Porsche weaves a seductive line in fairy tales.
Half-truths often become legends while nods and winks gently coalesce into established facts. It’s our fault, really. We want to believe. The romance of Porsche’s competition pedigree is an intoxicating backstory that has us teasing out the mitochondrial DNA of the most tenuous motorsport connections. But Porsche didn’t have to bother gilding the lily with the Porsche 996 GT3.
To contextualise the genesis of this car, you need to understand nothing more abstract than cooling. More specifically, water cooling. The 996 generation might have seen the 911 switch from air to water cooling upon its introduction in 1998, but delve back a good deal further and it’s apparent that this shift in strategy was both critical and inevitable.
History seems to have airbrushed the fact that Porsche’s iconic 935 racer was originally prone to head-gasket failures due to overheating, the works cars only completing four of the nine rounds of the 1977 World Championship of Makes. For 1978, Porsche switched to water cooling for the heads, introducing the vastly improved 935/78 ‘Moby Dick’ car. The water-cooled heads continued for both production and race versions of the 959 supercar, with the subsequent 956 and 962 racers featuring fully water-cooled Hans Mezger-designed engines.
The 911 GT1 homologation special of 1996 was fully water cooled, and it was this car’s engine that would form the basis of the bombproof iconic M96/72 Mezger engine, first seen wedged into the rear of the 996 GT3 when it was unveiled at the 1999 Geneva Motor Show.
As this model (and indeed the GT road-car division) celebrates its 20th birthday, it’s worth considering the GT3’s place in Porsche’s performance panoply. In short, it has become the yardstick of progress. It’s to the GT3 and, indeed, its RS counterpart, that we look for the purest, most distilled essence of the Porsche 911, and in those two decades it has become nothing less than Porsche’s soul and its shop window. That’s quite an achievement for a badge that’s been around for less time than that of a Suzuki Baleno or an Audi TT.
Wheels’ first acquaintance with the 996 GT3 came back in September 1999 when Peter Robinson got behind the wheel of the fastest road car Porsche had ever built, 20 berserker GT1 homologation models aside. It was rapidly apparent that this was the real deal, something aside from the usual slightly cynical go-faster special.
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“Fire up the engine and listen to the rattles and clatter, the uneven, lumpy idle and jagged rise and fall of revs. There’s only one car that’ll make these familiar sounds – a Porsche 911. And a racing 911 at that,” wrote Robinson. Its 265kW might well be eclipsed by modern hot hatches but the 996 GT3’s hardcore bloodline wasn’t hard to trace. “Push, really push, using second out of bends and you can balance the GT3 on the throttle. The transition to oversteer is soft, even if the speeds are not, for the natural poise of the chassis and the limitless torque mean the wheel and throttle can be worked together to hold a slide. And there’s no electronic device to restrain the engine, just a mechanically variable limited-slip differential that gives up to 40 percent power distribution under power and 60 percent on the overrun,” he noted.
This latter part is key and is an integral aspect of what makes the 996 GT3 such an intriguing car. It arrived at a time when electronic stability control devices were being adopted widely. Audi and Mercedes, having been given a salutary lesson by the dynamic shortcomings of the TT and A-Class respectively, were high-profile examples of car makers putting their faith in stability control. The 997 GT3 would be fitted with stability control as standard, but the 996 was both the first and the last of the purely analogue GT3s. Your right boot was the governor.
As with most Porsches, there’s myth to be separated from fact with the 996 GT3. While its genesis was undoubtedly competition-derived, it’s not exactly the acme of lightweight, race-bred purity. Yes, the lighter bucket seats saved 20kg and binning the rear seats saved another eight kilos, but that was more than offset by the heavier engine and the beefier G96/90 gearbox. While later models would opt for thinner glass and lightweight body panels, the 996 GT3 was actually 30kg heavier than the base Carrera. And that beautiful rear wing never creates overall downforce, even at the car’s 302km/h top speed. ‘Near zero’ was the claim.
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There’s no doubting the specific output of 100bhp (74.6kW) per litre though, which represented a high bar for naturally aspirated engines at the turn of the century. Nor the 7min 56.33sec lap time of the Nurburgring, driven by Walter Röhrl, which eclipsed the 7min 59sec mark set in 1996 by Dirk Schoysman’s notoriously tinkered-with Nissan Skyline R33 GT-R V-Spec.
The 996 GT3 was offered in two distinct iterations, known as the Mk1 and the Mk2. The car you’re looking at here is a Mk1, produced between August 1999 and July 2000, with the Mk2, easily recognised by its more angular headlamps and flat-plane rear wing, being built between August 2003 and July 2004. Some 1858 Mk1s were built in total with 2589 Mk2 models being built alongside 200 GT3 RS models, making the latter one of the very rarest 911s. We’ll deal with that one another time.
