There was a time when the 911 GT3 was the backbone of the high-end track day market. For 15 years, and through successive generations, the 996 and 997 GT3s ruled this niche almost without rival. Anything from Ferrari was much more expensive to acquire and considerably more indulgent to run, whereas BMW M3s and the like simply didn’t offer the same level of performance and durability, at least straight from the box.
Yet times are a changing. A corollary of the surge in GT3 prices is the inevitable unease about exposing such a prime investment to the rigours and potential panel bending disaster of serious track work. Moreover, there are many would-be track day drivers who have now been priced out of the market altogether. What can be done about this situation?
The answer might just be parked in front of me at our familiar Longcross testing facility. Two 997 Carreras, or should that be a pair of 997 GT3s? At a quick glance they’re convincing, not so much for the aero kit – which some specified from new and has never signified a GT3 on its own – but mainly because of their stance and the GT3-style centre exit exhaust.
These two 997 GT3 clones are more than mere wannabes. Both combine the ‘look’ with realistic 400bhp power outputs and all for a fraction of the price of the ‘too precious to use’ real thing. What, then, of our black car? It’s clearly riffing off the Gen I 997 GT3 RS look with its orange wheels and mirrors, but owner James Tyson is aghast that it should be seen as a replica: “I didn’t want it to be something it wasn’t”, he says emphatically.
James has owned a number of performance cars over the years, and has bought a couple of Boxsters in the past as summer cars, trading them in at the end of the season. At the end of last year he saw, then acquired, this 997 Carrera – with the standard 3.6-litre engine – as he says, “on the spur of the moment. I knew nothing about Porsches”. That was quite, err, brave…
Described by James at the point of purchase as “a ropey job on an RS takeoff; unloved, with lots of miles”, this 2006 black and orange replica did at least feature a high spec, with Sport Chrono and ceramic brakes among them. The Gen II GT3 bumper was already present, but James and his chosen specialist, Addspeed Performance Cars in Horsham, Surrey, did a number of tidying up jobs and renewed much of the suspension including fitting Eibach springs. The brake calipers were rebuilt and painted black, thereby preventing the orange-yellow colour clash of the standard PCCB items.
Come the spring of 2015 and the car was ready to go, shorn of RS badging and driving much more as it should. James decided to take the car to a track evening at Brands Hatch. Now, bear in mind that the engine had been boroscoped in the past, and the head gaskets changed, our owner felt he was on fairly safe ground, but did wonder if the car felt a little sluggish on the way there…
James describes the actual moment of destruction as being “A rumble, then a puff of smoke”. With the car back at Addspeed the awful truth was apparent. The number six conrod had parted company with the crankshaft and in the ensuing carnage had destroyed everything in the engine.
Suddenly, James’ cheap 997 purchase, made on a whim, was looking like an expensive nightmare.
Turning a negative into a positive, our owner set out to future-proof his engine for trackdays, as well as increasing its performance. Given he had nothing viable to exchange – his incumbent engine being just about useless – it proved a difficult job to move the project forward without horrendous costs incurred. He located a crankshaft from a 997, and the block out of a 3.6-litre Mk2 996, and then began to speak to Specialist Vehicle Preparations based near Droitwich. We’ve driven SVP’s work in 911s and Cayman before at 911 & Porsche World, and come away impressed. SVP took the block out to 3.9- litres, with JE pistons and Carillo rods. The engine was then built up at Addspeed, with another pair of 3.8-litre cylinder heads as the first lot were discovered to be unviable. These heads were ported and polished, with bespoke oil breather and cooler made up: technically this mongrel of a water-cooled engine is two different engines-in-one.
But like a lot of mongrels of the canine type, these are often the most loveable of things, and so it proves here. James’ car is only just coming to the end of its running in period, but already the performance is superb – virtually a match for the WaffZuff car and with a very useable band of torque across a wide rev range. Given its starting point I think this is both a major achievement and also hugely interesting: it shows that keeping faith with a car, even a relatively new one like a 997, can be rewarded in the long term, and that the idea of customisation is alive and kicking in the ‘modern’ Porsche world.
The more you hear about the work that’s gone into this car, the more engrossing it gets. The finishing touch on James’ car is the ‘3.9’ logo so very subtly applied to the rear wing end plate. Jump inside and it’s standard 997 again, and very useable as a result. With GT3 suspension geometry and a broadly similar spec to the white car, it’s not surprising that it drives in much the same way. Any differences that are there are very slight. It goes, stops and steers in a way that is both entertaining, but also seriously quick even by the very latest of modern standards.
James reflects on the considerable sums that he’s had to spend to reach this point, and a fair calculation is that he’s ended up shelling out perhaps half of what a nice 997 GT3 would have cost him. Five years ago that would simply not have been the end equation, before the surge in car values, but these days the logic is sound. It hasn’t all been straightforward though: due to the bespoke nature of the build, particularly with the engine, every element that has been introduced to the car has initially not fitted and required further work. That’s incurred additional time and cost, but as James remarks now with pride: “We’ve brought this car back from the dead”. Having driven it, I’d say it has been well worth it.
911 & Porsche World. Words: Adam Towler. Pictures: Antony Fraser