Porsche 914: the 'beast' that time (and Le Mans success) finally made cool

The Porsche 914 screams ’70s cool and corners on rails – it’s just a shame about the gearbox. But this love child from a collaboration between the sports car giant and VW wasn’t so well received at its birth

Porsche 914

The Porsche 914 wasn't a hit at launch, but its kitsch looks have now become cool

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There’s fact, and then there’s opinion. Rarely are the two the same. By means of a wholly inadequate segue, take the Porsche 914. When it was new, motoring hacks couldn’t wait to uncork their bottles of vitriol and share the hate. They railed that this mid-engined weirdo looked a mite funny and was little more than a receptacle for Volkswagen cast-offs. A cynical marketing ploy masquerading as a proper sports car, a crude attempt at cross-pollinating two divergent brands into one decidedly average whole.

Think we’re exaggerating? Sports Car World sneered: “If a 911 is that multi-faceted ice-cold diamond Liz Taylor wears to the opera, the 914 is your psychedelic enamel plaque on a leather thong for your dance at the electronic bubble bath drive-in.” Quite. Sports Car Graphic meanwhile tuned in, turned on and dropped off: “It looks like a whole new bag for Porsche, this transformation from beauty to beast. And they hope it doesn’t have an ephemeral effect. However, if the Volkswagen Beetle is any indication, beauty is only the outer epithelial layer of the external integument that is derived from the embryonic epiblast.” Right on, er, daddy-o.

Take a trip to the present, and reaction to the 914 is altogether different. It’s cool and groovy, layered with hipster gravitas that looks so new-found but perhaps was always there. Consider that in just six years production ran well into six figures. What’s more, it proved hugely capable both trackside and on the rally stages. A duffer, you say? It doesn’t look so bad from here.

Porsche 914 2023

A forever classic: the Porsche 914

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But in order to understand this much misunderstood device, it’s worth remembering why it was built in the first place. Porsche and Volkswagen have long been inextricably linked, and by the mid-’60s the latter was in dire need of a replacement for its flagship Karmann-Ghia. Porsche was looking for an entry-level model: a joint venture seemed an expedient fix. In Ferry Porsche’s own words, the car was born “from the realisation that we needed to broaden our programme at a less costly level and that we couldn’t do it alone”. That VW’s then-chairman Heinz Nordhoff was closely linked to the Porsche family ensured that they didn’t have to.

Yet an independent styling house bore responsibility for creating this brave new world. Gugelot Design of Neu Ulm was handed a brief outlining how the new car should ‘resemble neither a Porsche nor a Volkswagen’. It didn’t, instead drawing heavily on a stillborn BMW project created some years earlier by the same firm. The 914 was conceived as a monocoque with four bulkheads to reduce flex. The glass-fibre Targa roof, once removed, could be stowed in the rear boot compartment without disrupting luggage space, being virtually the same shape as the boot lid. The engine was lifted straight out of VW’s dumpy 411 but turned around to be mid-engined, along with a five-speed ’box. The 1.7-litre air-cooled flat four produced a heady 80bhp, meaning MG Midget-baiting acceleration (0-60mph in 14.6sec) and a top end of 102mph. Its more powerful sibling, the 914/6, received the carburettor-fed two-litre flat six from the 911T and proved considerably faster – naturally – at 123mph and 0-60mph in 8.3sec.

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Suspension aped the 911: MacPherson struts and torsion bars up front, semi-trailing arms and coil springs out back. Spring rates were set on the hard side of firm so to begin with anti-roll bars weren’t deemed necessary. Outside contractor Karmann supplied the bodies with the four-cylinder cars being assembled at Volkswagen’s Wolfsburg facility, its bigger-engined sibling at Porsche’s Zuffenhausen plant.

Then the problems started. Nordhoff unexpectedly died in early 1968. His successor Dr Kurt Lotz had no links to Porsche and felt that the sports car constructor had no rights to the design (there had hitherto been only a verbal agreement) if it was unwilling to contribute towards tooling costs. Ultimately a compromise was reached but the project was already soured. Appearing at the 1969 Frankfurt Motor Show, reception from the public at least was positive, if not in the UK. By the time sales tax and import duties had been taken into account, a 914/6 cost £3475 – almost 50 per cent more than a Jaguar E-type. Even the four-banger version was only £1214 cheaper. And they were only ever offered in left-hand-drive, although Crayford Auto Developments would convert customers’ cars to right-hookers for £550. Only 13 punters bothered.

Just to heap on the misery, the 914 suffered from something of an identity crisis, with both variants being badged and sold as Porsches in the US and in mainland Europe as Volkswagen-Porsches. Aficionados baulked and it was only in North America where the car really excelled, for all the potshots taken by the media.

