Porsche Boxster (986), 1996, Porsche AG
Porsche Boxster (986), 1996, Porsche AG

Back in 1995 Porsche was in a mess. The flagship 928 GTS was at the end of the line and selling very poorly. While the 928 remains my favourite Porsche by miles, it cannot be denied that it had seen little in the way of modernising investment since the introduction of the GTS in 1992. It was emblematic of the problems with the production car model range. What could be done to stem the losses and modernise? The Boxster (986) - that's what. Officially, 164,875 Porsche Boxster (986) vehicles were produced across the range of models between model year 1997 and 2004 - saving the company and its brand from an uncertain future and paving the way for modern production practices.

By 1995 the whole range were cars from an earlier era, with panel fit and instruments and door cards to match. These fine cars were not capable of securing the future for Porsche because, in reality, everything about them from production to servicing was from a bygone age. Even the 968 by now was far from being an entry level car and was strongly derived from the 944 and the 924 before that which was originally designed for Volkswagen.

These were all 70’s vehicle platforms from a time before the idea of a vehicle platform even existed. They had quite different in styles, type of engine and design and were hard to position as a family of models despite uniformity of paint colours and similarities of interior trim each year. Parts and even seemingly identical wheels were often incompatible between models. Porsche was heading for the millennium. Something had to change.

Porsche executives must have already known by 1995 that they needed to rethink their entire product line. Can you imagine being the first person in an important meeting to say ‘we need a completely new range of models’? It would have been a courageous thing to say. But it must have happened before the end of the line for the 968, 993 and 928. This is not to say that Porsche is not all about continuous innovation. Of course it is. But still. Declaring all the current models obsolete at one time would have been profound.

A couple of years previously, in 1993, Porsche showcased a mid engined roadster concept at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit and after what they called a strong positive reaction to the car, said to be inspired by the 550 Spyder, Porsche confirmed that it would be put into production. It was positioned as a sporty mid-engined roadster, at a lower cost than a 911, for image conscious 90’s James Deans, and was to share much of the engine technology, suspension, front end design including bonnet, headlight units, front wings and doors as well as interior elements with the planned new water cooled 996 model 911.

Around this time Porsche was in dire straits financially and consulted extensively on how to rejuvenate its production methods so as to produce more hand finished cars with the extremely high quality Porsche were associated with and yet more with more efficiency in production than previously. The result was new tooling and new production methods for the far finer tolerances of modern car production than you would have found on the 968, 993 and 928 model lines with their bigger bolts and wide panel gaps. Wholesale changes were made to the organisation of production. This involved delivery of the various specified components for each individual car right where they were needed for assembly. This just-in-time parts and component delivery system allowed the new model Boxster (986) and 911 (996) to gain the benefits of these efficiencies which could be passed on to customers in competitive prices. On a tour of the factory I watched a team assemble interior trim for a car, fitting the precise colour and type of leather in place for the car that was then on its way down the production line. No boxes of parts in another warehouse anymore, no frantic searching for that special part and no delays. It was modern, and cost effective. These changes allowed Porsche to be more competitive although as always, the only limit to your personal individual vehicles cost was your imagination.

Porsche, in 1996 said “There are mass produced roadsters, and there’s the Boxster. The Boxster was developed from scratch as a completely new car. Its design is not based on a search for synergy, nor is it a computer product. It was born in the imagination and passion of a small group of people.” (The Boxster - 8/96 WVK 146 020 97 E/WW)

The Boxster (986) started production in 1996, on the former Porsche 928 production line, marking the end of the line for the Car of the year 1978 but the beginning of a new era for Porsche, so much so that they excitedly labelled it the “First Porsche for the 21st Century”.

Boxster (986)

The Boxster (986), (Model year 1997-2004) was the first mid engined roadster for Porsche since the 914 ended production in 1976.

The first generation production cars retained the main cues of the 1993 mid engined roadster concept car with some compromises for mass production and to reflect the shared 996 technology. The body shell was manufactured largely of galvanised steel though you could order an optional aluminium hard top which had its own heated rear screen because the hood had a soft plastic screen. The car was mid engined, rear wheel drive, and powered by a new water cooled 24 valve 2.5 litre flat-six horizontally opposed (boxer) engine. A retractible spoiler reduced rear axle lift at higher speeds, and the underside of the car was covered to provide better aerodynamics as well as to protect the car.

