There is a popular truism that race cars make terrible road cars and visa versa. Never the twain shall meet, at least not without appalling compromises to ride and handling. The exception that makes the rule is the 911 GT3.
Porsche has always raced with the primary goal of creating the very best road cars, and while GT3 was originally created to meet the FIA’s homologation requirements, the street-legal legacy was transformative.
Back in 1997, the advent of water-cooling and volume production in the 996 had caused apoplexy among the Porsche purists, but the original 996 GT3 was a largely bespoke Motorsport build using the standard Carrera 2 shell mated to unique, race-derived running gear. And the prospect of a pure-bred race engine that could trace its development back to Group C gave even the angriest of naysayers something to chew on.
This engine was Hans Mezger’s road-going swansong, a dry-sumped, naturally aspirated 3.6-litre flat-six spinning out 355bhp at 7,200rpm. It borrowed cooling from the Le Mans winning 962 and wore a cylinder head similar to that of the 959, albeit without air-cooling. Its linear power delivery, angry induction noise and breadth of ability on road or race track created one of the truly great modern road-going engines.
Coupled to a sturdier six-speed manual box delivering power to the rear wheels alone, heavily revised suspension, lighter wheels, bigger brakes, improved aero via new front and rear spoilers and a substantial fixed rear wing, the 911 GT3 was a purist’s fantasy made real. Here was a car that felt tangibly close to the race car it was created to qualify.
The car featured here is one of around 25 Gen 1 GT3s ordered in righthand drive with the factory Clubsport pack. This option replaced powered sports seats with fixed back Nomex-trimmed buckets, added a half cage and harnesses, single mass flywheel and provision for battery isolation.
Providing context alongside our Gen1 GT3 is its track-only big brother, a genuine 996 GT3 RS and a veteran privateer racer with numerous high-profile podiums to its name. Together the pair perfectly illustrate what Porsche’s customer road/race programme makes possible. For in picking up the baton from the Rennsport cars that saw out the air-cooled 911, the GT3 breathed new life into Porsche customer racing at a vital time in the company’s history.
Today the GT3 in both standard and track-oriented RS spec are the lodestars of every new generation of 911, representing its engineering pinnacle, peak performance and ultimate desirability.
A day with the original GT3 reminds you just how far the 911 has come in the intervening two decades. It is tiny by comparison with a 991 GT3, let alone whatever waits in the wings for the wider-still 992. Its once controversial styling has somehow gone full circle, from simply mellowing to making perfect sense, doubtless abetted by those modest proportions and equally modest styling.
The aero kit that graces the 996 GT3 is so understated as to be almost invisible, save for the tell-tale addition of the fixed rear wing. And inside, even in Clubsport guise, there is the distinct lack of show about the no-nonsense fixtures and fittings, the simple switchgear and unfussy instrumentation.
Fire it up on the physical key and the extra clatter of the Mezger engine set the pulse racing. The thin-rimmed steering wheel feels more right in the hand than today’s meaty Alcantara offerings. The narrow, road-derived six-speed shifter is similarly slender, its action honest and direct without the mechanical beefiness one associates with the manual GT cars from 997 onwards.
On the road, the 996 GT3 delivers absolutely everything you need from a thoroughbred sportscar. The power, of which there is exactly the right amount in a car weighing around 1350kg, arrives in perfectly linear fashion, peaking in each gear in an addictive, high-revving holler. The steering is nicely weighted, communicative and fast, the brake pedal just so as you dive into a corner with indiscernible pitch. It also rides superbly, even on the far-from-perfect British backroad, absorbing bumps and staying impressively composed at speed.
As an ownership proposition, it’s hard to see how, at current market values, the 996 GT3 can be bettered. The definitive sportscar of its every generation, the next GT3 is always faster, always more powerful, more capable. But its Genesis, twenty years ago, still feels convincingly close to perfection.