Thought of the day: air-cooled vs water-cooled

Back in the days when the world was a simpler place, all you needed to keep a 911 engine cool and collected was a plentiful supply of fresh air. Then, in late 1997, an all-new 911 was introduced, and an exotic mix of distilled water and chemicals was suddenly required to do that simple, but essential job. Many Porsche purists looked on in horror, regarding this new arrival, the 996, as equivalent to the coming of the anti-Christ. It might have looked like the real thing, but it certainly wasn’t the real thing, or so the thinking went. They refused to love it, which was a shame because actually there was a lot to love.

In comparison to the 993 it replaced, the 996 was lighter, stronger, more comfortable, more spacious and more powerful. The interior looked as if it had actually been styled, rather than just laid out by one of the mechanics in his lunch break. Anachronistic touches like the bottom pivoting pedals or the unusually vertical screen had finally been addressed. But why abandon that most quintessentially Porsche characteristic, the air-cooled engine?

There is no denying that Porsche has made some strange decisions in its history. The attempt to kill the 911 and move all of its range to a conventional front engine layout certainly comes to mind. It was tempting to see the move to water cooling as a similar marketing whim, but in truth it was far from that. The world was changing, and the air-cooled engine simply wasn’t able to change with it. Water cooling allowed an engine redesign that included four valves per cylinder, and which brought the higher power outputs, the improved fuel economy, and the reduced emissions that the market and legislators were all demanding. It also bought Porsche a future development curve, because while just about every last gasp of power had been rung out of the air-cooled engine, the new engine had many years of potential future upgrades engineered into it.

Journalists tested it and raved about it, and the public loved it so much they bought it in larger numbers than any previous model. People who had never considered buying a Porsche before sold their Jaguars, Ferraris, and even their Fords, and slapped their deposit cheques on dealers’ desks. Maybe this is where the problem started. Like sulky teenagers who lose interest in their favourite bands if they become mainstream, some purists shunned the 996 because they felt it had gone soft and lost its 911 soul. If by its soul they meant the tendency to bite you hard if your concentration slipped in the middle of a bend, then that is undoubtedly true. The 996 was an easier car to drive fast safely, and you probably didn’t need as much chest hair to get the best out of it. But these things are all relative. A senior source at Porsche told me that the new 991 was designed to be easier to drive than the 997, and to flatter the average driver. And I don’t see a problem with that.

This sort of attitude is not restricted to the devotees of the 993. Watch steam train enthusiasts standing in misty eyed ecstasy as an A3 Class 4-6-2 thunders past. Or the music fans who eschew CDs, because only vinyl can deliver that authentic sound. And if you look hard enough you’ll probably even find someone who insists that wooden tennis rackets are preferable for the subtleties of their game. But these are essentially nostalgic eccentrics, and I will defend anybody’s right to their eccentricity. What saddens me, however, is when someone feels the need to deride another’s pride and joy, for no better reason than a misplaced sense of superiority.

Porsche upset the purists when they ditched the air-cooled engine for the water-cooled unit, above.

In case it sounds like I am trying to sell the 996 as the nearest thing to perfection since peach nectar was first mixed with Prosecco and called a Bellini, I am certainly not. Like any new design it had problems. The one that anybody considering buying a 996 will have heard about at length is the rear main seal, which causes a mess when it fails, but is fixable at relatively low cost. Less widely known about is the potential failure of the intermediate shaft bearing, which has the same effect as detonating a chunk of Semtex in the middle of the engine. And then there are head and cylinder liner cracks, which can allow oil to mix with that exotic coolant, and soon enough that Semtex effect can occur again. We are talking upwards of £10,000 if that happens. But these were occasional problems that applied to the early 3.4-litre engines, and had been pretty well engineered out by the late 3.4 and certainly for the uprated 3.6-litre engines.

I  must declare an interest here. I am the besotted owner of a late 3.6 996 Cabriolet, which has never let me down, nor failed to raise my heart beat a little, even when I just catch sight of it parked outside the house. So does this mean I don’t like the 993? Far from it. I love the 993. It was far ahead of its time when introduced, and still has unrivalled character, charisma and road presence. The 993 did not stop being an icon just because the 996 was introduced, but by the same logic, it makes no sense to character assassinate the 996 just because it replaced its iconic predecessor. There is one positive side to all of this, however. If you are desperate to dip a toe into 911 ownership without having to sell your back garden to property developers to finance it, then a nice, well-maintained 996 is a remarkably cheap way to do it. And if you can run to a warranty, you will even be able to sleep at night as well.

