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19 Jan 2023

Photos by Rich Pearce

Revisiting the arrival of the truly radical 996

Matt Master takes a look back at the once unloved 911 that turned Porsche back into profit

Porsche is fond of an anniversary and 2022 was no exception, ticking off 20 years of the Cayenne, 50 years of the Carrera RS 2.7 and 70 years of Porsche Clubs to name but three. One milestone that has deserved more column inches, however, is the 25th anniversary of the often overlooked 996.
The phrase ‘game-changer’ is well worn these days and is routinely misused to describe fairly subtle evolutions in automotive design. But when the 996 arrived in 1997, Porsche’s present and future were utterly rewritten, its past almost entirely torn up. The 911 that debuted in 1963 as the Type 901 had remained the conceptual bedrock for 25 years of slow and steady production before the mid-1970s G-body became the 964 and latterly the 993. However, even these last two cars were essentially the same as the ones they replaced, with the principles and processes all being directly retraceable to Butzi’s original monocoque design. What happened in 1997, or began happening in the studios of Zuffenhausen five years earlier, really was game-changing. For better or for worse, depending on your aspect, but forever. Without it, Porsche would likely not have survived long into the new millennium.
Peter Schutz’s famous determination to save the 911, even as Porsche’s more prosaic and future-focussed execs were readying to wind it down, gave the air-cooled flat six an unlikely stay of execution before emissions legislation tightened to too great an extent. But when time was finally called, it wasn’t just that inimitable engine that had to go. Equally at odds with Porsche’s prospects of survival in the cash-strapped 1980s was the time-honoured, hand-built production process, the pain-staking brilliance of which had helped forge an enviable global reputation for quality. Tomorrow’s Porsche needed to enjoy far greater economies of scale and it needed to abandon some severely outmoded methodology in order to do so. Not only was a new car with a new engine required, but a whole new mindset.
At the behest of the recently arrived CEO Wendelin Wiedeking, emissaries from Toyota were brought in to offer Porsche guidance on how to shake up production and the wider approach to business. Not only would the old 911 line at Zuffenhausen be comprehensively overhauled with considerably greater automation, but parts sharing would become a major element of a varied and ambitious package of changes. When a design for the new 911 was finally agreed upon, it could be produced in far higher numbers and with considerably more attractive margins. So long as it could sell at all.
It might have been simple good fortune that the man at the helm when it came to creating the next 911 had form in designing cutting-edge sports cars that embraced more modern methods of manufacture. Harm Lagaay, head of Style Porsche by the early 1990s, had also worked in Zuffenhausen in the 1970s and designed the 924 – a white label commission for Volkswagen at the time. The 924 was highly aerodynamic when compared to the contemporary 911, far more cost-efficient to build and run and, perhaps most poetically of all, ended up being the first Porsche to be fully water-cooled.
When Lagaay and his right-hand man Pinky Lai, a Hong Kong-born designer the Dutchman had brought with him from erstwhile employer BMW, sat down to a clean slate in Porsche’s design studios, they were short of neither confidence nor experience. But there was a deadweight of responsibility on their shoulders.
Also in the mix at Style Porsche at this time was American Grant Larson, who led the team that produced the original Boxster. He and Lai had co-developed a roadster concept that Lagaay resolved to build for the 1993 Detroit Auto Show. That now-famous show car previewed much of the new styling that would feature on the production versions of both the 986 Boxster and the 996. In fact, these two cars would share their entire front-end up to the A-pillar; a boon for efficiency, but a tough sell to 911 loyalists wishing to preserve the distinction of Porsche’s flagship model.
Nevertheless, a year after the spectacularly successful debut of the Boxster, the 996 was warmly greeted by the international media. While a few dissenting voices would, and always will, bemoan the loss of air-cooled character, what the 996 proffered in return was a car improved beyond all recognition in every other respect. It was more spacious, more powerful, more economical and thanks to a new monocoque design – the first truly new one in 35 years – it was also 45 per cent stiffer than the outgoing 993 and some 50kg lighter in spite of its greater size and liquid cooling requirements. Thanks to extensive wind-tunnel testing, the car also achieved a drag coefficient of .30, increasing both top speed and fuel efficiency. The 996 had grown up, and was now vastly more useable in every way thanks to superior refinement, ergonomics, handling and performance.
Underneath, the 996 did carry over elements of suspension and transmission from the 993 but was otherwise the first truly new 911 since the 901. Hard to imagine. Standard Carrera would be joined by Convertible, Carrera 4, Turbo, Targa and 4S variants alongside the first GT3 and GT3 RS. This, then, was the birth of modern-day Porsche AG, with something for everyone, readily available and in high volume.
There were problems, of course. The ground-up new water-cooled 3.4-litre flat-six, good for 320 PS in its earliest guise, suffered from a statistically insignificant but nonetheless widely reported failure of the now-infamous intermediate shaft bearing. There was reputational damage to contend with, alongside legal action in the USA. But, overwhelmingly, the 996 story was one of rapid and runaway success. More than 175,000 units were built prior to the model’s replacement with the subtly evolved 997 in 2004. That’s well over 100,000 more than the 993 managed, an indicator both of the car’s success but also of Porsche’s wholesale reappraisal of its own approach to design and production.
With the 996, Porsche managed to preserve the 911 for a new century. And with the Boxster and latterly the Cayenne flanking it, the world’s most popular sportscar could look forward to a future that, at one point, had been far from certain. The debt owed to Wiedeking, Lagaay, Lai and the 996 itself is immeasurable.


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