Behind the wheel of Porsche’s underrated 914 and 914/6. Stuttgart’s unsung heroes Why the 914 and 914/6 are now Porsche’s best air-cooled bargains. Porsche’s unsung air-cooled greats Overlooked for decades, it’s time to reassess the 914 and 914/6. Martin Port sings their praises – and wonders why he’s yet to own one. Photography Tony Baker. Porsche 914: Air-Cooled Bargain.
Mid-engined, targa-topped, two-seater: this hyphenated lust list should have resulted in an instant icon, but when the Porsche 914 was introduced to the motoring press and general public, the reception it got was far from legendary. That it received a shrug of the shoulders rather than a passionate embrace, however, was more down to the state of the market and the car’s positioning rather than its engineering credentials.
Porsche’s underrated 914/4 2.0 and 914/6
The relationship between Volkswagen and Porsche was coming to a climax: the former’s developmental work had for some time been outsourced to the latter, but this arrangement had just one project left under the original terms. Volkswagen decided that the 914 would be the catalyst for the amicable split and so handed over this final contract – one that would be overseen by Ferdinand Piëch.
On paper, the 914 should have worked well for both outfits: Volkswagen needed a replacement for the Karmann Ghia and Porsche was looking to fill the gap created by the demise of the ‘entry level’ 912. The 914 fitted with a flat-four air-cooled engine would be marketed as a VW. The 914/6, boasting the flat-six unit, would be badged as a Porsche, but it wasn’t long before it got twitchy about this arrangement. Concerned over how the VW aspect might affect its lucrative US market, Porsche convinced Wolfsburg to let it market both models as its own.
So far, so straightforward, but following the presentation of the prototype in early 1968, the situation took a turn for the worse with the death of Volkswagen’s chairman, Heinz Nordhoff.
Stepping into his shoes was Kurt Lotz, who had no connection whatsoever to Porsche, and the verbal agreement was left in tatters.
Lotz was of the opinion that Volkswagen owned the rights to the 914 project and began to make demands upon Porsche with regards to tooling and supply. After much negotiation, it was agreed that both firms would market the product – hence the VW-Porsche badging.
The real downfall of this arrangement came with the development of the six-cylinder variant. Lotz’s insistence that Porsche would be financially responsible for the new Karmann-built bodies proved to be a significant stumbling block: the 914 panels cost more than those for the flagship 911, also produced at the Osnabrück factory. When the 914/6 became available to the public in February 1970, it was only a couple of hundred pounds cheaper than a 2.2 911T – £3475 with purchase tax and seatbelts included.
The four-cylinder model was significantly cheaper at £2261. Although that was an increase over the cost of a 912, it was still comparable to other offerings in the UK sports car market.
The motoring press was indeed indifferent. Autocar was not convinced that the cost versus performance balance of the four-cylinder model was enough to get excited about, while in the US, Car & Driver damningly stated that the car was ‘about half the cost of a 911S, and about half as good as a 911S, but that isn’t good enough’.
Ideal companions for a summer blast, but each has a distinct character of its own. Clarke’s car has the chromed front and foglights that were offered as part of the Appearance Group option – contemporary 914/6s had them as standard.
It wasn’t all bad news – Motor Trend named it Import Car of the Year in 1970, beating other nominees such as the Datsun 240Z and Saab 99, and, with the launch of the six-cylinder model, Autocar was rather more committed, stating that ‘no mid-engined car selling for less than £5000 begins to compare with it.’
Despite an annual sales target of 30,000 cars, in the first year of production 13,312 914/4s and 2658 914/6s ended up on the driveways of new owners. In the ensuing four decades, the 911 has been elevated to iconic status and values headed out of the reach of many, but the 914 remained the steed of choice of a select few.
Porsche’s fears of the joint badging arguably came to fruition. Even until recently the model was considered by the uninitiated as the poor relation on the Porsche timeline, but that is a gross misunderstanding of just what the 914 has to offer – in any of its guises.
