The forgotten (and underrated?) Porsche 914!

It may look like an improbable combination but as many will know, there have always been strong historical ties between Volkswagen (VW) and Porsche. This goes all the back to the birth of VW since the company was founded by Ferdinand Porsche, and Ferdinand Piech, who later became the company’s very prominent president and who is arguably the man behind much of VW’s modern success, was Piëch’s grandson.

Most of us will also feel that we know the recipe for success of a classic Porsche. Six rather than four cylinders and the engine in the back rather than the front. It also goes without saying that the car should be engineered by Porsche rather than any other suspect brand, such as… Audi. And yet, a car that at least partly followed that brief not only wasn’t much of a success, but is today largely forgotten. I’m of course talking about the Porsche 914 – how long has it been since you last saw one?

The 914, most often in typical 70’s colors, was quite a neat car

The recipe for a successful Porsche is actually something the company had deviated from already in the 60’s when it offered the 912 as a cheaper version of the 911. The untrained observer wouldn’t spot much of a difference between the two, but the crucial point was of course the engine in the back, where the 912 had a four-pot derived from the 356, making it a much cheaper entry model. However, by the late 60’s it was getting old and needed a replacement.

Over in Wolfsburg, home of Volkswagen, the situation was a bit the same, albeit with a different car. The VW Karmann Ghia had been built since the mid-50’s, had never been very sporty, and was starting to get old. it would continue to be built until the mid-70’s, thus overlapping with the 914 during the whole lifetime of the latter, but VW saw the new car as a way to get a sportier, entry-level car in its line-up, and also one that would (at least partially) carry the Porsche badge.

Many interiors are in leather or vinyl, but the cloth definitely brings more 70’s feeling!

The two companies thus entered into a joint venture aiming at combining Porsche’s engineering prowess with VW’s mass production capabilities. The project was led by none other than Ferdinand Piëch who at the time was the head of development at Porsche, and the VW-Porsche 914 was introduced in 1969 under a new distribution company founded jointly by the two brands. When it was presented to the world at the Frankfurt auto show the same year, it was shown both on Porsche’s and VW’s stand, and the decision was taken to brand it VW-Porsche in Europe, but only Porsche in the US. With regards to Europe, that probably ranks near the top of the list of great marketing mistakes…

The initial 914, referred to as 914/4, was powered by a 1.7 litre, four-cylinder engine developing a whopping 80 hp and sitting behind the seats ahead of the rear-axle, making it a mid-engined car. During the production time the volume of the four-cylinder increased to two litres, and the power up to 100 hp. Certainly not much by modern standards, but the favorable weight distribution and the low weight just over 900 kg meant that the 914 achieved higher cornering speeds than its big brother, the 911!

The favorable weight distribution meant that the 914 did well in GT racing

In 1970 the line-up would be complemented by the 914-6, featuring the 110 hp six-cylinder engine from the 911 and also taking over notably breaks and wheels from the latter. The simpler 914/4 had these and other parts coming from the VW 411, a not very exciting family car. Irrespective of engine, all 914’s came with a five-speed manual gearbox, the 914-6 could in addition be had with a so called Sportomatic four-speed automatic, with hydraulic gear changes and the clutch replaced by a torque-converter.

On paper the 914 had a lot going for it. Its looks were certainly not offensive and rather modern for the time. The weight distribution was better than that of the 911, as was the space, with both a front and a back booth behind the engine. The car was of course also a Targa with a detachable roof, opening the passenger space to the elements. The 914-4 was relatively cheap and as if that wasn’t enough, in 1970 it was also voted “Import car of the year” in the US – arguably quite a small category back then…

Once removed, the roof could be stored in the rear luggage compartment

And yet, the 914 never managed to enchant neither the masses in general, nor the Porsche crowd in particular. Porsche enthusiasts at the time would of course not accept anything but the original 911, an early version of the skepticism that would later befall the 914’s replacement, the 924. The marketing strategy VW and Porsche had gone for in Europe, notably deciding to call the car VW-Porsche rather than only Porsche like in the US, didn’t help either.

That said the 914 didn’t really see real success in the US either, with quality and rust issues on early cars not helping. To that came competition, notably in the form of the Chevy Corvette, as well as the relatively hefty price tag of the 914-6, far from the entry model price tag of the simpler 914-4. Porsche would do what they could when it was already too late, notably publishing press releases specifically pointing out that the car wasn’t supposed to be called the “Volksporsche” (People’s Porsche), which of course had the opposite effet and became the 914’s nickname that lives on until today.

Given how cheap it is, maybe you can afford the plane too?

Still, Porsche built a total of 119.000 914’s between 1969-1975, so to call the model a coplete failure would be exaggerated. Unfortunately, what wasn’t exaggerated were the corrosion issues, which combined with the fact that the 914 never really gained in value and thus often came in the hands of owners not really taking care of them, means that not many of the over 100′ cars are left today. Then again as said, for the ones that remain, prices haven’t evolved anywhere near those of 911’s of the same period!

