By the late 1960s, Volkswagen needed to replace the Karmann Ghia, while Porsche was on the hunt for a new entry-level model. So when the two companies' bosses found common ground, a deal was struck.
The minimalist Porsche 914 pitched into a world full of ageing 1950s fins’n’chrome barges. To Volkswagen and Porsche directors at the time this modernity was a no-brainer.
Porsche racing success was culminating with the monstrous 1000bhp 917. It seemed that a mid-engined configuration was the way forward for road cars. Ferrari’s front-engined GT cars looked dated compared to Lamborghini’s Miura. Porsche wanted a car to replace the 356-motored 911-bodied 912, and Volkswagen was more than happy to back the proposal for a platform-shared, doublebranded sportscar.
It had to be practical, fun and make money for both firms. The four-cylinder VW version would be completed in Osnabrück by Karmann while the bodyshells, intended to become sixcylinder Porsche iants, were shipped to Zuffenhausen to be finished on the 911 production line.
VW boss Heinz Nordhoff had organised this along his usual terms with Ferry Porsche – a gentleman’s agreement to supply. But a scant six weeks after the first 914 prototype ran, Heinz died, on 12 April 1968. This blow to the 914 project meant the car had no single champion within either firm, and new VW boss Kurt Lotz decided VW had exclusive rights to the design he told Porsche that 914 bodies would have to cost more to cover the percentage of the body tooling costs. Much negotiation ensued. It ended when a new company was set up, each partner of which owned 50 per cent, although neither parent firm felt the need to drive the project along.
Power for the 914/4 came from the VW 411E. This unit was well-received, and actually put out about as much power as the 356 super 90 motor it replaced in the Porsche Canon, even though this one was built by Volkswagen. Sales in America were initially supported by the low-ish price. In the UK, the opposite story held for the lhd-only 914. Between January 1970 and June 1973 a total of only 242 914s came into Britain. And only 11 were the desirable 914/6 versions. Crayford converted some to right-hand drive – but at over £600, this conversion cost as much as a two-year-old Triumph Spitfire.
Ultimately, 118,927 914s of all types were built, with 115,597 of them produced as fourcylinder VW versions. That isn’t too shabby for a car vilified in Britain for being a flop. A flop? Porsche 356 sold only 76,500, and the Jaguar E-type only 72,500 after a production run more than twice as long. Porsche’s mid-engined 914 opened the door to the Fiat X1/9 and Toyota MR2.
Sitting on the ‘new for ’73’ Fuchs alloys this 2.0-litre car finishes the story of the 914. The post-1972 line-up deleted 1.7-litre four and 2.0-litre flat-six options. It had the revised 914/12 transmission, answering on-going criticism of the change-quality of the older gearbox. But all the 914 traits remain. Pull the opening flap to swing the door wide – mind your fingernails! Drop into the seat and the sparse design almost echoes around you. Yes, the car’s well-made. But in a VW-Porsche, the links to the people’s car are oh-so apparent. Remember that in Britain, this car’s price dictated comparison to similarly costly sporting icons such as a Jaguar E-type, not the MGB.
Yet to compare the car’s contemporaries is to miss the point. Fire up the clattery old boxer four and you’re reminded of the opening bars of Kraftwerk’s 22 and a half minute opus, Autobahn. And therein lies the car’s métier. For two people, there can be no greater car to economically cross the vast spaces of West Germany than this 2.0-litre Volkswagen- Porsche. Endowed with enough performance to give sporting thrills, the VW motor encourages you to drive it flat-out. Air-cooled motors produce bhp, not torque, so the car is thrashable and handles with such aplomb that no keen driver would refuse a top-stowed blast through Baia.
With the little motor wound up, the car lacks the punch of anything as sophisticated as a Lotus Europa twin-cam, But its everyman demeanor helps you drive the car daily, getting closer to its character with each journey. What initially appears as a muted lack of design reveals a cleverness – like an Austin 1800, there’s almost too much space, but the chic quality means that if you have to ask, you probably wouldn’t understand.
