Sometimes there’s nothing worse than having an iconic, instantly recognizable product. How do you follow up an icon? Both Volkswagen and Porsche faced that problem in the 1960s. Volkswagen had the Beetle, Porsche the 911, but both companies knew that these highly successful products weren’t going to be enough to sustain them into the next decade. In 1967, they decided to collaborate on a new, affordable sports car that they hoped would expand their market. Unfortunately, they found out the hard way that the public had some very firm ideas about what a VW or a Porsche was supposed to be. This is the story of the 1970-1976 Porsche 914.
THE BEETLE ASCENDANT
In the late 1960s, the Volkswagen Beetle was at the height of its popularity. Despite its various antiquarian infirmities, more than half a million copies of the familiar insect were sold every year in America alone. It was embraced by a wide range of buyers who wanted to thumb their noses at Detroit iron and everything it represented. The Beetle’s success put the fear of God into American automakers, who had previously assumed that “furrin’” cars appealed only to the lunatic fringe.
Volkswagen’s problem was developing an identity beyond the Beetle. The Type 2 Transporter (better known as the Kombi, or Microbus) was almost as iconic as the Beetle, but it was really a niche item, as was the Beetle-based Karmann Ghia sporty car. The new Type 3 models, introduced in 1961, had failed to set the world on fire. Although the Type 3 looked more contemporary, it was basically a bigger Beetle in a less-distinctive modern shell and it only served to demonstrate the shortcomings of the Beetle’s engineering.
Both the Type 3 and Type 4 were commercial disappointments — not embraced by VW fans, and not competitive with the new breed of modern compact that was emerging in the European market. In short, without the Beetle’s cheeky image and distinctive shape, VW was nowhere. If the company was to survive, it needed to find ways to broaden its horizons.
THE PEOPLE’S PORSCHE
In Stuttgart, Porsche was facing a similar problem. In 1964, Porsche had replaced its core product, the 356, with the new six-cylinder 911. As with VW’s Type 3, the 911 was a clear evolution of the 356, sharing its rear-engine layout and distinctive fastback shape.
Also like the Type 3, the 911 was much more expensive than its predecessor — by about 50%. Although the Porsche faithful embraced the 911 as a worthy successor to the 356, the company was in danger of pricing itself out of the market. Porsche desperately needed a cheaper model to supplement the 911.
Their initial solution was the 912, which mated the 911′s body with the four-cylinder engine from the last 356C. Substituting the cheaper engine and deleting some standard equipment enabled Porsche to slash the price from $6,500 to around $4,700. It worked for a while — at first, the 912 accounted for more than half of Porsche’s total volume — but sales eroded as prices crept up. By the end of the decade, a well-equipped 912 was competing price-wise against cars like the Corvette and the Jaguar E-type, which had much better performance. It was too little for too much.
THE IMMORTAL BEETLE
In 1967, Porsche’s general manager, Ferry Porsche, took a meeting with VW managing director Heinz Nordhoff to discuss collaborating on a new inexpensive sports car. The idea was logical enough; Ferry’s father had designed the Volkswagen Beetle back in the 1930s, and the Porsche 356 had originally used VW hardware. Porsche needed a cheaper, entry-level model, while Nordhoff was looking for something to replace the unsuccessful Type 34 Karmann Ghia (not the familiar coupe, but the later, Type 3-based car, which was never sold in the U.S.).
They quickly came to a verbal agreement: Porsche would design the new car, using a significant number of off-the-shelf parts from both companies, and Volkswagen would build it. There would be two versions, one with a VW powertrain, which would be badged as a Volkswagen, and another sharing the same body shell, but with a Porsche powertrain and Porsche badges.
Mechanical design of the new model, which was prosaically dubbed Porsche 914, was largely the work of Ferdinand Piëch, Ferry’s nephew, who would go on to a tumultuous career at Audi and Volkswagen. The air-cooled, four-cylinder engine was borrowed from the new Volkswagen 411, while the five-speed transaxle and many interior pieces were borrowed from the 911. The 914′s MacPherson strut/torsion-bar front suspension was similar (though not identical) to that of the 911; the rear suspension used a semi-trailing arm layout like the 911, albeit with coil springs instead of torsion bars.
The 914 had one novel feature: a mid-engine layout, placing the engine ahead of rather than behind the rear axle. Mid-engine design had recently become very popular in competition because of its superior weight distribution and lower polar moment of inertia, which provided better handling. Since the 914 was a clean-sheet design, it presented a good opportunity for Porsche to try the layout on a production car.
The Porsche 914 had a longer wheelbase than the 911, but it was about 7 inches (178 mm) shorter overall. Unlike the 911, which had 2+2 seating, the 914 was a strict two-seater; the mid-engine layout didn’t allow room for a rear seat. The new car was very low-slung, only 48.4 inches (1,229 mm) tall, although it was heavier than it looked, weighing around 2,100 pounds (950 kg). Like the Porsche 911 Targa, it featured a lift-off fiberglass roof panel, but no true convertible was considered — the ‘basket-handle’ rear pillars were necessary to maintain the body’s rigidity.
