I’m on record as stating that I’m not too fond of the VW-Porsche 914. It’s hard to follow an act like the Porsche 912, especially when you’re a rather muddled and hyphenated two-seater. But hey, it’s still a classic Porsche. And this is the rare 6-cyl. version, too. Did Mr Piëch screw the pooch on this one, or would he have made his granddad proud?
Ferdinand Karl Piëch (1937-2019), son of Anton Piëch and Louise Porsche and grandson of Ferdinand, managed to almost outshine the other members of his illustrious family in his quest for automotive glory. He will chiefly be remembered as the saviour of Volkswagen and a highly skilled captain of industry, but before he blossomed as a boardroom Bonaparte at the turn of the Century, bringing VW and Porsche back together again after all these years, he had a major role in creating the only model that the two marques were forced to co-brand.
I say “forced” as regards the co-branding, because it seems neither Porsche nor Volkswagen were entirely clear on their intentions behind this half-cocked solution. The two marques were conceived by the same person and, at least until 1945, managed by the same family: Anton Piëch was the head of the KdF works until the Wolfsburg site was taken over by the British Army. Porsche and VW still cooperated on a number of projects during the ‘50s and beyond, as VW boss Heinz Nordhoff had good relations with the Porsche family. And so in the latter part of the ‘60s, the two marques were planning a new car together, as they were both in need of a new two-door model – Porsche at the lower end of their range, and VW at the higher end.
The two cars that the 914 was supposed to replace were the Porsche 912 and the VW Type 34 Karmann-Ghia, launched respectively in 1964 and 1961. Both cars sported air-cooled rear-mounted flat-4s in the same general range displacement-wise: the Karmann-Ghia had the Type 3’s pancake 1493cc and the Porsche had the 356’s 1582cc. The expensive VW had never been officially exported to the US and was thus a modest seller. The cheap Porsche, for its part, had to leave the scene so that the cheaper 914 could be born: there was not enough space at the Stuttgart works for three different car lines.
Design work started in early 1964 and at least two men, Heinrich Klie and Butzi Porsche, can be credited with defining the 914’s distinctive shape. It took a fair amount of attempts to find what the design team was looking for, but by mid-1967, the styling was pretty much set – Klie’s design had been selected.
The chassis, developed by Piëch and Helmuth Bott, was influenced by the duo’s Porsche 906 and retained its mid-engined layout, still quite a novel concept for a production car in the late ‘60s. The front torsion bar suspension and the 5-speed transaxle were taken from the 911 and mated to the newest and largest VW flat-4, the Type 4’s fuel-injected 80hp 1679cc unit.
Things got off to a bad start even before the car was launched. Nordhoff had made a gentlemen’s agreement with Ferry Porsche regarding the project, but unfortunately died of a heart attack in April 1968 without explaining much to his underlings at Wolfsburg, or committing anything to paper. Kurt Lotz, who had been slated to take over VW in October, had to rush into the job and soon told Ferry Porsche that the deal was off. A new agreement between VW and Porsche was ironed out, but it lacked the sweeteners that Nordhoff had verbally consented, which resulted in a much reduced margin for Porsche when production would eventually ensue.
The car went ahead regardless. The 4-cyl. base model, sometimes referred to as 914/4, was now joined by a sportier 1991cc 110hp flat-6 variant, the 914/6. Both cars were to be sold a new company, VW-Porsche, created in early 1969 and held jointly by both carmakers; production would be handled by Karmann in Osnabrück. The deal further stated that the cars would be badged as Porsche only in the US market, though it was sold there through Porsche-Audi dealerships. The 6-cyl. cars, on the other hand, were to be a pure Porsche product, from VW’s point of view: they were to be sold by the joint-venture, but came out of Porsche’s Zuffenhausen factory.
The VW-Porsche 914 was unveiled at the 1969 Frankfurt Motor Show under its own co-banded sign, right next to the Porsche stand. There was also a 914 over on the Karmann stand, as the coachbuilder was manufacturing the bodies for all VW-Porsches, as well as the 4-cyl. version. Due to Lotz’s hard bargaining, Karmann’s bodies cost Porsche more than the 912s and 911s that the coachbuilder also produced for them.
As a result, the 914/6 was a very expensive car, as the unit cost of the 6-cyl. engine was quite a bit more than the VW one and Karmann sold their bodies to Porsche at a higher price than Nordhoff had promised. In West Germany, the 914 cost DM 11,955, which was already a chuck of change, but the The 914/6 required a whopping DM 19,980. The substantial price difference between the two 914s was seen in all other markets. In the US – the main market for these toys, after all – the West Coast price in 1970 was US$ 6099. By comparison, the 4-cyl. cars cost US$ 3695 and the Porsche 911T (the cheapest 911, now upgraded to a 2.2 litre engine) sold for US$ 7205. In 1969, a Porsche 912 would have set you back US$ 5200.
