Written by Aaron McKenzie, Photography by Naveed Yousufzai
May 12, 2023
By the early 1990s, Porsche was in trouble. The legendary German marque, best known for its high-performance sports cars and – as of 1990 – twelve overall victories at Le Mans, found itself mired in financial struggles, debt burden, and internal conflicts. Declining sales, high development costs for limited production models like the 959, and foreign exchange risks further strained Porsche's books, making the company vulnerable to potential takeovers. As if the brand needed more to worry about, its iconic flat-six, air-cooled engine that powered the 911 was reaching the limits of its performance potential and was, simultaneously, bumping up against stricter emissions restrictions around the world.
And so, in 1992, Porsche design boss Harm Lagaay enlisted the help of the Hong Kong-born, Europe-educated designer Pinky Lai (whose earlier credits included the BMW E36 model) to spearhead the next generation 911. The new car, known by its "996" model code, would be a turning point for Porsche: it would have an entirely new body shape, a new headlight design, and – most notably – a water-cooled engine. It was, in short, the single biggest evolution of the 911 since the model’s inception in 1963.
From the day it debuted, the 996 was – to put it mildly – divisive. The water-cooled engine was sacrilege. The headlights drew comparisons to runny eggs. The interior was chintzy. Sure, it was allegedly a terrific driver's car, but...well, have you looked at it? For much of its life, the 996, along with its Boxster sibling, was the Porsche with an asterisk next to its name.
Until recently, that is.
Over the past five years, the Porsche 996 has enjoyed a critical reappraisal. Its driving characteristics remain as great as ever, but enthusiasts are now even defending its appearance. Once a bargain in the sports car space, prices have begun to reflect the model’s growing popularity.
As part of Marqued’s ongoing Enthusiast Roundtable series, we recently sat down with three 996 owners to talk about the evolution of the 996 and their feelings toward it. Brock Keen, of Portland, Ore., is perhaps best known as the man behind the adventures on the @996roadtrip Instagram feed, which chronicles his travels in an Atlas Grey 2004 996 C4S onto which he has grafted a rooftop tent. Daniel Lackey daily drives his Arctic Silver 1999 996 C2 Coupe to his job at Singer Vehicle Design in Torrance, Calif. And Keith Lawrence does his best to keep the salt off his Carrara White 2004 996 GT3 even as he daily drives the car around Chicago.
We kicked off the conversation by asking these guys the question that 996 owners have always faced: Why the hell would you choose a 996?
Daniel: Obviously, part of it was the price point. The 997 and 993 models were out of my budget, to be honest. But also, I was looking at earlier 911s and 912s, which I could have possibly afforded if I stretched myself, but I was going to daily drive the car so it had to be usable everyday for groceries, for trips to the beach, for going to work, for everything. For that, you can't really beat the 996. It just ticks all the boxes, and I don't think you can have much more fun for the money as far as daily drivers are concerned. I just ticked over 160,000 miles now, although the car did get a new engine at 112,000 miles with a previous owner.
Daniel Lackey's 911 Carrera
Brock: I grew up seeing Porsches, wanting Porsches, wanting to be part of that air-cooled life but then this car just kind of fell in my lap. I was looking for something that was all-wheel drive because I was going to be replacing a B5 Audi S4, and I wanted something I could take to the mountain. It's become that and a whole lot more. I just rolled over 184,000 miles on the car.
Keith: I'm a second owner of my car and I'm just about to tick over 108,0000 miles. The original owner daily drove it, too. He actually got a deal on it when he bought it in 2004, something like a $10,000 discount, which is crazy to think about nowadays when people are spending $50,000-100,000 over sticker on some of the highest-trim Porsches. But back then, he just rolled into the dealership and was like, "Hmm, I mean I guess I'll take it…but I want $10,000 off."
I worked for a shop years ago and we had a yellow 996 turbo. It had a tune on it, and some upgraded suspension and wheels. It was a rocket ship. But everywhere I went, people would say, "Oh, the lights are just ugly. I don't know how you could drive that thing." After a while I just finally had it and said, "Oh, yeah, where's your 911?" I didn't want to be ‘that guy,’ but I just thought, "Oh okay, well, where's your ‘cool headlight car’?" And besides, it’s not like I can see the headlights from the driver’s seat. But even in just the past couple years since purchasing my GT3, the public perception of the 996 has changed. It's just night and day.