That it was generally overlooked also means that it is possibly the last air-cooled Porsche that is still attainable by those without huge budgets – certainly as going concerns in need of some attention, if not as concours examples.
Kevin Clarke is one such owner, and bought into the 914 early on. “I got my first 914 in 1990,” he says. “I wanted a sports car that was a bit different. I saw an ad in Classic & Sports Car – the trader had a dozen cars that he’d imported from the US and I bought one of those: a 1.7-litre ‘four’ that was pretty sorted from the off.”
Clockwise, from main: as a 1974 model, Collins’ 914 has Federal ‘bumper impact-protection guards’; 2-litre was the biggest ‘four’ offered; Fuchs alloys; stock injection has been replaced by carbs.
Clarke used it as his daily driver for the next 11 years but, inevitably, rust started to take hold. In 1997, he bought another – a 914/6 that had been brought to the UK from New York by a Canadian who’d used it for track outings.
That Forest Green example is the one you see here, but when Clarke got the car, it looked rather different. For a start, it boasted a rollcage among other modifications, all of which he has removed, returning the car to pretty much standard specification in the process.
“The car looked messy,” he says. “The battery had been relocated and the offside structure needed some work. Although the previous owner had modified the flat-six to 2.2-litre spec, that too eventually needed attention: it got to the point where it was dripping oil so badly that no one wanted to drive behind me!”
That was rebuilt by Carrera Performance, but Clarke sorted the gearbox himself, along with refurbishing and replacing trim where necessary. “I’ve done about 30,000 miles since the engine rebuild,” he confirms. “The bodywork now needs doing again, though, and this time it’ll go back to bare metal so it can be done properly.”
Clarke’s original four-cylinder car was destroyed in a fire some years ago, but his tally currently stands at eight – three of which are presently on the road. He still uses a 914 as his daily driver and is as passionate about the model as when he bought his first.
The owner of our four-cylinder car, Darren Collins, nods in agreement. He is equally as enthusiastic, and proof that you can still buy into Porsche ownership for an achievable price. “I’ve owned more classics than I can remember,” he says. “Before I even learnt to drive I had Volkswagen Beetles and later moved on to Porsche 356s, 911s and 924s, as well as everything from Rolls-Royces to a De Lorean. I knew about the 914 from the VW scene and a couple of years ago decided to revisit my ‘comfort zone’.
From top: both cockpits feature optional central cushion; front stowage; targa panel doubles as luggage cover; Clarke (on right) and Collins.
The time was right price-wise, too, and I decided to go straight to the US market having had previous experience of dry-state imports.” Collins came across what is now his 2-litre 914/4 while browsing eBay: “The listing would have put a lot of people off. It only had a few thumbnail pictures and there wasn’t a lot of information, but it was located in somewhere called Desert Hot Springs, and that already sounded promising as far as rust was concerned!”
Based on what little detail he had, and a strong gut feeling, Collins took a gamble. The price was low enough to justify the risk – even when taking into account the shipping and import duty, and when it finally arrived in a container from the US, he wasn’t disappointed: “It was as good as I had hoped – the Achilles’ heel is always the battery tray area and that needed replacing, but structurally it was very reassuring.”
The Alaska Blue paintwork had seen better days, though, thanks to natural sand-blasting in the Coachella Valley, and it was from this point that Collins’ restoration really took hold: “I was originally going to just refurbish parts and drive the car, but as soon as I began taking bits off, it rapidly turned into a much bigger operation.”
Collins isn’t one to do a half-hearted job. As an ex-Royal Navy Engineer and someone who did a coachbuilders’ apprenticeship, he set about creating a car that he would be proud of. He rented an ex-council lock-up with barely enough room to move around the car, no light or power and carried out almost all of the work himself.
“The family of the previous owner had done a wonderful thing after he passed away,” he explains. “They filled the engine to the brim with fresh oil, so there wasn’t much for me to do mechanically as far as the block was concerned – just drain, check and replace seals and gaskets where necessary, but I did overhaul the top end.”
