Modest Success

We reappraise a largely forgotten Porsche.

(c) wsupercars

When the first Porsche Boxster was launched in 1997, it was, aesthetically at least, something of a disappointment. The Boxster Concept, revealed at the 1993 Detroit Motor Show, was a sinuous and lithe design with an attractive and beautifully detailed interior. It was greeted with great enthusiasm by all who saw it. Here was a smaller, mid-engined roadster that would provide a more accessible route to Porsche ownership and complement the larger 911, while maintaining a clear distance in price and size between the two models.

In the intervening years, Porsche’s parlous financial condition forced the company to co-develop the production Boxster with the 996-generation 911. The cars shared both their interior and bodywork forward of the B-pillar. This compromised the Boxster in both size and appearance. The taut athleticism of the concept had been replaced with a rather flaccid design and the interior fittings were cheap and unpleasant looking.

Fortunately for Porsche, the excellence of the Boxster’s performance and handling made it a strong seller in spite of its aesthetic deficiencies and, now in its fourth generation, it has gone on to become one of Porsche’s most successful vehicles. Such has been the Boxster’s impact that it’s easy to overlook its conceptual predecessor and Porsche’s first mid-engined roadster, the 914, launched in 1969.

(c) mecum

This car was originally intended to be a VW-Porsche joint-venture and arose from a long-standing gentlemen’s agreement between the two companies whereby Porsche would undertake new model design and engineering work for VW. The 914 was intended to replace both VW’s Karmann-Ghia Coupé and Porsche’s 912, a 1.6L flat-four entry-level version of the 911. Responsibility for the design of the 914 was given to none other than Ferdinand Piëch, who would later go on to become chairman of the VW group.

There was already an engine available that would be suitable for the entry-level version of the new car: the 1.7L fuel-injected flat-four from the VW 411 was a compact design that was ideal for a mid-engined application. The 914 was designed also to accommodate the larger 2.0L flat-six from the base-model 911T. Both engines were mated to a Porsche five-speed gearbox derived from the 911’s unit. The mid-engined design gave the car an optimum weight distribution. This, and independent suspension front and rear, endowed the car with excellent handling characteristics.

The design of the two-seater Targa body was smooth and unfussy, if not especially dynamic or striking. The fibreglass Targa top stowed neatly under the rear boot lid while the compact suspension design allowed for decent luggage capacity both front and rear. The cockpit provided roomy and comfortable accommodation for driver and passenger.

(c) germancarsforsaleblog

It was originally envisaged that the four-cylinder variant would be sold as a VW and the six-cylinder as a Porsche. However, during development, Porsche became concerned that sales of its version in the critical US market might be undermined by a visually identical cheaper VW version. Porsche persuaded VW to allow it to market both versions under its own nameplate but, as a quid pro quo, it had to pick up a much greater share of the development and tooling costs. This pushed up prices to the extent that the 914/6 was uncomfortably close to the 911T and it sold poorly as a result, with only 3,351 finding buyers before production was discontinued in 1972.

Despite this setback, the four-cylinder 914 sold strongly, achieving sales of 118,978 before it was phased out in 1976, easily surpassing the 911 over this period. The original 1.7L engine delivered just 80bhp but gave brisk enough performance in a car weighing just 940kg. 0 to 60mph was achieved in around 13 seconds. This engine was upgraded to a 1.8L unit producing 85bhp in 1974, while a 2.0L version producing 101bhp replaced the 914/6 in 1973. The only other significant mechanical changes were the addition of anti-roll bars to improve handling and a shorter, more precise gearbox linkage that improved the quality of the gearchange. 

European models of the 914 were always badged VW Porsche. Production of the 914 was split between Karmann’s plant in Osnabrück and Porsche’s in Stuttgart. Karmann built the 914 completely and delivered rolling chassis for the 914/6 to Porsche for completion.

Car Magazine drove the 914 and 914/6 at a launch event in late 1969 at the Hockenheim race circuit. Journalist Philippe De Barsy was highly impressed by the handling, stability and ride quality of the new model, which was especially apparent in the more powerful 914/6 version. It compared very favourably with a 911S that was also available to drive that day. De Barsy criticised the latter’s tendency to wander disconcertingly under heavy braking, unlike the rock-steady and brilliantly adjustable 914/6, where the driver could induce slight understeer or oversteer at will.

Ferdinand Piëch was fully aware of the capabilities of the 914’s chassis. He was director of Porsche’s highly successful motor racing programme and wanted to demonstrate the potential of racing engines for road car applications, so commissioned a one-off version of the 914 with a 350bhp flat-eight engine. A second so-called 914/8 was built, albeit with the engine detuned to a more manageable 300bhp, as a 60th birthday present for Ferry Porsche, chairman of the company. 