The 914 came in two versions: the basic four-cylinder model and the six-cylinder 914/6. The four-cylinder car used the 1,679 cc (104 cu. in.) W-series engine from the Volkswagen 411 sedan with Bosch D-Jetronic electronic fuel injection. It made a meager 80 hp (59 kW). The 914/6 had a 1,971 cc (121 cu. in.) version of Porsche’s existing flat-six engine with two three-barrel Weber carburetors and 110 hp (81 kW), as well as more 911 suspension components. Both cars had five-speed manual transmissions and disc brakes all around. Most of the 914′s interior components came from either the Volkswagen or Porsche parts bins.
The most fateful choice Nordhoff and Porsche made was that the Porsche 914 shouldn’t look like any existing Porsche or VW model. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but the decision would come back to bite them later.
According to some accounts, the basic styling concept for the 914 didn’t come from either company, but was based on a design study created by a small German firm called Gugelot, which had been trying to sell various automakers on a new style of fiberglass construction. Ferry and Butzi Porsche both denied this story, attributing the design to Butzi’s in-house team.
In any case, a prototype was ready by the beginning of March 1968, but the project suddenly went awry when Heinz Nordhoff died a few weeks later. The deal with Ferry Porsche had been a handshake arrangement and Nordhoff’s successor, Kurt Lotz, wasn’t keen on the terms. Lotz didn’t think the Porsche 914 would sell well enough to make it profitable. Nordhoff had believed it would drive traffic to VW dealers, helping the sales of other models, but Lotz was primarily concerned with the bottom line. He decided that the projected volume of the 914 wasn’t enough to make it worth building in the VW factory in Wolfsburg. Instead, Karmann would manufacture it, giving the Karmann factory a new project to replace the Type 34 Karmann-Ghia. To Ferry Porsche’s great frustration, Lotz also increased the unit cost Porsche had to pay for each body. Lotz also insisted on revising the distribution deal.
Rather than badging the four-cylinder cars as VWs and selling them through VW dealers, Porsche and Volkswagen formed a separate company, Volkswagen-Porsche Vertriebsgesellschaft (roughly, “Marketing Company”) to market the cars. In the U.S., they were Porsches, sold through a new Porsche/Audi distribution network; VW had acquired a controlling interest in Auto Union in 1964, reviving the Audi name. In Europe, 914s were badged as Volkswagen-Porsches and sold through VW dealers. (They were sometimes nicknamed “Vo-Pos,” an unfortunate sobriquet in Germany, where “Vo-Po” was slang for the Volkspolizei, the DDR’s border police.)
THE PORSCHE 914
The four-cylinder Porsche 914 went on sale in February 1970, the 914/6 later that year. In the U.S., the four-cylinder model started at $3,495, more than $1,500 cheaper than the previous year’s 912. The six-cylinder 914 didn’t fare as well, starting at a throat-tightening $5,999. Still, the four-cylinder, at least, had met its target: an all-new Porsche with a semi-exotic, mid-engine layout for around the same price as an MG or a Triumph. What was not to like about that?
As it turned out, the Porsche 914 was poorly received. Although it won Motor Trend‘s Import Car of the Year title, the general response of the critics was less than enthusiastic. The main problem was its eccentric styling; “boxy” is not usually a compliment when talking about sports cars, nor are comparisons to Erector sets. The nicest thing anyone ever said about the 914′s appearance was that it was unique. Admittedly, mid-engine cars often end up with curious proportions (witness the contemporary Lotus Europa and the later Toyota MR-S), but in any case, it would take a decidedly kinky outlook to call the Porsche 914 sexy.
Worse, Porsche devotees were angered that it didn’t look like a Porsche. They also took great offense at the fact that the 914 had a Volkswagen engine. Some U.S. Porsche clubs even refused to admit 914 owners, declaring that the 914 was not a real Porsche. (Curiously, early 356s never met the same hostility, even though the 356 had had far more Volkswagen content than the 914, originally including the engine, transmission, suspension, and brakes.)
The 914 might have won more converts if it had had outstanding performance, but the 80 hp (59 kW) engine made it rather snail-like for a sports car. Road & Track‘s four-cylinder test car took almost 14 seconds to reach 60 mph (97 km/h) and had a top speed of 109 mph (175 km/h) — the 914 was cheaper than the 912, but it was also slower. The 914/6 did much better, Road & Track obtaining a 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) time of 8.7 seconds and a top speed of 123 mph (198 km/h), but the 914/6′s staggering 70% price premium was a lot to pay for the extra urge. For that kind of money, an open-minded sports car shopper could pick up a much faster LT-1 Corvette. Worse, the new Datsun 240Z provided performance much like the 914/6′s for less money than a four-cylinder 914.