Collins did the body repairs and prep-work in the lock-up before getting a friend to put down the top coat. Then ensued many hours of flatting and polishing, something that he admits wasn’t really an issue thanks to his OCD tendencies! The real problem, however, was due to its life in the Californian sun. While that supplied a positive with regards to the state of the shell, the trim, interior and wiring loom had suffered.
Clockwise, from main: handling soon inspires confidence; snug fit for Porsche flat-six; 914/6 had five-stud wheels; badge on US cars featured only numbers – Euro cars had ‘VW-Porsche’ script.
“As soon as you touched certain parts, they just disintegrated in your hands,” says Collins. “Others had survived slightly better and so could be cleaned or overhauled, but there were lots that just had to be replaced.”
Finding those replacement parts proved tricky at times: “There’s no ‘one-stop shop’ and often you find yourself placing an order on a US website before finding out that they’re waiting to get enough orders to remanufacture the part. Or that only once they have an order will they go and try to find it in a scrapyard somewhere!”
Collins removed the Bosch fuel injection that the car was originally fitted with and replaced it with Weber 40 IDF carburettors. “I’m old school,” he explains. “The wiring and injector components had been victims of the sun and, although it was cheaper to put a carb set-up on the car, it was also my preferred choice.”
He finished the car in March of this year, and admits that the first time he’d ever driven a 914 was when the MoT certificate was issued! “Having put all that work in, I felt compelled to like it when I finally drove it, but fortunately I was pleasantly surprised,” he admits. “I’ve owned cars that are beautiful to look at but absolute dogs to drive, but this isn’t one of them. The looks epitomise the era – there is a real sharpness and balance to the design.
“On the road it’s all about feedback – the car is always talking to you. Finally driving it has cemented my love for it!”
I’ll admit to having my own love affair with the 914, albeit from afar. Since the demise of my Porsche 912 – a car that I was fortunate enough to have owned while they still went through auctions for ‘bargain’ prices – I’ve driven colleagues nutty with my misty-eyed gazing at various 914 projects.
Something has always stopped me, though, and standing between these two cars on a sundrenched day, I’m wondering what exactly that was. Certainly the VW-Porsche badge no longer has anything to do with it, and the moment I lower myself into Collins’ 914/4, my mind flits back to all of the cars that I could have bought. The Volkswagen aspect of the partnership is almost instantly forgotten as soon as you grab the steering wheel – identical to that on the 911.
Looking down the bonnet is not a million miles away from the experience you get in that car, either, but the subtly rounded haunches of the wings rising up either side of the bonnet are replaced on the 914 by much sharper ‘shoulders’.
They’re thinner, though – instead of leading down to a pair of headlights, they incorporate the tall indicator and sidelight assemblies. A little press of the pedal and turn of the key has the flat-four firing up with a reassuring aircooled throb. The sound alone doesn’t instantly shout ‘Porsche’, but there are plenty of other reminders, from the basket-weave trim on the dash to the dogleg first gear.
Enough daydreaming. Returning to that original ‘lust list’, this car is all about having fun and being on the receiving end of a truly rewarding driving experience. The sun is shining, the targa roof panel is safely stowed in the rear luggage compartment and within a quarter of a mile I’m grinning like an idiot. Get used to that gearing arrangement and the later, improved linkage on this car means that you are swiping your way through the five-speed ’box as often as twisty country roads will allow.
In truth, you’ll spend much of your time going between second and third, but as the revs rise you’re treated to a beautifully balanced song from the 1971cc powerplant.
The steering is nothing short of excellent, as is the feedback through the wheel and from beneath. You know exactly what’s going on where the wheels meet the tarmac without it coming at the expense of a jarring or uncomfortable ride; this confidence urges you to push towards the redline before changing gear.
Step into the 914/6 straight afterwards, and it’s initially easy to notice the similarities rather than the differences. Even taking into account the occasional styling upgrade, it is, without wishing to state the obvious, only when you hear the flat-six burst into life that you remember exactly what you’re sitting in.
