Sometime in the 2010s, yuppies caught on to air-cooled Porsches and started a subculture centered on expensive wristwatches and Mobil Pegasi. Prices of once-attainable 911 SCs and 3.2 Carreras shot through the roof, and many enthusiasts of average means turned to the water-cooled 996-generation 911. I should know, because I’m one of them. As the first 911 to use a water-cooled engine, the 996 packs 300 horsepower, a 7200-rpm redline, and a frunk full of snobs’ baggage.
Yes, the interior is chintzy and the headlights are from a Boxster. And, yes, a few engines blew up. But the 996 is also lighter and higher-revving than the much-loved 993 it replaced—and crucially, cheaper 20 years later. How much cheaper? Well, take this 2003 Porsche ‘996’ 911 coupe with a six-speed manual listed on Facebook Marketplace for $12,000; a price which makes it seemingly the cheapest running, driving 911 in the country, and the cheapest manual coupe by far. The catch? It has about as many miles as a retired Crown Vic taxi—357,591 to be precise. So, should you buy it? Keep reading.
This Porsche is located in Redondo Beach, California, an affluent suburb southwest of LA, and the seller is a shop that claims to not know much about the car’s condition. The listing does confirm that the 911 runs and drives, has a clean title, and that the air conditioning blows cold. The listing says that the “vehicle smokes after cold start at times,” and “at these miles [it is] safe to assume a motor may be needed.” Its interior and exterior appear to be in good shape, with the exception of foggy headlights and a scuffed front bumper that appears to be a slightly different shade of black than the rest of the car. There’s also a deep hole worn in the carpet of the driver’s footwell, which checks out with the insanely high miles.
Without seeing the car in person or getting a pre-purchase inspection (which you absolutely should do on any used car), we’ll have to rely on my three years of cheap 996 ownership experience thus far for some informed speculation.
First: the smoking issue. The simplest and most common cause of cold-start smoke on these cars is the air-oil separator, or AOS. As described by 996 experts LN Engineering, the AOS is an emissions device that applies a small amount of vacuum to the crankcase to collect any oil blow-by and run it through the engine again. When it fails, it can create excess vacuum, pulling too much oil into the intake and creating a smoky exhaust—particularly during a cold start or at high RPMs. Pelican Parts says an AOS replacement is roughly a three-hour job for a competent home mechanic with a sub-$200 parts bill. If you’re taking it to a shop, figure $800-1000.
Given the mileage, valve guide and piston wear could also be a factor. I’d want to see compression numbers and a borescope on all cylinders, which can be accomplished by dropping the oil pan during a PPI. But I’m not as pessimistic as the owner in thinking a new engine is needed. These are tough motors, and they can go the distance if cared for properly.
There’s also no mention of an intermediate shaft (IMS) bearing replacement on the 3.6-liter flat-six, but I’m actually less concerned than I would be on a lower-mileage car. At over 350,000 miles, the clutch has almost certainly been changed at least twice, and it’s routine procedure to check the IMS bearing for wear during a clutch job. The failure rate is lower than people think, and it typically happens with cars that sit and dry out rather than those that circulate their oil regularly.
It’s really everything else that starts to become a question mark at this high of a mileage. The gearbox’s synchromesh could be totally worn out and require an expensive rebuild, especially if it’s spent its life in LA traffic. The suspension and interior also merit further inspections, as 996s featured plastic-fantastic switchgear that isn’t known for its longevity.
I was lucky enough to snag a 1999 911 for around this price in early 2021. I bought it with the “big three”—a documented clutch change and IMS upgrade, as well as a recently-replaced AOS. It also had new VarioCam pads and less than one-third the mileage this one does. Since then, I’ve spent $3,000 on consumables and roughly $6,000 on maintenance and repairs to get the car to a place I’m happy with.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m thrilled with my purchase, and there’s nothing else I’d rather drive for around $20,000 all-in. But this was an inflation-adjusted $120,000 car when new, and the parts prices will make you feel it.
If you want a nice 996 with no asterisks, they’re out there for between $25,000 and $30,000. But if you’re wistful for the days when a ratty SC was eight grand and want to roll the dice on this high-miler, I won’t stand between you and happiness. Just do it with your eyes wide open.