You can think of the mid-engined, two-seater 914 as the Rodney Dangerfield of the Porsche catalog. Like any interesting older car, the "Teener" has its fans and forums, yet it often gets no respect, no respect at all from Porsche faithful, or from auto enthusiasts in general.
It really deserves better than that.
I first saw a Porsche 914 in, of all places, the pages of Boys' Life magazine--specifically, the August 1971 issue. There was a race-prepared 914/6 on the cover, and a feature article illustrated with a number of beauty shots of a red 914--that's a scan of that particular page on the right--that I could still picture in my mind's eye decades later. Not long after that article appeared, I started seeing 914s in the wild.
Why did this car capture my imagination so? Well, I was a young boy, and young boys are naturally drawn to things that look cool and/or go fast. The 914 looked pretty cool, with more than a little of that car-of-the-future feeling going for it, and it also looked fast. It was also just about exactly the right size for a kid my age, had we been able to get driver's licenses.
I also had a fondness then for British roadsters like the TR-6 or MG. (Still do.) Though not as futuristic by any means, those British cars looked like they'd be a lot of fun to drive. They also often looked like they'd been slapped together in haste by disgruntled employees with epic hangovers, and they had a terrible reputation for unreliability.
One look at a real live 914 was all it took for me to conclude that the 914 had to be superior to what the British were offering. It appeared to have been assembled by fanatical German craftsmen who made sure to line everything up properly and torque everything down to specification. (In the 1970s, this was no small thing.) The pop-top roof promised the infinite joys of open-air motoring, and the engine gave off a cheerful German-engineered buzz that said you could have all of that fun with none of those annoying unscheduled roadside maintenance stops that Triumph owners had to put up with.
The truth of it wasn't quite so sunny. The 914 wasn't a bad car by any means, but it also wasn't a great car either, and it really didn't live up to the Porsche nameplate. Still, for all its flaws, I would submit that the 914 is a worthy subject of your attention, one that perhaps has gotten a bit of a bum rap from the critics
The body shell was styled by Gugelot (a German industrial design firm which had also done the Kodak Carousel slide projector) with some later refinement by Butzi Porsche, the designer of the 911. The fully-independent suspension and five-speed transaxle were adapted from the 911. The car was to be sold in two versions, one with the air-cooled VW flat-4 engine from the Type 3, and one with the flat-6 out of the 911. Initially, Karmann fabricated the body shells, and either VW or Porsche finished out the assembly, depending on whether it was to be a 4- or 6-cylinder car. In Europe, the 4-cylinder was sold by VW dealers as a "Volkswagen-Porsche" and the 6-cylinder "914/6" at Porsche dealers; in North America, both versions wore the Porsche nameplate.
The powers that be deliberately decided to avoid making the car look too much like either a VW or a Porsche, and they certainly met that objective. The 914 doesn't look much like a late-60s VW, or anything at all like a 911. Some have criticized it as "stubby" or "boxy," but I rather like the looks of it (as you probably figured out six paragraphs ago). It was certainly no Loewy coupe, but it was clean, simple, crisp, and faintly futuristic. The interior was reasonably spacious for the size of the car, if perhaps a little Spartan.
The handling was excellent. The 914 was agile, but with none of Porsche's "traditional" oversteer. This was because it had the 911's sophisticated suspension without the 911's rear-mounted engine and its associated moment-of-inertia issues. The 914/6 got a set of sway bars (later made standard on the four-cylinder) that only made a good thing better.
Straight-line performance was another matter. At 2,100 pounds, the 914 was surprisingly hefty for its small size, and the base model with the 1.7-liter Volkswagen engine had a mere 79 horsepower and 97 pounds of torque with which to overcome all that inertia. It took 14 seconds to accelerate to 60 mph, and turned the quarter mile in 19 seconds or so--roughly comparable to what you could get out of an Oldsmobile sedan with a slushbox. To put it diplomatically, that's not the performance one expects from a car with the name "Porsche" on it. The 6-cylinder had 110 ponies in the engine bay, and got to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, which is a little more like it.
That was in 1970. As the Disco Decade wore on, things got worse for the 914's performance. In 1972, the North American version received heavy 5 mph bumpers--while, at the same time, the newly-mandated first-generation smog controls began sucking horsepower out of the engine room. The base engine declined to 76 horsepower, though this was partially compensated for by making an optional 2.0-liter, 95-horsepower engine available.
The 914 also had the added problem of being something of an orphan product, not quite a "real" Porsche (some Porsche owners' clubs refused membership to 914 drivers!), but not really part of the VW family either. The early model years were also plagued by vapor lock in hot weather, and occasional engine fires.
In Germany, the "Volkswagen-Porsche" 4-cylinder model soon acquired the derisive nickname "Vo-Po." This was also the popular nickname of the East German Volkspolizei ("People's Police"), the Communist regime's uniformed "security" agency. As any halfway competent person in the marketing business would tell you, if your product ends up sharing a nickname with a totalitarian dictatorship's goon squad, something has probably gone wrong with your branding strategy.
The car's biggest problem, however, was its cost-benefit ratio. A base-model 914 started out rather pricey for something with such modest capabilities, and inflation only made it worse in later years. The 6-cylinder commanded a mind-bending 70% premium over the base model on its introduction, making it nearly as expensive as a 911 and more expensive than a Corvette. For the price of a 1970 914/6, you could get a fully-badassed queen-of-the-option-sheet 1970 Camaro with a screaming big-block V-8--and have about fifteen hundred pre-inflation dollars left over for sway bars and other modifications to improve handling. Meanwhile, down the street at that upstart Datsun's place, one could get a 240Z, which outperformed the 914/6 in every statistical category, for less than the price of a four-cylinder 914.
It should not surprise you that the 914s didn't sell all that well at that price point. Less than 3,500 914/6s were built before the model was discontinued in 1972. The four-cylinder version did better than that, but it was still at a serious price disadvantage--and Porsche and VW really couldn't cut the price if they were to have any hope of not losing money on such a low-volume car. Porsche pulled the plug on the 914 after 1975, briefly reviving the 912 to take its place until the new 924 went into production.
Though a bit disappointing as both a sports car and a business proposition, the 914 wasn't a total disaster by any means--total sales of 118,000 units for a two-seater is nothing to sneeze at, and VW (at least) made a little money off it. Race-prepared 914s did well in IMSA and Group 4 events and won the GT class at Le Mans in 1970, and it's easy to turn one into a delightful little club racer or autocrosser. (It actually makes a pretty decent autocrosser in box-stock condition.) Parts are relatively easy to come by. If you're inclined to do something about the straight-line performance, there are proven recipes for hotting up the four-cylinder to as much as 170 HP, and the engine bay can be made to take a 911 or Carrerra engine, a VW turbodiesel, a Subaru WRX drivetrain, or a smallblock V-8. There's even an EV conversion kit.
I'm a lot older and wiser (well, older anyway) than I was in the summer of 1971 when I was drooling over that photo spread, but I still find myself drawn to the 914. It may have been a mite underpowered and more than a bit overpriced, but it's an interesting little car, and one that I still wouldn't mind having. Imagine summer ice cream runs through Mill Creek Park with the top off....
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
The August '71 Boys' Life magazine page scan was posted to the 914World.com forums by member "ejm." The lovely Sahara Beige car belongs to 914World.com member "Sahara Beige Steve." It's in gloriously original condition, with less than 23,000 miles on the clock, and I would submit to you that beige never looked so good. The orange car with racing graphics comes from BringATrailer.com. 914World.com member AvalonFal provided the German magazine ad. The very artistic night shot of the red 914/6 is by 914club.com member Quilmes.