That’s not to say that the addition of two cylinders is an entirely positive thing. For starters, despite sharing an engine with the 911, the sound doesn’t seem wholly familiar at first. This is most likely down to the physicalities of the set-up – the space in which the 2-litre ‘six’ sits seems rather more restricted than in the 911. Certainly, Porsche found that the engine runs around 10º hotter in the 914/6 thanks to the lack of air-flow, but it decided that the difference wasn’t worthy of remedial attention.
Even when you first pull away and set off on your journey, the lack of fireworks is noticeable. It’s easy to find yourself already yearning to be back in the 914, in fact. The 914/6 feels heavier and clumsier in comparison, and the engine somewhat less compliant.
Fortunately, it turns out that I’m not being unfair. As a serial owner of both four- and six-cylinder examples, Clarke agrees with me: “The 914 is a much easier car to live with. The steering feels lighter, the engine doesn’t need as much jeering on, and it’s much easier to have fun at lower speeds.”
“But,” he adds after a pause, “use the rev range and then you’ll understand.”
And he’s right, too. After getting used to the shift on this example (the linkage is of the earlier type, which is certainly not as fluid) and with an empty road ahead, it’s time to wind things up a little. Burying your right foot makes the rear dig down and the nose rise just a touch, and in doing so a little jolt of electricity runs down your spine and forces you to sit up and take notice.
The steering is still precise, the feedback exactly as on the 914/4, but it’s a different ballgame – it’s the difference between featherweight and heavyweight. One is nimble and quick on its feet; the other is patiently waiting to unleash a powerpunch from behind.
All this brings about a huge dilemma. Which would you have? Both are huge fun and rewarding to drive, and if your budget is really tight you could do worse than to find a 1.7-litre 914/4 complete with impact bumpers to keep the cost down. If you go to the States, you can buy a project for £5000; a similar one in the UK will be between £5000 and £10,000. Something ready to drive but in imminent need of work will be £15,000, with £20,000 getting you a really nice car and £30,000 a concours example.
Project 914/6s can be had for £6-10k, but they will need a lot of work at this level. The bottom end of the ‘on the road’ market is now £20k, while £45k will get you something honest and worn in. The best cars are between £65-80k.
There’s no doubt that the 914/4 is definitely the better bargain in terms of fun offered against money spent. Prices aside, though, it’s the six-cylinder car that leaves you feeling like a naughty child who’s had too much Tizer at a party – particularly when it comes ‘on song’ and all that ugly, low-rev spluttering awkwardness suddenly turns into an intoxicating howl behind your head. Yes, I still want one.
‘ONE IS NIMBLE AND QUICK ON ITS FEET; THE OTHER IS WAITING TO UNLEASH ITS PUNCH’
‘AUTOCAR STATED ABOUT THE 914/6 THAT “NO OTHER MID-ENGINED CAR SELLING FOR LESS THAN £5000 BEGINS TO COMPARE WITH IT”’
PORSCHE 914/4 (2-LITRE)
Sold/number built 1969-’1976/118,978 (all)
Construction steel monocoque
Engine magnesium-crankcase, alloy-head, air-cooled, overhead-cam, 1971cc flat-four, Bosch D-Jetronic fuel injection
Max power 95bhp @ 4900rpm
Max torque 105lb ft @ 3500rpm
Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
Suspension independent, at front by wishbones, damper struts, torsion bars rear semi-trailing arms, coil springs
Steering ZF rack and pinion
Length 13ft 5in (4095mm)
Width 5ft 5in (1650mm)
Height 4ft ½ in (1230mm)
Wheelbase 8ft 1in (2450mm)
Weight 2095lb (950kg)
0-60mph 11 secs
Top speed 115mph
Price new £2261
PORSCHE 914/6 (where different)
Engine 1991cc flat-six, twin Weber 40 IDT 3V carburettors
Max power 110bhp @ 5800rpm
Max torque 131lb ft @ 4200rpm
Brakes ventilated at front
Length 13ft 1in (3985mm)
Weight 2072lb (940kg)
Height 4ft 1in (1240mm)
0-60mph 9.9 secs
Top speed 125mph
Price new £3475