Sadly, what would have been Porsche’s first mid-engined supercar was never seriously considered for production, probably because it shared a body with the company’s entry-level model and, consequently, would have been unlikely to sell, however good its performance and handling. The fate of the 914/6 would suggest that the correct decision had been made.

(c) hymanltd

After production ceased in 1976, the 914 quickly faded from view, eclipsed by Porsche’s new-generation 924 and 928 models. Despite its qualities, it never quite shook off its humble VW-engined origins. However, in recent years, the 914 has come to be appreciated again by Porsche enthusiasts.  Examples in excellent condition can fetch between £20k and £30k for four-cylinder models and between £30k and £40k for six-cylinder models.  ‘Concours’ condition examples of the latter are even offered for six-figure sums, not at all shabby for such a modest car.

While nobody would ever call the 914 conventionally beautiful, it was a brilliantly conceived and thoroughly executed design that brought the mid-engined layout within the reach of keen drivers who didn’t have the budget for a supercar. Those who saw past its apparently prosaic origins were rewarded with excellent dynamics and a great driving experience. The 914 deserves its place amongst the great Porsche sports cars.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

26 thoughts on “Modest Success”

  1. Here’s a picture of the 914/8 which had the engine of the 308 Spyder racer.
    There also was a 916 version with the 2.4 litre 190 PS engine from the contemporary F-series 911 S. The 916 had wheelarch extensions and a welded steel roof for improved rigidity and they made just seven of them.

    The original 914 came without anti roll bars and 2CV-like body roll in corners because the ‘bars made the handling very tricky. The body wasn’t stiff enough in the area around the rear suspension mounts because the engine sat where a stiffening transverse member would have been like in the 911. Therefore there was a lot of flex resulting in different suspension behaviour left and right under cornering, making for very interesting handling that was typical of early mid engined cars. With the anti roll bars the behaviour at the stability limit was very demanding, making the car no less difficult to drive than any 911 from the same year.

    1. Good morning Dave. That’s interesting information regarding the handling of cars fitted with the anti-roll bars or not. The car De Barsy tested was a launch model without the bars, yet he made no mention of excessive roll. Perhaps he was simply judging against the standards of the day? I must try and unearth some other contemporary tests for corroboration or otherwise.

  2. The 914 was officially rated as a 2+1 seater and the third person was supposed to seat on the padding on the cente tunnel.

  3. The design for the 914 was made by Ferdinand Alexander “Butzi” Porsche and his team. The design, which was finally implemented in the series, came from the head of the studio, Heinrich Klie.

    The development was done by Porsche in collaboration with Karman (my father was very involved in the development at the time and I remember that he went to Osnabrück for over a year on Tuesday mornings and came back on Friday evenings)

    Karman built the 914/4. All the 914/6 were built by Porsche in Zuffenhausen. Production in Zuffenhausen ended with the introduction of the 2.0.

    Ferry’s 914/8 was visually identical to the 914/6, the one with double headlights (Link in Daves comment) was Piech´s car.

    The 916 was developed for racing. The 8-cylinder route was not followed any further. Probably the reason was the classification in the respective GT classes and Porsche saw a better competitive environment with the 6-cylinder and less displacement.

  4. Another family 914 story:
    The way the Targa roof was attached between the frame of the windscreen and the Targa bracket was “invented” by my father. As usual, employee inventions were registered on the company. The patent was later licensed to Fiat, they used this for the X1/9. My father got a remarkable bonus paid after this deal.

  5. On page 149 in Jurgen Lewandowski’s book about the Porsche 914, there was apparently some short-lived interest from Volkswagen on the idea of using the 914/4 as a possible rally car in early-1970 mainly on Huschke von Hanstein’s part, who believed a smaller sportier homologation version of the 914/4 would be perfectly suited to the American market (following a visit to the US where he waxed lyrical about the Formula V vehicles).

    One example mentioned was a 1600cc carburetor engine with 70-75 hp (possibly in road-going form), yet it is not clarified whether the engine was envisaged as being based on the existing 1.6-litre Type 1 and Type 3 or reduced bore Type 4 engines. Though Volkswagen did request that Porsche do nothing with regard to engine performance until they formed a clear opinion on the suitability of the 914/4 for rallying.

    Find it difficult imagining a 1.6-litre Type 4 engine putting out 90+ hp in a homologation 914/4 even if the notion is rather appealing, just needs the coupe bodystyle of the Porsche 916 concept and with fixed twin-headlights in place of pop-up headlights.

    1. There was a 914R (or 914GT, depending on source) with plastic wheelarch extensions, removable roof and the two litre six cylinder engine converted to twin plug ignition that originally was to be used in rally sports.
      Porsche built around thirty complete cars and about 400 conversion kits. The 914 R/GT was moderately successful in circuit racing but not so in rallying.

