Monday, June 2, 2014

A Shout Out To The Porsche 914-6

Here's a link to a Petrolicious video that captures the feel of the car well:

As Porsches go, the 914-6 was unloved--but not by me.  Lots of people have problems with its styling.  I liked it, and still do: nothing on the car that doesn't need to be there.  But it's a fascinating contrast to the svelte lines of the 911, penned by Butzi Porsche only six years earlier.  The 911 has been so successful that fans won't let the company stop building it.  Not until the Boxster and the Cayman was the firm able to develop models with staying power compared to the 911.  Goodness knows they tried: the 928, the 924, the 944...

The 914 wasn't originally intended to be a Porsche.  Volkswagen had commissioned Porsche to design a replacement for the Karmann-Ghia.  It would use the new engine from the also new VW Type 4.  The car was designed to be built down to a price point.  But it was a breathtaking idea: the first mid-engine sports car at non-supercar prices.  An upmarket version would be sold as the entry-level Porsche, replacing the 4-cylinder 912 (which had a 911 body).

Volkswagen cancelled the project.  Porsche was so invested in it that they decided to make the car themselves.  But Porsche had to underwrite all tooling and production costs, with no VW model to defray them.  In Europe the 914 would be sold through VW dealers as a "VW Porsche".  But Porsche didn't believe that would fly for a prestige brand in the States.  So it was sold only through Porsche dealers as a 914-4 (with the VW Type 4 engine) or a 914-6 (with the base 911 engine).

The VW Type 4 "Porsche" 914-4 engine.  Beginning as a 1.7 liter, it was eventually punched out to 2.0 liters when
the real Porsche 6-cylinder engine was dropped.  In larger form, it had plenty of torque and made the car as fast as
the 914-6.  But...
...this was the engine you wanted: the glorious, high-revving, s.o.h.c. Porsche six...

Alas for Porsche, the car arrived in the States just in time to go head-to-head with the Datsun 240 Z.  In 1970, I worked as a salesman for a Porsche/Audi dealership, trying to sell the 914-4 against the Z-car. They were almost equal in price.  But the Datsun came with many amenities; a radio cost extra in a 914-4.  The Z-car had 151 horsepower, the 914-4 had 80.  If you wanted 911's lovely overhead cam six, you'd pay 43% more, only 25% less than a base 911.  And you were still down 40 horsepower on a 240 Z.  And the radio was still extra.  There was a Datsun dealership next door.

As might be expected from a mid-engine configuration and light weight, both 914's had excellent handling and fine braking.  The 914 was a low car, and you sat low in it, with your legs nearly horizontal.  This further enhanced the handling, but wasn't comfortable for long-distance cruising.  My main complaint about the 4-cylinder car was vague shift linkage.  It had taller gears than the 6-cylinder, which made it feel even more underpowered.  Both cars were underpowered compared to the Datsun. The Z car was a game-changer: nobody had packed so much power, standard equipment, sophistication, and refinement into an affordable sports car.  The 914-6 was more fun to drive, but it wasn't even close on bang-for-the-buck.  Porsche pulled the plug on it in 1972.  The 914-4 soldiered on through the 1970's, very much in the shadow of the Z.

In 2014, for a road trip, I'd take the Z (with air-conditioning).  For an afternoon in the twisties, I'd take the 914-6 (with the top down).  I'd love to have either in my garage.  The 914-6 was a fine sports car.  It's a shame Porsche couldn't make the numbers work to bring it in for 20-25% more than a 240 Z, and horsepower within shouting distance.  It might have had a fighting chance at that price point.

What might have been: the 916.  Based on the 914-6 as modified for GT racing, it had wider tires and rims inside
flared fenders, ventilated disc brakes, and a bigger, hot-rodded flat six with lots of power.  But it would have
come in at a premium price--maybe even above that of the range-topping 911 S, which already had its own
mystique going.  Selling an "ugly" car that's faster and costs more than your existing range-topper is not a
winning strategy.  So Porsche pulled the plug on the 916 after building a few pre-production prototypes.

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