Thanks to Chris Dearden for the Thought Of The Day



Comments (3)

  • David Langevin

    Hello Chris, Lee:

    I’m responding from across the pond, here in the Boston, MA area. It was great to see your opinion piece. I’m a PCA member and rabid Porsche enthusiast, most particularly of 911s and Caymans. As a PCA member, I couldn’t agree more with your comment regarding the so-called “misplaced sense of superiority” that I see and read about pretty much everywhere there’s serious interest in Porsches… I own what I at least consider to be two driver’s cars, an MK II 996 Turbo and MK I Cayman S, and since only getting into Porsche ownership from 2008 (though lifelong admiration), I’ve had the pleasure of driving over a dozen 911s (mainly 996 and 997s, but also an early 3.2 and 993) and altogether well over 20 different Porsches. I know it’s far from a journalist’s notches, but hopefully not bad and I can at least voice an opinion. I also live in area where I see plenty of Porsches on the roads, including those of the air-cooled variety, and I mean literally every day. I really love the air-cooled Porsches and expect to get one in the not too distant future. But when I do, I’m not going to deride those that cherish their 996s.

    Now, getting to my point and one annoyance that relates to your article. It pains me to hear to these idiotic proclamations about how easy 996s are to drive compared to the 993 and other air-cooled 911s. I’ve constantly heard this about my 996 Turbo. But in my experience, this isn’t true. Let me please explain. In the case of the Turbo, as an illustration, it is definitely the most difficult Porsche to launch quickly of all the 911s I’ve driven. What?! Why is that? Well, it has very short and incredibly high-strung first and second gears. It’s really tricky when really pressing on. When you unexpectedly lose your all-wheel grip in the wet (or dry if you’re really pushing it), the sensation is hair-raising because you don’t know it’s coming, and when it does – it’s violent and immediate. A lot people who comment on the 996 Turbo, even professionals, I’m sure, have never owned one or driven one long enough, in enough situations, to fully appreciate it or respect it. The air-cooled cars just aren’t as fast and take longer to rev. So in those you have more time to adjust or, rather, save yourself. But more importantly, with the air-cooled cars you’re always anticipating a possible slide. (I can roughly simulate this for fun in my Cayman by driving in wet conditions and turning off stability control. Yes, it’s mid-engine and more balanced and stable than a 993, but it has a bit more power to contend with).

    Back in 2008 and 2009, before purchasing my Turbo, I test drove a few 996 and 997s from OPCs. I built a good rapport with the dealers and they gave me a little more leash. I believed this nonsense about how easy they were drive, how soft they were. Well, I wanted to get a good sense of the cars and what they can do and pushed two C2s a bit, and each time had the rear slide right out around a curve. It turned out to be an interesting day for each of the the salesmen.

    Pretty much all the air-cooled cars I see driven, are all going relatively slow. And this is my final, larger point. You do feel more invincible in the water-cooled cars and it tends to make you drive a lot faster and more aggressive more often, in a wider range of road and traffic conditions. So that’s the big equalizer. The way I see it, when I get my air-cooled car, I’ll love driving it, the physicality, the beauty, the character, the sound, the hand-built quality, the smaller dimensions – you name it. But for me, I’ll also be getting it to enjoy driving while toning down the pace.


  • Lee Sibley

    Many thanks for your opinion, David. May we use it for our letters page?

  • David Langevin

    Lee, sure. It’s a little bit of a rant, so feel free to edit it down.

    Taking it offline here, if you’re ever looking for ideas for new articles, let me know! I’ve thought of all sorts of them. Some are based on how many of us happily agonize over which should be our next 911 – that is, when prices are similar enough that it’s not the deciding factor. Here are a quick few that I’ve given a lot of consideration to recently and haven’t been able to come to any conclusions:

    -997 MK1 Turbo or 993 Turbo? (they’re pretty close in price now and there’s a great case for each)
    – 997 C2/C2S MK1 or MK2? (this one is really tough because the newer 997 is clearly the better car with the better engine, yet with DFI it just doesn’t sound as good as the MK1 – obviously a big deal with 911s)
    – How about a really nice G50 Carrera 3.2 or a 993 C2?

    On a related note, for your website, any postings on 911 engine sound comparisons might get a few extra clicks. Not a quiz, but rather providing sound and some analysis. Maybe your viewers could vote on them.