I don’t know about you, but I usually avoid talking about cars with most people, as I find most people don’t care much about these things. But every once in a while, you realize that someone you know is a fellow petrol head, opening up a whole new world of possibilities. Including the possibility that said friend is the owner of a stunning mid-‘60s Porsche.
Case in point: my buddy Mike and his Porsche 912. I’ve known him for a couple of years, but only recently did we broach the subject of four-wheeled transport. Mike is Thai-American and he co-bought this car with his brother back in the mid-‘90s, when he was in college in California. This was his daily runner back then, alongside a ’68 Camaro that tended to have a guzzling problem.
Not that the 912 should be mistaken for an economy car, but it’s certainly more sober than a contemporary Chevy V8. About a decade ago, Mike relocated to Bangkok and he had to decide what to ship and what to sell. The Camaro changed hands and stayed Stateside (though he still pines for it) and the Porsche, by now quite a bit worse for wear, crossed the Pacific.
At that point in its life, the 912 was still unrestored – and that was really starting to show. The paint was dull, the floor had holes and the roof was leaking, but it was still running. At least the 200% import tax, which is calculated by some Thai customs official going on e-Bay to guesstimate the car’s worth, was not as high as it might have been, due to the car’s condition.
Over the next few years, the 912 was restored to its former glory by the country’s oldest Porsche importer – pretty much as state-of-the-art as one could get in Thailand. The car was stripped down to the bare shell and rebuilt, resprayed and re-upholstered to a new life in the tropics.
This car’s Irish Green hue has a knack for changing quite a bit from one photo to the next due to the cloudy conditions. This always happens to an extent, but it’s particularly flagrant with this Porsche. With a ray of sunshine, it really pops. This colour was the third most popular on the 912 for 1966, after “Light Ivory” and “Polo Red.”
So what’s a Porsche 912? In short, it’s a 911 with a 356 engine. It was launched in April 1965 – about 18 months after the 911, which premiered Porsche’s first monocoque design and an all-new flat-6. But the 4-cyl. Porsches still had a following, so it was only logical for Porsche to continue making the 356’s largest flat-4 – derived VW block, it had grown to 1582cc and was tuned to 90 hp (DIN). The 912 was heavier than the 356, but had better aerodynamics.
The 912 was quite a good seller on both sides of the Atlantic, initially outselling the 911 by two to one. The price difference between the 911 and the 912 was substantial: this car’s recommended price when new was US$4690 (i.e. about US$100 more than the previous year’s 356 SC), compared to the 911’s hefty US$7370. The 912 appeared on American shores only by late 1965, so that the remaining 356s could be sold off – especially the drop-tops, which for structural reasons would not be available on the new Porsches for the foreseeable future.
Instead, Porsche devised a quasi convertible in the Targa, which was available on both the 911 and the 912 from late 1966. After 1967, the 912’s sales slowed down significantly; in 1970, Porsche replaced the 912 with the mid-engined 914, made in collaboration with Volkswagen. The 912 had a rather short life, but quite a productive one: 30,000 were made (including about 2500 Targas), which is a shade less than the 911’s tally for 1965-69.
Oddly enough, the 912 later reappeared for one model year only (and only in North America) as the 912E, packing a 1971cc fuel-injected version of the flat-4 that had appeared on the 914 and still only produced 90 hp. Only a couple of thousand 912Es were made, as a coupé only, from May 1975 to June 1976. After that, 4-cyl. Porsches would tend to have their engines in-line, out in front and cooled by water. The end of an era, in so many ways.
Perhaps the 912 is the best Beetle derivative ever made, tied with the philosophically opposite (but equally brilliant) Transporter. Certainly, this is one of the best-looking shapes in the history of sports cars. Kudos to Butzi Porsche, grandson of Ferdinand, who designed this masterpiece. He ingeniously took the best bits off the 356, such as the gently sloping beltline, the painted aluminium bumpers and the frog-like headlamps, but stretched and slimmed the design, giving it much more dynamism than the soap-bar 356.
Our feature car, of course, is not without a few niggles, as with most 53-year-old cars still on the road. The lovely little “912” script on the rear lid is missing in action (Mike has it somewhere, he assures me), the Porsche script is post-1966 and the windshield wipers seem to be mounted like a ’68-’69 car – minor details. Being a US-market car, this 912 has red turn signals, which I don’t think I had ever seen before. I don’t know how Mike and his brother managed to get this plate, but it sure adds a cool touch!
There is something austere about the interior, but in a pleasing, no-nonsense Germanic way. It’s plain, but also plainly not cheap. The brushed aluminium strip makes for a pleasing contrast with the otherwise all-black interior.
One surefire way to ID an early 912 is by its instrument binnacle. Only the 1965-66 cars have three dials, instead of the 911’s five. After 1966, Porsche spruced up the 912 a bit and gave it the five dials. It would probably have been cheaper to have done that from the beginning, but the 912’s lower status was emphasized by Porsche, at least initially. And that meant no clock, apparently.
In the middle of the dash, a very nice period Blaupunkt radio. The only problem is to find decent music for it to play, something other than the schmaltzy Siamese pop smothering the airwaves around these parts. The flat-4’s distinctive staccato makes for a much better soundtrack, in my view. I remember a French article comparing the sound of an air-cooled flat-4 (the Tatra T600’s, I seem to recall) with a cage full of angry pigeons. The Porsche’s pigeons are among the angriest I’ve ever heard, with a deeper note and even more chaotic flapping than the corresponding VW engine.
