Blue Collar Heroes

Non-911s have always had a major flaw: they’re not 911s. These are cursed Porsches, the ones that will always generate the endless “is it worthy of the Badge” arguments.  In the Porsche-world, anything that has a lower price-tag of a 911 has always been elected as a symbol of “almost” and not enough to satisfy enthusiasts.

Needless to say that when the hated-loved 914 came out in 1969 at the Frankfurt Auto Show, it immediately generated a lot of debate whether it was a Porsche or not. Interestingly enough, it should be paired to another greatly mistaken motorcar, the Dino models from Fiat and Ferrari. Baby Ferraris were always conceived as something nothing short of a sacrilege, especially when up to that point any road car with the Prancing Horse had been equipped with a V12. In the era of baby-boomers, either you went big or went home, end of the story.

Yet, besides all that Porsche-not-Porsche arguments, there is still a question that still rings in many people’s head: “is the 914 any good to drive?”. Is true that besides that of being underpowered (its achilles heel), it is gifted with great balance and with a high fun-factor? To discover this and to celebrate 50 years of this Porsche (or should we say…Volkswagen?) we gathered two 914s, one tuned 2.0 and one stock and rare /6 examples to pursue our search in discovering what these cars are like to drive on a proper road.

To start with, let’s dwell into some history. The 914 was born out of the need of both a replacement of the 912 from Porsche and the old Karmann Ghia from Volkswagen. Both cars were falling out of fashion: the first was too underpowered for being a success and the latter was outdated in every way. In the mid-sixties, Porsche, jointly with VW commenced the work to build the new sportscar. Like the two outgoing models, it had to be affordable and easy to live with, so here comes into place why the 914 is known as the VW-Porsche: affordable top-quality engineering. Consider that these were the years of the read-mid engine “revolution”. First there was René Bonnet with his excellent Djet in 1962, then ATS with the 2500 GT in 1964 and also Lamborghini with the Miura in 1966. Think about this: the 914 was indeed the first Porsche production road-car to feature a rear-mid engine configuration. If you want to squeeze in some nobility into this car, you simply have to think about it as a successor from the original 356/001 and the gorgeous 550, 718 and 904 racing cars. The 914 idea was excellent from both a marketing and production perspective: not only it was possible to market it with the positive effect of successful racing cars, but also, thanks with the cooperation of Volkswagen, it would have had low production costs and an interesting selling price, suitable for larger audiences.

What also made this joint venture possible was the fact that Ferdinand Piech was married with Elisabeth Nordhoff, the daughter of Heinrich Nordhoff, the CEO of VW. This good relationship led to a gentlemen agreement’s regarding the whole production of the 914, where some points were decided with a firm hand shake.

Unfortunately in 1968 Heinrich Nordhoff suddenly died, VW fell into the leadership of Kurt Lotz who begun to question some of the points of the previous agreement. Further complications led in 1969 to the creation of the VW-Porsche, a subsidiary company which focused on all elements of the distribution of the cars of the two brands.

After all these problems were cleared, the 914 was officially presented to the public in September at the Frankfurt Auto Show. With its interesting styling, the 80hp air-cooled flat-four and 5 speed gearbox, it was a success, especially in America, where importers were asking Porsche to produce a second Speedster, i.e. a lighter, simpler and more economical version of Zuffenhausen’s finest sports machines. Interesting to note that while the car was still under development, Ferri Porsche ordered the prototyping department to build two 914s fitted with the engine of the 908 racer. This idea was initially to produce a car able to prove the good qualities of the chassis and eventually to offer an even more powerful version, suited for the most sporty customers. The two cars, with chassis 914111 and 914006 were respectively finished a bright orange and silver prototypes and served as Piech and Ferri’s personal cars respectively. This experiment proved to be so promising that they both used the cars very often, racking up 10.000 km (mostly done on the track) for 914111 and 30.000 km for 914006. However, due to their higher performance over a 911 S and to the potentially high costs of production, this project was ditched and the two cars remained just prototypes.

Besides the introduction of the excellent 110hp 914/6 also in 1969, the 914 was a brilliant motorcar and buyers appreciated all the qualities of practicality (370 liters of storage in the two trunks) and the affordability of the more accessible 1.7 model. Despite the introduction of the 2.4 litre 916 in 1971, the 914’s image remained substantially tied to the poor-mans Porsche that it generated thanks to the adoption of the Volkswagen badge.

After 115.000 cars produced, the 914 went out of production in 1975, being replaced by the 924, the first of the Transaxle-Porsches.

So, after having seen how the 914 saga evolved and how it served as an excellent experimental base for more powerful cars, we’re still left with our question: how does it drive?

To have a much better point of view, we gathered two examples, a hot-rodded 2.0 (the red one) and a stock 914/6 (the yellow one) owned by a father and son. In an effort in trying to get the maximum disappointment, I jumped first in the 2.0. Starting with loud bangs and pops from the open exhaust it is immediately clear which are the most significant strenghts of this car: you sit down low and, although small, the 914 feels well planted and vast on the hips. Despite churning out only 100hp (10more than stock) the 914 sure is not fast, but it is precise and, given you’re able to find a good pace, a rewarding car to drive. The gearbox is not as precise as you would want it to be and has a vague feel when shifting gears. Despite lack of a substantial power-band and a bad transmission, the 914 is fun to drive: light on its feet, nimble and despite everything, a brisk acceleration. The Porsche DNA is evident due to the fantastic chassis balance: not too much roll and yaw and the road manners are impeccable.

On the other hand, the 914/6 is perhaps what we all would have wanted the 914 to be in the first place. Despite only 3400 were manufactured in just 3 years, it is surely a great joy to drive. Thanks to the same engine of the 911T, the /6 feels more…”complete”. The reasons of its unsuccessful career are simply because, when new it wasn’t the car 914 buyers wanted: it was simply too close to the base price of a 911 and perhaps too complicated to maintain for the average man. It’s the least VW of the two and historically, the most fascinating. Needless to say that with the latest Porsche craze, the /6 has now attracted the buyers that originally snobbed the 914. Interesting how times change: what once was a car that was out of reach by the vast majority of buyers, it is now deemed the most interesting of the whole series. To drive it’s very interesting: a 911 engine mounted in the “right” position feels more effective. The car is balanced, adequately fast and very fun to drive at speed. It’s surprising to note how it is capable of truly exploiting the qualities of the chassis with remarkable ease.

The 914 is perhaps, like the Fiat/Ferrari Dino, one of the most interesting sports-cars to be produced after the war. Despite wearing the VW badge, it should not be loathed or disregarded as an “almost-a-911” Porsche but celebrated for what it represented. After all, it wasn’t a lone wolf: a sportscar coming from humble origins, like many in Europe at that time. After all, who wouldn’t like a slice of heaven for a fraction of the price?

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