The 914′s materials and workmanship didn’t impress either. Porsches had traditionally been well finished, but the need to cut costs had left the 914 with a stark, low-rent ambiance. Also failing to win friends were problems like hot-weather vapor lock, a battery compartment that promoted vicious corrosion, and an engine that was hard to access for normal maintenance. The 914 was even noisier than a 911, it rode stiffly, and it was prone to squeaks and rattles. On the 356 and 911, Porsche had gradually addressed problems like these, but the 914 got little development after its introduction.
The Porsche 914′s great strength was its handling. Even in stock form, with skinny tires and no anti-roll bars, it was well balanced and nimble with crisp, accurate steering. The 914/6, with anti-roll bars and wider tires, was even more agile. It also avoided many of the tail-wagging tendencies that could make its rear-engine cousins such a handful; a determined driver could bring the rear end out in fast turns, but the 914 was generally better-planted than the 911. With fatter rubber, more power, and a little judicious suspension tuning, the 914 could be made into very competent track car, and a fair number of owners did just that.
In fact, the 914 proved fairly successful in competition. In 1970, it won the GT class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, scoring sixth overall. 914s did well in IMSA and Group 4 racing throughout the seventies, although in SCCA C-Production, it was regularly beaten by the more powerful Datsun Z cars.
AN EARLY DEATH
Racing exposure didn’t help the sales of the overpriced 914/6; Porsche dropped it after 1972 and fewer than 3,500 sales. From 1973, you could order a 95 hp (70 kW) 1,971 cc four that was nearly as quick as the old six for a lot less money. From 1974 on the 1,679 cc (103 cu. in.) four gave way to a slightly stronger 1,795 cc (110 cu. in.) engine. Other changes were minimal, most limited to bumper revisions to comply with new U.S. laws. Porsche finally threw in the towel after the 1976 model year, briefly reviving the 912 as a stopgap replacement.
The 914 was by no means a complete disaster. As much as the cognoscenti turned up their noses at it, the combination of affordable price and Porsche name was enough to sell more than 118,000 in five years, highly respectable by sports car standards.
Although its parents wrote off the 914, its poor reception didn’t dissuade the two companies from another collaboration a few years later: the Porsche 924. Again, Porsche fanatics inevitably dismissed the new, front-engine, water-cooled Volks-Porsche as heresy, but the 924 and its 944 and 968 derivatives were successful enough to survive into the 1990s.
Today, the Porsche 914 is nowhere near as collectible as the 356 or early 911, but it still enjoys a loyal following. Drivable four-cylinder 914s remain one of the cheapest routes to Porsche ownership. Moderate prices have also made owners more willing than most to race, modify, and customize their cars. Some owners have taken advantage of the 914′s commodious (if inaccessible) engine bay to convert their cars to V8 power, while a company called Electro Auto offers a pure electric conversion, amusingly dubbed “VoltsPorsche.” As a mass-market sports car, the 914 never quite made it, but it’s since found its true métier as a cult object.
Volkswagen eventually found its new icon in the form of the hatchback Golf, although the company has continued to have problems establishing its credibility beyond that core product. Although the Golf remains the benchmark for compact cars in Europe, the Golf’s fortunes in the fickle American market have been mixed. VW’s track record in other market segments has also been decidedly hit and miss, particularly Ferdinand Piëch’s quixotic attempt to compete with Mercedes with the pricey Volkswagen Phaeton. Meanwhile, Porsche’s image and reputation continue to center on the 911. The mid-engine Boxster — which could be seen as a modern version of the 914/6 with better styling — has won the approval of Porsche fanatics, but un-Porsche-like products like the Cayenne SUV and the Panamera sedan have earned great derision.
A lot of marketing people would kill for the kind of brand recognition that VW and Porsche have achieved, but the downside of the public having strong ideas about what your products are supposed to be is that you’re always in danger of being handcuffed by your own success.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Porsche Chronicle (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1995); Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, 2nd ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); the 914 Owners Association website, www.porsche914.org/, accessed 28 June 2008; and Don Spiro, “Mid-Engine Magic: Porsche’s entry-level 1976 914 2.0-liter sports car,” Special Interest Autos #201 (June 2004), pp. 48-53. Dennis Deeds of the Porsche 914 Owners Association offered a variety of corrections in an e-mail to the author on 6 September 2009. We also consulted “Porsche 914 2-Liter: Bigger 4-Cylinder engine gives the popular 914 a boost,”Road & Track Vol. 24, No. 6 (February 1973), pp. 37-40, and “Engine & Drive — Where Should They Go?” Road & Track Vol. 24, No. 11 (July 1973), pp. 34-41. Information on the Electro Automotive electric conversion came from their website, www.electroauto.com/gallery/vp914.shtml, accessed 28 June 2008.
This article’s title was suggested by the song “Stuck in the Middle,” performed by the Scottish band Stealers Wheel. It was composed by Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty and first appeared on the band’s eponymous 1972 debut album.