Fourth Time’s a Charm

A search for a fast but more affordable used Porsche leads to this 996 Carrera 4S.

Photo: Fourth Time’s a Charm 1
June 29, 2017

My first Porsche was a 1965 356 C coupe. My daily driver at the time was a stock 1965 Volkswagen Beetle, so the 356 was a quantum leap forward from it in terms of handling, braking, and speed. I bought that Porsche in 1975 and kept it for over 11 years. I tracked it at Pocono, Summit Point, and Lime Rock. My wife and I also used it to win rallies, score several serious concours class victories (including a Parade first in class), and even grab a few autocross trophies.

I replaced that 356 with a 1976 914 2.0 when the Driver’s Education (DE) and track-day bug bit. My plain Jane mid-engined Porsche saw lots of action at Lime Rock, Watkins Glen, Pocono, Summit Point and more autocross events than I can recall (but I still have the trophies!). Derek Bell even drove it at Lime Rock and pronounced it “a nice little car.”

But sometimes you do really dumb things in life, and replacing my 914 with a 1986 944 was one of them. Because the newer, water-cooled Porsche was sold to me as “track ready” and sealed with the promise “you won’t spend a dime on this car,” I hoped to continue my track-day love affair in a faster car.

Sadly, after spending many, many dimes and dollars to make the 944 reliable, I did eventually get to drive it at dozens of track days. However, a stock 944 is at a minimum 50 hp down on even the least powerful cars in most run groups, so I was enjoying it less and less as 911 GT3s were passing me two and three times in 30-minute run groups.

Photo: Fourth Time’s a Charm 2

A Friend’s Advice

One day, as I complained about my 944, my friend John Vogt, owner of High Marques Inc., an exotic car store in Morristown, New Jersey that specializes in Porsches, suggested that I shop for an early-2000s 911 (996) Carrera 4S (C4S). He said that they have, “good brakes, lots of power and are a bargain in the current market.” I have wanted a 911 since the 1970s, but I considered them way out of reach financially. For that reason, I was considering a base 2005-2012 987-generation Cayman as the next step up for my personal scuderia.

I made a serious pitch for a 2007 model that showed up at an instructional autocross event. The driver, who was the son of its owner, said that the Cayman had just turned 17,000 miles and, since his father was a fanatic, it had never been driven in the snow and got a full detail service four times a year. To my surprise, his father was thinking of selling it, asking about $29,000. Checking with Vogt, he felt that was a bit too much money and that $25,000 was market correct, adding that the low miles might add $2,000. For weeks I tried to speak with the kid’s dad, willing to make a fair offer, but he ignored my emails, and the car fell off the radar.

Shortly after that, Vogt called and said, almost apologetically, that he had a 2002 C4S that a client wanted to offer on trade.

“The car has terrible paint, lots of miles, a few dents, and the interior hasn’t seen a vacuum in years!” said Vogt. I told him he really knew how to turn a guy’s head when he added, “I explained to him that it’s not a car that I can put on the showroom floor, but I would wholesale it to make the deal.” He added, “That would make it a cheap Porsche for you to buy.”

Photo: Fourth Time’s a Charm 3

The words “cheap” and “Porsche” rarely appear in the same sentence from an honest man, so my interest was piqued. “How cheap?” I asked. Vogt said it would be $18,000 and with some TLC I could make it pretty, drive it for a couple of years while I looked for a good Cayman, and then sell it for what I paid. He then invited me to drive it since he needed to deliver his track-day car to a local shop for a DE safety tech and needed a ride back. Of course, I jumped at the chance!

Coming out of a bone stock 944, the C4S’s 320 hp and big four-piston brakes were exciting. The ride to his mechanic’s shop took us over some great two-lane backroads, and I was falling in love with every mile. While there, I got the idea to have his mechanics plug in their Porsche scan tool to check for over-revs—something my reading about these cars said to keep in mind. The mechanic plugged in and after a few keystrokes said, “No over revs but there’s a code for an imbalance in bank one of the camshafts.”