In Europe the fun starts around EUR 25-30.000 for good cars, with four-cylinder cars easier to find and cheaper both to buy and maintain than the six-cylinder version. In an “everything else equal” world you’d of course choose the latter, but given everything isn’t equal most of the time, I would claim you get almost as much of the 914 feeling with the four-cylinder, and finding a car in good condition is therefore more important than the engine. You’ve probably never had a poster of the 914 on your bedroom wall, but if you’re looking for a relatively cheap entry oldtimer carrying the Porsche badge, the 914 is certainly not a bad place to start!

Four is more than two!

quattro (always with a lower-case “q” ). It’s difficult to find a word that has meant more to a carmaker than quattro to Audi. But the quattro concept goes beyond Audi and was to re-define the car world from the early 80’s until four-wheel drive became a common feature in all types of cars. So with the days getting shorter and the roads more slippery, and the original Audi quattro (Ur-quattro, as the Germans would say) celebrating its 40th birthday this year, let’s have a closer look at it, its brilliance as a rally car, and also at the genius of the late legend Ferdinand Piëch, without whom the quattro wouldn’t have happened.

The Audi quattro was truly innovative at the time, including the boxed arches!

To get some perspective we have to wind the clock back to the late 70’s. This wasn’t a very exciting period in the car world in general, and four-wheel drive was at the time something you only found in traditional utility cars like Land Rovers and G-wagons. In Ingolstadt, a bunch of talented Audi engineers under the leadership of Ferdinand Piëch had however started thinking about the possibilities of using four-wheel drive in normal passenger cars, thanks to a room-saving, innovative new differential system.

In parallel there was also talk in the rally world of allowing four-wheel drive on rally cars, which until then had been forbidden. As the visionary he was, Piëch saw the opportunity of developing a new, four-wheel drive sports car and enter it in the world rally championship such as to provide a unique marketing window. This was the first true example of what would become Audi’s long-lived slogan “Vorsprung durch Technik” (something like “head start through technology”). The quattro was introduced at the Geneva Motor Show in 1980 and given the rally rules had been re-written in 1979 to allow for four-wheel drive, the timing was perfect.

Not the most pleasant man – but Ferdinand Piëch was both an amazing engineer and marketeer!

Given the Audi quattro was a new concept when it was introduced, Audi weren’t really sure of the demand and modestly estimated it at a few hundred cars. They would be wrong by about 11.000, which was the total number of original Audi quattro’s built between 1980 and 1991! Using the Audi 80 chassis, the quattro also inherited the five-cylinder engine that had so far powered the Audi 100 and 200 (with turbo in the latter). The engine was an engineering tour de force in itself, born out of the need for a smoother engine than a four-cylinder, but in Audi’s case with too little room to fit a front-mounted, longitudinal six-cylinder engine, given the gearbox was placed right behind the engine.

The solution was one of the first mass-produced five-cylinder engines that would come to define Audi over many years almost as much as the quattro concept, and that was said to combine the smoothness of a six-cylinder with the fuel consumption of a four-pot. The first part is true, and it can be added that it does so with a very distinctive sound. The part on the fuel consumption is very much dependent on the driver… In the quattro, the turbo-boosted engine produced 200 hp in the 10-valve version until 1988, which was increased to 220 hp in the 20-valve version for the last three production years.

The radiator had to be placed to the right of the engine, with the turbo to the left.

When you look at the quattro today, the “Vorsprung durch Technik” motto (sorry, sticking to the German version as the translation doesn’t sound as good…) quickly comes to mind. Not that the car is ugly, but it’s certainly not a design masterpiece (then again, neither was the Lancia Delta, the Renault Turbo 2 or other somewhat similar cars from the period). It does however look very purposeful, notably with the the lovely boxed arches that many years later would also come on cars like the Lancia Delta but were very much a first in the early 80’s. They also helped distinguish the quattro from the “standard”, 136 hp Audi Coupé. The interior has that lovely 80’s feel of hard plastic but offers lots of room for four and their luggage, meaning the quattro is a real all-rounder.

The single headlights came in 1982, only early cars have four separate headlights.

When you get behind the wheel, as in most 80’s cars you’re struck not only by the cheap plastic but also by the large windows and the excellent visibility. 200 hp is of course not a lot today, but then again the quattro weighed in at just under 1300 kgs and the turbo character means the car feels rather quick even by today’s standards, helped by an excellent, tight gearbox and, by 80’s standards, precise steering. It also feels solid, obviously not like a modern Audi but more so than many other cars from the period. It’s let down slightly by the breaks that feel soft and not very confidence-inspiring. All in all though, this is a car you can live very well with, knowing that as soon as a twisty back road opens up, the car is ready and will not let you down.

The 80’s won’t be remembered for the interior quality….

As was so often the case, Ferdinand Piëch had been right about entering Audi in the world rally championship and in the early 80’s the quattro became a true rally legend with a total of 23 race wins and four world championships until 1986, thanks to legendary drivers such as Hannu Mikkola, Stig Blomquist, Michèle Mouton and of course Walter Röhrl. However, once other brands caught up, the quattro was soon a victim of the less-then-ideal weight distribution that five-cylinder engine pushed all the way to the front of the car caused. Audi stood no chance against the mid-engine competition from 1986 and onwards, but that’s a different story.

