The Car That Rescued Porsche
A fan of the new 911? You have this car to thank for it.
Porsche. They're one of the most important names in the automotive industry today. It's hard to imagine the automotive landscape, both production and racing cars, without them. It nearly wasn't this way though. As hard as it is to believe, not too long ago the company was in dire straits. In the 1995/1996 fiscal year, (August 1st - July 31st) Porsche sold 19,262 cars. Only four years later (the 1999/2000 fiscal year) that output had more than doubled to 48,797 cars. What brought about this change? To understand that, first you need to understand where the company was in the early 1990's.
Though a household name and by far the most common 'supercar', Porsche were still a struggling company. In spite of the fact that they make models which by supercar standards, are relatively attainable, their high-volume sports cars have always demanded a premium price over rivals. It's these volume cars which weren't selling in the numbers needed to financially sustain the company, in a time when rival companies were quickly advancing. A slow production process where factory employees would have to sieve through shelves and boxes, even climbing ladders to find a given part while the car was on the production line wasn’t doing them any favours either. An increased amount of time spent on producing each car meant an increased price when it was sold. Things had to change if the company was to survive.
Through this period, sales of the original Mazda MX5 (NA) had been strong, showing that the market for sports cars not only existed, but it was robust despite economic troubles in some of Porsche's primary markets. The realisation of this got some cogs turning at Porsche and it was decided that they too should enter the market for a small, two seater, open top sports car as a successor to the 968, Porsche's then entry level model. It was a great car to drive, but it was built on an old platform that dated back to the 924 of 1976. Although a more affordable volume product was what the company's bosses had in mind, it still had to be definitively Porsche. A mid-engine layout was chosen not only for the dynamic advantages, but also for the reason that the new car would mimic the 550 Spyder in addition to 718 RSK race cars in a number of key areas. As for the engine itself, that would be a lower capacity version of the same water-cooled flat-6 the new 996 generation of 911 would have. Parts sharing between the two cars would go further still; the bumper, front wings, bonnet, interior, and perhaps most notoriously, the 'egg yolk' headlamps would all be shared components. This was part of a new production strategy, with help from former Toyota engineers.
It focused on ensuring only the correct component would be available to a given production line worker at the exact time it would be needed, in the exact quantity which would be needed. No more climbing ladders and sifting through stock when a car was on the production line. All this meant that cars could be sold for less, produced faster, and less time was spent correcting human errors afterwards. Perfect for Porsche's new high-volume sports car.
The trade-off for this increased operating efficiency and parts sharing was that the two cars would be remarkably similar. Therefore, a special consideration would need to be taken towards ensuring the new sports car was a step below the 911 in performance, or it could hurt sales of the more expensive car. These factors would later lead die-hard Porsche enthusiasts at the time to be sceptical of both new cars. What other choice did the company have? It was this or eventual bankruptcy.
1993 Porsche Boxster Concept. Photograph in Public Domain.
Porsche had a concept car ready in time for 1993's North American International Auto Show; the Boxster Concept. The name came from a combination of describing the 'box' layout of the flat-6 engine, and the 'roadster' body. Obvious similarities in the design were noted between the new car, and the aforementioned 550 Spyder and 718 RSK racing cars of old. Towards the end of that year and into the next, prototype cars in 968 bodies were spotted testing. Finally, in 1995 pilot production started with the goal of testing how efficient the new production line strategy from Toyota really was. The result was a huge cut in the average time a car spent being built from 120 hours, to only 72. Build quality was also improved, as errors fell by half. Following this success, full time manufacturing commenced on the production Boxster in the next year within Porsche's Stuttgart factory. The first deliveries took place in late 1996 (mid fiscal year 1996/1997) and the car quickly became such a hit that Porsche had to contract a secondary company, Valmet Automotive, to produce the Boxster in their Uusikaupunki (it's in Finland) based factory. It is possible to determine which factory a given 986 Boxster was assembled in by looking at the vin number. Cars built in Germany have an "S" as the eleventh character, however Finnish cars are inscribed with a letter "U".
M96 Flat-Six Engine. Porsche Press Release.
In spite of this set back costing the company a huge amount of money, the Boxster was still bringing in sums previously not thought possible by the company's market analysts - particularly in North America. Reviews were positive too. People were impressed by the agility and neutral handling characteristics that came with the car being mid-engine. Even if Porsche purists would for the most part, have nothing to do with it. An area of criticism however, came from the sense that it had been reigned back too much, that the car had more potential than Porsche would allow it to capitalise on so it wouldn't be walking on the heels of the 911. Later in 2000, the engine capacity was increased to 2.7 litres from 2.5. This was done by installing the connecting rods and camshaft from the 3.4 911, which was due to become the 3.6 911 the following year. This increased the stroke providing a better torque curve and a higher red line. Much more of a result than the mere jump on paper from 201hp to 217hp would suggest. Additionally, we finally got a taste of what the Boxster really could do now that the 911 (996) was being moved a step forward with some mid-life updates of its own. This came in the form of a larger 3.2 litre Boxster S becoming available with 250hp. It got a six-speed manual gearbox as oppose to the normal five-speed, stiffer anti-roll bars, higher spring rates, cross drilled brake discs with red callipers, wheels that were an inch larger than the standard ones on the base car, twin exhaust tips, cruise control, and lots of lovely bits of titanium trim throughout the car.
