A dream, perfected: a Porsche 996 story


  • Pinterest

If you’re not familiar with Larry Chen’s byline, you’re missing out on some of the world’s best automotive photography. Period.

Some know him as the hardest-working photographer in motorsports; others refer to him as Sir Chen. The rest of us just call him Larry. He’s a senior editor at Speedhunters, shoots for Hoonigan and Hot Rod Magazine and is an official photog for Formula Drift, Pikes Peak and GRC, to name a few gigs. Not that he’ll tell you any of that; his passion for cars and photography is topped off with a hefty dose of humility.

But this story is about his life on the other side of the lens. This is about a love affair that blossomed in childhood and exploded into a full-blown relationship years later. This is Chen’s Porsche 996 Turbo.

Built from 1998 to 2004, the 996—the first 911 to use a water-cooled motor—could be called the black sheep of the 911 family (an argument for another day). To Chen, the 996 was simply, as he puts it, love at first sight. He first stumbled upon the car at the Los Angeles Auto Show; he was just 15, on the hunt for free posters. (How did Chen and a group of high school sophomores get to the show? It may or may not have involved an old cop car and a learner’s license…)

But in the years that followed, skyrocketing Porsche prices threatened to kill the 996 ownership dream. Fast-forward to 2015. Chen comes across a Craigslist ad for a 2003 996 Turbo with the X50 package, which adds an upgraded six-speed manual transmission, larger turbos, a bigger intercooler and a total of 444 stated hp. Three hours later, he’s a Porsche owner.

Relationships can be messy. They take work. This 996 is no different, but Chen knew what he was getting into. From the start, he’s been on a journey of never-ending upgrades and improvements, bringing the car ever closer to his ultimate vision. The list of work and modifications is too long to recount; here are the highlights.

First, Chen swapped the stock 996 wheels for a set of forged billet HRE 305M Monobloks that suit the car perfectly. Add the KW Suspension hydraulic lift system, which allows the driver to raise the ride height by 85 mm in a matter of seconds to clear obstacles, bumps and even roadkill while driving, and you’ve got the best blend of form and function. New motor mounts, rebuilt brakes and Brembo pads and rotors? You bet. Oh, and a full transmission rebuild, clutch replacement, hydraulic clutch accumulator, coolant hoses and fittings. The list goes on.

Chen describes himself as a “weekend mechanic” and a “bolt-on master.” He has no problem working on simple aspects of his cars, but he leaves the bigger jobs for the professionals, like BBi Autosport and E-Motion Engineering (of Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, California, respectively).

One thing’s for certain: I’ve never heard a 996 Turbo sound better. Describing the exhaust note does it an injustice, but imagine a cross between a T. rex mating call and an angry silverback gorilla and you’ve got the idea. Hand-built by BBi Autosport and developed over four years of testing, this setup lets you hear and feel every note and change in pitch. Plus, it’s a good excuse for Larry’s throttle foot to slip once in a while.

Two practical if unobvious modifications are a Ctek battery conditioner that keeps the car charged when not in use and a center console delete that gives Chen more room for his knee.

Plenty of 911s spend their time in a garage or plodding around town. Not Chen’s. Never mind the long list of maintenance odds and ends demanding attention, plus the continuous experiments and driver-focused upgrades: This thing is driven.

From mounting cameras on almost every bit of its exterior and chasing down cars for photo shoots—or even the odd half-mile race—this car gets used. But with many track days under his belt and plenty of time in the seat, Chen says he sees it more as a street car than a track machine.

It’s not that it isn’t an absolute blast to drive on the closed course—it’s just hard work. “While it corners awesome, has awesome brakes, it’s kind of a boat on the track. When the turbo hits, it’s crazy,” he says. Exiting corners in particular can be tricky. “I can totally understand why more people would have a lower-horsepower GT3 for the track because it’s easier to drive and the power delivery is a lot better.”

That said, his “German muscle car,” as he aptly describes it, still hits all the right notes. “If I could get a Nissan R34 GT-R here in the U.S., I would, but this is as close as it gets. It’s just so good,” Chen says of the 996 Turbo experience. So if you happen to see him out driving it, grinning like a Cheshire cat behind the wheel—on the way to some photo shoot or another, no doubt—now you know why.


This article first appeared in the January 8th 2018 issue of Autoweek magazine. Subscribe today.