(first posted 7/15/2015) “It’s complicated.” This 21st Century catchphrase sums up the origins of the Porsche 914 and the relationship between it and Porsche enthusiasts that began upon its introduction in 1970. Porsche’s first mass produced model to depart from the lineage of the rear-engine 356 and the 911. It was also the first that self-appointed critics criticized as “not a real Porsche.”
Now, after 45 years and many more new models gone through the “not a real Porsche” wringer – from the 924 and 928 during the 1970s, to the Cayenne and Panamera during the 2000s – the relationship is far more secure, and surviving 914s have no problem fitting in among the “real Porsches” at track day or concours events. It was not an easy road, though, and it deserves retelling as an example of how even a focused and successful car company can go through difficulty managing its brand and producing models that appeal to the public.
The conception and marketing of the 914 were quite complicated – so much so that Karl Ludvigsen’s landmark 1977 history of Porsche, Porsche: Excellence Was Expected, devotes no less than 52 of its 322 pages to the history of the 914 and its variants. The model originated from a verbal agreement between Ferry Porsche and Volkswagen managing director Heinz Nordhoff for Porsche to design a sports car using the VW 411 engine for Volkswagen, to be produced by Karmann and sold as a VW-Porsche, with Porsche retaining the right to buy bodies from Karmann and install its own engines. It would benefit all parties by giving Porsche a less expensive car than the 911 and 912 to sell, Volkswagen a sportier replacement for the Type 3 Karmann Ghia, and Karmann a new model to keep its factory running. Heinz Nordhoff’s death in 1968 led to modification of the previous verbal agreement, with Porsche and Volkswagen forming a 50/50 owned joint marketing venture for Volkswagen, Porsche, and Audi, and the marketing strategy of the 914 changing to selling it as the Porsche 914 in North America and VW-Porsche 914 in Europe.
Photo from www.auto-classiche.it
The complicated arrangement showed in the badging of 914s. In Europe, 914s wore a VW-Porsche badge on their tail panels and had VW emblems on their wheel covers and steering wheels. In North America, ambiguity was evident in 914s having no Porsche crest or other brand identification externally, except for PORSCHE lettering on the engine compartment lid (aside from a few examples with Porsche crests on their wheel covers). The only Porsche crest on North American 914s was on the steering wheel hub. Many surviving 914s have crests added to their front deck lids, just like Dinos with non-original Ferrari emblems added by owners eager to inform everyone that they have a Ferrari.
The design was a complete departure from previous Porsche models. Mid-engine layouts were common in Porsche’s all-out race cars since the 550 Spyder of 1953, but the company had not produced a mid-engine road car since the very first 356 prototype in Gmund, Austria in 1948. The 914’s mid-engine configuration joined the trend in sports car design that began with the Lamborghini Miura and Lotus Europa in 1966 and continued with the DeTomaso Mangusta in 1967, the Ferrari Dino in 1968, the Maserati Bora and DeTomaso Pantera in 1971, and the downmarket Fiat X1/9 in 1972. The boxy styling also broke with previous Porsche designs. A Porsche team headed by 911 designer Ferdinand “Butzi” Porsche (Ferry’s son) styled it, partly inspired by a Gugelot GmbH fiberglass-bodied concept car with a front engine BMW drivetrain (leading to incorrect descriptions of the design as one that Porsche outsourced to Gugelot). The Targa top that allowed open-air motoring with both greater body rigidity and rollover protection was a distinctly Porsche design feature, though, first used by Porsche in the 1965 911 Targa.
The VW 411 engine displaced 1.7 liters in the 1970-73 base version, with Bosch fuel injection in North America and Solex carburetors in Europe, producing 80 net horsepower in North America. The base engine increased displacement slightly to 1.8 liters in 1974-76 but fell to 76 horsepower because of stricter emissions requirements. All 914s had five speed manual transmissions, using the transaxle from the 911, and four wheel disc brakes. The 914 1.7 had numerous VW parts such as VW disc brakes with solid rotors front and rear, VW 411 four lug hubs, and VW 15×4.5 inch steel wheels. The price of the 1970 914 1.7 started at $3,495, more than $1,500 cheaper than the 1969 912 with its 911 body and 90 horsepower four cylinder engine from the 356. In price at least, with the four cylinder 914 Porsche succeeded in introducing a substantially less expensive sports car.
The higher performance version with a Porsche engine envisioned from the beginning was the 914/6, produced in 1970-72. The 914/6’s Karmann-built bodies went to the Porsche factory in Stuttgart for final assembly, and a Porsche engine and other parts went into them. It used the flat six engine from the 1968-69 911T, a 2.0 liter in the lowest state of tune produced, with two triple-choke Weber carburetors and an output of 110 horsepower. The 914/6 substituted numerous Porsche parts for VW’s, such as the disc brakes, which had ventilated front rotors and Porsche’s separate drum parking brakes at the rear; the five lug hubs; and the 15×5.5 inch steel wheels or Fuchs alloy wheels. It also included numerous appearance and comfort and convenience items as standard that were optional on the 914 1.7, such as chrome-plated bumpers, three speed instead of two speed wipers, and electric rather than manual windshield washer.
