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Porsche 996 – A day in the sun for the most “bullied” 911

No Porsche in history has been more “bullied” than the 996. It has probably attracted more criticism than the 986 Boxster, despite the performance, which was dominant at the time and still remains superior, two decades later.

The 996 and 986 shared the same face long enough, for the 986 to be called “a poor-man’s 911” and the 996 a “powerful Boxster” or a “half-bred 911”.

Water-cooling didn’t help much either, estranging the loyal “Luftgekühlt tribe”, who ended up keeping their 993’s and probably still own them. Although the time has come to identify the 996 as a “classic”, there is a lot of dispute as to whether the title is suitable, with many conflicting arguments.

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Referring to the Porsche 996 as a “classic” has personally been a rare awkward moment. It is hard to come to terms with the fact that a lot of time has passed, since I first laid eyes on a polar silver 996 driving down Athens Riviera on a sunny day in 1997.

It feels like it was only yesterday, when the strapping 911 with the “fried-egg” headlights was launched. At that time, “Cosmic Girl” was introducing automotive madness to the pop-scene, with one of the most iconic videos ever produced, and the late ‘90s dot-com euphoria was at full-throttle…on sport mode. Time to “revisit” the legend at the exact location.

Last year, the 20th anniversary of the 996 Carrera didn’t do a lot to support plummeting second-hand prices, starting at just under €17,000 in Germany. With 175,164 units produced in total, compared to the 77,298 units for the 993, it is becoming quite obvious that we will bear with the sight of many poorly maintained and badly treated multi-hand examples, lingering at showrooms for a bit too long, keeping the prices low.

Two years before the 20th anniversary of the 996 turbo, now could be the time to buy. If the “Porsche historical pattern” were to be repeated, prices would be “rock-bottom” for another 2-3 years, before picking-up again. Still, punters are skeptical and the market shows a lack of commitment for the “ugliest 911 ever”. However, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and winners see an opportunity, where others see gloom. Are things really that bad for the 996?

Browsing the classifieds, it seems they are even worse than initially expected. As the 997 made its appearance in 2004, it offered both the looks and the refinement Porsche fans had been craving for nearly a decade.

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Performance was even more breathtaking with a 3.8lt naturally aspirated boxer delivering 355hp for the S model.

This resulted in a “flood” of used 996’s in the global market. The following global crisis further compressed prices to historical lows, as original owners were “bailing out” and new 996 owners were to be found among people, who – realistically speaking – never could afford a 911, let alone properly maintain one.

To add insult to injury, this “tribe of posers” started experimenting with the styling of the car to the extent that the overall character was affected. Sometimes I think there are more 997 wheels fitted on 996 Carreras than on 997’s. GT3 wings have found their way on standard Carreras and the same goes for front seats. NOKIA phone sets have been ripped off as an anachronism and plastic covers attempt to make the headlights appear round, about as effectively as a GT2 intake grille is “faking it” in my rear view mirror.

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It is becoming impossible to find a “stock” 996 with the original 18-inch “turbo” alloys chosen by Porsche for the 996 and late 993’s. But this could be a great opportunity…

At under €20,000 the 996 is probably the lowest valued 911 ever. One might even be tempted to use the term “cheap”, which is more suitable for the tacky reflective red tape between the two rear lighting units, making the Carrera look like a C4S, if you are looking at it from a million miles away. A seasoned sugar trader once told me that if you’re going to make serious money you need to buy cheap. The selling price is no guarantee of success. Maybe you get it, maybe you don’t. Following his advice, perhaps now is the time to make a “sweet” move.

In fact, this is not the first time that a used Porsche is underrated. Once the 964 appeared in 1989, older 911’s seemed so obsolete in comparison that only turbos maintained their value to acceptable levels. For years 930’s were stacked in the most obscure of places, only to be discovered recently and get revamped to former glory.

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Another example is the 914, the Porsche design that was disowned by Porsche in Germany. At its lowest, it was worth under $10,000 (some even went for under $5k), until it “bounced” and now a good example is “flirting” with a price tag of $30,000. All in all, not a bad investment.

For the time being, one can group the 996 into two categories, the high-performance one and everything else, as if it is two completely different cars. They practically ARE different cars, with different engines, technologies incorporated and performance characteristics, as well as varying aging and endurance.

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From the 175,164 996’s ever built, 29,135 units are the “niche” turbo/turbo S/GT2/GT3 variants. This is less than half the total number of 993’s ever built. This rarity usually ensures short-term price stability, with mid/long-term prospects looking better.

