COAL #17: 1973 Porsche 914 2.0 – Like A Fine Wine, It’s Better With Age

The Porsche 914 was a highly polarizing vehicle over its six year production life.  Whether from raised-nose Porschephiles – “it’s not a real Porsche”, muscle car owners “80 measly standard horsepower?” or value enthusiasts “is that all there is for $3,600?”, the poor entry level Porsche just couldn’t catch a break.

They say that “time heals all wounds”, and, like many famous writers, poets and painters, history has treated the 914 more kindly after its death than during its life.  Although the car had several strikes against it as a new purchase, 14 years of aging seemed to improve the vintage, affording a more balanced perspective and making it a compelling purchase for me.

Despite the naysayers and armchair critics, the 914 went on the become the bestselling Porsche up to that time.  So what was the ownership experience like living with this rehabilitated best seller?

The 914 was conceived in the mid 60’s as a joint development between Porsche & VW.  Porsche needed something to replace its increasingly expensive 912 model, and VW wanted a follow on for their Type 34 Karmann Ghia.

Americans are used to the Type 14 Karmann Ghia (based on a widened Type 1 Beetle chassis) but may not be as familiar with the Type 34.  The Type 34 was built on the larger Type 3 chassis with the 1500 cc pancake engine found in the Type 3 Fastback & Squareback.  In addition to being a bigger car, it had more amenities than the Type 14 Americans were used to, and was actually the most expensive car produced by VW through most of the 60’s.

So, one car to help Porsche at the lower end, and another to help VW at the higher end; what could go wrong?  Four cylinder versions would use much of their gear from VW, including their newer 1.7 liter used in the 411.  Porsche would use more of their own parts in the engine, suspension and trim departments, and everyone would win.

Like many great characters in a Shakespearean tragedy however, this star crossed story doesn’t have a happy ending.

The adage “Get it in writing” is tragically illustrated by the 914 story.  Heinrich Nordoff, VW’s Chairman, and his friend Ferry Porsche had a handshake agreement on the development and cost to Porsche of the soon to be released 914.  Unfortunately, Heinrich’s untimely death in 1968 thrust Kurt Lotz into the leadership role, and Kurt knew nothing about any supposed “agreement”.

The upshot of the new written agreement was that Porsche ended up paying far more for 914 bodies than they had originally budgeted.  It also meant that their trimmed out 914 (including the 2 liter six cylinder from the 911) cost more than could easily be marketed and was priced dangerously close to their 911T, defeating its original “entry level” purpose.

In the US, the 914 was marketed as a Porsche and sold through the American Porsche+Audi sales channel.  It was launched for the 1970 model year with the 1.7 VW engine (80 hp) at $3,595 and the 2 liter 911 engine (110 hp) at $5,999.  Viewed without context, this doesn’t sound so bad.  But the exchange rate between the US dollar and the German Mark was beginning its crazy spiral and, for many Americans, it’s all about price.  Viewed against its contemporaries, Datsun’s new 240Z with 150 hp was available at $3,500, and the Corvette coupe started at $5,192.  That’s a tough crowd!  And although few Corvettes were shopped against the 914, the 240Z was certainly attracting lots of attention against all entry level sports cars.

Some in the Porsche owner fraternity looked at the shape and engine location and derided the car as “not a real Porsche”.  Others looked at the pricing and its 80 pavement ripping horsepower and asked, like Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?”

By 1973, Porsche’s 2 liter six cylinder version was taken out back behind the woodshed and shot, as its pricing and sales didn’t justify its continuation.  VW’s 2 liter four cylinder producing 95 hp was substituted, providing lighter weight, better torque characteristics and a significantly lower price than its predecessor.  This change, along with many other improvements, finally made the 914 into what many had been calling for.

It was the spring of 1987 and the Datsun King Cab had provided good service but it was a time for a change.  I happened to pass a 1973 Zambezi Green 914 2.0 sporting a “For Sale” sign sitting at a gas station.  Being pre-cellphone days, I called the number once home and found out that the seller actually worked at the station, so I returned to pay him a visit and take a closer look at the car.  The car had wider tires and wheels, but was otherwise unmolested and in good shape.  He was selling it as he needed a more practical vehicle due to some changes in his life.

Hey wait – I had a practical Datsun King Cab and wanted the 914, and he had a 914 and wanted a practical car.  Wunderbar!  We eventually settled on trading keys + $1,000 and the 914 was mine.  He got a Kermit the Frog green King Cab, and I got the Zambezi Green 914.

