Porsche’s 996 has taken a lot of blows in the past, however Style for Miles thinks it’s time to give it the respect it deserves
There are certain landmark creations that only in retrospect get the credit they deserve - time providing a re-evaluation and enlightened conclusion.
Which brings us to Porsche’s 996. In the pantheon of the 911, it’s carried a heavy burden over the years, marked down as the runt in the litter. However, like John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ or the Beastie Boys' ‘Paul’s Boutique’ album, the passing of the decades is now allowing a pragmatic reassessment, giving credit where it’s due.
We all know the story. Launched in 1997, the 996 carried the weight of Porsche’s long overdue need to modernise and, ultimately, compete. Sharing its radically updated face, technology and interior with the recently launched Boxster (1996) to cut costs, it also marked the switch to water-cooled engine technology due to emission and performance demands. So far, so logical.
The striking design was by BMW-poached Dutchman Harm Lagaay (arriving in 1989) and was noticeably larger in size compared with the previous 993 and, more significantly, eschewed the iconic headlight design.
Now, let’s pause for a moment. Porsche's need to tell the world it was back in business demanded a radical change in direction. The 911 had to be different from its predecessors out of necessity, those who disagree fail to recognise just how dire Porsche’s future was looking. This was make-or-break.
It’s noticeably larger proportions were also necessary. The 993 and its forbearers are small cars - brilliant, but small. To step to the plate and compete, as the company headed into the millennium, the 911 needed to grow up to match its rivals. And here’s were it fails to get recognition.
Take in the 996’s overall form, headlights aside (we’ll get to them shortly), its organically neutral curves are beautifully proportioned and unmistakably 911, yet wholly striking and individual in composition. Style believes that, given the times and limited resources, in retrospect it’s a design masterpiece.
Bobby Kurek co-founder of Instagram’s 996Revival page and Turbo owner agrees. “In the context of Porsche’s history, the changes in design saved Porsche from bankruptcy, thanks to savings in labour and production costs. But the 996 is much more than that. This is a car that attracted a new audience to the marque, while maintaining a design that evolved the 911 iconic shape. That’s a triumph of ingenuity in business and engineering.”
However, Bobby has little time for the traditionalists who fail to acknowledge the 996’s value.
“Those are the circles that regard any departure from tradition as ‘sacrilege’. Or, in some cases, they need to boost their self-esteem by looking down on another model.”
And with that, as we heat up the frying pan, to the headlights. There’s a reason why Porsche sold over 175,000 996’s, and the headlamps, while ruffling the feathers of the traditionalists who’d grown up with the ‘cannon tube’ design, were integral to that.
Architects, graphic-designers, advertising executives and media-types now bought into the softer, more progressive design, which reflected the repositioning of the company’s image in a changing world. Goodbye brash ‘City Boy’ type, hello cultured ‘Urbane Man’.
What didn’t help the 996’s cause was the water-cooled engine’s propensity to malfunction, thanks to bore-scoring and IMS bearing issues.
Andy Meeking, partner at RPM Specialist Cars - rpmspecialistcars.co.uk - says: “Personally, I’ve never had a problem with the 996. People forget, you get a lot of car for the money and in C4S guise it’s an excellent harmonisation of looks, performance and price. There are, of course, engine issues, but these can be resolved fairly easily, unlike the 997, which requires a full engine rebuild. Time is coming round again and people are recognising its combination of usability and affordability.”
Bobby agrees. “Its renaissance is of course driven by its value! However, some of the higher tier models are slowly appreciating in price as people reassess them. They are amazing cars, plus they’re 911’s! And the design has aged well, despite the criticism it’s received.”
Wayne McCarthy of Porsche specialist Edgewood Automotive in Ireland – edgewood.ie – says: “The 996 was up against it from the start. Its predecessor (993) was bulletproof, while the car’s front shared its design with a vehicle half its price. Only now are we realising the true significance of the model. Along with the Boxster it saved Porsche, we maybe talking about a different company without it.”
But more than that, Wayne believes the sum of its parts has driven its renaissance. “Its design was so radical, you could say we’ve only just caught up. Plus, it drives like a modern saloon. Many older chaps are now finding their air-cooled cars a struggle and are selling up, taking the cash prize, and revaluating the 996 as a legitimate Porsche purchase. It’s taken a while, but it’s finally getting the respect it deserves.”