He said that he was concerned the code meant the intermediate shaft (IMS) bearing was failing but he would have to do some checking to confirm. We thanked him for the favor and drove back with mixed emotions.

Once at the dealership, I called my mechanic and gave him the code. He said, “Yes, that’s an indication that the IMS may be going…don’t start it again!” He said an IMS bearing replacement was about $2,000. If I bought it, I should flatbed it—rather than drive it—to his shop. That meant the wholesale value dropped to $16,000. When Vogt told the owner that the engine was suspect and that his best offer was two grand less, the deal fell through. Sadly, the rumor is that the owner came and got the car and broke down two miles away. Whether the IMS bearing gave out or there was another problem is unknown, but for me, that deal too was done.

Photo: Fourth Time’s a Charm 4

Buying a Dump Truck?

My mechanic, Will DiGiovanni of Precision Motorsports (PMR) in Long Valley, New Jersey, wrenched on my 944 for all of the years I owned it and knew that I was less than happy with its on-track performance—mostly the power and the brakes. But when I called about buying a C4S, he wasn’t pleased.

“They plow like a dump truck on the track!” was DiGiovanni’s response. However, my short drive in the ill-fated C4S lit a spark. I felt that it was an excellent road-going Porsche. It was fast, comfortable, and good-looking. If I drove a C4S in DEs as often as I drove my 944, it would only see two to five track days a year. Conversely, since the C4S is great off the race track, I would probably have many thousands of more fun miles on the street too. I call that a win/win!

Jump ahead a few weeks to when my cell phone jingled and, once again, it was John Vogt. “I have another 2002 C4S,” he said, “and it’s a ‘Dom’ kinda car.” This Porsche had low miles (29,000) and was a car he sold ten years ago to a Porsche Club member who only drove it lovingly on the street—no track days or winters. He then added, that it too would be reasonably priced—not exactly cheap but certainly affordable. The convincer was that my mechanic, Will DiGiovanni, had been taking care of all the car’s service for the current owner.

Smitten by that first drive of a 996 C4S, I made an appointment to see this new example and then, if it was all I expected, I’d bring it to DiGiovanni for a full pre-purchase inspection (PPI).

Photo: Fourth Time’s a Charm 5

Let’s Make a Deal & Hit the Road

From across the showroom, I could see it was beautiful and exactly as described—silver with a plush gray leather interior. Sliding behind the wheel, I felt immediately at home. With the owner’s permission, I took the C4S for a PPI. On the drive to PMR, the slick shifting six-speed transmission and the engine’s 320 hp, which was more than double the output of my anemic 944, delighted me!

PMR’s crew was waiting for me when I arrived, and they quickly put the car up on the lift. After two hours of work, the results were a mix of both good and cautionary news.

First, the Porsche scan tool said there was only one “over rev”—happily the least serious kind, meaning a run up to (but not beyond) redline. “It happened about 15 minutes ago!” Oops, my bad! But there were no other worrisome codes to report. Spinning each wheel, they found a “hop” in the passenger side right rear rim—probable pothole damage—and curb rash on it and the passenger side front rim. Their records said that the car was due for a complete service, which was something I was going to do regardless of their report so I could establish a maintenance base.

The bad news was that the engine suffered from a rear-main-seal leak, which is common with these M96 engines. I was told that the transmission had to be removed to change the seal. DiGiovanni explained, “When the trans is out, we inspect the clutch, and if it’s more than half worn, we suggest that you replace it.” However, with the clutch out of the way, the IMS bearing, the Lord Voldemort of these flat sixes, is staring you in the face.

Photo: Fourth Time’s a Charm 6

Main seal replacement, clutch, pressure plate, and throw-out bearing repair, a bent rim fix, an IMS bearing replacement, and a complete service were their “must-do” recommendations. Oh yeah, and the scan tool saw a couple of misfires—diagnosed to be coming from the factory original 996 coils. Recommendation? Replace them while the car is on the lift with superior coils from a 997-generation 911 and throw in new spark plugs.