The interior of the Porsche Boxster (986)

The Boxster (986) had front and rear luggage compartments with a capacity of 130 litres each, a front roll-over bar integrated into the frame of the windscreen, rear roll-over bars, a four spoke steering wheel and an automatic hood. An optional roof transport system could allow for an extra 75 kg of additional carrying capacity with the roof open or closed or with the hard top fitted although a large amount of the grace of the look of the car was lost when it was fitted, you would not be able to deny the practicality provided.

The instrument panel had a large analogue rev counter in the centre with a digital speed indicator below it. You could pre-set a speed warning. The analogue speed indicator is to the left of the rev counter. A digital clock, analog coolant and fuel level indicators and gear selected indicator (for Tiptronic S models) is on the right.

The engine of the Porche Boxster (986)

The engine was of open-deck construction which meant that all the lines and channels required for both oil and water were part of the casting of the engine and not post casting production processes. This meant that most ancillary pipes and tubing were also not required, potentially reducing failure points over time. The alternator, power steering pump and air conditioning were driven by a single self adjusting belt.

Porsche had delivered a low engine noise engine, which needed less oil. Noise and vibration was also managed through the ‘hydro’ mounting blocks, one for the engine, and two for the gearbox, which in addition to cable linked gearstick, were all designed to prevent vibration reaching the body and thus the occupant of the car. The water cooling was designed to be cross-flow so as to ensure all cylinders were provided with coolant equally. The engine had integrated dry sump lubrication, designed to ensure optimum oil consistency under all performance circumstances. The camshafts and countershafts were chain driven and were said not need to be serviced or replaced throughout the lifetime of the car. These had been expensive service items with defined lifetimes on previous models.

The engine management was Motronic M5.2. The ignition system did not require high tension (HT) leads as instead of a central ignition coil and distributor, Motronic managed individual coils directly on the spark plugs. Motronic also provided for on-board diagnosis as well as constant monitoring of ignition timing, fuel injection, anti-knock, idle control and VarioCam.

VarioCam was Porches own variable timing chain tension system for lower emissions and steadier low speed idling, yet boosted mid range torque and maximum performance at higher engine revolutions. A perfect set of capabilities. Porsche said of the engine at the time that ‘only this configuration meets the tough requirements which make it suitable for everyday use’. It is notable that a boxer configuration with horizontally opposed cylinders reduces engine height. This in turn left enough space above the engine to store the hood without compromising the lines of the car.

Each bank of cylinders had its own separate exhaust system. The Motronic management of these via stereo Lambda probes enabled adjustment of the fuel-air mixture to be made for each bank in order to provide for optimum performance and control.

Gearboxes for the Porsche Boxster (986)

Standard specification was 5 speed manual close ratio gearbox with cable operation and a hydraulic clutch or 5 speed Tiptronic S (with five automatic gear shift programmes from economical leisure driving to sport for maximum performance). Tiptronic S also allowed you to choose fully automatic or manual gear selection and in automatic mode provided protection from inadvertent up changes during lateral acceleration in bends in the road. While not as simple perhaps as todays paddle shift designs, the rocker switches for changing gear on the steering wheel were easy to operate and faster than manual changes all without taking hands off the steering wheel.

Optional sports suspension

Optionally, the Boxster (986) could be ordered with a 10mm lower suspension with 17in wheels and traction control with shorter, harder springs and stiffer shock absorbers. Comfort was lessened but handling was greatly improved.

Monobloc brakes

The Boxster (986) was the first production car in the world to be fitted with monobloc brake callipers, originally developed for endurance racing and then Formula One. They save on weight and offer outstanding performance even under sustained use. The Boxster (986) had ABS as standard and optional traction control which comprised a combination of automatic brake differential (ABD) and an anti-slip mechanism (ASR) for optimum straight line stability.

Contemporary opinion

Peter Robinson from ‘Wheels’ wrote, in 1996: “The Boxster, then, is a proper Porsche, a return to the company’s original philosophies, wrapped in an entirely contemporary package. No other roadster offers the same blend of performance, handling, ride and refinement. Yes, it is dynamically superior to the classic 911, if not quite as quick.” Porsche sold some 16,000 in the first year of production. The Boxster (986) was a hit.

Model year progression for the Porsche Boxster (986)

In 1997, Porsche subcontracted some manufacturing to Valmet in Finland, previously builders of many Saab models among other things, such was the demand for the new model. These cars, the majority of 986 production, can be identified by the 11th letter in the VIN number, U for Uusikaupunki, the location of Valmet Automotive factory and 'Made in Finland' on the door sticker. S for Stuttgart and 'Made in Germany' was only for a small minority of Boxster (986) verhicles. There is no difference in quality between the two locations and it does not seem to be possible to identify what, might have caused a 986 to be assembled in Stuttgart after 1997 model year production began.