The other category is more interesting in terms of personal involvement. This is probably a rare case, where the price of a car increases, rather than decreases, by taking things off, starting with the fake bullet holes. Slowly, yet surely, the “princess” will emerge from the lethargy of poor taste and will again shine in her original light. It is subsequently a matter of time to work on the mechanical issues that arise from 20 years of daily use, knowing that unlike previous models, there is abundance of original parts at reasonable prices. The IMS (intermediate shaft) is a good place to start, provided the brake discs are not the thickness of a credit-card, with the much advertised new brake-pads barely “licking” the surface.

A few years down the line, having enjoyed sheer driving pleasure on numerous occasions and after sorting out the mechanics, a bold decision to “reimagine” (as they market it at Singer), could turn the standard 996 Carrera into something she never was, making use of the styling and technologies of the future. The mere fact you have put up with your precious “princess” long enough, means you will reap the benefits of owning a mature “queen of the tarmac”.

At times of conflicting arguments such as these, one is lucky to have a point of reference, someone with knowledge, experience and insight. I happen have two. HBT, a very modest Porsche owner, with the least modest Porsche driving style and Stefanos Neris, principal of Club Sport, an expert in performance and classic cars.

HBT invited me to go for a drive and appreciate the qualities of his 996 turbo, while we examine the arguments again. As a Porsche owner for over 20 years and having spent the best part of it discovering Europe in his 964, 944 and 996 turbo, he is convinced the 996 marked a new era for the 911, one of comfort. Despite its distinctive sport character as a 911, the 996 is also a magnificent tourer.

Black: Is the 996 ever going to be a classic?

HBT: No.

[long disheartening pause, as he sits back in his chair looking out to the sea]

Black: Surely, this is not the end of our discussion, is it?

HBT: The 996 was the first 911 to be produced in great numbers. This removes the element of exclusivity. On top of that, there is a number of 996 cars out there, modified beyond any stretch of the imagination, to support a role Porsche never designed for. Some are even used as drag racers! The 996 is not a drag racer. It never will be. It is a driver’s car with a soft-point for winding roads.

Black: But it is also worlds-apart from the previous 911’s. How does it compare to the 964 you owned?

HBT: I will tell you a story. Almost 20 years ago, I travelled to Switzerland from the UK, in the 964. [gets his iPhone out to find the distance] 1,200km. By the time we got there, I was exhausted. I hit the sack the moment we got to the room. When I tried it again in the 996 turbo, some years later, the journey took an hour less and as soon as we got there, we went out. That’s the 996.

Black: Is it because of the increased space?

HBT: That’s one reason. The 964 is a very small car, with a very cramped interior. But it’s not just the interior and the supportive seats that make the 996 perfect for touring. With previous 911 models there was a battle between the car and the driver. You were fighting all the time. The moment you lost concentration was the one you were allowing yourself to experience that “worst case scenario”.  It was very demanding. The 996 came with the famous Porsche Stability Management (PSM) and changed the 911 forever.

Black: Are you saying it is not involving anymore?

HBT: Quite the opposite! It is involving, in that it provides the “safety-net” and you are comfortable to push harder and get more satisfaction out of it, knowing things will not go terribly wrong…unless you really want to be a d!.k and switch the PSM off.

Black: So, assuming you didn’t own one, would you buy one now?

HBT: Probably not. I might consider a 996 GT. Still, the 997 has a lot more to offer and you can still find good cars out there that have been well looked after.

Black: But the 997 is a bigger investment than the 996 Carrera.

HBT: A much bigger investment. Probably worth it though. Especially the turbo. I believe it will pay off in the long term, if one can reach that level of capital investment.

Black: Is driving a 996 socially provocative these days?

HBT: All Porsche models are eye-catching. Driving them is what can be provocative or not. Owning one, you are bound to get attention, which is unwanted more often than not.

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It is almost midday and the light is perfect for our Athens Riviera drive. Same car, same location. Twenty odd years later.

The next morning I am meeting Stefanos Neris at Club Sport.

Stefanos is a true connoisseur of the Porsche brand. He is as passionate as the maddest Porsche fanatic collector, but being also a Middlesex University graduate in Mechanical Engineering, adds know-how to the long list of attributes.

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His undisputed credibility is further acknowledged by the fact that he has been very successful in setting up and operating the sales and maintenance activities of Club Sport, a very reputable entity, specializing in Porsche sales, maintenance and support.

Black: Why would anyone buy a 996?

SN: The 996 is not as distant from the previous 911 models, as the modern, sizeable examples. The narrow-bodied Carrera is an “honest”, light, driver’s car. It is a “precision tool” that delivers significant power output and guarantees unparalleled driver satisfaction, “tackling” B-roads perfectly, due to the combination of superior handling characteristics and relatively small size. At the same time, it is not too small and can comfortably accommodate a young family. The 996 Carrera 2 in particular, has improved loading space, bigger than the C4, as well as any previous 911.

