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Ringo Starr

 

I was working a minimum wage, maximum boredom summer job in the parts department at Annis Porsche Audi Volkswagen in Natick Mass in 1983. As jobs go, it was dismal.  Pulling parts for repair orders, daily customer deliveries and trips to the Wilmington regional parts warehouse.  I loved driving - but these trips were hell.  Interminable summer traffic jams in an AM equipped, non-air conditioned and hopelessly anemic VW Vanagon stuffed full of greasy, stinky warranty shortblocks, razor sharp, fragile and expensive body panels and plastic totes of small parts.  Invariably a call would come in at 4:59 PM on Friday for a rush delivery to some remote repair shop in central Massachusetts - which guaranteed I'd be on the clogged roads until 8PM.  Yup, this one was seriously crappy job.

The only job perk was the chance to be around some of the finest cars I'd ever seen.  Glistening 911 SCs, 930 Turbos , 944's, 928's and Audi Quattros.  I seldom got to touch those fine machines- but loved hanging around the shop and learning about them from the techs.  Ronnie was one of the Annis Porsche mechanics and a diminutive, red-faced, hell-raising wildman  He also was one of the best wheel men I ever saw.

Ronnie took me for my first ever ride in a 911SC and it was relevatory.  Growing up on American muscle, I loved big bore V8 sounds,  but that Porsche flat six sounded amazing as Ronnie flicked  it through the gears - the big center mount tach leaping towards the redline. Ronnie could negotiate a 270 degree onramp with supernatural speed and skill - tires howling and tail hanging out in a well controlled drift.  Colin McRae had absolutely nothing on Ronnie.

 

I've loved the Porsche 911 ever since.  "One day"-  I resolved - "I'll own a 911"  The interest smoldered for years, with frequent flips through the classifieds.  Biding my time.

When a 66k mile 1999 C2 Carrera appeared on Craigslist (just 1 block from my house) I grabbed the checkbook and marched over to discover a tidy sunroof coupe in rare Ocean Blue with space grey full leather interior. Garage kept, winter stored with a well organized sheaf of Porsche dealer maintenance and service records covering the last eight years.

On the test drive, the Carrera was tight, ran smoothly, braked straight and everything functioned properly - although the driver’s seat bolster was badly worn and the six-speed shifter was surprisingly notchy and imprecise.  I made a purchase offer contingent on satisfactory outcome of a Porsche dealer pre-purchase inspection (PPI) which it passed with no major issues.  The Porsche was mine. It was time to get to know my hero.

Many Porsche fans dislike the 996.  As the first water-cooled model, some air-cooled purists view the 996 as heretical.  The 3.4 litre normally aspirated flat-six also has a reputation for unreliability, based on a controversial number of highly publicized catastrophic engine failures associated with defective intermediate shaft bearings.  Lastly, the 996 looks and feels like the first 911 built partially to a cost target.  Headlamps and interior components shared with the 986 Boxster make the 996 less distinctive and its lightweight frameless doors don’t close with the same satisfying thunk/click as on prior 911 models. 

Don’t let these concerns dissuade you from buying a 996.  After all, Ringo Starr may not be the most famous or beloved Beatle, but damnit, he’s still a Beatle – which is quite a praiseworthy achievement. Perhaps the 996 isn’t the greatest 911 but it’s still a 911, and all 911’s are very special cars indeed.

Excellent 996’s are priced well below the air cooled 964 /993 models and subsequent 997 series. Plan to spend between $16,000-23,000 for a very nice specimen – Honda Civic money - but insist on a documented service history, ideally including an IMS bearing upgrade.  Intermediate shaft bearing failure is a legit concern, more so on the 2001-05 cars that use a cheaper single row bearing.  Upgrading the IMS bearing is not particularly costly or difficult to do yourself, particularly if a clutch job is also needed

996 ownership can be quite pleasant and affordable – provided you’re capable of doing most of your own work to avoid eye-popping, caboose tightening dealership parts and labor costs

If your only prior ownership frame of reference is Japanese or American performance cars, the 996 will flat out blow your mind.   It’s a spectacular car that provides one of the most positively thrilling drives I’ve ever experienced. The 996 is light and massively fast – with telepathic steering, powerful brakes and an uncommon feeling of mechanical harmony and precision.

