If you delve into the comment section on an episode of Tom Cotter’s Barn Find Hunter series on Hagerty’s YouTube Channel, you’ll find some enthusiasts view the dusty, moldering expanses of Mopars and Mercurys less as an exciting archeological survey of unearthed automotive riches, and more as a cautionary tale to drive and enjoy your cars lest they rot.
A noble sentiment. But not all enthusiasts have space, storage, cash, a reliable shop, or a combination of all these factors. Some cars are one big bill away from being parked for decades. Or, maybe not so big; life has a way of pouring coolant in our oil from time to time.
Ask me how I know. Or maybe ask my 2002 Porsche 996 Carrera that, until two weeks ago, was an inoperable and very dirty albatross around my neck.
The more a car sits, the more the problems, bills, and guilt compounds. Prior to its recent resuscitation, I fed and nurtured an unbreakable loop of “I’ll get around to it when [X].” The variable input here is a rotation of [more money], [time], and/or [not lazy]. It sat for a little more than a full year before I decided to solve for [X].
Even six months in, I was sure I was screwed. I knew—I knew—the car would exit its dusty carport with rodent-gnawed wiring, congealed oil, locked brakes, varnished fuel, and a moldy interior. It wasn’t until over a full year in when I got a grim telehealth prognosis that lit a fire under my ass.
“What’s the worst thing you can do to a 996?”
I already knew the answer, but I had to ask. I’m a supplicant to my neuroses, and there was no way, no how I would finish my visit earlier this year to Flat Six Innovations without inducing a low-grade anxiety spiral. Jake Raby’s rural Georgia workshop is sanctum sanctorum for anyone emotionally involved with a Porsche 996, with Raby himself as the ultra-maestro behind what are inarguably the best M96 and M97 engine builds this side of Neptune. On the subject of 911 engines, his word is gospel.
“The worst thing you can do to a 996 is let it sit,” Raby said bluntly.
2,300 miles away, my 996 sat. “What year is your car?” Raby asked after I fessed to this neglect. I told him it was a 2002 Carrera. “3.6? Ah, so that’s the worst one too, at least from a mechanical standpoint,” he explained as my life expectancy visibly wicked away. “Those engines have a higher amount of fail points than any other variant of M96.” My gut felt as though I swallowed a brake caliper.
It’s not like I planned on mothballing the 996 for so long. Heck, I parked the Carrera sometime in late 2020—maybe early 2021—as a healthy, running car. There were a few things on my checklist to fix, all non-critical. The fluids were fresh, the notorious IMS bearing was recently sorted, and the tires new. It ran and roared with alacrity unbecoming of its six-fig odo readout and its unshakable reputation as an intricately engineered German hand grenade.
Much of the motivation behind this hibernation arrived as a side-effect of my career. My previous post was at an in-market car magazine, cycling me through a ceaseless fleet of press cars that ranged from the basest Corolla to the latest ballistic from McLaren. It’s easier to navigate the broken and brutal roadways of Los Angeles in something soft and boring than sharp and thrilling, so mundane commutes were dispatched in a CR-V or BMW X7 or Acura MDX or whatever.
The 996 sat.
Supercars, Hellcats, M3s, and plenty of Porsches filled the gaps in my schedule like a light dusting of meth.
The 996 sat.
Here’s where I shift some blame unto the car itself. As is the case with most early 2000s German cars—or German cars of any vintage, really—the name of the game is excessive engineering and complication for the sake of complication.
Consider the location of my car’s battery. Porsche slotted it against the front firewall and just above the front trunk storage space. In the transition from the 996.1 (1999-2001) to the 996.2 (2002-2004), some genius decided the 996.1’s cable-operated frunk release lever to be too rustic, too agricultural. No, it’s most logical to lock the 996.2’s battery behind an electric frunk switch on the interior.
If your battery gets too low, you cannot pop the frunk lid to access said dead battery with the interior switch. Naturally, Porsche engineered an analog failsafe for just this occasion in the form of a braided-steel frunk release cable, only, it’s located in the passenger-side front wheel-well, behind the liner, and is usually only accessible if you remove a wheel and reach in with a coat hanger hook. German engineering!
Prior to the long sleep, I kept track of how long it had been since my last weekend drive and removed the almost-dead battery before it crossed the threshold of not being able to pop the frunk. With no outlets available in the parking area, I’d charge the battery inside my apartment before reinstalling it for a short drive. Of course, that workaround works only if you don’t have any longer-than-expected absences, which, inevitably I did. The battery died in the car.
The 996 sat.
I dreaded the resurrection ritual ahead of me. The battery was old, and way beyond jumping—an arcane and very sketchy process on the 996 that involves a tiny retractable jump post in the driver’s footwell—so a tow was required. Its tomb née carport is in an alarmingly narrow alleyway that runs alongside the apartment building, so getting a towtruck larger than one based on a standard HD chassis is impossible. Oh, and the building is constructed into the side of a slope, so the entrance ramp is far too steep to push the dead car up with only manpower.
This reckoning arrived after a year and a half, when I finally decided to take the first step in heeding Raby’s advice. The first tow truck from Hagerty Roadside Assistance couldn’t fit. The second truck made it down with only a picometer of clearance, but skedaddled when I sheepishly admitted I didn’t have the screw-in tow loop that slots in the front bumper. It was either find a tow hook, or risk ripping the front bumper off.
I sourced the requisite tow loop from the appointed shop. Not wanting to play tow-truck roulette, I called a few tow companies and shopped around my predicament. $250 got my car expertly extracted from its cavern and delivered for its health check.
This was the first time this specialty Porsche/BMW workshop had seen and serviced my car, and I gave them plenty heads-up on what to expect. I pre-approved a new battery, a full fluid change, and a fuel tank flush, alongside a paid walkthrough inspection with a master tech to see what’s gone to hell as a result of my neglect and what might need replacing in the future.
The tech gave it to me straight. The oil was…clean? The brake fluid had some water in it but that wasn’t a problem. Are you sure? He was. It was time to swap transmission fluid but the old stuff came out without shavings or glitter. I told him to check again.
It just got better and better. If you haven’t gleaned from this treatise or my prior dissertation on the wonders and woes of owning a fun car in LA, I’m nuts. I’m obsessed with classic cars, but driving them in LA traffic and around our awful infrastructure makes my teeth fall out from maintenance anxiety. I need to chase problems on an old(er) Porsche like I need a case of the mumps.
So, when the tech said, “I can’t imagine ever finding a mechanically cleaner 996 with this mileage,” my knees almost buckled. I bought this car from a dear friend who maintained it to an exacting degree, but I expected my 5,000 miles of driving and a year in the shadows to have unraveled all his good work.
I’ve put 78 miles on the 996 since it came back from the shop two weeks ago. It runs great. It runs like it was never parked in the first place. There are no electrical issues, no sagging body panels, no rust, no leaks. No smoke on startup, and no suspect sounds. The overrev counter was unremarkable, the camshaft deviation is essentially nil. My god, I lucked out.
Never again. You hear me? Never. Again. With less travel and other cars distracting me, this wonderful car is going to see substantially more seat time than it did before. There are things I’d like to fix, including the old wrap—long story—and shifting the aesthetics from faux-GT3 to that of a 996 GTS from an alternate timeline. But, that can wait.
Maybe this is your notice to yank off that car cover. Drop your ride down from those jackstands, and take it off the tender. There’s very little that can’t be fixed, and you never know—it could be a whole lot less catastrophic than you expected.