© 2020 kertong © 2020 kertong

1997 Porsche “993” 911 4S

Ah, the legend. Anyone who falls down the Porsche rabbit hole, even one who pokes their head in, will inevitably hear about the “aircooled” 911s. Last of a breed, they’ll say. Technically inferior to the modern run, but spiritually superior in every way.

In some ways, they’re right. These cars, compared to modern Porsches, are less refined, less comfortable, handle unpredictably, and don’t make very much power. But they do embody the original spirit of the 911 – fun to drive, small, nimble, and doesn’t emphasize outright brute power as its primary forte. Simplicity was key, so much that the engines, up until 1998, remained completely “air cooled” (hence the moniker). This meant no coolant, no radiator, no water pump, no reservoirs, bleeder valves, piping, theromstat, etc. Simpler, lighter, and more reliable, as the engine relied on air and oil to cool itself.

Being a self professed Porsche fan – I had to have a taste. Is it really worth the hype?

Yes and No.

Take the financials out of it, and I’ll stand behind the Yes 100%. Every Porsche fan needs to own one once in their lives to understand how different the “origin” of the modern 911s felt. Now, unlike the old curmudgeons of stuttgart loyal, I’m a bit backwards – my first experiences were watercooled, modern porsches, and I went “backwards” into the aircooled roots. The first few things I noticed are:

  • Small! The car is compact, small, easy to park and navigate traffic and tight spots in.
  • Visibility is incredible. “Greenhouse” is in full effect here – blind spots, rears, mirror line of sights – all visible and unobstructed. The A, B, and C pillars are all super thin, and you can see a 360 panoramic view around you, adding to the awareness of your environment and feeling the car “disappear” from between you and the world outside.
  • Chuggy! The aircooled engine, at least the one in this 1997 4S, was chuggy, slow to rev, struggled to breathe up top, but delivered power in a very linear and predictable fashion. What I didn’t like though, was that after about 4k rpms, the revs started slowing down and you could feel the tach needle fighting itself through molasses to continue climbing.
  • Steering was the biggest tactile difference. Rubbery, organic, and weighty. Heavy at low speeds, lighter at speed, but got heavier again once the car started turning and loading up the frontend. This kind of feedback is the biggest sources of mechanical joy for me – feeling telepathically connected to the car’s front wheels . The Acura NSX’s manual steering rack is, and has always been my benchmark for this joy. The Elise was 2nd. The 993 comes close to the two, which is impressive given this was still hydraulically power assisted.
  • The second tactile difference I felt was the brakes. The pedal was firm and had very little back-and-forth travel. Pressing on it felt like gliding against glass; and the more you pressed it immediately translated to rate of slowdown. Impressive considering this is brake technology from the 90s. Best brakes I’ve felt – well, second to the PCCB brakes on a 911 I’d own later on in life.
  • Interior – complete ergonomic, unintuitive nightmare; but simple once you figure it out. Very charming controls and aesthetic.
  • The front windshield is incredibly close to your face. I’d point to something and my hand would knock against the glass because I didn’t realize how close it was.
  • What a beautiful shape. Slender, and only as big as it needed to be. Put it next to a 996, and the 996 looks bloated as if it were left in the water too long. And the 996 is the lighest, smallest watercooled 911 out of them all, as they only got bigger with each generation! I believe the 964 and 993 are the most beautiful, and functionally-aesthetic 911’s of them all.

These were all good, charming things. This car was no longer about speed and performance; it was about the joy of driving. I took it to Laguna Seca and reaffirmed this; the car was slow, felt unstable at speed and high-speed turns; however, the AWD front end gripped hard and pulled the car around to rotate it. Amazing stability despite how “old” this platform is.

The “No”. While nearly not as bad as the NSX, this is still an old car. Unlike the NSX, it never let me down or never left me stranded. But there was *always* something to fix. The first inspection/service to make this daily driveable after I purchased it came out to above $10,000. Even after that overhaul, something always needed service; the final straw that broke this was the front diff starting to whine. It was fine, and would continue to be ok for a while, but it was a sign that it would need service soon; and that would have been another $5k.

Given the market bubble on these, it was already a six figure car to start with; and if you include repairs, I could easily have not only purchased a lightly used modern Ferrari, but I could have afforded to daily drive it as well (a feat!).

I held onto this car for approximately an year. I daily drove it as my only car for about 4-5 months; then it became my second car, and once it had weekend/secondary duty, the financial footprint was almost impossible to justify. Add to that economic covid-19 driven uncertainty and a softening market on these; I ultimately let it go along with another car I had at time to trade up for something more modern, reliable, comfortable, yet sporty.

I’m glad I had the experience, though. If I had to do it again, I’d spend half the amount in getting a high mileage, banged up 993 C2 to just enjoy with peace of mind; otherwise the pressure to keep it low miled and nice for resale gets in the way of enjoyment.