The Porsche 911 has gone through several different variants, the naming of which makes little sense to anyone not immersed in such things, but each has its own technical foibles. The internet has helped to spread tales of engineering woes with each generation; none more than the 996 variant, which was produced between 1997 and 2006. It was largely greeted with disdain by Porsche purists as the new 911’s engines were no longer kept cool by their signature method of air, but were water-cooled instead. Derision was also heaped on the design of the headlights as, rather than the 911’s traditional oval front lights, there were integrated indicators which led to unflattering comparisons with fried eggs. Despite this frosty initial reception, the car is often credited with a major role in keeping the Porsche company alive as its introduction saw Porsche adopt more modern (i.e. cost-effective) manufacturing processes and – shock, horror – even sharing parts with another model, the Boxster.
A quick Google will introduce you to the various problems for which the 996 has become infamous – chief amongst which are failed IMS (Intermediate Shaft) bearings and bore scoring. I’m no mechanic and there are lots of articles available which go into very deep detail about these issues: suffice to say, they are well-known problems and there are some equally well-known (if significantly bank account depleting) solutions. One of these is to take your ailing 996 to the outskirts of Bolton, where you’ll find Hartech Independent Porsche Specialists, who have built up an international reputation as the “go to” people for engine rebuilding for both 996 and the subsequent 997 variants of the 911.
How do I know this? I’m a former customer, having had the 3.6 litre flat six engine in my own 996 911 rebuilt by them last year when it was diagnosed with the dreaded bore scoring. The rebuilding brought my poorly 996 back to rude health. As soon as I picked it up and started the drive home, I noticed a huge difference in how the car felt: particularly the urgency with which it takes off from standstill and the midrange acceleration that’s so important when joining a motorway, for example. When asked, I always say the car has much more “eagerness” about it than before the engine had its innards thoroughly sorted out. It feels ready and willing to go at pretty much any revs in any gear – much more the sports car I expected.
When having my engine rebuilt, Hartech offered the option to increase its capacity from 3.6 to 3.9 litres. I decided against it as a) I largely drive my car like a stereotypical Grandad and b) felt I was spending enough money on it. MD Grant Pritchard explained that as they developed their reputation for rebuilding the engines, many customers disagreed with me and wanted more power from their Porsches, so they started to develop capacity increases alongside a “simple” rebuild. When they recently offered the chance for interested folk to come and have a drive of their new products, including a new 3.6 to 4.1 litre car, I had to say yes, even knowing there was a risk that I might regret my decision…
A few lucky Porsche fans and I arrived at Hartech’s unit earlier than seemed decent on a Sunday morning in February, lured by the opportunity to drive some different versions of their bigger-engined 996s (and the promise of a bacon butty). As well as giving us an introduction to the main event, Grant told us that as a side project, they have been working on “Eco Power” cars, which use their mechanical wizardry (it has something to do with compression ratios and that’s as much as I can tell you – due to my own ignorance, not an especially secretive NDA) to offer a claimed 20 – 25% reduction in fuel consumption.
My first drive was a black manual car that had a 3.4 litre engine increased to 3.7 litres and some of the new Eco Power additions helping to lower its running costs. Despite being an older car with almost 190,000 miles on its clock, it felt similarly eager to mine, but was even happier to pull from lower revs in a high gear – it was quite happy accelerating from 30mph to 50mph in 6th as we ascended to a viewpoint overlooking a distant Manchester city centre. I was impressed at the sheer grunt the car had to offer and it felt creamily smooth and, in some respects, easier to drive than mine as it required fewer gear changes when pootling around town. On the open road, the engine has a deeper sound than I’m used to – obviously we’re not comparing exactly like for like here, but it was something I’d experience even more noticeably on my next drive, the 3.6 to 4.1 conversion.
Jumping into the Targa car (think of it as a big sunroof) which has the 4.1 conversion in is a bit of an assault on the senses at first with its Boxster Red interior. It’s certainly an acquired taste, but it did grow on me whilst driving it – although once I was out on the road, I had other things on my mind. That deeper sounding engine note was there again, reminding me of a BMW 330Ci I once owned and loved. Probably largely due to being a younger and less well-used car than my first drive of the day, everything felt a lot tighter. There’s certainly no shortage of torque in the oversized engine – it felt quite happy woofling at low revs through the town but came alive on the more open roads, almost urging you to press the loud pedal. At one point, a group of cyclists formed a slow-moving lycra-clad barrier in front of me and when the opportunity to overtake came, I gave the accelerator a good hard prod. The resulting acceleration caused me to swear involuntarily (sorry Grant) as it caught me by surprise and gave me the stereotypical push back into the seat. I’ve never felt my 3.6 lacked power but the difference was noticeable – not just in raw power but in the smooth and progressive delivery of it. This is no amped up parts bin special: it feels like quality engineering the way Porsche intended it.
If that was the main course, for dessert I hopped into a distinctively bright green 996: very definitely not a standard manufacturer colour, even with Porsche’s famed Paint to Sample programme. This one had been wrapped to give it a bit more visual impact – mission accomplished. This was an earlier 3.4 litre car whose engine was the test bed for the latest Eco Power additions. There was certainly no lack of power – it didn’t have the neck snapping acceleration of the 4.1 but it still felt all 911 and a match for my 3.6, even despite the Tiptronic (Porsche for automatic) gearbox.
The opportunity to be able to drive a classic sports car, with no loss of power (quite the opposite, as far as I could feel) or sound and reduce the emissions by almost a quarter is an enticing one for enthusiasts who are contemplating an electric driving future with dismay. Paired up with another development, like Porsche’s own investigation into synthetic fuels, and I wonder if we are seeing the beginnings of a fossil-fuel-free future that doesn’t remove all of the excitement from driving…. We can only hope. Hartech seem to be approaching this endearingly as an engineering puzzle rather than a get-rich-quick scheme to jump on the green bandwagon, and more power (excuse the entirely intentional pun) to them for that.
So, the million (or at least several thousand) dollar question was whether I would regret not getting my own engine capacity increased. I thoroughly enjoyed my morning at Hartech, meeting the people behind the company and driving their fantastically engineered cars. It confirmed the feelings I’d developed when dealing with them as a customer that they are keen engineers first and foremost who love solving problems and who care about their products. The Eco Power innovations are really interesting in the current context of the rush to electrification despite the lack of infrastructure. Their 3.6 to 4.1 conversion is a real “wow” car, with that extra power and torque very useable on the roads on which I drove it – I can only imagine how it would perform in the hands of someone more capable than me on a track. That said, I’m too old to change the way I drive, and I suspect it would be wasted on me (so, some might argue, is even a standard 911!). I love my reborn 996 as it is – but I also know that every time I put my foot down to overtake, there will be a little bit of me that remembers pulling out past those cyclists and the kick of the extra torque and I will smile but I won’t swear…. maybe that’s the difference right there!
In case you’re wondering, I have no connection to Hartech other than as a former customer and the only bribe that changed hands was that bacon butty on the day. Huge thanks to Grant, Lee, Julian, Osian and Sharon for putting on the event and indulging us in a morning of most excellent car geekery. For more info, visit https://www.hartech.org