    2. What could have improved the prospects of the 914?

      It is one of those cars that from my POV were never able to realise their full potential (along with the 912). Could further differentiation between the Volkswagen and Porsche versions in terms of styling and engines have been enough or would more be needed?

    3. I can’t see how a 912 could have been improved except by making it a 911 – which itself had enough problems at that time if you look at the wild experiments Porsche executed on them like cast iron ‘bumper reinforcements’, twinned batteries and an oil tank in the front wing, all in a vain attempt to bring weight forward to improve the handling before they finally stretched the wheelbase.
      The 914 was pig ugly, far too expensive for a VW and too slow for a Porsche (and too expensive for a slow Porsche) and it corroded like hell. Porsche didn’t want to make it a competitor for the 911 (otherwise the 916 would have been a perfect match for a Dino 246 if you ignore the fact that Porsche wasn’t in the same league as Ferrari) and at VW it wasn’t a true replacement for the ‘beetle in drag’ Karmann Ghia.
      One shouldn’t forget that Porsche at that time was a family owned small business with production numbers in a low five digit range per year. They had no money to waste and a head of the development department willing to bet the company on the 917 experiment…

    4. Fair enough, though the addition of a Flat-6 in a 912 takes away the main appeal of the latter.

      Largely agree on the 914, Volkswagen themselves did look at the possibility of using a Type 4 derived Flat-6 during its development that might have been to their benefit had Porsche limited themselves to helping develop it as opposed to making a Porsche Flat-6 powered variant.

    5. I’d say it’s the other way round. Fitting a Beetle-derived underpowered engine into a 911 takes away the main attraction. Even the later 912 with the type-4 derived two litre from the 914 2.0 didn’t sell.
      Don’t think that an OHV six would have made sense. VW developed such an engine based on the water cooled Bus engine and gave it to Oettinger who produced the 3.6 WBX Bus because the engine would have been far too expensive for VW.

    6. Despite having to make do with the Type 616 and Type 4 engines, the Porsche 912 was still renowned for its low weight and improved weight distribution as well as arguably having much better handling compared to the notorious reputation the earlier Porsche 911 would go on to earn. An ideal 912 would have further built upon those qualities with more power overtime in line with the 911 gradually featuring larger and more powerful engines, thereby allowing the 912 to establish its own niche instead of being unfairly maligned as a little more than a tuned Beetle by those who do not consider it a real Porsche to this day.

      Also had in mind the unrealised project for a Flat-4 version of the 911’s Flat-6 mentioned in Jürgen Lewandowski’s book on the Porsche 912, were it not for the troublesome development of the 901/911’s Flat-6 and its initial limitations due to the biral cylinders (that restricted displacements of the unbuilt Flat-4 to 1334-1484cc) and the need for the crankcase for the 2-litre 901/912 Flat-6 to be redesigned for the 2.2-litre version to prevent the crankshaft of a 901/911-based flat-4 coming into contact with intermediate shaft.

      An earlier enlargement of the 911 to 2.4-litres during the 1960s in such a scenario where the 901/911 Flat-6 was properly-developed from the outset (without the above aforementioned issues) would have also helped matters for the 912 equipped instead with an in-house 901/911-based Flat-4 in place of both the Type 616 and Type 4 engines.

      The Type 4 Flat-6 was something Volkswagen considered during the convoluted development of the 914, perhaps there would have been more justification for it along with the Wasserboxer-based Oettinger WBX6 had Volkswagen taken a gamble in producing some more in-house version of the EA128 prototype (in place of the latter’s 911 Flat-6). OTOH Volkswagen could have done a much better job of updating and probably developing their rear-engined air-cooled vehicles then they did before their acquisition of DKW and NSU.

  6. Delightful article, and the comments superb. Brought back memories, and it’s over fifty years ago the 914 set forth.

    I always thought it looked very awkward – a 914 approaching looked like an MGB going. The blame was those backwards-sloped amber indicators at the very front of the wings. The sideways profile wasn’t wonderful with the roll bar looking too far forward. The whole thing looked like a short squashed hot dog roll.

    I read the first of Daniel’s links for a road test. All a bit too breathy, and it was all so wonderful. I went to London to study in late 1969, and soon discovered CAR, and found that my old stalwart US Car and Driver madazine could be bought at any tube station newsagent. Bliss. I recall C/D being none too impressed with the 914, and so forgot about it, because their impressions of cars and mine of the same vehicles I had driven were very similar. However, I must confess I never drove a 914, but the follow-up 924 was a drab and thrill-less machine which happened to look good.

    Anyway, I discovered this article on How Stuff Works, which is a compendium of magazine snippets of road test reviews. Sure enough, C/D found the 914 completely underwhelming. And it was expensive!

