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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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Opinion: Why the 991 is a bigger Porsche 911 revolution than the 996

The covers are pulled off and the crowd falls into a stunned silence. Gone are the circular headlights that had survived since the Porsche 911’s genesis in 1963, replaced by some curved units that share more than a passing resemblance to a pair of fried eggs.

Wendelin Wiedeking then steps forward and begins singing the praises of the new Porsche 911’s water-cooled flat six engine. “Water-cooled?” The whispers grow among the assembly of international journalists before they frantically pen a single word into their complimentary notepads: ‘Revolution’.

Okay, so this isn’t how the launch of the Porsche 996 really went in 1998 but its how I like to imagine such a radical change to the 911 concept was received after 35 years of air-cooled flat sixes.

Porsche 996 Carrera Gen1

Coupled with its divisive aesthetics (which were revised for the second generation in 2001) and the fact that around 50 per cent of its components were shared with the then-new Porsche Boxster, it was no wonder that the Porsche 996 was a hard pill to swallow for Zuffenhausen traditionalists.

As the first Porsche 911 of a brave new era, the 996 has come in for its fair share of flack, gaining an unfavourable reputation that hasn’t been helped by the M96 engine’s ability to randomly grenade itself because of the IMS design flaw (a thankfully rare occurrence).

However, for all its revolutionary spirit, the change from Porsche 993 to 996 is, in my opinion, nowhere near the jump that has been made graduating from the Porsche 997 to the latest 991-type generation. Here’s why…

Porsche 996 Carrera Gen2 engine

The Porsche 993 feels immeasurably more modern to drive than its own predecessor the 964. Because of this, while the Porsche 996 has an abundance of grip, it didn’t feel like such a huge dynamic step (even if the water-cooled powerplant was noticeably more advanced).

By comparison, stepping from a Porsche 997 (even a second generation one) into a new Porsche 991 is a completely different dynamic ball game. With an extra 100mm in the wheelbase compared to the 996 and 997, the Porsche 991 has dramatically shifted the weight balance towards the car’s centre.

This has markedly improved the car’s balance, while the abundance of electronic controls prevalent in the 991 make things like trail braking (a potentially risky business in the 997) second nature. Get it wrong and the excellent aids will often catch you.

Porsche 991 Carrera driving

Throughout the 21st Century, Porsche has been developing numerous electro-mechanical systems such as PSM, PASM and PTV but not until the Porsche 991 have they been all combined in one devastatingly effective package.

It’s one of the reasons why some people feel the 991 marks the beginning of the end for traditional Porsche enthusiasts. It is, in their eyes, too benign, too easy, too soulless. This isn’t helped by Zuffenhausen’s move to electrically-assisted power steering, another leap away from the 996/997 concept.

Inside, while the five-dial dashboard remains, the fourth pod is now digital, while the centre console raises out of the floor pan in Panamera-esque fashion. The dashboard itself is much longer than the 997 too, making it feel like you sit further back in the car than ever before.

Porsche 991 interior driving

The manual gearbox option is now seven, rather than six, speeds though PDK is now king. When the 996 was introduced, Tiptronic was the automatic shifting method of choice but the latest dual-clutch ‘box blows it into the water with its incredibly slick shifting.

Therefore, while the styling of the 991 may be more traditional than the 996 (despite the former’s extra girth), it is a truly ground-breaking car. The Porsche 996 may have been the birth of the water-cooled 911 but the 991 is the birth of the computer-controlled 911. In my eyes, that is an even bigger leap into the unknown.

Do you agree with Josh? Is the Porsche 991 more revolutionary than the Porsche 996? Join the debate in the comments section below or head to our Facebook and Twitter pages now.

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Total 911’s top seven water-cooled Porsche 911s of all time

Some Porsche 911 enthusiasts decried the move away from air-cooling in 1998 however, from the 996 generation to the latest 991-type 911s, Zuffenhausen has proved that water-cooling can still produce awesome sports car, as these superb seven prove:

7) Porsche 996 Turbo with X50
Porsche 996 Turbo

As the first water-cooled production 911 Turbo, the 996 Turbo helped to modernise the forced-induction Porsche platform. With the optional X50 Powerkit (the same as the Turbo S), the Turbo becomes an exciting all-rounder, especially in manual form, and currently available at sensible money.

6) Porsche 991 50 Jahre Anniversary
Porsche 991 Anniversary

Normally the Carrera models are outshone by their more illustrious Turbo and GT3 cousins however, the 50 Jahre Anniversary Edition is one of the most special water-cooled 911s we’ve ever driven. Porsche really made an effort with this particular anniversary model, adding the widebody and numerous retro touches.

5) Porsche 996 GT3 Mk2
Porsche 996 GT3 Mk2

This list could easily have been populated with 911 GT3s and their Rennsport derivatives but, if we had to chose just one of these ‘racers for the road’, the second generation 996 GT3 stands out. With improved handling compared to the Mk1 (and arguably better looks) the 996 GT3 Mk2 is also the most affordable GT3 currently available.

4) Porsche 997 GT2 RS
Porsche 997 GT2 RS

Will Porsche ever build a car like the 997 GT2 RS again? It looks doubtful with rumours that the 991 will be bereft of even a standard GT2 variant. The GT2 RS is the fastest production 911 ever built, with a formidable reputation thanks to its 620bhp transferred purely to the rear wheels through a manual gearbox.

3) Porsche 997 Carrera GTS
Porsche 997 Carrera GTS

The Porsche 997 Carrera GTS is quickly rising to the status of modern classic and, like the 991 Anniversary Edition, it is easy to see why. With its mix of centre-lock RS Spyder wheels, Carrera 4 body shell, as well as Powerkit as standard, the GTS is one of the best 911 all-rounders ever.

2) Porsche 991 Turbo S
Porsche 991 Turbo S

The latest 911 Turbo S is one of Porsche’s finest technological feats. It is supremely comfortable yet still maintains a devastating turn of pace. The mandatory PDK gearbox enables timewarping acceleration, while the 991 Turbo S’s chassis provides prodigious grip, making even average drivers feel excellent.

1) Porsche 997 GT3 RS 4.0
Porsche 997 GT3 RS 4.0

As this list wore on, you probably assumed this would be the car at number one. Produced in limited numbers, the 997 GT3 RS 4.0 stretched the legendary ‘Mezger’ flat six to its limits and, with a number of motorsport-inspired touches, the last Porsche 911 GT3 RS was easily the best. It’s legendary status is already guaranteed.

Do you agree with our choices? What would be your ideal water-cooled Porsche 911? Join the debate in the comments below, or head to our Facebook and Twitter pages now.

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