The 3.4 litre Variocam flat six makes 296 bhp, and is fuel efficient, silky smooth, torquey down low and provides one of the best high-RPM performances in the automotive world.  Second gear pulls to the 7,200 RPM redline seem to stretch on forever – the sound of the engine building to an amazing crescendo when it comes on the cams.  The soundtrack alone is so good you’ll just want to pull over and hug your 996.   I’ve driven MoPar Hemis, 409 Impalas, Boss 302’s and 427 Chevrolets – and while the Porsche sings in a different key, the musical score is every bit the equal of the legendary muscle machines.

My first fix was replacing the 17” Carrera II wheels with the 18” Turbo Looks that my 996 was originally equipped with – and went missing somewhere in the ownership chain.  Fortunately these wheels are easy to find used (make sure of width and offset) and I refinished them in graphite metallic before mounting Bridgestone S04 tires.  Much better.

The factory supplied 996 shifter is unworthy of a $15k Ford Fiesta, never mind a supercar with an $80,000 MSRP.  Fortunately the remedy is simple and inexpensive.

The B&M short throw shifter for the 996 is billet aluminum and far sturdier and more precise than the flimsy plastic original.  The B&M installs in less than an hour with simple hand tools and is the best $250 you’ll spend.  Just ensure that you adjust the cables correctly, as the installation manual is vague on adjustment procedure. Get the adjustment right and the B&M equipped 996 will shift with precision – though shift effort remains somewhat high

The OEM coil packs on the 996 are prone to cracking, especially in locations with extremely hot or cold weather.  Fortunately, OEM replacement coils are available for about $45 each and the installation is very straightforward – although access to the rear most coils is tight.

It’s also easy to remedy the 996’s tinny feeling doors.  The problem is the frameless glass design compounded by light gauge sheet metal that resonates when you slam the doors shut.  The solution is simple and cheap – buy a roll of adhesive backed asphalt and firmly stick several large pieces on the inside of the door skin. This disrupts the resonation of the sheet metal, and the doors will now close with a more solid sound.  While the door panels are off also make sure to tighten and Loctite the speaker attaching screws– they often loosen and make a most annoying rattle.

Another cheap upgrade is to install an MP3 cable to allow music streaming through the Becker CD-R 220 stereo.  The cable is $15 on Amazon.com and installs in about 15 minutes.  While you’re at it, get rid of the tragically dated cassette holder.  Your Ace of Base cassettes long ago wrapped themselves around the play head, so ditch the 80's look and install an additional dash cubby ($75)

Porsche lug bolts tend to corrode and look terrible, so I purchased 19mm gray covers for the lug bolts.  You can use cheap versions from eBay or procure the caps used on Australian GM Holdens.  This will really tidy up the looks of your car.

Where the 996 most excels is on twisting New England two lanes, sunroof open and windows down. On roads like this, second and third gears are the recipe for apexing turns and blasting out of the exits on a massive swell of torque and top end rush.  To drive this car on the interstate is to miss out on what makes it truly special. 

Sharing the Porsche experience is proving to be fun as well.  With a car this good, you become an evangelist - eager to let others experience it for the first time.  This includes my 15 ½ year old son, beginning to drive on a learner’s permit.  He has no interest in driving an automatic – for him the stick shift is the only way.  He’s rapidly developing excellent fundamentals and driving the 911 is helping him to better connect with the automobile, to get a feel for road and machine.  I feel like a hero, helping him to discover the sheer joy of driving that’s been my passion for over 35 years.

The 996 is my Porsche "gateway drug"  I started with a little harmless experimentation, but before long wound up slackjawed and mainlining want ads late at night for Cayman S, GT3 and 911 Turbos.  Recently I dragged my wife on an "errand" to look at a low mile 2 owner 944.  Why, I don't know - I just felt compelled.

Owning a 911 has proven to be everything that I dreamed it would years ago at Annis Porsche Audi – watching Ronnie Olsen at work in the SC.  My 996 may be the Ringo Starr of 911's - not the best vocals, most talented nor the best looking.  But Ringo is pretty damned good at the things he does and so is my 996.

© Gyrhead & Sons Restoration Parts 2014.  If you like this article, please share it freely with your friends.  Just remember to cite the source

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