget is there, check out this: an Olive Green 2005 Turbo with Natural Brown leather, just 29,000 miles old and immaculate – yours for £74,995. And superb.
Finally, nobody needs reminding that GT Porsches cost a lot of money, but they do tend to hold it as well. A Gen1 996 GT3 can now exceed £100,000, with more choice offered with the later, more powerful cars, from £75,000. As for the first ever GT3 RS, expect to pay as much as a new one. As for a GT2, budget around £120k – we’ll take a Clubsport, please.