Remember the start of Ford versus Ferrari when Christian Bale’s ultra-cool Ken Miles is explaining his quest for the perfect lap to his son: “it’s out there, can you see it?”
This week’s Brave Pill is like that, only with inexpensive Porsches.
Because while this probably isn’t the cheapest first-generation Boxster of all time, it must be getting very close to that milestone, even with the cost of fixing an acknowledged mechanical problem factored in. Let’s start with the good: it’s a 1999 car with what is still a five-figure mileage, a good colour, obviously tidy condition, a manual gearbox, working roof and some well chosen options. It’s being offered for just under £3000, which is probably close to its value if reduced to its component parts.
Bringing us to the elephant lurking in the corner of the room, sitting in a cloud of steam. The selling dealer reports the car has a what seems to be a head gasket problem manifested by oil in its coolant water and frequent overheating. This is something that will immediately limit the car’s appeal to those with both the ability to spin a spanner and a taste for automotive adventure; a hands-on requirement that no previous Pill has demanded. Anybody without the enthusiasm and know-how to fix the car themselves would almost certainly be better off finding a fully operational example.
Many would argue that, even for a keen DIYer, a non-borked example would make much more sense given the hassle of dropping engines and splitting heads. Undoubtedly true: but the fact that, motor aside, this one seems to be in fine order means it could be given a mechanical makeover that would probably last it until the end of the petrol era. The point that often gets made when considering purchase of the Porsches prone to expensive engine issues is the safest examples are the ones that have already suffered from it and been properly repaired. Here’s a chance to get in at the basement of that one.
Unlikely as it seems, this Boxster is the first to be featured in Brave Pill, despite the column having put multiple ticks against almost every other modern Porsche. The 986 is both one of the most successful Porsches of all time and a compelling sports car which still feels remarkably fresh to drive more than a quarter of a century after it first went on sale. So we probably should have got here sooner.
Porsche was in all kinds of trouble in the early 1990s. Hindsight had proved that pretty much every product call the brand had made for the previous ten years had been wrong, from trying to phase out the air-cooled 911 to spending huge amounts of cash developing the front-engined models that potential buyers were stubbornly refusing to fall in love with. A global recession had knocked demand for high-end sports cars, and Porsche had urgent need for something that was both cheaper and much more modern than anything in its existing line-up.
The fear was that linking the Boxster too closely to the forthcoming water-cooled 911, the one we now know as the 996, would cannibalise sales of the more expensive car – especially given that both models were going to share components including closely related engines and even the same headlights. Which is why the maximum amount of marketing space was introduced between the pair: the 911 remaining a rear-engined four-seater, the Boxster getting a smaller flat-six mounted ahead of its back axle and being available exclusively as a lightweight two-seat ragtop. The hope was to make an accessible successor to the 550 Spyder rather than a new-age 914.
Although the Boxster concept had been warmly received in 1993, and the production version stuck closely to the same design, some company executives later admitted to having misgivings given the limited performance of the launch-spec car, and also the fact that production would be split between Germany and the very un-Porsche location of Uusikapunki, Finland, where contract-builders Valmet had their plant. (In the end nearly seven out of 10 986s would be Scandinavian.)
The original 2.5-litre engine was keen and revvy, but definitely didn’t give rocketship performance. With the standard five-speed manual gearbox it had a respectable 6.7-second 0-60mph time, but the automatic transmission option offered for those who wanted a sports car without a clutch pedal added nearly a second to that. The Boxster was also set to launch against two upmarket German rivals which Porsche feared might have more appeal to fashion conscious buyers, as unlikely as that might sound now. The BMW Z3 was already a smash hit when the Porsche was launched, having even got James Bond’s expensively acquired seal of approval. The Mercedes SLK was exclusively available with four-cylinder power at launch, but came with a folding hardtop many regarded as being barely distinguishable from magic, and was in such high demand that early buyers were flipping cars for substantial premiums.
Although more expensive and less well equipped than its rivals, the Boxster had Porsche’s brand kudos on its side, also plenty of dynamic magic. The mid-engined chassis was a peach, and the 986 was launched before the 996, the inevitable comparisons made by early reviewers with the late 993-generation 911 pretty much all found that the new water-cooled car was friendlier and much more progressive when limits were breached. Praise was high and sales were strong – to the extent there were waiting lists for in the UK for a couple of years after the car went on sale. More important, from Porsche’s point of view, was that the Boxster was profitable – revenues which helped to underpin the development costs of what would become the Cayenne. So, um, thanks for that.
Beyond the obvious, our Pill really does seem to be a very tidy example, its dark blue metallic paint looking impressively crisp in the pictures and with its gray interior showing no more than the sort of patina you’d reasonably expect after 23 years and 89,000 miles. Okay, so the front of the anti-theft stereo seems to have gone missing, or is too shy to appear in the pictures and the gear lever is also showing the wear of many thousands of changes. But the last MOT, which was only done in June, was a clean pass – the advert description suggesting the head gasket issue has appeared since then. The earlier online history shows the car was off the road between 2015 and 2021, which may have had something to do with the failure, but also that there’s nothing scary in the public record.
Okay, so this is unlikely to be an easy fix. The Boxster’s tightly-packaged donk makes routine maintenance a pain, and – presuming it is a gasket – removing one of the heads is going to require the engine to be dropped. By which point it may well be easier to directly replace the whole motor, presuming you can find a decent and trustworthy one for a reasonable price.
But considering the dross at the bottom of the Porsche market, where many Boxsters are carrying numerous hidden issues, there is something refreshingly honest about a car with an openly declared fault. It certainly looks too nice to be consigned to the scrapheap yet, especially given the number of scabbier donors out there. Now it just needs to find somebody with their head screwed on, who knows how to screw a head on.