This 912 script is also found on the first couple of model years only. Underneath, we can see one major alteration to the original car: an A/C vent. Driving a Porsche with only natural ventilation in the dry Californian climate is one thing, but it’s quite an uncomfortable task in steamy Southeast Asia.
The A/C unit is mounted under the hood near the driver’s side, just ahead of the bulkhead. There is still enough space to put a couple of small sports bags or a very slim suitcase under the bonnet, but nothing too bulky. The spare wheel is sunk in the floor of the trunk, which also houses the battery, near the left headlamp.
The real space for luggage in a 911/912 is behind the front seats. I have personally been in the back seat of an early ‘80s 911 Turbo once, over 20 years ago. My first Porsche experience was therefore rather a painful one, though the exhilaration of the Turbo’s acceleration did make up for it. The rear seats in these cars are pure punishment, and are rarely used as a result. Folding the rear seats gives the Porsche a sizable rear parcel shelf, turning it back into the two-seater it really is.
I thought Porsche were making their own bodies by the ‘60s, as they bought Reutter (who made most of the 356 bodies) outright in 1963. Apparently, only about half of the 912 bodies were manufactured by Reutter/Porsche in Stuttgart, the rest – including our CC – being made in Osnabrück by Karmann.
There are a lot of strangely-placed knobs, levers and switches throughout the 912’s cabin, usually unlabeled. One for the front hood, one for the engine lid, one for the petrol tank. Which is which? Suck it and see. The left-hand ignition key is also a Porsche specialty, though I remember the family Peugeot 504 had this quirk as well.
The ultimate oddity is this button on the armrest, which is the door latch. Ergonomically pretty awkward, but full marks for style, originality and simplicity.
Here’s the familiar flat-4 pushrod pigeon cage, with its twin carbs and anarchic latticework of pulleys, hoses and cables. The engine seems completely buried in the bodywork – surely there’s enough space in there to add a couple extra cylinders. Oh, wait…
The 912 came out with two gearboxes: the standard 4-speed and the $35 optional 5-speed, which our feature car has. A top speed of 190 kph (119 mph) was claimed – a respectable figure for the times and the type, but pretty tame compared to the 911.
Acceleration is almost leisurely by current standards. The car takes 12 seconds to reach 100 kph from standstill – not exactly hair-raising. But today’s cars coddle you in a cocoon of padding, airbags, sound-deadening material and electronic gadgetry, whereas a 1966 Porsche is pure analog pleasure. It’s the original pressing vinyl in mono played on a lamp-amplified direct drive turntable to the modern car’s mp3 player on button headphones.
As a self-confessed lover of the rear-engined air-cooled machines of this world, it was impossible for me not to fall for this curvaceous Porsche. Perched on its skinny 15’’ tyres with that flat-4 note and its streamlined green body tastefully chromed, it really is a breed apart from the bloated and rubbery 911s of the ‘80s and ‘90s. I still associate the 911 with those later models, unfortunately, as that’s what rear-engined Porsches were when I grew up. Impressive, but not attractive, except for the few old ones that had escaped the ravages of 20 years of rust.
But the 912 is not the 911. Mathematically, and therefore scientifically, it’s 1 better. They look 99% identical, but I distinctly remember figuring out the 912’s uniqueness as a teenager in that it clearly had a Beetle engine, and understanding (through books, in these pre-Internet days) that the car’s short production life meant that all 912s were of the ‘60s / original Porsche design, i.e. the only really beautiful one.
The 912’s short life made it a far less attractive car than the 911 on the used car market, so many were sold off cheap and ended up rusted in pieces – survival rates are not very high. What I didn’t understand then and still really don’t today is why Porsche killed off the 912 so quickly. They did it to give the 914 a fighting chance, I guess, but that was perhaps not a very good decision in hindsight.
The 914 makes the automotive world richer by its very existence, but it was not a very good experience for Porsche, with the troubled VW joint venture and the misfire of the 914/6. Plus the 914 killed off the Volkswagen Typ 34 Karmann-Ghia, which I also happen rather like.
This cursed 914 is a bit of a blessing in disguise, of course, as it means the 912 never suffered the fate of the 911. With the exception of the oddball 912E, it stayed frozen in the ‘60s, a perfect incarnation of the quintessential Porsche design of the 20th Century. And yet it is also one of the last links to the 356 and the Beetle, to the pre-war origins of Ferdinand Porsche’s cribbing of Tatra’s research.
Of course, you will have realized the presence of this matching Vespa 150 in some of the photos I took of the Porsche. This is a 1964 model, and quite a cute little thing it is, too. The detailing on these is just to die for.
But photobombing this two-stroke photobomber is this little red pickup truck on the other side of the street. It’s quite a familiar sight in Thailand, where it was produced for over 20 years.
This is a late model Mazda Familia, which I’ve covered before. Coincidentally, this little Mazda is also an early ‘60s design that made it to the late ‘90s, just like the air-cooled 911.
I left the Porsche a thoroughly besotted man. The magic of the 912 lies in its simplicity. It will give you the feeling of speed without sacrificing your license and will fill your ears with angry birds whenever you press the pedal on the right. And it’ll looks damn good while doing so.
Curbside Classic: 1969 Porsche 912- The Economical 911, by David Skinner
, by Michael Inno