Keith Lawrence's 996 GT3
Daniel: Even my opinions have changed a lot. I bought my first 996 a couple of years ago. I'd sold a car and I had a bundle of cash burning a hole in my pocket, and I thought, "Well, I need a fun car." At the time, I was running a Carrera Cup team over in the UK and traveling to race circuits every weekend. I wanted something to sit on the freeway, something that I could have fun with but that'd still be able to do the mileage. So, I found a 996.2 with the side skirts and a nice set of wheels, black, full leather – it was a cool car. I had that for a year and absolutely loved it. It was a monster of a car, and I had great fun in it. But even during the ownership of that, my aesthetic kind of changed. I had never found the 996 to be particularly attractive, but I was willing to kind of overlook it. But during the ownership of my first 996, I actually started to see the subtleties in the design. As time goes by it's becoming a prettier car, the subtleties of that design are becoming more apparent. Cars coming out of factories now are so brutal and so aggressive. There's something about the 996 which kind of just looks better now.
After having that 996.2 car for a while, I started to look at the 996.1s with the fried egg headlights and I started thinking, “Wow, actually it doesn't look too bad. I kind of like these.” And then when it came time to buy a second 996, I had to get an early one.
The Porsche 996 made its debut at the 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show, with the Turbo variant debuting at Frankfurt two years later. In 2002, Porsche refreshed the lineup with the introduction of the 996.2, which now included a Targa body style and new headlights for the entire range, including the wide-bodied Carrera 4S and 911 Turbo models. The GT3 models, which debuted in Europe in 1998, were only available Stateside – and only in limited numbers – in 2004-2005.
The main difference between the Porsche 996.1 and 996.2 is the powerplant: the 996.1 featured a 3.4-liter, flat-six engine that produced 296 horsepower. The 996.2, on the other hand, has a 3.6-liter, 320-horsepower motor. More importantly, however, is the way this power is applied. Earlier cars had a throttle cable, while later ones had an electronic throttle. Many owners prefer the earlier engines, noting that the 3.4-liter motors retain certain analog driving characteristics of earlier air-cooled 911s, while the later 3.6-liter engines show the early markings of the more modern 997 model cars that would soon replace the 996. Ultimately, as our owners note below, the choice between the two comes down to the owner’s preference.
The 1998 debut of the 996 also marked the unveiling of Porsche’s new “Porsche Stability Management System” (PSM), intended to keep drivers headed in their intended direction even when their steering and throttle inputs contradicted those intentions. While the Porsche 993 featured a basic traction control system that used the brakes to limit wheel slip, the new PSM used a combination of engine power reduction and selective braking at individual wheels to maintain stability and prevent loss of control in difficult driving conditions. PSM provided a significant improvement in handling and safety over the previous generation. Additionally, the 996 also introduced a new all-wheel-drive system, which further enhanced the car's traction and handling capabilities.
Of course, not everyone welcomed these new “nannies…”
Brock: I'm actually the guy who always loved the 996 design. I fell in love with the Boxster when it was being designed. That was the first generation of cars that I got to really watch go from being just concept sketches to being something that was a real car, and that grabbed a hold of me. Plus, the 996 is just this line in the sand. It's basically Porsche saying, "We're doing something different now." There was this massive change that was happening within the company and the 996 really was a defining point for the brand and where it was going. But I wanted to ask Daniel: driving your car, an early 996 with its throttle by wire, must feel more like driving a 993, right?
Daniel: It is, absolutely. The difference between a 996.1 (1997-2001) and a 996.2 (2002-2006) is massive. They're two different cars; it's not even the same thing. An early 996 feels like an old school Porsche. The biggest thing was that the early 996s have a throttle cable, a cable attached to the throttle body, and the later ones are fly-by-wire. That makes a big difference in how the engine responds and it makes a big difference in how the stability management interferes with the engine. The 996.2 smooths out a lot of those inputs. I mean, it's a lovely car to drive, but it smooths out your throttle inputs and it can interfere more directly. When you just have a cable to the throttle, it feels more classic, it feels more like an older car.
