From its conception in the early 1990s, the 996-generation 911 was destined to be controversial among Porsche fans. Ever stricter emission regulations required more complex and efficient engine systems. As such, the 993-gen 911 that preceded the 996 was the last air-cooled flat-six Porsche. For many, the 996’s new water-cooled engine simply didn’t have the same soul.
Beyond that, the 996’s headlight design certainly didn’t help matters. The fabled ‘fried eggs’ are still as polarizing as they were a quarter of a century ago. Then there was the disaster of the intermediate shaft (IMS) bearing, which caused devastating engine failures. This issue must be, by unspoken law, mentioned in every present-day 996 sales listing.
There is no such thing as a bad 911, though. The 996 enjoyed significant performance upgrades over its predecessor, and its driving capabilities were rightly lauded in the motoring press of the day. But more critically for Porsche, it sold incredibly well, with more 996s produced than the previous 964 and 993-generation 911s combined!
A timeless design, the 996 is a model that brought Porsche both into the 21st century and back from the brink of insolvency. Indeed, there is a lot to like about the fifth-generation 911. One of its biggest fans is designer Pinky Lai, a man who calls it one of his babies. Today, we look back at the 996 with the man himself.
From stints at Ford, where he was involved with the Sierra and Escort, to BMW, where he worked on the E36 3-Series, Pinky Lai has enjoyed a long and successful career in vehicle design. He joined Porsche in 1989, where he was to stay for 25 years. During his long-term tenure, he is best known for the 996.
Looking back to the earliest models of the 1960s right up to the previous model, the 993, every new generation of 911 had been a simple evolution of the existing platform. However, for the 996, the newly developed water-cooled engine required radiators and a more aero-efficient body, necessitating a different windshield angle. All this added up to the 996 being the first 911 designed from scratch since the original 911 (née 901, which was quickly changed after Peugeot claimed rights to that designation) of 1964. Porsche chose Lai’s sleek, elegant-yet-modern design for production. He began the massive undertaking of bringing it to life in 1992.
“I tried to keep the design as compact as possible within the restrictions and parameters set by the engineering department,” recalls Lai. “This new model had a new engine, gearbox, and suspension, so there was no way it could be the same proportions as the previous models. Basically, the design brief I gave myself was that I wanted a Learjet for the road. But it was a bit of the challenge to keep it as close to the spirit of the old 911 as possible.” The 996 ended up being 7.0 inches longer and 2.0 inches wider than the 993, but also 110 lbs lighter, despite the addition of radiators and nearly six gallons of coolant. There were also other, even more pressing constraints in the mix.
The early ’90s saw Porsche in a critical financial situation. So bad that—as hard as it is to believe today—there were rumors of a takeover by Toyota or Mercedes, and so Lai had to design the car with budget restrictions that no other 911 had previously faced. Porsche management devised a unique solution: design the new 911 alongside another model, the 986 Boxster.
“[Boxster designer] Grant Larson and I were told to have common parts on the front metal work, so every two days we had a get-together to compare our designs, making sure that all the lines were the same so we could share the tooling,” says Lai. “They are, of course, two different cars, but Porsche only had enough cash to squeeze one-and-a-half models out.”
It has often been said that the humble and popular 986 Boxter saved the company, but this is a notion Lai disputes.
“The Boxster was a cheap car, an entry-level Porsche, so the profit margin was actually very small,” he says. “About 10 percent. I’m not supposed to tell you—even all of these years later—what the profit margin on the 996 was, but let’s say it was a lot more than the Boxster. I believe that this made the difference to the company as, at the time, there was serious talk about it being sold. About 160,000 units were produced over the model’s lifetime, so the 996 actually saved Porsche from a takeover, and every year was a new sales record.”
Of course, we couldn’t interview Lai without bringing up the 996’s headlights.
“I know people hate them. I have heard the same story for 25 years,” Lai laughs. “The thinking behind the headlight module was basically cost-saving. On the old 911, I call the design ‘the Christmas tree decoration process.’ Fitting the main headlights in the [fenders], fog lights down at the skirt, and the indicator on the bumper was a 35-minute assembly job on each car. So from the start, I was looking at ways to incorporate that into one unit, but the original design I made had round headlights.”
So it wasn’t actually Lai who was responsible for the headlights.