Two years later, the car got a facelift. The back window was previously made from plastic, to improve on this Porsche swapped it out for a heated glass piece. The interior benefitted from a new steering wheel and glove box. The exterior got clear indicator lenses - ending the 'egg yolk' look at the front of the car, even if the new headlights were shared with the 911 as the old ones had been. The bumpers were updated to look sharper, and more wheel options became available. Mechanically, the car also got an updated exhaust and air intake system. There were also electro-mechanical releases added for the bonnet, boot and the fuse box.
A Post-Facelift Boxster S Cutaway. Photograph in The Public Domain.
In 2003, the car would receive its final updates. Both the Boxster and the Boxster S got the improved Tiptronic S gearbox as an option to replace the normal Tiptronic gearbox. (A manual was still the default option.) A small bump in power also came about as the result of some tweaks to the engine. The base car's output was increased to 225hp from 217hp, and the Boxster S went to 258hp from 250hp. Soon after in 2004, a special edition car came out to celebrate 51 years since the 1953 550 Spyder. It was imaginatively called, the Porsche Boxster S Special Edition. This new variant was limited to a run of 1,953 cars, in accordance with the year the 550 debuted. Five hundred of these cars, (oddly enough not five hundred and fifty) were set for the US market. They had the Boxster S' optional extra M030 sports suspension fitted as standard, 5mm wheel spacers for a wider track, and 18' silver and grey Carrera wheels which for no extra cost you could leave unpainted. It was a similar story with the interior; though cocoa brown leather was standard, a full grey leather interior was also an option you could specify for free. All cars were painted in GT Silver Metallic, and all cars came with the sports exhaust which again, was usually an optional extra on the Boxster S. A BOSE stereo system was included to sweeten the deal, as well as a unique production number on the 'batwing' interior trim piece, situated where the centre console and transmission tunnel meet. US-bound cars also had red tinted side indicator lenses.
After this, the 986 Boxster was set to end production, and make way for the 987. As a last hurrah, it contributed to what was at the time, Porsche's best year ever, delivering 76,827 cars (fiscal year 2003/2004). Fast forward to more recent times, and in 2019/2020 fiscal year, the company sold 280,800 cars. A feat that would not have been possible without the 986 Boxster's introduction, nearly twenty four years earlier.
If you're in the market for a 986 Boxster, now is quite possibly the best time for it. As I write this, winter is approaching in the UK, where I live. Therefore now is the time of year that convertibles on the second hand market here naturally start to come down in price anyway, but match this with the fact that the Boxster is in the process of bottoming out in value at the moment (too young to be a classic, too old to be modern) makes it an affordable buy to most people. Though this is a good thing as the car becomes accessible to just about anyone who has their heart set on owning a Porsche, it also means that cars often end up in the hands of people who don't have the kind of resources it takes to maintain and more importantly, fix a car like this. After all, it might be cheap but it's still a Porsche. In accordance with this, I'd advise following these steps when buying a 986 to avoid any financial scares:
- You may have heard of IMS failures on the 996 generation of 911. As the 986 Boxster shares its engine with this car, it is no exception to this issue. What is it exactly? The IMS is the intermediate shaft bearing. It brings drive from the crankshaft to the cams. A failure of this vital component requires an entire engine rebuild, easily costing upwards of £6,000. Chances are, you'll pay more to set that right than you paid for the car. To avoid it, look out for a grinding or knocking noise from the engine - the rear specifically. Many cars afflicted by this issue will have either already experienced engine failure by now or have been retrofitted with a new component to amend this. Always check however.
- As mentioned previously, early cars had porous engine blocks. Be sure to check that this has been amended via either a recall or other means in the service history. This is another issue which can lead to a full engine rebuild. Relating to this, check the coolant and engine oil to ensure that there's no obvious signs of the two fluids mixing. Generally, it'll be much easier to spot oil in coolant than coolant in oil although granted, the location of fluids in this car (in the boot) does make it very difficult to visually check without taking trim pieces off. Be aware, it's worth the inconvenience.
- Radiators in the 986 are located right behind the front bumper, at either corner. Try to get a good look at these components as even if the front bumper has been in a small accident at some point in the past, it almost certainly will have caused damage. An additional point to mention with these, is to ensure that debris hasn't been left to build up in amongst them, as it'll contribute to corrosion.
- Don't shy away from a higher mileage car as with the 986 in particular, a well maintained higher mileage example will have more life in it than a lower mileage car that's been driven rarely and taken care of equally as sporadically.
- Finally, this car is a soft top convertible, an aging one at that. With that comes the obvious risks of dampness in the interior so be sure to check seals around the windows and ensure the electric roof mechanism is in working order.
Ideally, you'll want to find a car that's been owned and ran by as fastidious a keeper as it gets. Porsche have a huge fan base out there so if you do decide to start looking for a 986 Boxster, joining one of their clubs to connect with owners is a great place to start!