Itʼs a perfect evening to go for a drive in something very special: The “worst” 911 Porsche ever built. Well, not this 911, specifically; in fact, itʼs rather lovely. But overall, 911s built between 1997 and 2004, known by the chassis code 996, are generally looked down upon by Porsche purists.
Itʼs time to give them a second chance.
Take this example. Itʼs a 2003 911 Carrera base model with a few options. It has the standard narrow body, a 3.6-litre flat-six engine which produces 315 horsepower and 273 lb.-ft. of torque, and is finished in classic silver on black. It has just under 50,000 kilometres on the odometer and looks jaw-droppingly fantastic.
“Iʼm glad I waited,” says owner Rob Fram, after it took over a year for the previous owner to finally agree to sell it to him. “Itʼs weird for me to own a car that doesnʼt need anything.”
Fram is an expert mechanic. He is part of the team at RX Autoworks, a North Vancouver restoration shop that has won awards at concours events from Pebble Beach in California to Villa dʼEste in Italy. Itʼs not all that long since he was driving the same curves of the Sea-to-Sky Highway north of Vancouver behind the wheel of a 1937 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B worth tens of millions of dollars. He knows his cars and took his time finding the right 911. “It was a price-point thing,” Fram says of his decision. “The 997s [a later generation of 911] I could afford were in a condition I didnʼt want.”
The reason the 996 suffers the slings and arrows of many a Porsche fan is that it lies in the valley between the last of the hand-built, air-cooled Porsches and the speed-at-all-costs modern 911s. It was the first 911 to be truly mass-produced, the first to abandon air cooling for radiators and the first built to a price point.
There were also some early reliability issues, and the first few 996 models came with “fried-egg headlights,” so-called for their unusual shape. It was not a term of endearment. Fram’s car is a later model with the better looking headlight treatment.
Compared to the durable, spartan, air-cooled 911s, the 996 is also cursed with brittle interior plastics. Some of the interior colour choices of the period are questionable at best, and hard use results in cracks and wear. The Chevrolet Corvette is often derided for having a plasticky interior, but in some respects, the 996 is just as bad.
Two decades on, 996s that werenʼt cared for are often not worth a second look. Ones that were loved and appreciated are worth the hunt, though you might have to look a little harder for them.
The trick to tracking down a suitable 996 is finding a previous owner who has the same taste as you do. Porsches come with a long and varied option list, and itʼs not uncommon to come across cars with weird features such as ruffled leather seats or odd colour combinations. A Tiptronic automatic gearbox is also a turnoff for manual-transmission enthusiasts, but thatʼs a matter of taste.
What you get, if you can find something like Framʼs Carrera, is a car thatʼs far smaller and lighter than the current 911. Itʼs obviously not as fast as todayʼs turbocharged range 911s, but you donʼt really want any more speed for the public road. The 996 has plenty of pace and will have you winding out its lovely flat-six engine with a grin on your face.
As for the handling, there may be some tweaking to be done. Fram comes from an autocross background and says that the 911ʼs characteristic rear-engine balance makes initial turning response less sharp than youʼd expect. Modern tires and correct tire pressure result in a car thatʼs got plenty of grip in the corners, but the 996 does come with a bit of a learning curve. Then again, thatʼs just how the Porsche 911 ownership experience should feel.
Mechanically, of course, there are some asterisks before you dive into 996 ownership. The carʼs well-publicized Achilles heel is its poorly designed Intermediate Shaft Bearing (IMS), the failure of which requires an engine rebuild or complete replacement. There are aftermarket fixes for the issue, but a 996 engine is generally nowhere near as bulletproof as the air-cooled cars were.
Further, the 996 is a two-decade-old German car, and that means German electrical systems and Porsche pricing for replacement parts. You might never have a problem with anything major, but you might also end up chasing down an electrical gremlin, and the fix wonʼt be cheap. Note, too, that 996s much prefer a fully charged battery and should be left on a trickle charger if parked for any extended period.
Aside from the standard Carrera, there are also the 996 GT3 or Turbo to consider. Both of these have more robust engines, rooted in motorsport, and youʼll pay a lot more for both. However, the 996 Turbo is still a something of a performance bargain, and the GT3 offers a driving experience thatʼs more raw than a modern GT3.
There is one further feature of the 996 thatʼs endlessly pleasing. Simply because itʼs the unloved black sheep of the 911 family, the 996 doesnʼt come with the baggage that sometimes accompanies Porsche ownership. Thereʼs no snobbery or pretension going on here, just a fun older car thatʼs neither for the collector crowd nor the show-off set.
In short, the 996 isnʼt solely a budget-friendly gateway into 911 ownership but a truly enjoyable and rewarding machine to own and drive. Who cares what the purists might think? As the sun sinks below the horizon, gilding the car with a golden glow, the secret is out. The best Porsche 911 isnʼt the one in the museum or showroom. Itʼs the one youʼre currently holding the keys to, with empty roads ahead.
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