Sports Car Face Plant: Porsche 914

LEAD

Jointly developed between Porsche and Volkswagen, and intended to replace one vehicle in each manufacturer’s lineup, the Porsche 914 should’ve been an early triumph for Ferdinand Piëch. However, due to poor marketing, infighting between the Porsche and Piëch families, s-l-o-w performance, and a high price, the 914 never reached its full potential.

By the late 1960s, Volkswagen’s Karmann-Ghia had run its course. Over at Porsche, the 911 was setting the pace, but the four-cylinder Porsche 912 – with its aging powerplant from the 356C – never took off, and the 911 was twice as expensive as the car it replaced. Volkswagen needed a range-topper, Porsche needed something at the entry-level. The 914 should’ve been just the ticket.

Cutaway

Its development came about through an agreement between Porsche and Volkswagen that went back as far as Porsche did. When most publication stell that history, they get lost in the details. The true story of that relationship is a fascinating feud between two entities that has never truly resolved itself. The German magazine Der Spiegel gets the relationship right:

Heinz Nordhoff, VW’s managing director, met with Ferry Porsche and Anton Piëch in the Bavarian town of Bad Reichenhall to establish a proper basis for relations between the two companies. The representatives of the Porsche-Piëch clan came to an agreement on three issues:

Porsche would receive a licensing fee of five German marks for each Beetle produced up until the end of 1954. This provided the company with fresh capital.

The Volkswagen plant was required to supply Porsche with the parts it would need for its planned automobile production plants. This enabled the Stuttgart-based company to build its own sports cars, despite having few employees and small production facilities.

Porsche became the authorized dealer for VW models in Austria, establishing the foundation for a commercial enterprise that now sells cars from almost all the VW Group’s brands and has annual sales of €13 billion ($18.5 billion).

PHOTOS: Porsche 914 and 914-6

For the development of the 914, it was another informal meeting that resulted in a handshake agreement. Porsche would provide the design, using a lot of off-the-shelf hardware, and Volkswagen would put the whole thing together. Porsche would have one version with its own powerplant, and VW would have a version badged as a Volkswagen, with the engine out of the Beetle.

PROFILE

Only that never happened. You can see the conflict from the get-go: Volkswagen dealers in the United States would be selling the same car as Porsche, but with a lower price tag? Even with the better engine, it meant that the Porsche version wouldn’t attract anywhere near the number of entry-level customers it hoped for.

Adding to the conflict was the fact that the car’s champion at Volkswagen – Heinz Nordhoff – died suddenly just as the 914 prototype began development in 1968. Nordhoff was replaced at Volkswagen by Kurt Lotz, who was in no way enamored with the terms of the agreement between Volkswagen and Porsche, and saw the car as what it eventually was – a low-volume orphan that wouldn’t make Porsche or Volkswagen any money.

Almost immediately, Lotz complicated the deal. Instead of being sold by Volkswagen or Porsche, Ate Up With Motor wrote that “Porsche and Volkswagen formed a separate company, Volkswagen-Porsche Vertriebsgesellschaft (roughly, “Marketing Company”) to market the cars.” In the lucrative U.S. market, the cars would be sold under the Porsche network. In Europe, they’d be sold as a “Volkswagen-Porsche” and distributed through VW dealers.

BROCHURE PHOTO

Lotz also decided that the low volume of 914s meant that it wouldn’t be cost-effective to build the cars in Volkswagen facilities. Instead, the 914 would be produced at Karmann in in Osnabrück, Germany, at a much higher price per car, effectively blowing out any of the economies of scale Ferry Porsche had hoped to recognize.

FRONT PRESS

The four-cylinder 914 went on sale in February of 1970, with the six-cylinder 914/6 following right behind it. It immediately won Motor Trend’s Import Car of the Year title, but everyone else focused on the fact that this mid-engined sports car didn’t look like a 356 or a 911, and that’s the only template Porsche-0-philes were interested in looking at. Beyond that, it had Volks-stink on it, which is ironic considering how much VW content went into the 356.

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It was a sharp handler, and it was cheaper than the 912, but dear God, it was slow. Getting it to 60 miles per hour took a glacial 14 seconds in 914 form.

REAR PRESS

And then, there was the price. The introductory price the first year was right around $3,500 for the 914. Over at the Datsun dealer, they were selling the bejesus out of the 240Z at exactly the same price. For the money, you got one of the 1970s’ best-looking sports cars, with a six-cylinder engine that could deliver the Z to 60 miles per hour almost six seconds faster. It’s no wonder buyers would happily shell out a premium over MSRP for a 240Z. The 914/6 got their faster, but it cost 70 percent more than the 914, a price that put it in competition with the still-brutally-fast Corvette.

None of it made any sense. After just two years, the 914/6 went away, selling fewer than 3,500 cars. The 914 did manage to move  a lot of units – 118,000 between the 1971 and 1976 model years – but it was always dismissed by Porsche faithful.

FRONT

Time has been a lot kinder to the 914, though. It’s the Porsche you can buy if you can’t stomach the breathtaking price of a 911 or 356, or wouldn’t be caught dead driving a Sportomatic. George Hussey at Automobile Atlanta has built a business servicing 914 customers, and has seen the car’s popularity rise as the decades pass. “People are restoring and enjoying them like never before,” he says.

Considering its availability and lower price point, the 914 might be the Porsche to buy if you want to drive or race a vintage sports car.

Image Source: MotorcarDigest.com, 356-911.com

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