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Pedigree Mongrel - Driven: Porsche 914/6GT

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The stock 914 was underwhelming. But, as this original 914/6 GT shows, there was a great car waiting to get out...

The nine-fourteen (or nine-one-four, should you prefer) was the lovechild of two of Germany’s most high-profile parents. Hugely successful but increasingly boring Volkswagen inseminated with the genes of glamorous, race-winning sports car manufacturer Porsche.

The car world eagerly awaited the new arrival but between conception and birth the parents bickered and couldn’t even agree what to call their offspring. The baby was unveiled in September 1969 at the Frankfurt show, where the ‘coochy-coos’ from the world’s press were distinctly muted.

The faint praise and sense of disappointment was best summarised by Auto Motor und Sport magazine, which could muster no more than the observation that ‘the 914 is not exceedingly pretty, but it is functional, low and sporty’. But the 914 did come good – just look at the 914/6 GT here.

It is all too easy to forget that Porsche was once a one-horse stable. From 1948 to 1965 Porsche built the exquisite but quirky and expensive 356, which was replaced by the still-unconventional and almost twice-as-expensive 911. The ever-cautious Ferry Porsche was worried that they may have been pricing themselves out of business.

VW and Porsche were, of course, more than kissing cousins. Ferry Porsche’s father, Professor Ferdinand Porsche, had designed the Beetle, and Ferry’s creation, the 356, had evolved from it after WW2. Porsche’s survival in the difficult post-war period was certainly aided by the royalties it received for every Beetle sold.

Once again an opportunity presented itself from which both companies could benefit. Porsche needed a cheaper entry-level model to boost volume, while VW was wondering not only how to replace the ageing Beetle but how to add some spice to the company image. VW was well advanced with the deeply dull 411 when boss Heinz Nordhoff and Ferry Porsche met to discuss a joint venture

By the mid-1960s the mid-engined sports car, already well established on the racetrack, was becoming the ‘hot’ choice for the road. Porsche had always been a proponent of the mid-engine layout: the very first Porsche had been a mid-engined roadster and every purpose-built racer it had made since placed the engine ahead of the rear wheels.

The gorgeous 904 of 1964 could have, and probably should have, provided the styling cue for a new road car but the marketing requirements of the two partners dictated that the car should look unlike anything that had preceded it from either company. In this objective there is no doubt that they succeeded.

The 914 project progressed with high hopes but then the unexpected happened, with dire consequences for Porsche. In April 1968 Heinz Nordhoff died from a heart attack. Nordhoff and Ferry Porsche, old-school car men both, had done business on a verbal agreement and a handshake. Nordhoff’s replacement, Karl Lotz, recruited from outside the auto-world, was not committed to or convinced of the value of the 914 and applied a completely different costing to the project, scuppering Porsche’s calculations. The 914 bodyshells, and in VW’s case the complete car, were produced in Osnabrück by Karmann and Lotz’s pricing policy meant that Porsche was forced to pay more for a 914 body than it was paying for its much more complicated 911 bodies – supplied by the same company! The ‘cheap’ Porsche was no longer looking so cheap.

The raison d’Ϊtre for the 914 was further confused by a VW decision to name all US-bound cars, whether four- or six-cylinder, as Porsches, and sell them through a new Porsche-Audi network, while in Europe they would be called VW-Porsche – but none of the cars would have a Porsche badge on the nose! US cars would have Porsche script on the engine grille but European cars would not – confusing, huh?

Many US customers were disappointed by their underpowered, four-cylinder ‘Porsches’, though what the 914 lacked in go it made up for with handling, which met with almost universal praise.

Mechanically the new 914 was a mixture of Porsche 911 and VW 411. The front suspension and rack-and-pinion steering was pure 911 but the mid-engine required not only a lengthened wheelbase but a new rear suspension utilising, for the first time in a road-going Porsche, box-section trailing arms and coil-over-shocks.

Engines were the fuel-injected 80bhp, 1.7-litre 411 unit in the 914 and, in keeping with its ‘entry level’ positioning, the 914/6 used the least expensive 110bhp Porsche 2-litre 911T engine running on Webers. The gearbox in both cars was the five-speed Porsche 911 transaxle turned through 180 degrees, with the crownwheel swapped side-to-side to give the correct number of forward speeds.

