Exactly 25 years ago, the new 996 together with the 986 Boxster ensured that Porsche could continue to exist as an independent brand. The public was first introduced to the fifth generation of the 911 at the IAA in Frankfurt in 1997. The model broke with several conventions. With the exception of the heavily modified iconic 911 design and rear engine drive concept, everything was new. The 996 was no longer air-cooled but water-cooled and shared several parts with the Boxster. Both models were almost identical up to the B-pillars and interior-wise. What remained was the principle of the six-cylinder boxer engine.
Break with ‘old traditions’
It was time to break with ‘old traditions’”, declares 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 the 996.” There was no doubt that the new 911 would look like a 911 – but which engine would sit behind it was not clear at first. “We experimented with the engine. Air-cooled designs with two valves per cylinder was technologically at the end of their game 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 off the table. So that brought us to water-cooled four-valve boxer engines.”
“It was a challenging task”
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 a rear-engined coupe identical from nose to B-pillar. “It was a challenging task. But it succeeded by first designing a number of different Boxster/996 versions.” Due to lack of time, Porsche immediately set about building 1:1 models. Lagaij’s team grew to eighty members at its peak to speed up the work.
Best of Show
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 studio model won the hands of the public and was even voted ‘Best of Show’ in Detroit. “It was immediately clear to me: the nose of the study model also suited the 996,” says Lagaaij. 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.”
There was some internal criticism of the concept and design – but the ‘fried egg’ headlights were not well received 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 high 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 half a year 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 from January 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.”
Almost by accident
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. “But the 911 GT3 was still the start of its own brand – because with the 996 GT3 we created a version that made a clear difference between an everyday 911 and a street version inspired by motorsport.” In January 2001, the 911 GT2 followed, based on the 911 Turbo, with a 3.6-liter boxer engine with 462 hp – the first model with ceramic brakes as standard.
Never before so many 911 variants
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 – the 911 Carrera Coupé ’40 Years of Porsche 911′ with 345 hp, a sports suspension and an 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.