Unless you lived through that time, it’s hard to imagine that many cars in the early 1970’s had real colors.  Some manufacturers today offer four shades of black, four shades of grey, three shades of white, one blue and one red.  Contrast that with the color chart above and you can see that things really have changed over 47 years.

The 1973 914 2.0 is considered one of the better models to own of the series.  The 19% increase in power over the 1.7 liter helps for sure, but VW/Porsche had also changed the gear shift linkage for improved feel and accuracy.  The Appearance Group added chrome bumpers front & rear with fog lights and bumper guards in the front.  It may sound like a strange feature, but the passenger seat was even adjustable on this model.  Earlier 914’s actually had a non-adjustable passenger seat, but being a two seater, it wasn’t as big of an issue as it would be in a four passenger vehicle.  Anti-roll bars were also installed front and rear for improved cornering and flatter transitions.  Later models received larger, more imposing bumpers and reduced horsepower, so the 1973 2.0 was kind of like the perfect “not too hot, not too cold” porridge in the Goldilocks story.

My car had upgraded 5.5 X 15 wheels with 206/65-15 Pirellis in place of the standard 165HR-15.

The interior was a Germanic spartan (not cheap) yet spacious place to be.  The 914 was 65 inches wide, six inches wider than my Datsun Roadster.  This made a dramatic difference in space and allowed accommodation of many more sizes and shapes of people.  Although the car was small, you didn’t wear it like some others; you could sit in it and stretch out in relative comfort in most directions.

The parking brake was located to the left of the driver’s seat instead of the center of the car, something to be aware of when entering or exiting.

The primary gauges were large and situated directly in front of the driver.  A console package added a center console with a clock and gauges for oil temperature and voltage.  The steering wheel provided good sight lines to the hooded gauges ahead.

The fiberglass top was easily removable by one person and the rear trunk was designed to perfectly accept it.  Small items could still be carried in the rear trunk even with the top stored.

The 1,970 cc engine was air cooled and located between the passenger compartment and rear trunk.  Brought over from the 411/412 sedan, it was made more for mid-range torque than for trips up to the high end of the tachometer.  The 95 horsepower was made at 4,900 rpm, and redline was at 5,600 rpm.

The five speed transmission had an improved shift linkage versus the original Rube Goldberg affair, but it would never win any awards for shift quality or precision.  It was certainly serviceable, but it wasn’t light and direct like the Roadster or rough and notchy like the Vega GT Wagon Family Truckster.  It was most similar to my current Vanimal; which means that it’s usable, just not what one would normally expect in a sports car.

Like other Porsches of the time, the transmission used a dog leg pattern that placed first down and to the left, directly below reverse.  This pattern worked great for race cars that rarely used first gear.  In stop and go traffic however, it required more thought and motion as you were frequently shifting from first to second then back down to first again.  Once underway (like normal cruising or mountain driving) the pattern worked well.  But you never forgot that you were shifting a transmission tucked way back behind the engine.

The 914’s claim to fame was the handling benefits afforded by its mid-engine location.  The 914 was the first mass produced car sold in the US with a mid-engine mounting (the Fiat X1/9 came two years later).  Mid-engine cars benefited from their low polar moment of inertia, meaning that their weight is in the middle of the vehicle and not out at the ends.  A car with the weight located in the middle will turn in and change direction much quicker than one that weighs the exact same amount but has the weight at the ends of the vehicle.

With the 914, if you wanted to initiate a turn you simply thought about the turn, turned the wheel slightly, and the car went without muss or fuss.  It didn’t have to take a set, then begin the turn; you didn’t turn the wheel and wait half a second for the car to respond.  The unassisted steering was only 2.5 turns lock to lock, so you simply turned the wheel and the car went in the desired direction – right now.  Like a puppy wanting to go outside and play, this was a car that begged to go to the mountains and show you what it could do – drama free – time and time again in the curves.

Now Huntington Beach is not exactly the land of curves and bends.  But there were a number of mornings and nights that I’d make the drive up through LA to Mulholland Drive in the Santa Monica Mountains & Hollywood Hills and let the little car strut her stuff.  On a clear night, Los Angeles is magnificent, and taking the top off the 914, letting it tackle the curves, then parking for a while to see the lights glitter below is the stuff that warm memories are made of.

