Water-cooling: A Porsche 911 history

Everyone knows that the Porsche 911’s water-cooled era started in 1998, don’t they? Well, yes and no. The Porsche 996 Carrera – launched just before the turn of the millennium – may have been the first fully water-cooled production Neunelfer but it wasn’t the first to get the H2O treatment.

For that, you have to look to the track and turn back the clocks to 1978 when Porsche launched the 935/78 racer, affectionately known to most people as ‘Moby Dick’ thanks to its long sweeping tail.

Raced by the factory Martini Porsche squad, the 935/78 featured new cylinder heads featuring four valves per head and, most interestingly, water-cooling (although the block remained traditionally cooled by air).

Launched in 1986, the Porsche 959 featured an air/water-cooled flat six, similar to the unit seen in 'Moby Dick'.
Launched in 1986, the Porsche 959 featured an air/water-cooled flat six, similar to the unit seen in ‘Moby Dick’.

A similar cooling setup would be used in the Porsche 959 – launched 30 years ago this year – the supercar’s 2.85-litre flat six engine a close relative of Moby Dick’s 3.2-litre unit with its water-cooled cylinder heads.

Around the time of the 959’s delayed launch in 1986, Porsche was also readying its first fully water-cooled flat six for the dominant Porsche 962C sports prototype, a car that would win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in both 1986 and 1987 in the hands of the works Rothmans team.

Porsche’s famed engineer, Hans Mezger, penned much of the engine’s design and it would be in another Le Mans-winning car that a derivative of his water-cooled motor would make its Neunelfer debut.

The Porsche 911 GT1 was the first Neunelfer to feature a fully water-cooled flat six engine. It would go on to triumph at Le Mans in 1998.
The Porsche 911 GT1 was the first Neunelfer to feature a fully water-cooled flat six engine. It would go on to triumph at Le Mans in 1998.

While all the production Porsche 993s still retained the classic air-cooled flat six, the 911 GT1 homologation special of 1996 featured a 3.2-litre twin turbocharged motor based on the fully water-cooled engine first seen in the 962.

Fitted to the carbon fibre monocoque Porsche 911 GT1-98, the water-cooled engine would help Weissach to its 16th 24 Hours of Le Mans triumph in the same year that Porsche decided to debut the new 996 Carrera, the first water-cooled production 911.

While the M96 engine of new Carrera was an all-new design, the GT1’s engine would form the basis for the famous ‘Mezger’ engine, first seen in naturally aspirated form in the Porsche 996 GT3, launched for the 1999 model year, with the twin turbocharged version following in 2001 in the back of the 996 Turbo.

For more historical online features, check out our full selection of ‘Porsche 911 history’ articles now.

Derived from the 911 GT1's engine, the famous 'Mezger' flat six would live on in production specification fitted to the 996 GT3 and Turbo.
Derived from the 911 GT1’s engine, the famous ‘Mezger’ flat six would live on in production specification fitted to the 996 GT3 and Turbo.

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