Brock: For me, driving a 996.1 versus a 996.2 is like going from a real sports car to a GT car. It was in those 996.2 cars that the GT feelings kind of started happening in the 911 model, when everything started to smooth out a little bit.
Daniel: Yeah, it's all smoothed out a little bit in the 996.2. Plus, they use better materials in the interior. The 996.2 cars have more leather and the whole experience is a bit more cushioned. You feel a little more detached. The 996.2 is a great car but it is more of a GT experience, whereas with the 996.1 you feel like you're in an old sports car with cheap vinyl and a cable connected to the engine.
Keith: My brother-in-law has a 992 GTS. If you try to get squirrely in that car, it's not going to let you do it. It just tells you to stop trying to be an idiot. It even has a button for the seats that'll cool your butt and all sorts of stuff like that. But then when I hop in my car and it's 40 degrees outside, it's like I'm driving on hockey pucks. If I give it the throttle a little oomph, the car wants to kill me. There's nothing in my car that says, "Hey, don't do that because you need to live to put food on the table." These older cars don't do that for you. That's the biggest thing for me: there's nothing holding you back from fun.
Brock: The Carrera GT debuted in 2004 and that thing had no nannies on it at all. Porsche still had that ethos at the time. Over time, the cars just got bigger and packed with more technology and, while I don't want to say that it robbed the later cars of their soul, something was definitely lost along the way. Just another reason why the 996 was such a turning point for the brand.
Daniel: Exactly. My car is modern in the sense that it's reliable. You have modern engine management systems, for example. You can turn the key and it starts and it runs and you can turn the heat on, you can turn the AC on, you can drive it every day and it behaves like a modern car in that respect. But they're still very, very analog, especially the early 996s. There's hydraulic power steering, cable to the throttle, very little interference from ABS and the stability control. And there's one button on the dashboard to turn everything off and then you can go as sideways as you feel like going.
Keith: There is a button?
Daniel: Yeah, mine has a button.
Brock: I got a button.
Keith: I'm looking for a button. I don't even know. I mean, I'm looking for a button now. I don't think my car has a button, guys.
[Editor’s note: Keith's 996 GT3 does not, in fact, have “a button.”]
If there is one thing, apart from aesthetics, that has scared many would-be buyers away from the Porsche 996 over the years, it is rumors of an intermediate shaft bearing (which connects the crankshaft to the camshafts and provides power to the engine's valve timing and oil pump) that is prone to failure at any moment, leading to damage to the cylinder walls, pistons, valves, and even the engine block itself, along with a cancellation of all future Christmases and an immediate end to anything that might inspire joy and/or hope.
In reality, not all 996s were equally vulnerable to faulty IMS bearings. The 996 Turbo and GT models (which used race-inspired engines derived from the Mezger motors) were exempt from the IMS bearing concerns. Even in those cars with vulnerable IMS bearings, however, the part is easily replaced with a stronger and more durable aftermarket bearing. And it’s worth noting that IMS bearing failure is not a guaranteed time bomb: many 996 models have run for hundreds of thousands of miles without any problems. In general, Porsche 996s are known for their reliability and durability, as evidenced – at least anecdotally– by our recent feature on Tom Thalmann and his 678,000-mile 996 Turbo.
Daniel: The IMS swap is a relatively easy job. If you buy a 996 with 80,000 miles on it, you're going to want to put a clutch in it anyway. So, take it to a shop, put a new clutch and a new IMS bearing in it and stop worrying about it.
Brock: Yeah, it’s a serviceable part. It's not a big deal. Both of the 996s that I have, however, are big bearing cars, so their IMS bearings are not serviceable unless we split the case. That's actually more of a concern to me than an earlier car with a dual row or a single row bearing designs that need to be replaced and updated. I'd rather have access to that bearing than not. I mean, actually the early cars, Daniel, you like your car didn't really have the issues that some of the cars a little bit later than yours did. And then it wasn’t really an issue with the later model cars – the 2004 and the lower production 2005 cars – because they didn’t have a serviceable bearing. By that point, they were using, essentially, the 997 M97 case, which is not as prone to failure. I mean, it's less than 1%, and with those odds you could have an oil pump failure or whatever.
