“It was time to break with ‘old traditions'”, explains August Achleitner a quarter of a century later. Achleitner was strategically responsible for the overall 996 concept between 1989 and 2000. “Porsche needed a car in a lower price segment to ensure a higher sales volume. That’s how the idea was born to exchange parts of the 986 Boxster and 996.” There was no doubt that the new 911 should look like a 911 – but which engine should sit in the back was not initially clear. “We experimented with the engine. Air-cooled designs with two valves per cylinder were technologically at their limits in terms of emissions and power,” he explains. “And four-valve air-cooled boxers didn’t work for various reasons. In 1989, a compact V8 was even fitted in the back as a test, but that idea was also swept aside. So that brought us to water-cooled four-valve boxer engines.”
The design of the 996 was developed in the nineties under the direction of chief designer Harm Lagaaij. The Dutchman still remembers how surprised he was at the then unique choice to make a mid-engined roadster and rear-engined coupe identical from nose to B-pillar.
“It was a challenging task. But we succeeded by first designing a number of different Boxster/996 versions.Due to time constraints, Porsche immediately began building 1:1 models. Lagaij’s team grew to eighty members at its peak to speed up the work.
The fact that the 996 and Boxster resembled the Boxster concept car presented by Porsche at the 1993 Detroit Motor Show is due to the success of that concept car. The Boxster concept car won the hands of the public and was voted ‘Best of Show’ in Detroit. “It was immediately clear to me: the nose of the study model also suited the 996”, says Lagaay. The team worked simultaneously on all three versions – 996, 986 and the concept car. Chief designer Lagaaij was well aware of the risk of mixing the 996 and 986 Boxster models, but he had other concerns. “The pressure and the need to save the company was top priority.”
Internally, there was some criticism of the concept and design, but the ‘fried egg’ headlights were not appreciated by the media. It came as a complete surprise to the designers; after all, the design was praised in the Boxster concept car. “The design was completely unique: with main beam, dipped beam, fog light, turn signal and a headlight washer in one unit that was cheap and could be installed on the assembly line in minutes.”explains Lagaaij.
Porsche introduced the Cabriolet in April 1998 with a fully electric top that raised or lowered in twenty seconds. When opened, it disappeared under a metal cover, eliminating the need for a tonneau cover. About six months later, Porsche supplemented the duo with a four-wheel drive 911 Carrera 4 as a Coupé and Cabriolet version, each with the bodywork of the base 911. This Carrera 4 and the 305 km/h fast four-wheel drive 911 Turbo, which was launched with its 420 hp bi-turbo engine was available was planned from the start. “When we designed the 996, we made the transmission tunnel large enough to make it suitable for four-wheel drive. The Boxster also had that center tunnel, although it was never available with four-wheel drive.”
While the Turbo and Carrera 4 models were planned from the start, the 911 GT3, which Porsche launched in May 1999, came about almost by accident. When motorsport regulations changed, Porsche built a 360 hp version as a homologation car for the road as the successor to the 911 Carrera RS. “The financial success and the numbers weren’t great at first,” reveals Achleitner.
Porsche made a number of adjustments to the 996 for model year 2002. The displacement increased to 3.6 liters and the output to 320 hp. The 911 Targa and 911 Carrera 4S Coupé with the wider body of the 911 Turbo joined the family. The open-top 4S version followed in 2003. For the 2004 model year, Porsche also offered a convertible version of the Turbo and – as one of several special models; 911 Carrera Coupé ’40 Years of Porsche 911′ with 345 hp, sports suspension and electric sunroof. From model year 2005, the Turbo S was available as Coupé and Cabriolet with 450 hp. Never before have there been so many variants of the 911 as in the 996 generation.
According to August Achleitner, the program was organized so that Porsche could sell a minimum of 30,000 of the two models with a good return in total.
“That was also why the Boxster came on the market in 1996 – a year before the 996.” The plan worked: the first water-cooled 911 was a worldwide success. Porsche sold approximately 175,000 units of the 996 between 1997 and 2005.