£9000 1999 Porsche 911 Carrera 4 996.1
Is there such a thing as a cheap Porsche? Total 911 follows the story of a reader who purchased a 996 for nine grand. Has it been a great buy or a grave mistake?
BUYING A £9K 911
Living the Porsche dream for the price of a used hatch… great move or grave disaster?
A wise man once said there’s no such thing as a cheap Porsche, and he wasn’t wrong. Sure, a few years ago you could probably bag a 924 for a four figure sum beginning with a 2, but it’d be, er, ‘ratty’ I think is the term. And then there’s the debate about it being a real Porsche at all. I’ll leave that can of worms firmly closed.
Of course, nowadays there are still a few early Boxsters 986 available for under £5k if you browse eBay/ Facebook/Pistonheads hard enough, but they come loaded with issues that could easily chew through the same amount of cash all over again. Besides, if you fancy a Porsche at the budget end of the market you probably want a ‘real’ one don’t you? Which means having a flat six located behind the rear axle – right? And the words ‘Porsche 911’ and ‘cheap’ don’t really meld very well do they… or do they? The 996 has for far too long been the black sheep of the 911 family. It’s unloved by the air-cooled die-hards, while the 997 (which is essentially a heavily revised 996) brought with it refreshed styling and a more modern interior that solved many of the supposed problems some saw in the 996. But times are a-changing, just as they always seem to with 911s. Let’s not forget there was a time when the now-revered 964 was seen in much the same way, with market values reflecting its lack of acceptance among the hardcore 911 fans. Less than £15k would have bagged a very good, useable 964 once upon a time.
“The 911’s ‘trick’ of being a brilliant all-rounder plays perfectly into the hands of someone looking for one sports car that does it all”
Much the same appears to be happening in the world of the 996 now, with the model being recognised for its sheer excellence as a driving machine. Meanwhile, the styling has taken on a modern classic aura. Ubiquity means they’ll probably never be as valued as those that have gone before (175,000 sold vs 66,500 964s and 69,000 993s) but the 996 is enjoying its time in the limelight, a focus helped by the model celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. So with values holding strong, and possibly offering some investment potential for the best examples, there’s probably never been a better time to get into this long-underrated 911.
It’s a thought clearly shared by Chris Mapey, who purchased the car on these pages last summer for what seems an inconceivably cheap £9,175. That’s not a typo. It was, by a margin, the cheapest 911 available in the UK at the time (at the time of writing the cheapest 996 was a 170k Tiptronic for £3,000 more). And it seemed a good one, too. Collection day revealed a perfectly useable car that started and drove just fine. The bodywork was showing some signs of age as you’d expect, but was fundamentally solid. A little rust on a wheelarch, some bubbling around the bonnet badge, a few scuffs and the inevitable road rash was all it had to show for its 22 years and 110k miles. The paintwork was merely slightly faded, promising that a thorough detail polish would breathe new life into its metallic black hue.
An inveterate car nut and serial buyer of ‘interesting’ cars (as we shall see), Chris had previously enjoyed a couple of weeks in a friend’s 996 running an aggressive suspension setup and outrageously loud exhaust. Chris says it was “hilarious fun”, so when the opportunity arose – and enjoying a risky bargain – he jumped at the chance to acquire X251 WRG.
But something wasn’t right. This time he just wasn’t gelling with his 996 like he had with his friend’s 996 hot rod. As Chris says, “I was caught in two minds. It’s a brilliant daily, so refined and useable, but I need more space in a daily. And when I want to have fun it’s almost too competent for its own good.” This is probably a good juncture to mention Chris has a Ferrari 355 and TVR Cerbera in his garage, so while the 996 is a wonderful single car solution for anyone’s sports car needs, it’s not hard to understand how it couldn’t match the excitement and theatre available in that pair.
Ultimately it was used less and less while a Volvo estate covered daily duties. In the meantime a visit to the garage had revealed several things that needed sorting – not unreasonable for a cheap old 996 you’d think – and so it was sent off for the ‘full works’ in the hope this would reveal some previously hidden character and deliver the exciting daily driver he was hoping for.
And while it undoubtedly drove better, the work – totalling £6,200 – wasn’t transformational, instead enhancing and improving what was already there. Many typical 996 issues were sorted: new coffin arms, brakes refreshed with new brake lines and ABS sensor, every filter, belt and plug renewed. Suitably revived, the M96 ran sweeter and revved cleanly, just as it should, while the refreshed suspension and tracking delivered the concise, linear responses you’d expect of a 996. But Chris just wasn’t bonding with it, for the same reasons as before, so it was time to move it on.
If this reads as something of a horror story so far, it’s not meant to. The reality is Chris was probably a little unlucky to uncover several expensive problems with his 996, and while he was willing to spend more than most, it was arguably going over the top to fix almost everything. But there really is no such thing as a cheap Porsche; these were expensive cars when new and while used values might change over time, the bills they can elicit are still breath-taking.
It may make more sense to find yourself a car on the other side of this equation: one with lots of recent work done, or at least go into a cheap car with eyes wide open, knowing the risks and being prepared for the possibility that it may require an expensive visit to the garage. Chris took an educated risk on this car, one which would have paid back handsomely over time had he fallen in love with it. After all, with so much of the car now ‘sorted’ he undoubtedly had a good one. But it just wasn’t to be, and someone else would reap the benefit.
Which is where Marc Bentley, current owner of X251 WRG steps in. Being acquainted with Chris, Marc was aware of the travails of the 996 and with a change of circumstances removing his need for an economical commuter car (instead of his BMW M140i), having previously pondered a 997 he saw the opportunity to try a 996. “It seemed like an ideal way to get into a 911 with a lot of the potential issues sorted,” says Marc. Wise words indeed. And how has it worked out so far? “It’s a proper 911, despite what some said at the time it was launched,” says Marc. “It’s got the classic flat six bark, the handling isn’t too tail happy but is still fun, and my six-year-old daughter fits in the back.”