    The poor old 914 was completely eclipsed in North America by the release of the Datsun 240Z in 1970, which cost less than the 914/4, was almost as fast as the 914/6, and looked the part of a sports car. Game over, really. On a trip home to Canada in 1971, I looked up an old uni classmate who had graduated with me two years before, and he had a new 240Z. He was the man who only four years previous had driven his Spitfire from Halifax NS to Edmonton Alberta for a summer job, in three days. Look that up on a real map. Almost super human, especially given the roads of the day. Had a good long drive of his 240Z. Very nice indeed, and affordable. A smooth modern OHC six, beautiful gearbox. it knocked the MGB’s old BMC B Series snorter into the weeds, and made mincemeat of the carbureted TR6 long stroke chuffer by 40 bhp.

    Who was going to buy a C$5000 914/4 with a rattly VW air-cooled engine, when for C$4200 you could buy the Datsun with IRS and some welly? Nobody. the same happened in the USA. Peter Brock, who designed the AC Cobra Daytona, ran a team of 240Z cars for years in SCCA races, doing very well. So it wasn’t just a flash in the pan goofy Japanese car. Neither was its little sedan counterpart, the cheap 510 — which is still racing!

    And so far as the 914 was concerned here, that was that. The 240Z killed it. People who wanted a real Porsche and could afford it bought the 911, and looked down on the 914. Maybe unfairly so, but things usually aren’t.

    1. Good stuff, Bill, thank you, particularly your point about the 240Z. Much as I like the 914, I would have picked the Datsun over it back in the day and can easily understand why American buyers would have done likewise in their droves.

  7. A guy I knew from university had a blue 914/6 first and a yellow 914 2.0 later (before going to a 2.4 litre 911 S targa). He really liked his 914s but always complained about the astronomical parts prices even for stuff sourced from VW.

    One day I was fettling my Alfa in a workshop owned by the father of someone I knew. Then a US Army member showed up with his US version 914/4 1.7 with the golden ‘Porsche’ lettering on the engine cover. His car had a slipping clutch and when I told him that this would mean paying Porsche prices for VW parts because the engine came from VW he was completely shocked because up to then he’d been convinced his car had a genuine Porsche engine.

    1. The only aspect of the 914 that was really fast was its ability to corrode in record time like most Karmann products of the time.

  8. You have to say in their favor, almost everything rusted in the 70s. But given their manufacturing quality, it is astonishing how long they lasted.

  9. Getting the proportions right of a mid-engined cars isn’t easy, and it took about a decade for the designers to come up with something that we today perceive as beautiful. The Matra M530 and the Lotus Europa was more awkward than traditionally beautiful, while the Matra Djet and the Porsche 904 was some of the most beautiful cars ever seen. In that quest, there was some trial and error, and I see the 914 being one of those that tried it out without really getting it right. I’ve always looked at the 914 as a car designed by an industrial designer that never really designed a car before, it has that quaint sense of unintentionally breaking design conventions just because the designer was new in the field and didn’t know better, for better and for worse. Therefore it’s such a surprise hearing it was designed by Butzi Porsche, the man behind both the 911 and the astonishingly beautiful 904. In a sense it may be true, as Butzi went on to head the Porsche Design Group, making watches and sunglasses and whatnot. According to Wikipedia he “never thought of himself as an artist or designer, but more as a technically talented craftsman in shaping.” I wouldn’t say the 914 looks awkward, it just doesn’t look right in a very interesting way.

    1. Hi Ingvar, that’s a very perceptive summary of the 914’s design: “doesn’t look right in a very interesting way”. It’s almost ‘anti-design’ in that it was exactly what was necessary to package the mechanicals, driver and passenger efficiently, but no more or less.

  10. I don’t think anyone has mentioned this, but the 914 was only ever available from the factory in left hand drive.

    Possibly understandable given that Japan was poorer then and its market heavily barriered, in both tax and non-tariff ways. Also there was the odd fashion for Japanese connoisseurs to favour LHD for expensive imports. Australia, NZ, Ireland and South Africa had high import duties, so the UK was probably the best prospect.

    Which makes me suspect that Porsche Cars Great Britain Ltd wanted little to do with the 914, and were not exactly clamouring for the factory to supply the cars with the wheel on the side the market expected.

    They didn’t sell it cheap. Exclusivity was important and they made sure it was maintained with their 911 pricing.

    Some prices from May 1973:

    914 2.0: £2774
    914SC 2.0: £3060
    911T 2.4: £4562
    911 Carrera 2.7 RS Touring: £7193
    Jaguar E Type V12 convertible: £3319
    Datsun 240Z: £2393
    MG MGB: £1393

    RHD conversion wasn’t a technical impossibility for the 914. British converters Crayford would do the job for £525, but despite the thoroughness of the work, the number of takers was only in the low teens:

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