Under the Knife – Shrink to Fit

Today we feature a car that, thanks to a clever facelift, was finally given the desirability to match its dynamic qualities.

1999 Porsche Boxster 986 (c) topcarrating.com

The original 1996 Porsche Boxster 986 had all the right mechanical ingredients for a terrific sports car, and so it proved to be. However, the styling was a disappointment, particularly after the excitement generated by the pert and beautifully detailed 1993 Boxster Concept, first shown at the US Auto Show in January of that year.

Porsche’s severe financial difficulties during the 1990s forced the company to share as many components and body parts as possible between the 986 Boxster and new 996 generation 911. The Boxster was an unknown quantity in terms of sales potential, whereas the 911 was the mainstay of the company’s range, so it was the requirements for the latter that would be the dominant factor in specifying shared components.

1993 Porsche Boxster Concept (c) cartype.com

The common elements included all of the bodywork forward of the B-pillar, including the notorious and widely disliked large fried egg headlamp units. Because these components were designed primarily for the rear-engined 911 with its relatively long rear overhang, the front overhang ended up being rather too long for the mid-engined Boxster and its short tail.

The consequence was an inadvertent front to rear symmetry that gave the Boxster an unfortunate “is it coming or going” stance. Overall, the production Boxster looked rather over-bodied and flaccid for what was meant to be an athletic sports car. Inside, the shared dashboard and secondary controls were cheap and unpleasant, both to look at and use.

It is not unfair to say that the 986 sold primarily on its performance, handling and usability, rather than its appearance. A minor facelift in 2002, with new front and rear valances, and smoked rather than orange indicators, improved matters somewhat, but the overly large light clusters still dominated the heavy looking front end.

1996 Porsche Boxster 986 (c) porscheclubgb.com

In 2005, Porsche launched the second-generation Boxster 987, which was an extensive facelift of the 986 rather than an all-new car. The 987 retained the centre section of the original but was given a new and unique front end, no longer shared with the 911.

The front corners of the car were pulled back to reduce the apparent length of the overhang. Smaller oval headlamps were more appropriate to the scale of the car. At the rear, the 987 was given slightly smaller revised lamp units, the shape of which seemed to make the hips over the rear wheels look more prominent. On the flanks, tall and slim triangular engine air intakes replaced the inert looking  boxy originals. The wheel arches were enlarged to accommodate 19” wheels instead of the 18” maximum size for the 986.

The changes were individually all relatively minor, but together they transformed the appearance into something much more dynamic looking and desirable. Although the 987 shared exactly the same overall dimensions as the 986, the increased curvature of the front end (in plan view) larger wheel arches (and wheels) and more sophisticated shut-line management contrived to make it look smaller and altogether more taut and athletic, as though the body was stretched more tightly over the platform. A new and much higher quality dashboard and interior trim completed the overhaul.

2009 Porsche Boxster 987 (c) autovolo.co.uk

The impact of the revisions was much more apparent in reality than in photographs. I recall seeing my 987 parked next to a 986 and was amazed at the difference. So successful was the facelift that the 987 was widely perceived to be an all-new car. The 987 would remain in production until 2012, with just a minor facelift in 2008 which was limited to new lamps front and rear and revised bumpers.

2010 Porsche Boxster 987 (c) autoevolution.com

To my mind, the 986 to 987 transformation proves that how deftly the details in any design are handled really counts towards its overall perception, so much so I would argue that the 986 and 987 represent the least and most successful Boxster designs to date.  The subsequent 981 and 982 generation models are certainly handsome cars, but they lack the delicacy of the 987 and instead go for a more aggressively sporting look.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

32 thoughts on “Under the Knife – Shrink to Fit”

  1. As far as I’m concerned the 986’s main problem is the over-bodied look. It’s a bit longer than a 993. I wonder how many entry level cars were bigger than their more expensive siblings, when introduced. The 996 was of course bigger.

    I quite like the idea of all front lights in one unit on each side, but the execution of the fried egg units isn’t ideal. I’d prefer the 981 to a 987 if I’m honest. I like the 982 very much as well.