It was obvious that the 914/6 chassis could handle a lot more power and the first two uprated cars were real hot rods. Built for Ferry Porsche’s 60th birthday and chief engineer Ferdinand Piech’s personal use, the two cars were fitted with the 3-litre flat-eight racing engine from the 908. Ferry’s car had a detuned ‘street’ version with 260bhp, while Piech’s was a 300bhp road-rocket. The 914/8 demonstrated that a hot 914/6 would be a potent machine.

For racing in the Group 3 GT category the FIA permitted wheelarches to be extended by 5cm and Porsche took full advantage of this, welding boxy steel arches into the bodywork, front and rear, covering 6 or 7in Fuchs wheels. Aesthetic considerations were almost certainly not a priority with this modification but it immediately turned the rather wimpish whippet of a 914 into an aggressive-looking pitbull of a motor. At last there was a seriously sexy 914/6 – the GT.

A weak point of the 914 chassis was around the rear swing-arm pick-up points, which flexed under hard cornering. The Zuffenhausen race-shop fixed this by welding in reinforcement plates from the jacking-points to rear wheelarches. Anti-roll bars, deemed unnecessary in the road cars, were grafted on, the rear bar actually located inside the luggage compartment! The front compartment was almost filled by a long-range fuel tank and the shrouding for the nose-mounted oil-cooler.

The extra weight of all this added steel was offset by Porsche’s meticulous attention to weight-saving in other areas. Fibreglass was used for the front and rear bumpers as well as the bonnet and boot covers, flexing of the last two panels being minimised by bonding in balsa-wood strips!

The pop-up headlamp motors and mechanisms were deleted (not, however, on rally cars) and interior trim much simplified. Overall the weight saving resulted in a car hitting the scales at 897kg, 90kg less than the street version. One curious option was a roll-up rear window blind for night racing: wonder how many of those still exist?

For 1970 the 911 series moved up in capacity with the introduction of the 2.2-litre engine, and the 914/6 was homologated as Porsche’s weapon in the up-to-2-litre category.

Power was supplied by the 901/20 engine, the well-tried racing version of the 911 engine, as fitted to the Carrera 6 sports racer. A higher compression ratio, twin-plug  heads, bigger valves, counterweighted crank and lightened valve-gear resulted in a guaranteed 210bhp, and often more.

The racing record of the 914/6 GT got off to a promising start, with the four cars entered in the Nürburgring 1000km race finishing second to fifth in class – behind a 911. But better was to come. A solitary 914/6 GT entered in the 1970 Le Mans 24 Hours, running under the banner of long-time French importer Sonauto, finished a stunning sixth overall – ahead of all of the 911s and overall winner of the GT category. (This, incidentally, was the race that saw Porsche’s first overall Le Mans victory, with the 917, and formed the background to Steve McQueen’s famous film.) Later in the year a factory team of three cars headed the field at the Marathon de la Route, a gruelling 86-hour blast around the full Nürburgring circuit.

The 914/6 GT was now the 2-litre GT of choice, virtually unbeatable.

The Porsche racing department eventually built 12 cars for the factory’s own use and a further 47 cars under the M471 option, which gave customers the possibility of ordering a GT to their own specification – and road legal if required.

One of the first was for wealthy Swiss businessman and enthusiastic privateer Ernst Seiler, who ordered chassis 914 043 0181, our featured car. Seiler, often using his sobriquet ‘Hunter’, campaigned a 911T/R through the ’68 and ’69 seasons before transferring to his freshly delivered 914/6 GT in 1970, racing under the banner of Ski Hart Racing and then switching to Squadra Tartaruga (Team Turtle) for 1972.

Octane caught up with this gorgeous 914/6 GT, now owned by Simon Bowery, at a Silverstone test day, a shakedown in anticipation of campaigning the car next year. Beautifully repainted by Porsche specialist Bruce Cooper’s Southend-based Sportwagen, the car gleamed on one of the few mercifully dry days of early November. Simon was quick to point out that the car is not a restoration in the conventional sense but rather a refurbish and reassembly.

When in 2006 Simon found the car in Switzerland, where it had languished with a damaged engine since 1974, it had covered a mere 12,000km – all of them on the track – and was complete, bodily sound but shabby. Sportwagen stripped the body back to bare metal before repainting it in the original shade of Zitronengelb. Meanwhile the engine and gearbox were sent to German specialist Karl Hloch for a careful rebuild. The freshly painted body was reassembled by Steve Winter at his North London independent Porsche specialist Jaz Porsche before being trailered to Karl Hloch’s premises in Schorndorf to have the whirly bits refitted.