“My studio was a little isolated, so whenever anybody came by, we used to have a coffee and a chat,” he continues. “One day near the end of the design process Steve Murkett [who later designed the original Cayenne] came by and picked up some marking tape. I had made an ellipse shape for the lights, but he made a rather unusual shape. I didn’t think it was good or bad. Normally, as a designer, I would tell anybody to get their dirty hands off my design, but after a couple of days with having his tape on, we came to realize what a cost-saving process his idea would be. The modelers liked it, and so did the bosses, especially as it could be fitted on the production line in just ten minutes—a 25-minute time saving.”
Lai suggests that the definite answer as to whether the headlight shape worked or not is in the grand total of 11 car design awards the 996 won, beating models from BMW and Ferrari.
“So I just take any reference to the ‘fried eggs’ as a joke,” says Lai. They were, however, updated on the face-lifted 996.2 of 2002, more from the feedback of 996 owners not wanting their 996s to be confused with the less expensive Boxster than because they were unpopular. Porsche replaced the fried egg headlight design completely on the following 997-gen 911.
In 1999 came the fabled 996 GT3, the most powerful normally aspirated 911 ever released at the time. That car only recently started to earn its due place as possibly the best analog Porsche ever made. The following year the 996 Turbo was unveiled, and popular doesn’t quite describe how it was received. The 18-month waiting list might better indicate how desired it was. Two years later came the 996 Turbo’s optional X50 Package, which offered upgrades including new engine software and larger turbos and intercoolers. This was followed in 2005 by the 996 Turbo S, which was our demonstration car during our visit to Stuttgart for this article.
Some cars, generally classics, are a simple pleasure to drive sedately along country lanes. Then there are others that need the safe confines of a race track to fully enjoy without risking life and limb. This 444-hp Turbo S is one of the latter examples. Zero to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds and a top speed shy of 200 mph are not numbers you can experience on a drive around Germany looking for a photo location.
Our 996 press car belongs to Porsche Classic, but unlike some of the other masterpieces it shares parking space within the hallowed warehouse, it doesn’t have any illustrious history. Instead, it was just a press demonstrator kept after its journalistic testing duties were done.
From the driver’s seat, it does feel odd that the interior of such an outstanding car looks almost identical to my old 986 Boxster, the cheapest Porsche in the UK, which you may recall (“Silly Money. Serious Car.”) from the April 2018 issue (#253). The guy helping with the rolling shots was a bit more confident with the car’s limits than me, and even on a damp, leaf-covered road, he flung it around with enough zeal that got us both smiling.
While we can’t fully appreciate what a 996 driven in anger brings to the table on this drive, several more capable drivers in the past did. A 996 scored class wins at Le Mans every year from 1999 through 2005. Even more impressive, a 996 scored overall victory in the 2003 24 Hours of Daytona. However, one Le Mans victory the 996 can’t hang its hat on was the 911 GT1’s overall triumph there in 1998. There has long been a belief among some Porsche fans that the 996 got its unusual headlights from the GT1. Lai is quick to correct this.
“Tony Hatter had his clay model of the GT1 almost ready and just took the 996 lights,” says Lai. “And they just fitted perfectly. So they came from the 996 first!”
Racing aside, the road-going 996 came in a plethora of configurations and trims: coupe, Targa, Cabriolet, Carrera, Carrera 4, Carrera 4S, Turbo, Turbo S, GT3, GT3 RS, GT2, GT3R, and RSR. We asked Lai which is his favorite.
“I get asked this a lot, and it’s actually a really difficult question to answer as I look at them all as my babies,” he reflects. “And you shouldn’t say that you have a favorite child. Even 25 years later, it’s still a very decent and iconic car—a timeless design. I would choose an open car, though, so perhaps the Carrera 4S Cabriolet. Even in the winter, I love to drive with the top down, in the snow with the top down in the heaters on. It’s the best way to hear the car, the engine, double kick-down gear changes, only shifting up on red. It’s a dream.”
Wrapping up our conversation, Lai has something to say about Excellence. In the early 2000s, we ran a feature listing the best-styled Porsches ever (“The Top Ten Porsche Designs”, September 2004, #131). The list included models ranging from the 1993 Boxster Concept car to the very first 911. “The 996 got seventh place out of every model ever made,” says Lai. “I was very proud of this.”
Today, 996 Carreras can be found in excellent shape for less than $30,000. Even 996 Turbos, which are still impressively fast, even by modern standards, can be had for $45,000-$65,000. While the 996 endured a long period of value depreciation and a generally declining interest from enthusiasts, those days may soon be over. After all, the 1974-1977 911s and 1989-1994 964s were long overlooked as choice affordable enthusiast cars. Those 911s, of course, exploded in popularity in the more recent past. The same sort of rediscovery of the 996 over the next decade and beyond would not surprise us.