Classic car values can sometimes reach dizzying heights. And one of the most prominent poster children for this is air-cooled Porsche 911s. Although the latest-gen car is widely-praised, as with Range Rovers, Mazda RX-8s, and Ford Broncos, sometimes people just prefer the older versions. The air-cooled Porsche 911 craze has also boosted restomodding and created the Safari trend. But how did this admittedly iconic sports car start all this—and will it keep going?
Air-cooled Porsche 911 history
The 911 wasn’t the first vehicle with the Porsche badge. Before it came the 356, a sports car that borrowed heavily from the Volkswagen Beetle. Which makes sense, as the 356’s designer, Ferdinand “Butzi” Porsche, was the grandson of the Beetle’s designer, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche. The biggest link between the two was their rear-mounted air-cooled four-cylinder engines.
The first air-cooled Porsche 911, as Donut Media explains, was essentially an evolution of the 356. Instead of a four-cylinder, it had a six-cylinder. Also, the Porsche 911 had 4 seats, instead of just 2. But that air-cooled six-cylinder engine was still mounted behind the cabin. Although that made the 911 prone to snap-oversteer if driven incorrectly, it also meant most of the weight was over the driven wheels. This, Popular Mechanics explains, increased traction. With that, as well as communicative steering and well-tuned suspension, the air-cooled 911 quickly started gaining fans.
Porsche updated the 911 over the years, adding more power and introducing trims like the Turbo and Carrera that have become everyday parts of Porsche terminology. In 1989, Porsche redesigned the air-cooled 911, creating the 964-gen 911, which was the first to offer all-wheel drive, power steering, and ABS, Autotrader reports. The 911 was refreshed again in 1995, creating the 993-gen.
But, the 993 would be the last air-cooled Porsche 911 (although it’s also technically oil-cooled, too, Car and Driver reports). The air-cooled engine couldn’t meet emissions standards, and water-cooled engines could be tuned more easily, according to Gear Patrol. Unfortunately, the subsequent 996-gen had some infamous quality problems, which explains those cars’ relatively-poor resale values. The 996 also didn’t look quite like the previous 911 models, further alienating some Porsche fans.
What’s driving up air-cooled Porsche 911 values?
However, the 996 alone didn’t cause air-cooled Porsche 911 values to spike. And the 996 couldn’t have been solely responsible for the creation of an entire air-cooled Porsche festival, Luftgekühlt. At least, not directly.
As Roadshow and Janus Motorcycles demonstrate, air-cooled engines have a few advantages over water-cooled ones. Air-cooled engines are lighter than water-cooled ones, for one. They’re also simpler. Air-cooled engines don’t have a radiator or water pump, meaning there are fewer parts that can fail. And it’s this simplicity, this stripped-down nature combined with a build quality that still impresses today, Jalopnik explains, that drove prices high.
Air-cooled Porsche 911s, especially the oldest ones, have very few frills. No computers, little sound-deadening; some don’t even have radios. It’s just you, the engine, the transmission, steering wheel, and brakes. These cars, even the 993, are also fairly small. The 964 cars, Autotrader reports, are skinnier than a first-gen Mazda Miata.
But the ergonomics mean you’re almost instantly comfortable, Petrolicious reports. And the simplicity also means there’s nothing to distract you from the driving experience. If the Miata is the quintessential affordable sports car, many enthusiasts would likely consider an air-cooled 911 the platonic ideal of the sports car.
As with that $300,000 Datsun 240Z, the motivation behind air-cooled Porsche 911 values are more emotional than logical. And the most-valuable 911s aren’t too far-off that 240Z’s asking price.
It’s not unusual to see air-cooled 911s fetch over $100,000 on Bring a Trailer. The earliest ones regularly fetch more. And in 2019, a 1973 Porsche 911 Carrera RS sold for $600,000 on BaT. That’s more than a Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Badge.
This might not last
However, one-off high-points aside, it appears market values may start cooling off a bit.
Although The Drive reports that air-cooled Porsche 911 prices aren’t exactly in a slump, overall, the market has tapered off somewhat. At the beginning of 2019, Hagerty reported air-cooled 911 prices had taken their biggest 12-month decrease in 5 years. And looking at BaT price histories, it does appear that these classic cars are starting to command lower values.
It’s not clear if that’s because the collector world is oversaturated, or if the cars coming forward are simply less-special or in poorer condition. Though, to be clear, a decrease in price still leaves most air-cooled 911s going for over $50,000. It’s possible, as ISSIMI hosts Jason Cammisa and Derek Tam-Scott discuss in the video below (spicy language warning), that auto enthusiasts with money are moving on.
Although the Porsche 911 will undoubtedly always be respected and admired, nowadays 80s and 90s JDM cars are starting to rise in popularity and value. Cars like the Nissan Skyline GT-R, Acura Integra Type R, and Mitsubishi Pajero are all icons in their own right. And the ITR alone is now valued at $40,000-$50,000.
But, if you want classic styling with a dash of practicality, there’s also the Ferrari 308 GT4. It’s a 2+2 sports car like the 911, but as the only Bertone-styled Ferrari, it stands out from the crowd. And because of that, it’s undervalued as a classic Ferrari, often selling for under $50,000.
An air-cooled Porsche 911 may have its charms. But, if you can’t afford one, wait a bit, and know there are some arguably more-interesting alternatives.
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