Ask Jack: I don’t dial 996

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Last week, I said I was open to questions—and I got 36 of them in the first two days! Some of them I answered privately, others I sent to the experts in the appropriate field, and one of them I saved to answer today. If you have a question on any topic that won’t put me in the unemployment line, send it to tips@hagerty.com with “Ask Jack” in the subject line. Let’s get right to today’s question.

Ryan asks:

Here is my current dilemma. I want a 911.  Nothing else will do. It has been on my list of cars to own forever. Also, why not buy a boxster or cayman? I have kids and occasionally will need to put more than one in it. They are small. I am not worried about the safety of kids in a small car [based on] where I live and how I drive.  Great, you say. The deal is that I don't want to spend much—maybe as little as $18K. I am looking at purchasing a dreaded 996: IMS bearing, droopy headlights, poor build quality, and all. I could stretch my budget, but I don't think I want to, mostly because I want to buy something that I don't have to worry about too muchand that $18K. Is this stupid? I have read your articles on the downsides of the 996. Can you talk me into it? If not, what does a guy do?

Oh boy. Let’s start with this question: Is the 1999 Porsche “996” actually a 911? I’m not trying to come at you with some loofa-cult elitist nonsense here. Rather, I’m asking a sincere question. We all accept that the “Mustang” badge has been put on many different vehicles, but we also all accept that there is a definite beginning and end to, say, the production of the Boeing 747. To me, the 911 will always be an air-cooled vehicle with a particular body shell, built between 1964(ish) and 1998(ish). When Porsche decided to call the 996 something other than 996, it let us know that the marketing crew had staged a coup and that the engineers were no longer in charge. The firm which had once given its vehicles project numbers was now giving them showroom nicknames. No sir, I don’t like it. 

Let’s assume for a moment that the purchase of a 996 qualifies as a 911 and that it scratches the 911 itch for Ryan. In his shoes, I’d buy a beat-up 911SC for that $18K and start restoring it to road-worthy condition—but Ryan wants to drive his car. And he has kids, which makes a big difference. I used to put my infant son in my 993 a lot. I even took him around Mid-Ohio a few times in that car. Then I watched the front bumper of a Hyundai Sonata almost cut his legs off in a T-bone collision. Had we been in my 993, he would have been dead. So we don’t do that anymore. A 996 is much safer for children. No doubt about it.

I can recommend a 996 without reservation, as long as it’s a Turbo or GT3. Those cars come with a better engine; they also appear to hold up better in daily use. Is that due to care of assembly or better-quality parts? Hard to say. It could just be that their original owners were more careful. 

Ryan won’t be getting a Turbo or GT3 with his $18K budget. He’ll be shopping in the pre-facelift bargain basement, looking at 1999–2001 cars with 3.4-liter engines and over 50,000 miles. If you’ve read some of the other auto enthusiast sites lately, you might have seen a bunch of claptrap about how these are GREAT ENTRY-LEVEL CARS, THE MOST BANG FOR THE BUCK. It’s just not true, and I’ll tell you why.

Forget, for just a moment, the well-known Rear Main Seal problem, which isn’t fatal to the engine, and the Intermediate Main Shaft Bearing problem, which is. Don’t even worry about the fact that Ryan’s car has a 1-in-5 (maybe 1-in-10, if you’re feeling charitable) chance of needing a brand-new engine. Let’s look at the costs involved in the rest of the car. Inflation-adjusted, these were $100K cars when they were new, and they are chock-full of parts which support that pricing. 

Here’s an example from hard personal experience. In 2005 I bought a demo-miles 2004 Boxster S Anniversary Edition, which was basically a product-improved 996/986 with every possible bug worked out. The same money would have gotten me a 993 Turbo at the time, but I already had a 993 and I wanted a car to run in SCCA National Solo. I put about 50,000 miles on the car from 2005–17 and drove it at over 75 trackdays. That’s right. I bought enough tires and brakes for that car to fill a warehouse. I owned six sets of wheels for it. 

Guess how much trouble it gave me? The answer is: None. I serviced it by the book but did nothing more than that. It was practically flawless. It put the lie to every story and complaint about waterboxer reliability. Sure, it liked to burn power-steering fluid, but other than that it was fine. I put some wheel bearings in it for safety’s sake, but it was still on the original Bilsteins after all that time. 

I sold it in 2017 to a lovely young woman who wanted to become a PCA instructor and Black Group driver. The power steering started to leak. Two different mechanics replaced every part in the system twice before it was fixed. That was a $6000 issue. The alternator died, which shorted a few things out in that chain of wiring as well. The stereo started to seriously misbehave—that sounds unimportant, but when you’re driving 10 hours each way to a racetrack, it’s nice to have a stereo. A Litronic headlight went dark. A few electrical issues popped up, each requiring real effort to address. The engine started seriously smoking on startup, something which will be expensive to fix once she decides to address it. It’s now burning oil pretty fast, too. Last time I heard, the A/C had gone out, which will take a grand or more to handle.

She’s spent well over $10,000 in service since buying the car—and there’s more to come in the near future. Her used Boxster has now cost her as much as a base-equipment 2020 Miata. Which is fine with her, because she loves the car. But it illustrates how much can go wrong with these cars, and just how quickly it can happen. Wait ’til she needs some control arms, or a new instrument panel. Maybe the power-seat adjuster will give up. That’s where, as they say, the scores can really change. 

It’s very easy for an $18K 996 to require $10 grand worth of repair in short order, which makes it a $28K 996. You can get a half-decent Carrera 3.2 for that kind of money, and the resale value will go up as you fix it. I don’t think these early 996es will ever be seriously collectible, although of all the people at Hagerty, I’m the least qualified to give valuation advice, so take that with a shaker of salt. 

Eighteen thousand bucks will get you a lot of great performance cars. A used 996 is not one of them. Ryan, if you’re absolutely dead-set on buying a modern Porsche “911,” I think you should keep saving until you can afford a direct-injected 997, which should check in around $35K or more. They’re less likely to go KABOOM! and the parts are better quality.

Alternately, here’s a dark-horse candidate: I’m seeing 2015 Camaro SS stick-shifts out there for $18,000. This is a reliable, rapid vehicle which will leave a 3.4-liter 996 in the dust pretty much everywhere. It has a crappy Tupperware interior and rental-car seats—just like a 996! With a few inexpensive changes, it would make a great autocrosser or track day car. Insurance would likely be cheaper, and it would be safer in a crash, having benefited from another 20 years’ worth of engineering in that regard.

No, a Camaro is not a 911, but many people don’t consider an old 996 to be a 911 anyway. I’m put in mind here of John Milton, who in Paradise Lost has Lucifer address his fellow conspirators like so:

Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce [sic]

To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:

Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n.

Put another way: Better to reign o’er the streets in a bitchin’ Camaro than service a 911.