My car is completely usable, completely reliable as a daily driver in any conditions. I mean, we've driven it off-road. I've gotten it stuck nose down in a washout in Utah. It's been high centered on rutted, ice-covered roads. I've hauled lumber with it. I've put kegs on the roof, you name it. I use this car for anything I want to do with it. And it takes it, over and over and over again. I bought another 996 actually. So, now I've got two. I can't help it.
Keith: Everybody's scared of salt in Chicago, and rightfully so, but as long as you hose it off once a week, whatever. If there's more than two inches of snow on the ground, I'm probably not going to drive it but I've only gotten stuck once and I just pulled it into parking lot and had to Uber home. Other than that, it's been great.
Daniel: I sit in traffic on the 405 every day with a six speed manual, but it's fine. It doesn't bother me. And every so often, I hit the canyons around here, which are fantastic. So, it's just amazing to be able to have one car to do it all. If I want to take a detour on my way home from work or in the morning on my way to work and drive up to some canyons, I can do that and, yeah, I don't have to change cars. And the factory roof rack design on the 996 is genius. It's one of the best features of the car. I can bolt them on in five minutes to take surfboards to the beach. This car is literally the best all-rounder – you can do anything with it. It's superb. Every day I get in it and I'm reminded, "Oh, this is a fun car to drive."
When the 996 first debuted in 1998, it signaled – in the eyes of many enthusiasts – an end, the demise of the air-cooled tradition that had set Porsche apart from the rest of the performance car world and made its legendary name possible. Over the past 25 years, however, many of these same enthusiasts have begun to see the 996, instead, as the beginning of a new era of Porsche, as the car that laid the groundwork for the next century of high-performance driving.
Market prices have begun to reflect this changing view as many buyers seek out the car as a more affordable alternative to newer 911 models. As a result of this increased demand, prices for the best examples of the 996 have been rising steadily over the past few years. This is particularly true for high-performance models like the Turbo, GT3, and GT2, which are increasingly sought after by collectors and enthusiasts. At the same time, however, lower-specification 996 models remain relatively affordable and offer new, young enthusiasts the opportunity to enjoy the Porsche experience without wondering how they will pay for their next meal.
To wrap up this Enthusiast Roundtable, we asked Keith, Brock, and Daniel what they wished they had known before they bought their current 996s.
Keith: I remember seeing a one-owner Speed Yellow GT3 with, I think, 13,000 miles on it at the local dealership, which was asking $43,000 for it. At the time, I thought, why would I buy that one? I can get a 997. I just wish I would've known how fantastic these cars are – I would've bought multiple different versions, but I can't afford them anymore. I want a 996 Turbo as a daily, and I've been looking for the past six months but prices have gone crazy, which I understand, but I just wish I would have known to buy all these cars when they were $36,000 for a low-mileage one.
Daniel: Yeah, I wish I had known earlier how good they are. I mean, I would've bought one sooner. I was kind of guilty of a bit of 996 hate over the years. I mean, I never said I hated the cars, but I definitely wasn't into them until I actually started looking. When I got my first 996, I was actually looking for a Cayman but then realized I could get a 996 for not much more, so I just thought, “why buy a Cayman if I can get a big boy’s Porsche?”
Brock: Like I said, I've loved these cars since I was 16, 17 years old and I probably have every article ever written about them in my library. So, when I went into it, I knew exactly what I was getting. I knew what I wanted. I knew why I wanted it. I knew I could take the front diff out and have a Carrera 2S if I wanted that. I knew enough about the car to know that there's nothing else that I really wanted.
Keith: The joy of driving this car is just...insane. A lot of folks buy these cars and then just leave them parked. So many of these cars get maybe 5,000 miles on them, if that, every year, which I guess is why I see people going nuts and saying, "Oh my god, this guy's driving his GT3 in the rain" when I'm out in my car. But if you can't get a ding or a dent in the car, can't scratch it a little while you're enjoying it and take it to the red line, what's the point?
Additional Photos Courtesy of Daniel Lackey, Brock Keen, Keith Lawrence, Don Hudson III and David DeMille
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