Although it didn't make many Porsche purists happy, the 914 was still a solid sports car with its mid-engine layout, lightweight and good handling.
Built just a few years after the debut of the 911, the 914 was the first Porsche to make the purists angry. The 911 really had been conceived with the idea in mind that it would be the company's only model, but Porsche almost immediately realized that this wasn't the best business strategy. The 914 was actually the second attempt, after the 912, to make a sub-911 model. Though controversial at the time, history has been more kind to the 914, and it is now recognized as being a good, albeit not fast, little car.
Back in the late Sixties, the relationship between Porsche and Volkswagen was a close one, but not actually one which anybody had bothered to put down on paper. It was essentially a verbal agreement between VW chairman Heinz Nordhoff and Ferry Porsche. Nordhoff was the man who had made Volkswagen the massive success that it was during the Sixties, and Ferry Porsche had taken his father's company and turned it into the brand of the 911. So when VW needed a new sporty model to replace the Karmann Ghia, and Porsche needed a replacement for the 912, the two men were confident that together they could come up with something good.
This seemed reasonable to everyone else involved too, right up until Nordhoff died while development was still under way. VW's new chairman, Kurt Lotz, didn't share his predecessor's affection for Porsche, and things soon hit a bit of a snag. The original plan was for Porsche to design a body, and VW would build it, since its facilities were much better-suited to mass production. There would be a six-cylinder version badged as a Porsche and four-cylinder badged as a Volkswagen-Porsche. The exception was North America, where both versions would be sold with Porsche badges.
But when Lotz came into power, he found VW in possession of all the tooling for the car, and nothing on paper saying they owed Porsche anything. The plan still went ahead, but Porsche's cost for its cars went up, and the price advantage of the 914 wasn't quite as significant when it debuted in 1969. Even with the higher price, there was still a lot to like about the 914. The car was mid-engine, a layout which Porsche had previously used only for its race cars. But an association with race cars is never going to hurt sales much, especially for a company like Porsche.
The car also had a very low center of gravity, and since it borrowed much of its suspension and brake components from the 911, it handled quite well. Lightness was important to all Porsche models in those days, and the 914 weighed just over 2,000lbs. But it still came up a bit short when it came to power. The base engine was a 1.7-liter four-cylinder boxer engine which produced 80 horsepower. The more expensive six-cylinder unit would seem to be the way to here, but this 2.0-liter unit still only made 110 horsepower. The 914 was conceived as a stripped-down and basic model along the lines of the 356 Speedster.
As such, it had difficulty justifying its high price relative to cars like the Datsun 240Z. It offered up superior handling to the Datsun, but just couldn't rival the straight-line speed. But the 914 still sold well, probably at least in part because of the prestige of the Porsche name. About 119,000 units in all were sold, although the six-cylinder model, which ended up being nearly as expensive as a base-model 911, sold very poorly. Just 3,351 units of the 914/6 were sold, and Porsche gave up even offering it after 1972. When the 914 was retired in 1976, it was Porsche's most popular model ever at the time, far outselling the 911 every year it was produced.
But it probably could have been an even bigger success. With VW jacking up prices on its end, the 914 was never a very value for the money, although Ferry Porsche never bore a grudge, at least not publicly. Porsche did build one 914/8, a version of the 914 which used the 310-horsepower 3.0-liter flat-8 out of the 908 race car. Had this actually been produced, it's a safe bet it would have been absurdly expensive, but the six-second 0-60 time and 155mph top speed were things which 914 buyers surely would have found appealing. The 914 was a car which might have seemed like a good idea at first, but which had big problems even before production started.
But the fact that it sold so well in spite of these problems is evidence that it was really quite a nice little car. It might not have been the fastest ever produced by Porsche, and it might not even be considered a true Porsche by some, but it was fun to drive, and that's all it needed.