Never Mind The Bollocks
Being neither timeless nor dignified has freed the Porsche 996 from the chains that constrain many of its brethren.
Pinky Lai is far from a modest man. If the quotes attributed to the former Porsche designer are to be believed, he’s actually more of a loudmouth, immeasurably convinced of both his own abilities and the importance of his body of work. Without the genius of Pinky Lai, one would thus be led to believe, his exorbitant talents and assertiveness, the Porsche brand and the 911 model range would be no more. For it was Lai who penned the yob among 911s, the 996.
One doesn’t even need to follow Lai’s (self-)assessment to see his point though. Even reminding oneself of the circumstances under which the 996 was created isn’t strictly necessary. One mere glance at the car itself is enough to understand that this is no 911 like any other.
What the 996 is sorely lacking in comparison with its ancestors and predecessors is any sense of
sternness or respectability. Whereas most generations of Neunelfer are defined by an aura of technocratic rationality, the 996 comes across as an unapologetically faddish effort that doesn’t care if its appearance strays into outright vulgar territory.
The 996 is the bad boy among 911s, plain and simple. Which comes as a relief, as it certainly rubs a great many enthusiasts - who have been worshipping the flattened Beetle with quasi-religious devotion for what feels like an eternity - up the wrong way.
Being the rotten apple among the otherwise prim descendants of the House of Nineeleven may cost the price of respectability, but similarly affords the 996 great freedom. For example the freedom to wear an ultra soft form language that aged in record time. Or the freedom to try and get away with a cabin of ostentatiously trendy styling and stylistic ineptitude. Not to mention the cheek to employ - God almighty! - the front aspects of its smaller Boxster brother wholesale. Component sharing! What has the world of the 911 come to? The only kind of components a proud Neunelfer may share with anything else ought to be of Wolfsburg origin, jawoll!
Such praise may smack of compliments of the backhanded kind, if it wasn’t for the fact that this particular Porsche 911 actually possesses a quality that’s usually extremely difficult to find within this line of models: nonchalance.
Steve McQueen, racing success, yada-yada-yada: No matter how often its numerous supporters may repeat the sermon, the fact of the matter is that a Porsche 911 is and remains the safe, risk-free choice among sports cars. Residual values, solidity, continuously developed engineering - it’s for these less than glamorous reasons that play such a crucial role in the longevity of this particular automotive myth. In sharp contrast, the 996’s early iterations became defined by their noticeably poor build quality and obviously cheap materials. This truly all-new 996 exuded anything but a sense of class and quality.
This faddish attitude may actually be attributed to the exceptional set of circumstances that led to under which the 996 came into being. After all, it had to shoulder no less than the fate of Porsche as a company, which certainly explains the Swabians’ willingness to compromise when it came to component sharing and simplified manufacturing. The 996’s immediate predecessor, the much-apotheosised, air-cooled 993, may have kept Porsche afloat until the arrival of its water-cooled successor, but it was up to the latter (alongside its Boxster li’l brother) to ensure that no more red ink would have to be spilled at Untertürkheim’s accounts department.
Despite everything eventually falling into place, one could get the impression that a certain sense of courage born of despair had been summoned up in the run-up. Certainly, the inordinateness with which Pinky Lai et al - under the watchful eye of no less an authority than Porsche’s respected chief designer, Harm Lagaay - indulged in the fashion of early 1990s car design suggests an intransigence that’s all the more surprising in the context of as venerable a product as the mighty 911. The resultant car was shouting, rather than whispering its messages: out with the staid sobriety, bring on the ovoid shapes! And plastics, lots of plastics, which resulted not just in the most brittle of stalks being fitted, but also the shoddiest of glitter effect centre consoles.
This revolutionary 911 hardly was a gentlemen’s motor anymore, but its excellent sales figures nonetheless enabled then-Porsche CEO, Wendelin Wiedeking, to indulge in a fair few cost-intensive adventures. If one was so inclined, the 996 could therefore indirectly be blamed for both the rise of the conspicuous SUV and Porsche being taken over by Volkswagen, but that would be mean.
Since the G-model and its intense bout of the black plastic epidemic, the designers hadn’t been as daring when it came to bringing the hallowed 911 up to date. Incidentally, said G-model had also been created during a period of crisis and hardly ranked top on the list of affections of the Neunelfer disciples. History just likes to repeat itself.
While the 996’s stylistic merits remained divisive, its tangible quality actually made a big step in the right direction once the first could of millions of Deutschmarks had been accumulated inside Porsche’s vaults. From that point on, the 996’s engines weren’t prone to disintegrate anymore, the interior plastics lost their glitter and the 911’s front now wasn’t interchangeable with the Boxter’s anymore. Yet the plasticky air, the whiff of shadiness prevailed.
This wasn’t just due to the wobbly exterior door handles or panels and lids distributed in haphazard fashion remaining unchanged. The ovoid buttons may also have boasted a matte sheen, rather than the Kinder® Surprise appearance of earlier model years. Even the odd slice of actual metal may have cropped up in some more or less logical spot. Not to mention the beverage cup holders, which could hitherto only have been interpreted as some kind of scornful commentary on the virtues of Swabian engineering and all of a sudden came across as being mechanically sound in this new iteration.
But all these changes for the better, all those increases in perceived and actual solidity weren’t enough to turn the 996 into a respectable square. It remained a car for the night club’s car park, rather than the golf club’s.
Among its boat shoe and polo shirt wearing high achiever siblings, the 996 remains the unshaven black sheep in t-shirt, jacket and loud sneakers. The rich rebel among toffs. Slightly embarrassing, maybe, but definitely refreshing and entertaining all the same.
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