  2. Good morning Freerk. The 981 is indeed a very handsome car (but I would say that!) To my eyes, it looks more like a ‘mini supercar’ whereas the 987 is more delicate and pretty looking. A comparison of all three generations, 986, 987 and 981, all in Guards Red, a traditional Porsche colour:

    1. Hi Charles. That is indeed a lovely drawing:

      It’s instructive to compare the front and rear overhangs in the drawing with those of the yellow car above, which nicely illustrates the 986’s problem. I notice also that the drawing has the nice little uptick in the front bumper to wing panel gap, absent from the production 986 but introduced on the 987.

      God is in the details!

  3. Because the centre section of the 986 and 987 were identical, it was possible to put the complete 987 front end onto a 986, as can be seen below:

    Unfortunately, the 987 wheelarches, as well as being slightly bigger, had a wider and flatter lip than that of the 986, so the front and rear wheel arches no longer match in the car above. It wasn’t a conversion that made any financial sense either, unless you were repairing a crash-damaged 986 that needed a new front end, in which you were advertising that fact.

    Incidentally, the front bumper is, I think, from a 987 Cayman.

  4. I see the Boxter concept has reasonably slim windscreen pillars, while the production car does not.
    Yes the 987 is far better looking than the the 986. The 981 looks like a cross between a Lotus and a Toyota….

    1. “A cross between a Lotus and a Toyota”, Mervyn? Ouch! 🤐 I’m rather fond of my ‘Lotoyota'( or is it a ‘Toyotus’?) I’ll have you know!

    2. Why don’t people get it that this car is named Boxster -Boxer and Speedster?

    3. Hi Dave, often it’s autocorrect or Google Keyboard that is the unseen villain. Mine used always to correct ‘Boxster’ to ‘Boxer’ until I had typed the former dozens of times, undoing the ‘correction’ on every occasion.

    4. Boxer maybe, but Boxter can’t be the fault of auto correct but of the user.

    5. No autocorrect, and too early for sav blanc – just lack of concentration. I studied German at school in White Hart Lane and realised it was a rather clunky language, and Boxster is a pretty clunky name.
      The Speedster remember was a stripper entry-level 356, after which Porsche gave us such treats as 550, 904, 911, 928, 968, and Boxster ! What happened to their numerical naming system ? Did they think their new car unworthy of a traditional Porsche moniker ?

    6. Boxster or Boxter, it was a horribly contrived name then and remains one now. It screams Marketing.

    7. Here’s a Boxster with roof rack:

      It’S very useful because you can drive with the roof down and put something on the rack to prevent rain from getting into the car…

    8. I think Porsche is hedging its bets with the latest generation model, prefixing the Boxster and Cayman names with ‘718’. If that number had gained traction with customers, then the company might drop the names in the next generation but, as far as I can tell, it hasn’t.

      The situation is further confused by Porsche using three-digit numbers beginning with 9 to designate the different generations of both the 911 and Boxster/Cayman. The former were designated, in time order, 964, 993, 996, 997, 991 and 992. The latter were 986, 987, 981 and 982. So the current Boxster is the 982-generation 718 Boxster! It’s enough to give anyone a headache!

      Of course, it’s the 911 that’s now the exception in the Porsche model designation convention, being the only model in the range that doesn’t have a name.

    9. And of course the original 718 (RSK) was an evolution of the 550, their first ‘production’ mid-engined car.

    10. I guess their decision to give the Boxster a name, rather than a number, was in line with the fact that 911s didn’t feature numerical badges for quite a long time (they were just “Carrera”, “turbo” and so on, with the possible exception of one or two special versions). After the 918 Spyder and the reintroduction of 911 badges (since the facelifted 991 if I’m not wrong) it made sense to give the Boxster/Cayman a number, marking it as a traditional Porsche sportscar as opposed to one of their bread and butter four-door cars. But it also makes sense to keep using the two established model names in parallel (by the way, my impression was that the “-ster” stands for roadster, and not Speedster – Google and Wikipedia seem to agree with that).

