‘Water, water every-where, and far more trouble than you’d think…’ I bet back in 1797 Coleridge did not expect his epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to be bastardised in this way, but it’s an apt summary of what Porsche faced when it unveiled the 996 variant of the 911.
For over 30 years two things were certain of a 911: its engine was slung out the back, and said engine was cooled by air. Come 1997 and the arrival of the 996 – the fifth and most major evolution of Porsche’s flagship to date – only one of those facts remained: the engine was still at the back. Porsche took a huge backlash, accused of trampling on its heritage and cheapening its image. All because the 996 had liquid pumping around its flat-six to cool it instead.
There was reason for Porsche’s direction, and while the 996 divided opinion it spawned Porsche’s ultimate models of 911 with the GT3s and GT2s that still top the ranges today.
Before the 996, Porsche faced financial and technical worries. Sales weren’t good. The 911 had hit a ceiling, both in development and desirability. After 34 years, its air-cooled engines had reached their limit and had little more to give (although 427bhp in the final 993 Turbo S wasn’t poor). But the design was ageing, and the chassis hadn’t had a major update since its birth in the early ’60s.
Porsche needed to keep the 911 current, and it needed a more accessible model. Work began on an all-new platform for the 911, with offshoots of the project shared with the Boxster, which would become Porsche’s entry-level saviour. Among the shared areas were the front suspension, engine derivatives, interior parts, and even its face. Designer Pinky Lai had been tasked with penning a front end to suit both cars. It duly appeared on both, but largely to the detriment of the 911.
Both cars were unveiled in 1997. And, while the Boxster came off brilliantly, giving true Porsche looks and performance for a smaller price outlay, the 996 suffered as owners questioned why their more expensive model looked the same as the cheaper offering.
Why do all this development and change the engine concept, and not move the 911 to a different level entirely?
But Porsche responded. It redesigned the 996’s headlights to the ‘fried egg’ shape, similar to those on the 911 GT1 Le Mans winner, and then tackled performance doubts with the GT3 and GT2. Tighter noise and emission demands meant the air-cooled unit was doomed anyway, so the change to water-cooling coincided conveniently. The 996 boasted a stronger, lighter chassis than ever before, and an engine more capable of pushing the envelope.
The Turbo arrived in 1999 with 414bhp from its 3.6-litre power unit, and bigger turbos brought 444bhp in the Turbo S. It already raised the bar, but there was more to come. First came the GT3. Based on the Carrera, but minus luxurious equipment in the search for performance. Early cars used a 355bhp engine, uprated to 375bhp in the ‘MkII’. Then came the GT2, which owed a lot to Porsche’s Le Mans effort. Boasting turbocharging, it had 476bhp, could hit 60mph in 3.6sec and nudged 200mph.
While production of the regular 996 models ended in 2004 with almost 150,000 cars sold, Porsche continued making GT2 and GT3 variants for a further two years to satisfy demand before the range was switched to the 997. It’s estimated almost 4500 GT3s rolled off the production line with a further 1287 GT2s. By gambling with the 996, Porsche laid the foundations for the 911 to thrive.
Porsche 996 GT2
Price new £110,000
Price now £80,000-120,000
Engine 3.6-litre flat-six, water cooled turbocharged
Top speed 198mph
Rivals Ferrari 550 Maranello, Lamborghini Diablo
Verdict The then-ultimate performance 911s paved the way and have become modern classics
Porsche’s original GT3 could be a hidden gem
The 996 is the model that first launched Porsche’s high-performance GT3 line back in 1999, and at its first appearance it was priced at £76,150 (around £133,000 today, counting inflation).
Ten years ago, right-hand-drive examples were in the £35,000 – £45,000 range, but prices have since increased in line with other 911 models, figures such as £55,000 – £65,000 now being the more typical band. Whilst the MkII GT3 is an improved vehicle over the MkI – featuring the aesthetic headlight upgrades, an extra 20bhp, better brakes and even carbon-ceramic ones as an option – there isn’t a clear premium for it in the market as there is enhanced rarity in the earlier MkI car and a perception by some that it is the more original GT3 variant.
Low-mileage examples of the GT3 can easily bring asking prices of £80,000, but at this price entry- level 997 GT3s are available. The market has woken up to the value that was offered a decade ago, but at the right price we think that the 996 GT3 is still a compelling buy. We’d look for a MkII with under 50,000 miles on the clock for around the £60,000 mark.
Classic and Sports Finance
Target deal Porsche 996 GT3 –
£60,000 – £80,000