It may sound critical, but this car is a cerebral treat rather than visceral experience. The very useability of the car makes survivors rare – like many ’70s cars the build-quality was patchy and rot prevalent in the lower six inches. But pedal one hard, fling it into a tightening set of switchbacks and those skinny tyres grip on and on, the helm feeds back with minute messages of slip and grip to make any journey a treat.
On an open road this thing is fun to keep pressing on in. Soon you’ll be covering ground so rapidly that it’s hard to understand how such prosaic mechanicals translate into such a glorious – and unlikely – driving machine. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
Torque 116lb ft@3500rpm
Top speed 120mph
Gearbox 5-speed manual
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
1. The 914 is an all-steel monococoque dating from the late 1960s, so like so many cars from this era, rust will be your biggest worry. Californian imports suffer less, but the later US safety bumpers are hardly things of beauty. Look behind the front bumper, and at the area around the torsion barr mountings on the bodyshell. Rust often affects the headlamp box below the pop-up lamps, and a blocked drain tube on the floor of the front boot leads to more problems. The front lid my have rotted at its rearmost corners, because the foam injected into the bracing members eventually becomes porous and holds water against the metal. Replacement is more cost effective than repair. Then check the scuttle just ahead of the windscreen, which is another common rust spot.
2. Check the seals of the targa roof and the quarter-lights for leaks. Open the doors and see if the GRP roof section can be fitted and removed easily. If the sills have been weakened, the car may sag in the middle, causing all manner of fit and finish issues. An outer cover on each sill is a common quick-fix, but they can conceal serious structural corrosion, so make sure you prod around at the exposed ends. Then lift the carpets to get a look at the inboard faces of the box sections and check the floor carefully where it meets them.
3. Damp in the footwells is common, and this leads to corrosion of the floor around the pedals and where the floor sections meet the centre tunnel. A seized brake pedal is one result: damp in the footwell causes the steel spindle to corrode and swell, and jam in its nylon bush mountings. Fresh air fan not working? It can fail because of cigarette ash falling inside the ashtray, and is generally sorted by cleaning. Exterior debris, such as leaves and road muck can burn out the motors. Door bottoms rust, and you should check the state of the shut face that carries the lock as well.
4. Next, look in the engine compartment behind the seats and check around the battery box for rust. Once started, it can spread backwards to the rear suspension mounting. Meanwhile, water and dirt accumulate in the rear suspension turrets, and the suspension leg will actually punch through the turret in particularly bad cases. Repairs are tricky and costly. Look, too, at the bottom of the rollover bar where an aluminium strip holds the vinyl trim in place; if the metal has rotted here, repairs involve removing the rear wings - which are welded rather than bolted in place. At the extreme rear of the car, check for rust in the boot floor, oftencaused by leaking tail light seals.
5. Engine maintenance is generally straightforward, although cars came from the factory with a fuel injection system and some DIY owners prefer to convert to carburettors rather than grapple with its complexities and costs. Experts reckon that a properly set u pinjection system is far preferable to carburettors, though, so make sure you've tried both before you go for a converted car. Dropped valves are a known weakness of these engines, as of other VW types of the period. Exhausts don't last well, either. Though the transaxle is a robust Porsche unit, driveshafts can fail, and their bolts can come adrift at the gearbox end.
6. The gear linkage on pre- 1972 cars isn't the best, and many owners have converted to the much-improved type that was introduced with the 2.0-litre models. It's a good precautionary measure to thoroughly overhaul the braking system and fuel lines when you take on one of these cars. The handbrake is built into the rear calipers, and can seize; the cable can also break. Note that brake dsics for the 2.0-litre models have a different offset from those on smaller-engined 914s, and the two aren't interchangeable. Fuel lines can rot through - especially in the area of the battery tray.
Driver comfort is good and the mid-mounted engine gives wonderful handling. However, the rubbery-feeling gearbox can be tricky to use, and the ride is a bit firm at low speeds, although it does smooth out at speed. Go for a 2.0-litre model if you can, with its 120mph top speed and strong mid-range punch.