Porsche 914 1970

The Porsche 914 made a mediocre start to life, but has since boomed in popularity

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In a bid to boost the bigger-engined car’s reputation as a serious sports car, Porsche instigated a competition programme. The result was the 914/6GT that was offered in three distinct iterations: a customer car for competition/fast road use; a pure racer developing around 220bhp and a rally edition producing 160bhp. The first of the 12 works GTs was completed in October 1969, the model making its debut at the following May’s Nürburgring 1000kms where the four-car factory equipe managed second, third, fourth and fifth in the two-litre GT class.

Altogether more remarkable was the tiddler’s performance at Le Mans a month later. While Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood secured Porsche’s first outright win aboard their 917K, Claude Ballot-Léna and Guy Chasseuil put in a magnificent effort to finish sixth and take class honours in their Sonauto entry. Granted there were only seven cars classified as finishers but it was still a remarkable achievement for what was essentially a lightly modded road car. August’s Marathon de la Route – all 84 hours round the Nürburgring of it – was a 914/6GT benefit, with the works squad finishing 1-2-3.

A year on, the 914/6GT cleaned up in class at the Daytona and Sebring enduros, while Peter Gregg and Hurley Haywood took victories at Virginia International Raceway, Bridgehampton and Summit Point en route to lifting the inaugural IMSA GTU title. Closer to home, the three-car works squad gave the GT its rallying baptism on the ’71 Monte Carlo rally, the sole survivor of Björn Waldegård and Hans Thorszelius coming home third behind two Alpine-Renaults. It wasn’t a happy team, though, as evinced by Motor Sport’s review of the event: “Though their drivers were against the idea, the Porsche hierarchy decided to enter three of their mid-engined 914/6 cars instead of the rear-engined 911s which had bought them success on three previous occasions. The cars displayed neutral handling characteristics, and this was not at all to the liking of Waldegård, [Ove] Andersson and [Gerard] Larrousse, all of whom realised they would be unable to utilise the very safe tail-swinging tactics with the 914/6.”

Haywood Porsche 914

Hurley Haywood co-drove this mid-engine Porsche 914/6 with Peter Gregg during the 24 Hours of Daytona

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There would be wilder prototypes with larger six – and even eight – cylinder motors, but Porsche’s interest soon waned. The 914/6 was dropped in October ’72 after just 3360 had been made, its place as range topper being taken up by the new 91bhp 2-litre (variously badged as S, SC and 2.0) four-banger. By September ’73, the 1.7-litre unit of the entry-level car was enlarged to 1795cc, the 914 range surviving for a further two years before being killed off in favour of the 924. Some 115,596 had been made.

All of which leads you to suspect that the initial press reaction was way off base, but you can understand some of the hostility on driving a poverty-spec edition. The 914 was intended as the cadet branch of Porsche and the luxury wing of VW: both aims are disparate for all the shared DNA. Thing is, the 914/6 is a proper sports car.

From the archive

A compelling one, too. For all the period charm – Fuchs alloys and Chrome Yellow hue anchor it to the early ’70s – this is a practical design, one that has aged remarkably well. Less so inside. Cabin space is remarkably generous thanks to the flat floor and bountiful width, but the various textures and black vinyl lend it a slightly funereal air. As on the early four-cylinder cars, the 914/6’s passenger seat doesn’t move, being moulded in one piece with the trim panel that covers the rear bulkhead. The driving position is slightly skewed, the floor-mounted pedals being predictably offset.

Where you really appreciate the 914/6 is on testing switchbacks. While not particularly fast in a straight line, it’s only when you’re taking advantage of the short gearing at elevated revs, swallowing whole sequences of bends in third and fourth, that you value its composure. Turn in is crisp, even if you’re aware that there’s little weight over the front wheels, and body roll is barely perceptible unless you’re trying really hard. Let off the gas and the front end tucks in towards the inside of the turn. You drive a 914 by small steering movements, the ZF rack and pinion set-up being light but direct even if it does need a little extra guidance on the straight ahead.

What lets the car down is the gearbox. It’s not terrible but it’s not much else either. There’s no spring bias so guiding it between planes leads the uninitiated to grandma the odd shift: the lever tends to flop around between cogs during gentle changes.

But let’s not end on a negative. Though blighted by ill-informed prejudices, the 914/6 is a real Porsche, one that nowadays exerts almost 911RS levels of arm and leg costing to restore. But then so few were appreciated in period that a fair number were binned. As the new adage goes, the only difference between kitsch and cool is about 30 years. Its time has come.