Building a Beater Porsche 911 Is Incredibly Freeing

This $11,500 996 will never be a show car. But a few crucial upgrades make it perfect for enjoying a back road or a road trip.
Black Porsche 911 gleaming on a bridge.
Maddox Kay

“Buy the best example you can afford,” says the conventional enthusiast-car buying advice. That’s great and all, if you have both the disposable income and imagination of a Wall Street trader. I have neither, so when buying cars, I employ a strategy I call “minimum viable product.”

In business terms, a minimum viable product is a half-baked first batch of something that a company puts out to test a concept in the market. In car-buying terms, it’s similar: I want to spend the least amount of money possible to experience something that ticks certain boxes. I have a few ground rules: I steer clear of salvage titles and body rust (usually). Miles are much less important to me than service history and overall condition. A car might have some mechanical issues that need to be set right, but they’re generally not things that would keep me from driving the car as I work on it.

JDM, Euros, and classic American muscle: see previous project car diary entries here.

Finally, I know I’m not just buying the car—I’m buying the previous owner’s upkeep. I’m looking for someone who can be honest and upfront with me about the car’s condition, any known issues, and what their ownership experience has been like.

That’s the recipe I followed when buying my 1999 ‘996’ Porsche 911 three years ago. It had 104,000 miles and cosmetic imperfections galore, from a peppered front bumper and torn seats to faded center caps and foggy headlights. It’s also the slightly less-desirable all-wheel-drive Carrera 4 model, which weighs an extra 100 pounds and missed out on the cable throttle of its rear-drive sibling. But for four-season grand touring and backroad bombing here in the Northeastern U.S.? I daresay it’s perfect. Crucially, it also came with a receipt for a recent clutch and IMS bearing change, knocking out a major bogeyman.


Nearly any used car will require some sorting, doubly so for a high-mileage European sports car. Thanks to a pre-purchase inspection, I knew the 996 needed brake pads, rotors, and tires, so I replaced those safety-crucial items and changed a laundry list of fluids and filters. Then, I drove the hell out of it—adding 22,000 miles since April 2021, to be precise. It’s been to North Carolina twice, Canada once, and all over the Northeastern U.S. I even moved to New York City with it as my only car.

Maddox Kay

Small issues cropped up: a rattly muffler, a dead starter, and a freak issue where the serpentine belt shredded itself on a pulley groove. None of these issues sidelined the car for more than a week, and I developed a relationship with an expert local mechanic for issues I can’t tackle in my rented garage spot. (Shoutout to Cheech and Rennwerke in Elmsford, NY.) 

The biggest problems have occurred when I’ve let the car sit—such as a four-week idle period in a friend’s driveway after which I returned to find mice had chewed through the car’s wiring harness. Now, I keep it in a clean garage and follow Andrew Collins’ mouse prevention advice.

Making it My Own

Last year, with the 996 in a good place mechanically, I decided to add some performance and quality-of-life upgrades to the mix. The first order of business was replacing the stock, unsupportive seats with buckets. I’ve sat in stock Porsche seats from the ‘80s and 2010s and had no issue, but for some reason the 996 seats never worked for me. I found them overstuffed and under bolstered, with a too-high seating position for a sports car. So, using Facebook Marketplace, I scoped out a set of Recaro Pole Positions with tartan plaid inserts.

Now, a $3000 pair of seats in a $12,000 car sounds excessive because it is. Let me explain. I’ve always wanted plaid seats in a car, and I believe in paying up for high-quality safety equipment. Recaro has a proven track record of safety, and the 996 has its side airbags in the doors and not the seats, so I felt comfortable replacing a stock part with a well-engineered one. Now I sit much lower and more comfortably and can steer with my fingertips on mountain runs instead of flailing around for support.

I also picked up an IPD intake plenum to increase throttle response and high-RPM power. Known as the “Y-plenum,” the design speeds up the air inside the intake and increases flow. It feels like it makes the car pull harder, and definitely adds a deeper intake note above 4,000 rpm.

The Most Crucial, Satisfying, and Worthwhile Upgrade

Next, I wanted a set of lightweight wheels with stickier tires. I picked up a set of lightly-used gunmetal grey O.Z. Allegeritas last fall—a popular choice in the 996 community because of their light weight and good looks. This spring, Continental sent over a set of their new ExtremeContact Summer 02 tires to test, and so far they’ve exceeded expectations. Turn-in is much snappier with a huge increase in front-end grip compared to the Michelin PS4 all-seasons I was running previously. I know it’s not fair to compare a summer tire to a performance all-season, but I’ve driven the Contis in 50-85 degree temps and through sunny and rainy conditions so far, and they’ve been communicative, responsive, and confidence-inspiring. Even the ride feels smoother, due to less unsprung weight from the O.Z.s and a softer rubber compound.

The ECS02s are a performance summer tire optimized for dry and wet conditions, but not for sub-freezing temps or snow. They have a Y speed rating, meaning they’ve been tested at speeds above 186 mph (I don’t plan to validate that one, but it’s nice to know), and an ample 340 treadwear rating. Treadwear ratings are notoriously hard to understand, but Continental gives these a 30,000-mile warranty, or 15,000 when running staggered widths (as in my case). They also rock Continental’s Tuned Performance Indicators: nifty “D” and “W” symbols baked into the tread blocks that fade as the tire wears down and can no longer offer optimal dry or wet grip, respectively.

If you’re looking to get the most out of your sporty car, switching out an all-season for a summer tire is one of the best, most cost-effective ways to improve grip and driver feedback. Temperatures and tire strategies vary, but in four-season climates you can generally run a summer tire from around April through November. I use Thanksgiving and Easter as rough indicators of when to switch over to winters and vice versa, but temperatures above 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit are generally fair game for a summer compound. In some mild-weather climates like Southern California, you can even run them year-round. Paired with the lighter wheels, this has been the most satisfying upgrade I’ve made. 

The Project Never Ends

There’s still a lot I want to do. This fall, I’m planning to tackle a refresh of the mostly-original suspension. It handles well and nothing’s leaking, but with 125,000 miles and plenty of potholes under their belt, I have to believe the shocks aren’t performing at their best. I want to keep it factory with Porsche’s Euro M030 kit—the inch-lower sport suspension and bigger anti-roll bars the rest of the world got. After that, maybe a mild exhaust? I don’t know, I kind of like flying under the radar.

Maddox Kay

One of the things I love most about this car is that it’ll never be perfect, and therefore I’m free to do with it as I please. Three years later, I’m about $20,000 into my $12,000 911 including the initial purchase price, but if I’d gone out and bought a “nicer” example for $25,000 or $30,000, I wouldn’t have had the funds to experiment with it or learn from the process. Going this route has been incredibly liberating.

With 996s getting more love today, people often ask me when I plan to repaint the front bumper or take care of the exterior cosmetics. I typically laugh and say “ask me in 20 years.” I’m not a fan of the word “never,” but where some see this car’s rock chips and scars as evidence of mistreatment, I see the opposite. It’s living the life it was supposed to live: Being driven, maintained, and enjoyed. As long as I’m its custodian, I plan to keep it that way.