The first impression of the car is how tiny it is. The 914 series was four inches lower than a contemporary 911 and the smaller frontal area resulted, despite its boxy look, in a lower drag coefficient than the 911’s. The Spartan cabin, however, is extremely roomy, with space in every direction except directly behind, as the reassuringly snug bucket seat is right up against the rear bulkhead and vertical screen. The pedals, in familiar 911 fashion, are offset slightly towards the centre of the car.

From cold the engine needs a bit of pumping and churning before it catches but once warm all that’s required is a turn of the key and the motor roars into life – and what a roar! The bark of a barely silenced Porsche flat-six is sensational. A staccato, crackling, ripping rasp that sets the nerves tingling. Despite the exotic machinery testing that day, heads turned in our direction every time the Porsche fired up.

Porsche UK kindly allowed us to use its Experience Centre track for photography before letting me loose unencumbered by a camera car. By chance, former ace Porsche pilot Richard Attwood was attending a Porsche drivers’ day and I asked him for any recollections he might have of the 914/6 in period. He recalled driving a factory GT down to the Targa Florio in 1970 to use in practice but after discussions with fellow factory drivers they concluded that it didn’t offer them any great advantage over the tried and tested 911. He did, however, feel that the 914/6 was easier to drive near the limit for a driver of average talent, whereas the 911 required a special level of skill to extract the maximum from it. That was good news, then.

Porsche’s tight little sprint track is designed to test agility rather than all-out speed and comprises a twisting, uphill section leading into a blind right-hander at the crest, followed by a similar series of looping downhill curves, some slightly off camber, ending in a sharp right-hander. A wiggle-woggle of abrupt transitions that in an early 911 can easily catch out the unwary.

The flat-six spins effortlessly through the revs and really takes off at 6000rpm and beyond to the 8000rpm redline, effortlessly thrusting the car uphill. The only parts of a 914/6 visible beyond the scuttle are the tips of the vertical side lights in their razor-thin wings, and they provide perfect sights with which to aim the car, which simply changes direction with kart-like alacrity, barely a hint of roll, and none of that 911 feeling of sitting at the pivot-point of a pendulum.

Exiting bends under power, early 911s squatted, lifting the inside front wheel – sometimes well clear of the tarmac – but the 914/6 displayed none of those antics. A hefty boot of power in an attempt to break traction resulted in nothing more than an increase in lateral g and a slight sideways drift – helped no doubt by the wider, but original to the car, eight-inch wide magnesium (crack-tested) Minilites at the rear. Admittedly I was not in a 150mph bend but both Simon and Steve confirmed that on the much faster Silverstone track the handling remains quite neutral and predictable at the limit.

In common with all mid-engined cars the level of grip flatters to deceive – when ultimately it goes, it goes so rapidly that a spin is almost inevitable. They did, however, tend to spin in their own length, unlike a 911 or 356, which, when the laws of physics were exceeded, either left the scene backwards at a tangent or got into a sphincter-dilating ‘tank-slapper’.

The weak spot in the 914/6’s mechanical chain is the gearchange. Gone is the butter-smooth gear-swapping of the 911, to be replaced by a worryingly imprecise, notchy adventure into the unknown. The linkage is long and convoluted and Steve is working on ways to make it more precise but I must confess that on my brief acquaintance with the car I was never entirely confident that I was about to let the clutch out in the right gear. A few times I let the revs drop and provoked considerable coughing and spitting from the Webers, requiring a bit of desperate rev-raising downchanging before urge was restored. Keep the revs where they should be and the 914/6 is a fabulously rewarding ride, going exactly where you aim it and hanging on like a leech having lunch.

The 914/6 might have been successful on the track but it wasn’t a success in the showroom. Despite the 914 being Germany’s biggest-selling sports car in 1970 and ’71, Porsche sold only 3332 sixes before ceasing production in 1971. The 914, much improved, was finally dropped in 1975. It would take almost 20 years before the public could once again enjoy the thrills of a mid-engined Porsche, with the introduction of the Boxster.

Thanks to the Porsche Experience Centre, www.porsche.com/silverstone.

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