The larger tires and wheels made for an interesting contrast to a standard 914.  A four cylinder 914 has a front to rear weight ratio of about 45%/55%.  A stock 914 with its 155 or 165 section tires has a very neutral cornering attitude and reasonably high limits.  If pushed too hard, it will drift outward waiting to scrub off speed and go back on its merry way.  The 205 section tires had far higher limits – but if you pushed too hard and lost traction, well, you were already traveling at a much higher speed and the rear end could snap outside.  Lower front tire pressure could ensure that the front broke first, but at the expense of slightly heavier steering.  None of this is criticism of the 914’s handling, as it was deceptively nimble, and its limits were stunningly high.  Handling was the 914’s claim to fame and it didn’t disappoint.

The 914 rode well and provided a comfortable traveling experience.  The larger tires provided some kickback through the steering wheel not found in the standard set up, but it was remarkably composed for a smaller car.

My ownership of the 914 was concurrent with the Roadster, and it gave me many opportunities to compare and contrast the two vehicles.  Although they were built only three years apart, the Roadster in 1970 and the 914 in 1973, they were definitely a generation apart in design and execution.  The Roadster was relatively crude in comparison to the 914.  It rode rougher due to less suspension compliance and handled well as long as the road was billiard top smooth.  The 914 was more compliant in ride and could comfortably turn on a dime just by thinking that you wanted to turn.

For acceleration, it was no contest, as the Roadster had far more power than the 914.  They both had 2 liter engines but they couldn’t be more different in personality. The 914 made its torque down low, which made it easier to drive in traffic.  It didn’t necessarily feel like a traditional sports car rowing through the gears, as 4,900 rpm was peak power and redline was only 5,600 rpm.  The Roadster’s peak power was at 6,000 rpm, with a redline of 7,000. Its five speed was light and direct, begging you to keep going through the gears to take advantage of the peaky engine.  The 914’s transmission served to change gears, but its wider band of torque and less precise shifter didn’t invite you to just run up through the gears for the heck of it.

The wider body of the 914 meant that most people could be comfortable, and you didn’t need to pick your friends based on size.  The Roadster was more of a fitted experience, and long trips would be far more comfortable in the 914.  Fuel mileage in the 914 was in the low to mid 20’s, and its generous 16.4 gallon tank meant that you could go a while between fill ups.

Southern California doesn’t really have a rust issue, but 914’s were notorious for rusting out the battery tray.  The battery would spill a little acid, which just sat down there eating away at paint allowing rust to take hold on the metal tray.  If you caught it, you’d fix it and be fine.  If you neglected that area, rust could begin and silently make its way down to take out the right suspension mount.  Knowledgeable owners made sure to arrest any problem and replace the battery with a gel type that couldn’t spill.

Wrenching on the 914 was an experience, as access was…tight.  On a scale of accessibility, with a 1967 Camaro six cylinder being a “10” and a Boss 429 Mustang being a “1”, I give the 914 a “2”, maybe a “3” if I’m being generous.  Smaller hands and arms would definitely be helpful, and getting to the engine through the maze of vacuum lines was a challenge.  It was certainly workable, but not always enjoyable.  The 914 also taught that, although it was the “inexpensive” Porsche, parts were priced just like the big boys.  At that time, parts prices were not in line with the cost of the vehicle.

One beautiful Thanksgiving day (it is Southern California), my brother in law and I went to the store to get some needed supplies for the big dinner.  The weather was warm, the top was off and the tunes were blasting.  On the way back, I may have been distracted by the sunshine and music and not noticed that the little car was traveling significantly above the speed limit and taking turns pretty quickly on Beach Blvd.  The officer who eventually caught up to me had noticed however, and it was big ticket time.  Even though Christmas was still four weeks away, I received an early present from that officer in the spirit of the holidays – off with a warning.  That’s a present that I didn’t deserve but certainly appreciated.  Ah, the joys of being young, stupid and lucky sometimes!

1989 saw the little 914 still giving dependable and entertaining service.  We were also expecting our first child later in the year, and I had the Audi 4000S for family affairs, so the 914 was just fine.  What I hadn’t expected however, was that as the pregnancy progressed, my wife’s ability to climb out of the 914 became more and more difficult.  This definitely wouldn’t work, so the 914 was put up for sale and a replacement four door vehicle procured.

Like a fine wine and viewed 47 years later, the 914 has aged well and been accepted as a “real” Porsche.  It was responsible for bringing mid-engine handling down from Supercars to the masses, paving the way for the X1/9’s and MR2’s that followed.  My memories of the ownership experience are warm and sunny, like a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway with waves crashing, the top off and music playing.  And isn’t that what owning a Curbside Classic is all about?