We reappraise a largely forgotten Porsche.
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.
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.
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.
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.