  5. Prompted by Daniel’s article, I’ve been reading a bit about the Boxster and apparently one could order a cargo box to increase luggage capacity. The suitcase-like box sat on the rear of the car and obscured the high-mounted third brake lamp. So, Porsche incorporated a brake light in the cargo box – effectively meaning one could buy a suitcase with its own brake light.

    1. Just in case anyone thinks Charles is making that up (as I did, initially!) here it is:

      I wonder how it is attached?

      Actually, the luggage space in the Boxster is pretty good; a wide shallow boot at the back and a narrower but deep one at the front. We got enough in our 987 for a month spent in Ireland in late autumn, so heavier clothes required.

    2. Isn’t there also a roof rack that can be used irrespective of soft top position?

  6. I wanted to like the Boxster – I felt I ought to, since it seemed to have the engine in the right place, but.
    The 986 looked a bit odd – the high-point of the rear wing seemed too far back, the lights were unpleasant – and it sooned gained a reputation for mechanical issues. And Porsche were determined to keep the power options lower than the 911, even though the 911 had a compromised weight distribution. I thought the Cayman should be more premium than the 911, and it looked more “Porsche” than the Boxter.
    But at the end of the day, covid put a stop to much of peoples’ motoring. What do you do when you can’t drive your car – you just open the bonnet and polish the engine !

    1. In eleven years of Boxster ownership, I’ve never even seen the engines in either car, never mind polished them! Joking aside, the last 16 months have been pretty frustating with a car that serves no practical purpose but is entirely for pleasure. Roll on (some form of) normality.

  7. I hate the Boxster and I love it.

    I hate it because it’s a Porsche.
    (Of all the later Porsches, I would only take the 928 because my father was involved in it techniclialy design. Maybe the 944 because my father…you know).
    And I love it because it’s a Porsche, and I have memories with Ferry, and I was allowed to take part in the Boxster presentation – purly personal stupid memories.

    I can easily overlook the stylistic flaws that Daniel sees. More serious are the technical flaws of the first series. The engine is a bad design!
    Stop bashing the British brands and their allegedly deluded, incompetent engineers. In the middle of the 90s, this was happening in the heart of the German automotive world – as if they had learned nothing from the past. (And there is a funny anecdote to tell about the 924 becomming 944. German engineering, give me a break.)

    It should have been clear to everyone that the Boxster study, as presented at the first trade fair, would not make it into series production. No room for a radiator, no room for air-conditioning etc. Not to mention the production costs for the interior.

    All right, so the first Boxster.
    Nobody in Ludwigsburg – the headquarters of Porsche sales – had any clues how this model would sell.
    Of course, the marketing department pounced on the historical parallel to the Porsche No. 1 (Ferry’s first sports car). We too – drunk on history – drove No. 1 and the Boxster up the Katschberg, Porsche’s “test track” at the time in Gmünd.

    That this entry-level model would sell like hot cakes – similar to the sales success of the 924 – was once again not anticipated by anyone (so much for “sales experts”) – this also provided the financial possibilities for the later differentiation from the 911 series.

    I like the first version, if it weren’t for the technical problems. The facelift version is a beautiful piece of motoring.

    Yes, later the Boxster became more serious, a `Mini-Supercar’, as Daniel called it. Too serious for me, too much`Mini-Supercar’.
    I would have liked the Boxster to have remained more non-serious and just grown up technically. Maybe then I would also (want to) drive a Boxster.

    1. The 986 (and 996 as well) was of shockingly bad quality and also had more than enough mechanical troubles. The first examples with the fake chrome levers on the left hand sill to operate the front and rear lids were particularly bad. When driven in the rain water would get into the air intake in the rear wing, enter the air filter and then kill the air mass meter. Their semi dry sump lubrication system was (and still is) not up to fast cornering (on seriously fast versions of the 911 they still use engines based on the old air cooled crankcase) and expensive rumbles from faulty bearings for the intermediate shaft were far too common. These bearings were changed numerous times but always were the expensive Achilles heel of the engine. US customers got new engines at no cost but everywhere else owners had to pay eye watering bills themselves.