My mental calculator began to click away. I already had an offer to buy for my 944 that was about $500 more than the total estimate for the recommended work. And with the “friend and/or family” price High Marques was offering, I would still be spending several thousand bucks less than this 996’s current market value, even with the repair bill! Deal done.

PMR worked hard to get the car finished in time for me to take it to the 2016 PCA Porsche Parade. After it was ready, I packed it, and my good friend, George B. from 944 Ecology, and I headed to Vermont for a week of total Porsche immersion. I hadn’t driven my own Porsche to Parade since (yikes!) 1981 when my wife and I showed our 356 in Asheville, North Carolina. It really felt great to be at the premier Porsche event in the U.S. driving my own car. Even better, my 911 ran like a Swiss watch!

The C4S was an effortless cruiser on the highway and an involving sports car on the Green Mountain State’s challenging backroads. I had smooth power, sweet music from the Bose audio system, two cup holders, and chilly air conditioning. We drove all week, racking up nearly 3,000 miles without a single issue. I even got decent gas mileage, averaging 26 miles per gallon. Plus, the engine (surprisingly) didn’t use any oil.

Photo: Fourth Time’s a Charm 7

Bad Brakes & Minor Quibbles

I have been driving 911s for Excellence since (another yikes!) late in 1987, so I like to think I have a pretty good feel for the handling, power, and brakes of these great cars. My C4S checked the handling and power boxes easily, but the “S” brakes just didn’t have the awe-inspiring feel I was used to with other 911s I have driven.

George B., a virtual walking Porsche encyclopedia, drove my car too and said the brakes were OK, but he felt they could be better. When I consulted with DiGiovanni, he stated that the prior owner was, ahem, an older gent and he may have “glazed” the brakes by riding the pedal a lot going down the steep hills around where he lives. He suggested that I could either rough up the pads and disks with an emery cloth or replace the pads with new stock pads.

The rotors looked fine and the labor to pull the pads, rough them up and reinstall seemed like too much work for not a lot of gain. I decided that a fresh set of stock pads would be my smartest course of action. Anxious to get my hands dirty working on the C4S, I ordered a set of pads and changed them myself. It took an hour to figure out how best to do the first wheel, but the remaining three wheels only took another hour. The result is that the brakes now feel a lot more “S” like and are getting even better as they bed in.

Of course, no car is perfect, and this Porsche is no different. A previous owner installed a K40 built-in radar detector that was designed before the proliferation of active cruise control, self-opening doors, and other non-traffic-cop radar sources. Let’s just say that it gives a lot of false readings. A quick call to K40’s excellent help desk provided some hope for a modestly priced re-engineering solution.

The car’s Bose sound system doesn’t have Bluetooth anything for a smartphone, iPod, etc. However, there’s a nearby New Jersey electronics shop that does Porsche radio work, and they have a great reputation. It’s definitely on the “when I have a few bucks” upgrade list.

My car spent some time in Florida, so the rear windows have a dark, aftermarket tint that I really hate. I’m exploring how it can be removed without doing damage to the rear glass heating elements. I have been warned that it can’t be done safely, though, so I may be stuck. Overall, however, these are really minor quibbles.

Parting Thoughts

This C4S is my fourth Porsche and, while I have enjoyed my prior cars, this one is the best yet. It’s beautiful, fast, and exciting. As I write this, I have already driven it more miles than I had driven the 944 over the past three track-day seasons. Yes, it’s that good! Indeed, the fourth time really does seem to be the charm.

Also from Issue 248

  • 2018 911 GT3 Drive
  • The 996 in GT Clothing
  • Market Update: 964 & 993
  • 1970 914-6 “2.5”
  • A Rare RHD 1965 911
  • 1956 356 Speedster
  • TechArt’s 911 Turbo S-based GTstreet R
  • Profile: Harald Wagner
  • 971 Panamera Tech
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