A PORSCHE BY ANY OTHER NAME…

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By Sivan Goren and photos by Douglas Abbot

Over the years, for various reasons,certain manufacturers have chosen to get into bed with one other. The resulting ‘love child’ is often sneered at and not accepted as a true heir by marque purists – at least not initially. A perfect example would be the 1967-74 mid-engined Dino, powered by a V6 engine designed by Ferrari but built by Fiat. It wasn’t just the Italians who were mixing it up, though. In the late ʼ60s, two Germans decided to get a little bit closer. The result? The Porsche (or is it VW?) 914.

The 914’s predecessor, the Porsche 912, had become fairly pricey and the firm needed a new model that was cheaper. But it wasn’t just the need to keep costs down; huge demand for the strong-selling 911 had also created production constraints at the Porsche plant in Zuffenhausen. All this made it inevitable that Porsche would seek a partner to share the load for the new sporty-yet-not-too-pricey model… and who better than VW, the firm Porsche had already been working with for years in development?

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As far as couples go, this one seemed like a match made in heaven. Both firms were German – so 10 points already on the compatibility meter. But each had qualities that brought something to the partnership: VW had volume production down to a tee and Porsche was the master of sports car engineering. And what was each looking for in a partner? Essentially, VW wanted a sportier offering to replace the somewhat long-in-the-tooth Karmann-Ghia sports coupé, while Porsche needed a cost-effective-yet-still-sporty replacement for its 912. So far, so good.

So Ferry Porsche, son of Ferdinand Porsche and head honcho at the firm, got on the horn with Heinz Nordhoff, head of VW, and asked for a meeting to discuss a joint venture of sorts. A verbal agreement was reached, and they shook on it – as gentlemen do. The idea was that Porsche would design the car – named the 914 – using a large number of off-the-shelf parts from both firms, and VW would build it. There would be two versions: the 914/4 would use the 1.7-litre fuel-injected flat-four of the VW 411, and the 914/6 would get a 2-litre carburettor-equipped flat-six Porsche engine.

Originally, it was planned to sell the 914/4 as a VW and the 914/6 as a Porsche but then, on 12 April 1968, something happened that neither party anticipated – and which threw the proverbial spanner in the works – Heinz Nordhoff died. Unfortunately, his successor, Kurt Lotz, didn’t want to honour the gentleman’s agreement between Nordhoff and Porsche and wasn’t keen for the new car to be marketed under the Porsche name. An agreement was finally reached: in Europe, the car would be badged the VW-Porsche 914. A Volkswagen-Porsche joint venture called Volkswagen of America would handle export of the cars to the States, where both versions were badged and sold as Porsches.

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The styling of the new model was a crucial element because it couldn’t look like existing VW or Porsche models. Furthermore, it had to be contemporary but allow for a mid-engined layout. Why a mid-engined layout, you ask? Well, Porsche believed it would create comparisons between the successes of its mid-engined racing cars and the qualities of its production cars. But also, in the mid-ʼ60s, mid-engine design was beginning to look like the way forward for production sports cars. All this is well and good, I hear you say, but we all know there are drawbacks to this layout. With nimble handling and even front-rear weight distribution, the mid-engined car is perfectly suited for the track – but it doesn’t make for the most practical road car. While a racing driver might not mind noise, vibration, heat and limited over-the-shoulder vision, ordinary drivers expecting quality and comfort would not be quite so forgiving. Then there’s the fact that a ‘middie’ is more difficult and expensive to engineer and build. None of this seemed to matter too much to manufacturers at the time, apparently, because this engine layout was dominating tracks – and trickling into showrooms as a result. And the 914 was no exception.

Design of the new model began in 1966, with Heinrich Klie and Ferry’s son Butzi at the helm of the design team and on 11 September 1969, it was unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show. The 914 was a compact, light-weight two-seater roadster with a targa-type roof. Power was channelled to the rear wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox and suspension was fully independent. Anti-roll bars firmed up the cornering response and four-wheel disc brakes were used. The car had two – yes, two! – boots and funky pop-up headlights.

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In 1969, production of the 914/4 models began at the Karmann plant in Osnabrück. The plant would also send 914 bodies to Zuffenhausen for Porsche to slot its engine into and turn into the six-cylinder 914-6. When the car was launched, the media lambasted it with reviews ranging from mediocre at best to absolutely dreadful. Maybe this was the motoring media being snobs about the car’s somewhat confused parentage, because despite some issues, the 914 really wasn’t bad. Its handling was superb, and it was pretty comfortable for a sports car… and did I mention the luggage space?

Here is what the main gripes were about. The VW 1.7-litre engine in the 419/4, good for 80hp (59kW), was decidedly lacklustre. Despite weighing only 907kg, the car took around 13 seconds to reach 100km/h. Another complaint by reviewers was the terrible gear linkage. The upside? The price was right, and as a result, sales of the 914/4 were good. The 914/6, on the other hand, got much better reviews as far as performance, but its price is what eventually killed it.

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To understand why, let’s rewind a bit to when Kurt Lotz stepped into the picture. Nordhoff and Ferry Porsche had agreed on the price of the 914-6 bodies that would be supplied to Porsche for final assembly, but when Kurt Lotz took Nordhoff’s place and knew nothing of the deal, VW wound up charging more for the 914-6 bodies than Porsche had budgeted. Lotz’s thinking was that VW had all rights to the model, and no incentive to share it with Porsche if they would not share in tooling expenses. As a result, the price of the chassis went up hugely, and the 914/6 ended up costing only a bit less than the 911T, Porsche’s next lowest priced car. As a result, only 3 351 of these were produced and the 914/6 was discontinued in 1972.

The 914-4, however, continued to improve and as it did, the media began to change their opinion of the car. In 1973, a new 2-litre engine – a VW engine that had been redesigned by Porsche engineers – was introduced along with a new transmission. This finally solved the gear linkage problems and the reviews were glowing. Not only did performance improve, so did comfort – and sales.

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1976 was the last year for the 914 and by the end of production, a total of 115 596 four-cylinder 914s had been built. Amazingly, the little mixed-breed 914/4 became Porsche’s top seller, outselling even the mighty, thoroughbred 911.

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