    2. The main problems with Boxster and Cayman engines are RMS (rear main seals) leaking oil on pre-2006 cars and IMS (intermediate shaft) bearing failures on pre-2008 cars. It took Porsche two attempts before the former problem was ‘cured’ and my 2006 987 always had a ‘damp patch’ around the RMS, although never enough to leave a drop of oil on the garage floor. The Porsche specialist who looked after the car for me was pretty sanguine about it, saying “They all do that.” and it never got any worse over the six years I owned it.

      Even my current 981 Boxster has had minor oil leak issues. It needed a new sump gasket fitted at its first service to stop a weep, and the oil filter housing had to be changed to a modified design to stop a leak when it was refitted after a subsequent service, even though it was torqued up to the correct tightness. Porsche issued an “improvement bulletin”, but still charged me for the new housing, abeit only £25 or so, which is small change for them.

    3. Interesting insights! But it seems to me that bad designs from German engineers (probably with decisive help from bean-counters) were not limited to the 90s, sadly. Coolant pipes on the the first Cayenne, the chain tensioner debacle on the 1.4 TSFI and Minis (even if the car is supposedly British with an Brazilian (?) engine), various serious problems with the Audi 3.0 V6, the injector mishap with the Mercedes 2.2 Diesel engines – not even counting the many ECUs (engine and/or gearboxes) that need an expensive swap after a few years. A friend of mine used to work at the biggest VW/Audi dealership in the region and he would always have some horrendous stories to tell…
      I think the alleged superiority of German cars is vastly overrated – at least regarding their reliability. They certainly have good marketing departments, though.

    4. Look at this camchain monstrosity and it should be no wonder it didn’t work (Audi V6)

    5. Oh, I forgot to mention that, at the same time as the oil filter housing leak, the 981 needed a new coolant filler cap because the existing one was letting coolant out when it was hot and under pressure. Porsche engines really seem to struggle to hold their fluids in.

      I still love my 981 though!

    6. Hi Fred. Apologies, I’m late reading your comment. Despite its more ‘serious’ appearance, the 981 shrinks around you and is still a remarkably flexible and docile car, whether you are driving it at 100% (of my safe and legal driving abilities, which is probably 50% of the car’s capabilities) or just ambling along, top down, enjoying the sunshine.

      By contrast, the F-Type convertible I briefly owned between the Boxsters was very fast but just felt bulky and clumsy at lower speeds. I thought it was a beautiful looking car and really wanted to warm to it, but couldn’t.

  8. I’m late to the party again, but well done Daniel, on writing this article analysing the design differences between the 986 and 987. Much has been written on the driving characteristics of Boxster, but relatively little on its design (apart from the usual references to the 550 and 356).

    I agree with your conclusion that the 2 cars, despite their superficial similarities, represent the opposite ends of a continuum in terms of successful design resolution. To my mind, the 987 is what the 986 should have been if Porsche had poured enough resources into the first car. I recall hearing Grant Larson, to whom the external design of the 986 has bene attributed, say in an interview that he wished he had more time to complete the project.

    The Boxster, in all its iterations, strikes me as an example of a balanced design. Which is not easy to achieve in a mid-engined car. Some mid-engined cars, notably the Pagani Zonda, have a very cab forward appearance, where the visual centre of gravity is pushed too close to the front end of the car. The Zonda is undoubtedly a very beautiful car, but its proportions have always struck me as being somewhat odd. So the Boxster needs its longer front overhang not only to accommodate the radiators, but to avoid a cab forward appearance which would mar an otherwise pretty shape.

    I’ve just heard Gordon Murray explain the his T33 and how its design was influenced by mid-engined cars of the 60s. He emphasised the importance of having the right proportions, saying: “The classic rule with rear mid-engined cars is that you have a long front overhang and a very short rear overhang. With a front engined car, it’s the the other way around.”

    I think Gordon Murray is right. His McLaren F1, and Ferrari’s Dino 246 (to me) represent 2 very good examples of well proportioned mid-engined cars.

    1. Hi William. Glad you enjoyed the piece. The 987 was actually fractionally longer than the 986 but the way the front corners were pulled back made the front overhang look much shorter from the front three-quarter view. Clever stuff!

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