VW-Porsche were DM 200m in the red by the end of 1970 and the plug was almost pulled on the whole affair. The 914/6 was definitely up for the chop by this time, but the 4-cyl. cars were given a chance and a solution was found: replacing the expensive Porsche 2-litre flat-6 by a cheaper VW 2-litre flat-4. This finally happened in 1973. The 914/6 was no more and was thus spared the 5mph bumpers that progressively embellished the car from that point on. Only 3351 of the 6-cyl. 914s were made.
If that’s not exclusive enough for you, there are a few interesting one-offs and prototypes that might fit the bill. The 914/6 was fortunate enough to be launched during the final embers of the coachbuilt era, so some interesting specials were made in 1970-71, perhaps acknowledging that a few folks out there found the production version’s looks a bit challenging.
But if one happens to agree with the original car’s shape, there were at least two options for increased potency – both made by Porsche themselves, of course. One was the 914-8, with a 3-litre 300-plus-hp flat-8 seen in the 908 racer. The top was no longer removable on these cars and the headlamps were switched to quads, but otherwise it looked pretty much like a regular production 914 to the casual observer. Two were made in 1969 – one for Piëch and one for Ferry Porsche as a present for his 60th birthday, seen above.
Just as the 914/6 left the scene, Porsche made a small batch (some say 11, others say 20) of 916 prototypes. These were fitted with the 2.4 litre flat-6 of the 911S or the 2.7 found in the Carrera and heavily modified throughout, including the body kit Porsche made for track versions of the 914. The plan was to launch it as high-performance (and high-price) mid-engined supercar, but Porsche ended up nixing the idea at the last minute.
So why was the 914/6 such a failure? To put it bluntly, it was too expensive for its badge. The VW-Porsche idea was not a bad one per se, as everyone was still pretty aware of the kinship between the two marques. But the 6-cyl. engine version looked identical to a well-optioned 4-cyl. car, which was not a good thing given the price difference. Even in the US, where the car was promoted as a Porsche (calling it a VW-Porsche would have been commercial suicide), the relatively small difference in price between the 914/6 and the 911T made the two-seater rather redundant.
To add to the model’s woes, the 914 was made as a LHD-only. Our feature car seems to be an original JDM model – these turn signal repeaters were only fitted to Japanese, Italian and Danish export cars. The snob appeal of LHD may be quite strong in Japan, but some folks still liked to have their steering on the correct side. That probably hampered the model’s sales in other RHD countries – especially the UK, where 914 and 914/6 sales were particularly weak.
And then, there’s that look. Some went with it, others did not. The 912, by comparison, was universally admired. The Type 34 Karmann-Ghia less so perhaps, but it wasn’t like VW absolutely needed it. It was Porsche who had more skin to lose in the game, despite the 50-50 ownership of the VW-Porsche concern. And in the end, although the 914 was not a complete disaster, it did not engender a family of mid-engined two-seaters. The 914 got a bigger VW flat-4 (1970cc) for 1973 and the base model grew to a 1.8 in 1974, but there was no future in the 914 bloodline.
With almost 120,000 units made in six years, the 914 was not a total bomb, but it still didn’t meet its makers’ expectations. Production stopped in December 1975, but guess who made a discreet one-season US-only comeback in 1976, so that Porsche could continue having a 4-cyl. model in their range? The 912, now dubbed 912E and equipped with the same 2-litre VW engine found in the 914. And in 1977, the Audi front-engined Porsche 924 appeared. Oh, the irony.
The deeper consequences of the 914 were felt over at Porsche, which went from a small family-owned and run firm in the ‘60s to a more professional outfit in the ‘70s. Ferry Porsche determined that nobody in the family was suitable to take over the reins without causing a family bloodbath, so he restructured the carmaker from top to bottom in 1971-72. Butzi Porsche and Ferdinand Piëch left the family firm, as did much of the old guard, at this time. Correlation is not causation, but it’s hard not to imagine that Ferry Porsche took this decision to shake things up (while preserving the family’s ownership of the business) management-wise at least partially due to the VW-Porsche affair.
As for Piëch, he engineered an unprecedented comeback from the bitter-sweet experience of his Porsche years and went on to become CEO of Volkswagen, ultimately masterminding the inter-ownership of VAG and Porsche that would have made his grandfather proud. And in the interim, he did prove his worth as an automotive engineer with the Benz 5-cyl. Diesel, the Audi Quattro and many other greats. He also made a fair amount of questionable decisions (e.g. the Phaeton, the W8, the Audi A2, the Rolls-Royce imbroglio or the resurrection of Bugatti) and was described as something of a tyrant, but he certainly turned VW around at a time when the carmaker was looking like it might go in a tailspin.
When looking at the whole Porsche and Volkswagen stories – or the peaks and troughs of Ferdinand Piëch’s career, for that matter – the VW-Porsche 914 is an interesting harbinger of things to come. It was the first semi-failure for all concerned, but it certainly was not the worst, nor the last. And in this 6-cyl. guise, it wasn’t the least. I rather prefer the Type 34 K-G, the 912 or the 911 to this mustard-coloured mongrel. But hey, it’s still a classic Porsche.