Boxster S (986)Boxster S (986), 1999, Porsche AGBoxster S (986), 1999, Porsche AG

From model year 2000-2002 the Boxster (986) engine was increased in capacity to 2.7 litres and the Boxster S (986) was introduced with a 3.2 litre engine. Porsche also added side impact protection system (POSIP) and a special black, soft-look paint finish on interior trim. The Four-spoke steering wheel gained a full size airbag, and seats were available in alcantara. The Boxster S (986) had twin exhausts, air conditioning, part leather interior, an interior alam, a three spoke steering wheel with full size airbag, a Boxster S logo on the central console and door entry guard, and aluminium finish on many interior parts.

In 2002 a facelift brought some chassis optimisations and a proper glovebox, a new hood mechanism, glass rear window and emergency release for the trunk. Previously it was perilous risk to let the battery go flat, as you could no longer get access to charge it. Changes to the steering wheel and exhaust helped freshen things up. In 2003 cup holders made an appearance below a restyled central air vent. Cars with leather would now have interior colour steering wheel, gear lever/Tiptronic selector, door handle and handbrake lever. A single disk CD player CDR-23 was standard and a six CD auto changer was an option. Park assist was an option. PCM based nav and telephone was also an option. Wheels options were 17in Boxster S II for Boxster, (standard for S), 18in Carrera, and 18in Tubo Look II.

From 2003 power and torque were increased again. Fuel economy improved slightly. The engine management system was updated to Motronic 7.8. A new exhaust system and tailpipe design provided an improved engine sound.

Lots of owners updated their cars to have glass rear windows and to have clear turn signals instead of amber. These were the main ‘tells’ that you had a facelift model and with new wheels Boxster S II wheels which were now standard on the Boxster S (986) and optional on the Boxster (986), you would be hard pressed to identify an updated older car. These new wheels were lighter, resulting in a reduction in unsprung weight which provided an improvement in ride and handling.

If you wanted to be sure you were looking at a 2003 or later car you might look for the redesigned front apron, new front air inlets with slats matched to exterior colour designed to enhance air flow to the radiators and a corresponding similar theme for the rear apron. Restyled tail pipes. White front indicator lenses, grey side and read indicator lenses. Restyled rear spoiler to match the styling of the rear light lenses. Larger side air intakes flush with the exterior and finished to exterior colour. Heated glass screen in restyled hood. Lagoon Green metallic and Midnight Blue metallic were new colours.

Porsche Boxster S Special Edition "50 years of the 550 Spyder" (986)

Boxster S Special Edition-"50 years of the 550 Spyder"(986), 2003, Porsche AG
Boxster S Special Edition "50 years of the 550 Spyder" (986), 2003, Porsche AG

For model year 2004, a special-edition model was created called the “50 Jahre 550 Spyder”. This was limited to 1953 units in GT Silver with special painted alloy wheels, a cocoa brown or grey interior, a numbered plaque under the centre vents and sports suspension. Porsche squeezed yet more power out of the engine for this special edition Boxster (986). Specifications and condition now vary so look for one loaded with extras, and although this article isnt meant to be a buyers guide to the Porsche Boxster (986) this would seem to be the model of choice, especially if you are specifically considering a Porsche Boxster (986).

Porsche Boxster type 986 model variations by model year

Porsche Boxster type number 986 variations by model year
  Boxster Boxster Boxster S Boxster Boxster S Boxster S 550 Spyder
Model year 1997-1999 2000-2002 2003-2004 2004
Units produced 164,874
Units by model 55,705  40,937  35,575  17,325  13,368   1,964* 
Power 150 kW (204 hp) 162 kW (220 hp)  185 kW (252 hp)  168 kW (228 hp) 191 kW (260 hp) 196 kW (266 hp) 
Displacement 2480 ccm  2687 ccm  3179 ccm  2687 ccm 3179 ccm  
Torque 245 Nm  260 Nm  305 Nm  260 Nm 310 Nm   
Maximum Speed 240 kph 235 kph 250 kph 245 kph 260 kph 255 kph 264 kph 248 kph 264 kph 258 kph 266 kph  
0-100 kph 6.9 s 7.6 s 6.6 s 7.4 s 5.9 s 6.5 s 5.7 s 7.3 s 5.7 s 6.4 s 5.7 s 6.4 s
    Tiptronic S   Tiptronic S   Tiptronic S   Tiptronic S   Tiptronic S   Tiptronic S
            *Limited to 1953 units 
 Source: media.porsche.com