Why the Porsche 914 deserves more credit

10 August 2022 - 09:05
By Stuart Johnston
Styling was ahead of its time.
Image: Supplied Styling was ahead of its time.

Even today, more than half a century after the oddly-styled Porsche 914 went on sale, enthusiasts have difficulty placing the car in the Porsche pantheon. You are more likely to read this collaboration between Volkswagen and Porsche to produce an affordable sports car was a failure. But you’ll be even more surprised to check out the sales figures it generated during the car’s production cycle from 1969 to 1976.

To hard-core enthusiasts, the big no-no regarding the Porsche 914 was that it was powered by a rather uncharismatic Volkswagen engine. This was the flat-four fuel-injected unit launched in the 411 model Volksie, producing a somewhat indifferent 59kW. Volkswagens weren’t pucker performance machines then, so why dilute a Porsche with a somewhat rattly engine that could only provide medium-level urge at most?

The answer was the 914 was intended as an entry-level Porsche, considerably more affordable than the 911. As the VW-Porsche was intended to be sold through both Porsche and Volkswagen dealerships, the association with Porsche would give the Volkswagen brand a big boost.

There was also a range-topping model produced that could be considered to be “all-Porsche”. This was the 914-6, which used the flat-six engine from the base-model 911T. This was a detuned 911 engine that produced 81kW, and in America this car was sold as a Porsche, and not as a Volkswagen-Porsche, as the cars were marketed in Europe.

In SA, very few 914s made it to these shores. For starters, the 914s were all left-hand-drive models as they were intended mainly for American and European markets. They were also expensive here because, like all fully-imported cars sold in SA then, they were subjected to more than 100% import duties to protect our homegrown motor industry.

Interior quality was good, in typical Porsche fashion.
Image: Supplied Interior quality was good, in typical Porsche fashion.

Nevertheless, Gauteng-based Porsche expert Tim Abbot, who owns a few 914s, says he estimates there are about 20 of them in the country.

The model I drove recently is owned by an enthusiast for rare VW models, who wishes to remain anonymous. When I first noted the tiny white car parked outside his home I was struck by the fact that the Porsche 914’s reputation for being ugly is largely unfounded.

What I suspect is that this car, apparently styled by a collaboration between Gugelot Design (a German consultancy) and Porsche engineers, was ahead of its time. Its razor-sharp edginess and unadorned flanks actually pre-date the box-shaped era of car design that came into fashion in the mid-to-late 1970s. Viewed today, the Porsche 914 has a purity of line that appeals, even though the tail section could be likened to that of a pick-up truck posing as a sports car.

That tail section houses a huge luggage space which can be used for stowing the one piece targa-top roof panel. There is a similarly large luggage space in the nose. By sports car standards of the time, the Porsche 914 suddenly looks to be an extremely practical proposition.

Beneath that rear luggage space is the flat-four engine, its compact design lending itself to good space utilisation. On the 914 the engine is mid-mounted between the passenger compartment and the gearbox.

The feeling of practicality and user-friendliness is reinforced when you drive the 914. The model I was lucky to sample (it is probably one of the few 914s in unmolested road-going trim still in existence here) is simplicity itself to drive, apart from the fact that it is left-hand-drive. With the targa-top removed, there is a wonderful feeling of space inside the cabin. What’s more, those gauges up ahead of the driver are pure Porsche 911 in design, except there are only three of them instead of the five you’d get in a 911 of similar vintage.

A removable top delivered al fresco thrills.
Image: Supplied A removable top delivered al fresco thrills.

The gear lever takes a bit of getting used to. It has a dog leg first gear, with the rest of the five ratios arranged in an H-pattern. The change is positive, but it is quite easy to hook fourth instead of second gear when shifting up. Hey, this was a 1974 model, which makes it 48 years old, so one has to forgive it some idiosyncrasies.

As for the driving experience, the rigidity of the whole car immediately inspires confidence, and so does the ride and handling. The front suspension is pure early Porsche 911, with a mix of struts and torsion bars, while the rear is a coil spring design. The steering is extremely accurate, and the car feels totally predictable. What’s more, despite only riding on 165 HR 15 tyres, the grip is reassuring even by modern standards, mainly because the centre of gravity is way low, and the whole car weighs just 950kg, despite its all-steel construction.

The 1974 model I drove also had the 74kW two-litre motor fitted (914s came in 1,7-litre, 1,8-litre and 2,0-litre form, just like the VW Kombis of that era did). This engine, fitted with  Bosch electronic fuel injection, emits a pleasant induction sound when you punch the throttle, and the car sounds much more Porsche-like (four-cylinder Porsche, that is) than I expected. Torque and throttle response is excellent. For the record, the 1974 Porsche 914 was good for a 10,5-second 0-100 km/h time and a top speed of around 190 km/h.

Was the Porsche 914 a success or a failure? Based on my short drive, I would have to say it was a success, and the sales figures for the car back me. In its seven-year life cycle 118,000 Porsche 914s were sold, making it Porsche’s top-selling model, easily out-stripping 911 sales back then.  To give some perspective on this figure, total Jaguar E-Type production from  1961 to 1975 numbered just over 72,000 cars.

In light of that, you have to say the forgotten Porsche was a resounding success.