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 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.
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!
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…
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.
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!