Black: So, which one would you go for?

SN: The C2 is a great car! Naturally, the turbo’s and GT’s are superior from an automotive-technology point of view and the “stock” C4S is becoming a rare sight. Despite the all-wheel-drive, the turbo behaviour is characteristically RWD, which adds to the driving thrill. The GT’s are pure racing machines. Bullet-proof. Linear. The 996 GT’s were in fact the last ones to come with no electronic aids for the driver. The feeling of driving one of them is superb, but you are on your own!  In terms of maintenance, the only thing you have to look at is water-tubes. Still, these versions of the 996 are much more complicated, with proportional maintenance costs, due to labour. In many cases, the engine needs to be removed, in order to work on the rest of the car. If you are looking for a well looked after, well-documented example, the capital cost often exceeds that of a C2, by over 100%.  This brings the price-tag close to that of a good 997, a 911 with a very distinct, very desirable character. However, if one is looking at making an investment with a view to owning a future classic, the relatively smaller number of production for the higher-performing 996 is quite encouraging in this direction.

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Black: So, is a C2 considered a good choice?

SN: It can be a good choice, provided one decides upon a careful approach, with thorough checks and research, rather than a spontaneous reaction. Preferably, a later model 3.6 manual should be considered. Earlier 3.4 engines are more reliable than most people think. However, they have been on the road for a longer time, have more mileage and in many cases, a couple more owners than a later car, so all this adds up. Trying to find a good early-996, you could end up looking for a needle in a haystack.

Black: What are the most important things to be aware of?

SN: Depending on the budget, one needs to avoid a damaged car or one with an altered behaviour. Short-shifts and spacers are not desirable. A Porsche expert can easily identify weak points.

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Then, it’s good to find a car with a well looked-after interior. Full-leather ages well.

Generally speaking, if the interior is good and the car hasn’t suffered impact, normal wear and tear issues can easily be addressed. In any case, the difference between the bottom of the list “cost-wise” and a good example of a 996 C2, could be in the region of €5-7k. The attempt to resurrect a badly-aged 996 is probably not cost-efficient.

Black: It sounds like you will end up spending a lot anyway…

SN: A reasonable investment will deliver a remarkable result. One can start with tyres and suspension, tie-rods, bushings…once you get the basics out of the way, you will enjoy driving a thrilling supercar. Then, it is up to you, if you wish to further invest in aftermarket with a sport-exhaust, an intake plenum, KW anti-sway bars, a set of Öhlins, or even decide to customize your 996.

Black: Do you think customization could be the way to go, in turning the 996 into a classic?

SN: There is a trend. “Reimagining” has already started making an impact with older 911’s and it is probably a matter of time to see some fresh ideas for the 996 too. The 996 CSR by RPM Technik is one attempt, with the distinctive duck-tail and Fuchs wheels. In any case, one should not forget that the corrosion issues of the older 911’s is not something the 996 owner is likely to encounter, especially in warmer and drier climates, like the south of Europe or California. Once you restore the capabilities of a 996 by replacing the elements affected most by time, you will have a car to enjoy for the rest of your life and one you can pass on to your children. I believe my son will greatly appreciate driving dad’s 996 turbo cabrio 20 or 30 years down the line.

Black: Are you a fan of the cabrio then?

SN: Undoubtedly. I have so many fond memories enjoying nature, driving the 996 on back roads. At the same time, it has as much character, as any other Porsche turbo, that it seems cabrio is the only way to go. The weather should be encouraging though…

Still, you can’t beat the contours on the polar silver roof…

Both HBT and SN have converged on the practicality of the 996, a very powerful, yet civilized 911. An everyday supercar, which is more sophisticated and less agitated than its predecessors, is now becoming accessible, maybe for one last time, before these attributes are rediscovered, along with the unique headlight design – in a positive way this time – and prices go soaring again.

Even nowadays, a looked-after 996 brings back memories of a time, not too distant from 2018 in the number of years past, but quite far in how life has changed since. It reminds the promise of more driving pleasure accessible to more people, the first attempts of motoring journalism to bring supercars into everyday life and the extensive use of electronic systems to prevent drivers from killing themselves. In a world still discovering the potential of the internet, still flying supersonic to save time, still dreaming big, still unaware, the Porsche 996 was one of the key motivators and as such she has undoubtedly earned membership to the great Porsche legacy club.

Black Tacho and this article in particular is never and under any circumstances, terms or conditions, providing advice, suggestion, proposal or any other consultancy of any sort, on investment, acquisition, lease, long-term rent or any other transaction of any sort and assumes no responsibility whatsoever for any incurred costs, devaluation or loss of any sort inflicted. Readers are encouraged to seek professional advice from chartered, financial experts, asset and investment advisors and not be influenced otherwise.

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