Well aware of what he’s bought, Marc understands that there will be bills in future, but that goes with the territory when you’re running a sports car from the turn of the century. Suffice to say, 1,000 miles into ownership and the C4 is living up to all that Marc had hoped for. “Best drive so far was coming to this photoshoot; the run through Bedford, Royston and out into the Essex countryside. The roads were open but twisty and the car handled it really well. The engine was in its sweet spot, the sun was shining and the car showed its character.”
Just goes to show how divisive our beloved 911s can be, doesn’t it? Or perhaps it proves that the 911’s ‘trick’ of being a brilliant all-rounder plays perfectly into the hands of someone looking for one sports car that does it all. As such, it’s perfectly suited to Marc’s needs, but perhaps too compromised for Chris, being used to a bombastic TVR and a screaming Ferrari. Driving the fettled Carrera 4, I can see where Chris is coming from. I know, I know, this is a 911 magazine and I should just say everything is absolutely perfect, but the first couple of miles present a car which is utterly, well, straightforward to drive other than sitting a little lower than your average car. It’s easy to see out of, it has a great driving position and perfectly placed pedals. The 3.4 motor isn’t over-endowed with torque and so it’s not intimidatingly quick, while the motor spins smooth, sweet and relatively quietly, managed by a light, accurate clutch and gear change. You could pop your (small) kids in the back and take this on a family weekend away, sacrificing little to your average luxury car (typical 911 road noise notwithstanding).
It would be remiss of me not to complete the picture of course, for the joy of a 911 – certainly this one, as I found – is it would be worth sneaking out of bed a couple of hours before the family to have a proper drive on some proper roads. Because once you wind it up, this 996.1 C4 starts to wake up in your hands. With load, the steering streams feedback into your synapses, while with revs the flat six takes on an edge in the final third of the rev range aurally and acceleratively. This is still a 300bhp car, after all. And as you’d expect with all the work done, it drives pinpoint accurate and smooth with responsive brakes and great pedal feel. Arriving into a corner at pace, blipping down to second as the lever snicks smoothly through the gate, loading up the front then utilising that unique rear balance on exit, it’s an absolute joy. Just as the folks at Weissach intended, I guess. To think you can find one of these cars, fully sorted, midway between £10-20k… well, I struggle to think of anything better. I’m an undiluted 911 fan, but it’s my job to have a wider view of the motoring world and yet I just can’t think of anything so multifaceted, yet so rewarding when you have the chance to drive.
Given who I’m writing for I’m probably preaching to the converted, but there’s good reason for it. Even this least-loved of the 911 family is still an incredibly satisfying thing to drive and, if you go in with eyes open, one of the most useable and enjoyable ones to put miles on. There may be no such thing as a cheap Porsche, but a good 996 offers incredible bang for your buck. Get one now before the secret is out.
996: THE KNOWN ISSUES
One of the reasons the 996 has struggled to gain popular acclaim among 911 aficionados can be laid at the door of… the internet. Allow me to explain. Like almost all cars that have reached this age, a few common problems have manifested and while they range from easily fixed to catastrophic, the echo chamber of social media has exaggerated these to a level beyond reality. It’s nigh-on impossible to research any 996 purchase without the words ‘IMS’ and ‘bore scoring’ popping into your results. Both problems can be terminal for the much-maligned M96 motor, with fixes approaching £10k to put right.
Were you to believe the internet you’d imagine it’s inevitable your 996 engine will catastrophically fail at some point. The reality is somewhat different. For starters, as most M96-powered 996s approach 20-plus years old with mileages to match, many of the engines with problem parts will likely have failed long ago. If your potential purchase has accrued 80,000 or more miles on an original engine it’s probably one of the good ones. Class action lawsuits in the US put the failure rate well below 10 per cent, and for double-row bearing cars (in other words, later models) that figure is around one per cent.
With that in mind, the prospect of a six-figure mileage 996 doesn’t seem so scary, does it? Of course, there’s more to it than engine failure. Common faults include the air-con rads that are situated in the nose so they’re exposed to the elements; not catastrophic but easily a few hundred pounds. Another fault which can look terminal (but isn’t) is the air/oil separator – I know this well because it happened on my C4S. The result is lots of smoke under load, but rather than engine failure it just means oil inadvertently finding its way into the combustion chamber. Not a cheap fix, but £700 is better than a £10k rebuild. So-called ‘coffin arms’ are a common item that wear out; like any car with age and mileage, suspension components will need replacing.
Not cheap (of course), but once they’re done you can forget about them. It’s not unusual for exhausts to rot through given their exposure to the elements, but again once fixed (numerous quality aftermarket solutions exist) you can put it to the back of your mind.
The interior is liable to show its age. Some of the switchgear can feel a little flimsy, but mostly it’s quite hard-wearing. As with any car, a shiny steering wheel and scuffed seat bolsters will belie usage. Glovebox and middle lid catches can fail at any time – most owners don’t care. Overall, the 996 is a well-built and reliable car, no more susceptible to problems than a similarly aged Golf. A specialist check is well worth the investment, and with a clean bill of health you can expect many miles of driving enjoyment.
ABOVE Wear and tear will be apparent throughout a 996 of this age and mileage – the seats are no exception. ABOVE Pinky Lai’s svelte design is finding favour with enthusiasts, making 996s such as this a great buy for not a lot of cash.
ABOVE The 996 provides great feedback through the steering, while the flat six takes on an edge in the final third of the rev range.
BELOW Behind the wheel, and the 996 has a great driving position with perfectly placed pedals.
BELOW Light rusting at the front wheel arch will have to be monitored.