The quattro was far more successful than he Sport quattro in rallyes

Interestingly, afraid that the “standard” quattro would be too big and heavy for the new Group B class, Audi presented the Sport Quattro in 1983, a 32 cm shortened group B car of which 164 homologation cars were built for road usage. However the Sport quattro was said to be more difficult to handle and never became as successful on the rally scene as the “standard” quattro. At around 200.000 DM the road version of the Sport quattro was Germany’s most expensive car in 1983, twice as expensive as a 911 Turbo. Today, Sport quattros don’t change owners very often but when they do, it’s at around EUR 500.000.

32 cm less overall length gave the Sport strange proportions, but it remained a very capable rally car!

Should you wish to make the original quattro yours, the good news is that you can take off a zero of the Sport quattro price, as good “standard” quattros trade at around EUR 50.000 today. The 20 valve version from 1989 and onwards cost more but are hardly worth it. Ten years ago both could be had for less than half, but even today a good car, meaning one with a known history and a “tight” driving feel still remains a stable investment – and how could it be different, after all it’s an Audi!

PS. In a class that existed only between 1982 and 1986, the group B rally cars were some of the wildest and most powerful in history. Click the link below for a reminder of what it was like deep down in the Finnish forests, when a 550 hp Sport quattro flew by:

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The Piëch dynasty – is Toni Ferdinand’s true successor?

As you may have heard Ferdinand Piëch, the legendary (and feared) boss of Audi and Volkswagen and the grandson of Porsche founder Ferdinand (Ferry), passed away this week at an age of 82 years. Piëch was reputed for many things, one of which was his dictatorial way of running first Audi and then VW. There is however no doubt that he was also a brilliant operator, winning numerous fights against both competitors and politicians (VW is still partly state-owned) through the years.

VW patriarch Ferdinand Piëch

Less known is perhaps the fact that Piëch is the father of no less than 12 children from three different mothers. In the coming years one of these, Toni Piëch, will potentially revolutionize the car industry to an even greater extent than his father did.

Four years ago, Toni founded the car company Piëch together with his business partner Rea Stark Rajcic. Ever since, the partners have developed a battery-powered sports coupé called the Piëch Mark Zero, based on a new architectural concept said to be able to combine different bodyworks and different engine types. Piëch’s long term objective is to build three cars using the same platform, all through contracted, external constructors. As can be seen below, they’ve done a pretty good work with the first of those bodyworks, and the Mark Zero is a truly beautiful coupé, bearing some resemblance to the DB9 and even more the Alfa 8C, but still with its own look.

The Mark Zero has been seen at the Geneva Motor Show since 2016, and when I was there this spring, it was in a booth that was among the largest of the whole show – just one sign of the advantages (and financial power) the Piëch name brings with it. On my visit to the show I was invited to the booth and had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with Toni, standing next to the Mark Zero. The man I met had very few of the traits his father was reputed for. Soft-spoken and more looking the part of an engineer than a car boss, he was delighted to tell me about his new baby, its electrical engine with very much similar KwH numbers and range than other current electrical cars (i.e. 80 to 100 KwH, I’m afraid I can’t remember). And then, just in passing, he also mentioned a battery charging capability of around 80% in 5 minutes. Yep, that’s 5 – five – minutes.

At first I was convinced I didn’t hear right, but the same numbers were confirmed a second time, now with the additional information that they work with a revolutionizing battery technology developed in China. This was however as much as Toni was willing to give away.

Piëch recently opened a showroom in Zurich where the company’s headquarters are located, where the Mark Zero is exhibited (actually the same car as in Geneva with production still being a few steps away). The guy in the showroom didn’t tell me much Toni had not already told me in Geneva, but he did confirm that the car will be compatible with the charging stations rolled out for example by Ionity through Europe – that would mean that the revolutionising concept is indeed in the battery technology itself, not in the charging.

Toni Piëch – the disruptor?

This obviously raises a number of questions; why would the developer of this disrupting technology limit himself to working with an unknown, small car brand, rather than make a splash with far larger brands? I actually asked Toni this, and his somewhat evasive answer was that they wanted to preserve their independence and creativity, which doesn’t sound very convincing to my ears. But then again, turning all this around, when Toni set up his car company and developed the Mark Zero, Ferdinand was still very much alive, and knowing what we know about him, it would seem highly improbable that he would let his family name be dragged through the mud with an initiative such as this one, if there wasn’t solid substance behind it. But turning that around again, why would he then not have made sure the VW group could use the technology? Lots of questions with few answers for the time being and if you have thoughts of your own, please feel free to share them below.

Future will certainly tell. Maybe the Mark Zero like so many other initiatives – albeit not carrying the Piëch name – will never reach the market. Then again, the real interesting part is obviously not the car itself but the battery technology it hides under its chassis. If everything said about it is true, this could be the first true disruptor that revolutionises the electric car universe!