Viewed dispassionately, the Mk2 is a superior car, rectifying many of the Mk1’s shortcomings. Its brakes were less prone to wilting on track and the engine felt stronger at the top end. With power lifting from 265 to 279kW, and each car consistently making that figure, the Mk2 also feels torquier and shifts more cleanly. It brought the option of factory carbon-ceramic brakes and it also carried over the stronger steel synchro rings from the late Mk1 models, early cars suffering a gearshift action that could get a bit soft.
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Yet despite all of that, many prefer the Mk1 car. Its curvaceous rear spoiler and side skirts look fantastic and its ride quality is probably better suited to fast road use. The Mk2 features firmer springs and dampers that translate into a brittle feel on typically patchy Aussie B-roads. One enduring myth, repeated ad nauseam, is that the the Mk1 was built at Weissach, whereas the Mk2 was developed there but built alongside other 911s at Zuffenhausen. It’s poppycock. They’re all built at Zuffenhausen. Production of the first batch of 1350 GT3s was scheduled for late 1999 to accommodate the production of 996 Turbo. The only fully Weissach-built vehicles were the GT3R race cars.
Whichever 996 GT3 you choose, it’s a fundamentally tough car, mechanically at least. The key piece of advice when buying is to not be put off by a generous number of owners or evidence that the car has been tracked regularly, but rather check that the vehicle hasn’t been accident damaged. Some will have been reshelled, which is where a professional inspection can be money extremely well spent. Inconsistent panel gaps and a lack of protective film on the B-pillars suggests body repairs. Beneath the bonnet is a vehicle identification sticker and this should match that in the service book. A particularly nefarious trick by some sellers is to steam the sticker from the log book and apply it to a replacement bonnet, so check that both decals are present and correct. Finally, be sure that what you’re looking at is a GT3 and not a Carrera wearing a factory aerokit. The 13th number from left of the chassis number should be a nine and not a zero.
The Mezger engine isn’t afflicted by the notorious rear-main seal issue of the 996 Carrera, but front main seals can leak and should be replaced as a matter of course when clutches wear, which tends to be around 20,000km for cars that see occasional track use. The 996 GT3 leaves the factory with Mobil 1 0w40 and it’s a good choice. A relatively light oil is required in order to splash-lubricate the camshaft and lifter bucket interfaces.
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Many 996 GT3 Mk1 owners retrofit the 350mm Mk2 brake discs to their cars to beef up stopping power, and few Mk2s will still have their factory-option carbon ceramic rotors, most owners instead switching back to steel units on account of the replacement cost. The gearboxes are ostensibly bulletproof, although shift issues on early 996s can be traced to the aforementioned weak synchro rings, a $4000 job that will probably have been carried out by now on all but the very lowest-mileage cars.
Rear struts and drop links should be the key inspection items if your 996 GT3 doesn’t feel quite as it should, and new owners should book their vehicles in for an alignment check, just to be on the safe side. Check tyre wear and make sure that the car is running on suitable rubber.
If anything, the 996 GT3 feels more special now than it did when it first appeared. It was launched into a tiny temporal window where an old-school approach to driver assistance met with a modern-feeling engine and tyre combination. We just didn’t know it at the time. With hindsight it’s easy to see why the original more than deserves its place in Porsche’s canon of greats.
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Who owns one? Alan – Sydney
“At the time I thought I’d bought the wrong car. I was originally looking for a 996 Turbo, but a Mk1 GT3 came along and I couldn’t resist. Reason intervened and I realised I shouldn’t be putting commuting miles on it, so I bought something else for that job. Besides, the seats weren’t really comfortable enough for Sydney roads and traffic. I’ve done a few track days with it and it’s just the most fun. The engineering is real barn-door stuff that you tend not to see now and it soaks up punishment. I love the fact that the 996 GT3 feels so right-sized. I tried a new GT3 and it felt vast in comparison! Looking at values of early GT3s today, I’m glad I bought the ‘wrong’ car.”
996 GT3 buyers chose between Comfort and Clubsport specs, the latter featuring a half cage behind the front seats, a fire extinguisher, flame-retardant bucket seats and, in the Mk1, a single-mass flywheel. It also did without side airbags. Australia took 77 Mk1 Clubsports and 13 Mk1 Touring models.
The Good: Brilliant Mezger flat-six; adjustable handling; no stability control or flappy paddles; effervescent hydraulic power steering
The Bad: Relatively thin on the ground in Australia; front splitter is a consumable item; 996’s interior finish hasn’t aged well
By the numbers
- 40 seconds – quicker at the Green Hell than Carrera2
- X1X1 – Arctic silver metallic, the most popular colour
- 63 litres – Fuel tank on RHD 996 GT3
- 9000rpm – Theoretical rev limit on M96/72 engine
- 164 – 996 GT3s sold in Australia