Pricing, the main purpose behind the 914 for Porsche, became the undoing of the 914/6. The price level turned out to be higher than Porsche had originally planned, partly because Porsche had to buy bodies from Karmann at a higher price as a result of the revision of the deal with Volkswagen after the death of Heinz Nordhoff. The 914/6 debuted at a starting price of $5,595, significantly higher than the 914 1.7 and only slightly less than the 1970 911T, which Porsche kept a higher performer with an enlarged 2.2 liter flat six. Unsurprisingly, buyers preferred a 911 at a similar price point, and the 914/6 sold in relatively small numbers.
The most exclusive 914 variant was the 916 of 1972. With the 911 engine in its top 1972 state of tune, the 190 horsepower fuel injected 911S version, it was the fastest accelerating Porsche in 1972. It had a permanently attached top for greater rigidity, wider track, four wheel ventilated disc brakes, and 15×7 inch Fuch alloys. After a brief production run of 20 examples, Porsche decided not to proceed with the model. It immediately became a top-flight collectible. (There were two 914/8 prototypes with the flat-8 engine from the Porsche 908 race car, but Porsche never considered the 914/8 for production.)
The example spotted curbside represents the middle rank of 914s, the 914 2.0 with a 2.0 liter VW 411 engine. Produced from 1973 to 1976, the 914 2.0 replaced the low-selling 914/6 with its expensive 911 flat six engine. With 95 horsepower, it offered performance midway between the 914 1.7/1.8 and the 914/6, at a substantially lower price than the 914/6.
This VW-engine 914 with like-new (possibly better than new) paint and bodywork provides a good starting point for describing the hostile reception that the 914 received from many automotive writers and Porsche fanatics. The 914’s body style was poorly received for being boxy and clearly unrelated to the preceding 356 and 911. It was an unprecedented departure from the traditional Beetle-derived look that Porsche fans expected. The low-powered VW engines of the four cylinder 914s worsened attitudes toward the 914, providing neither the performance that the market wanted nor the pedigree that Porsche fans expected. Together they led to widespread rejection of the 914 as not a “real Porsche.” Porsche fans universally accepted the 912 with its 911 body and 90 horsepower Porsche 356 engine as a “real Porsche” from the beginning, but not the 914 1.7, 1.8, and 2.0.
A spartan interior and many detail problems did not help the 914’s reputation. The seats and dashboard were plain and flat, and the door hardware was from the VW parts bin. Vapor lock and starter failures caused widespread problems with starting when hot. The shift linkage caused difficulty in many cars, especially in earlier cars. These and other problems may have been solved during a long production run like those of the 356 and 911, but they went unaddressed during the 914’s short life in 1970-76.
914/6 GTs at the 2015 Amelia Island Concours. Photo from http://cms.autosport.nl
The story was far more complicated than one of simple hate from Porsche traditionalists, though. The 914/6 and 916 with their flat six 911 engines did not face the same hostility and rapidly became sought after, appreciating collectibles, the 916 from new and the 914/6 by the early 1980s. Aside from their low production numbers, their engines’ combination of pedigree and higher performance made them sufficiently “real Porsches” even though they had the same body style as ordinary 914s. All 914s eventually earned more respect as a result of competition success, with their inherently balanced mid-engine layout making them popular track day and club racing cars. With the passage of time, the 914 has become an accepted classic Porsche, with sufficient stature to be made the featured car at the 2015 Amelia Island Concours. Clearly, Porsche identity was more than just the Beetle-356-911 body style, just as the preceding 912 with its low powered four cylinder engine had shown that it was more than just the 911’s performance level. There was a combination of characteristics that would make a successful entry level Porsche, and Porsche would spend two decades working on it.
There have been two further generations of entry-level Porsche since the 914’s version 1.0 ended in 1976, and the company became more successful with each. Version 2.0 was the front water-cooled four cylinder engine with rear transaxle configuration, which lasted from 1976 to 1995, in the 924 from 1976-88, the 944 from 1982-91, and the 968 from 1992-95. Version 3.0 returned to the mid-engine boxer layout used earlier in the 914, introduced as the Boxster in 1996 and then as the Cayman coupe in 2005. The Boxster/Cayman range has lasted for 20 years so far with no end in sight, with its status as a “real Porsche” never questioned even though it marked the end of Porsche’s traditional air cooled boxer engines with its water cooled flat six, and many came from assembly lines in Finland rather than Germany, made under contract by Valmet from 1997 to 2011. Now the “not a real Porsche” argument has completely left the entry-level sports car range, living on now in the Cayenne SUV and Panamera sedan.
By surviving for over 40 years, this Signal Orange 914 2.0 has outlasted the arguments over its status as a “real Porsche” and has likely become the subject of countless “What kind of Porsche is it?” questions from the children and grandchildren of 914 owners and critics of the 1970s. With its 2.0 liter VW 411 engine, it would be slow by today’s standards, but with the wide modern tires that it wears it should be a well balanced and fine handling sports car by the standards of any era. An owner eager for more extreme modernization could remove the VW 411 engine and become one of many to convert a 914 to all-electric power, a mini-trend which has given rise to at least one electric motor conversion kit for the 914 becoming available off the shelf. Either way, a 914 such as this one is a classic from the 1970s that will never be renowned for its style, but will be respected for its engineering and handling well into the 21st Century.