“As West Germany debated last week whether it should have an army, East Germany was unmasking one.
Five thousand jackbooted, blue-uniformed toughs swarmed into the border districts to put down disturbances by farmers trying to save their homes as the Reds bulldozed a three-mile-deep isolation corridor between East and West Germany. The blue-uniformed men, part of a 100,000-man force, are called the People’s Police (Volkspolizei, or Vopos, for short).”
Oh, just the tone of that article (from TIME) makes me nostalgic for the days when American journalists kind of, you know, liked baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and freedom. Nowadays, the Times would probably “embed” somebody with the Vopos and he would enthusiastically shoot farmers while talking about the need for social justice.
But I digress. The car in the photo above is also a “VoPo” — a Volkswagen-Porsche. Styled by the consumer-goods design firm Gugelot, who were the folks responsible for the Kodak “Carousel” slide projector, it was assembled by Karmann in Germany. In Europe, it was sold as a Volkswagen; in the United States, as a Porsche. Although I’m personally a bit of a 914 fan, the car has to be understood as an aesthetic, critical, and commercial failure for Porsche. Most importantly, it was yet another episode in the strange “Inside Baseball” relationship between Volkswagen and Porsche. From the day Ferdinand Porsche started thinking about the “People’s Car” to the very last who-bought-whom stock manipulation of 2009, Porsche and VW have been engaged in a bizarre, operatic, and occasionally fraudulent relationship — and Porsche always loses. Every. Single. Freaking. Time.
The story of the 914 is too long to properly relate here — I recommend Karl Ludwigsen’s three-volume history of Porsche, “Excellence Was Expected”, for all the details — but here’s the super-short version. Porsche and VW make a handshake deal. Karmann makes the cars. The six-cylinders are finished by Porsche and sold as Porsches. The four-cylinders are finished by VW and sold as VWs everywhere but in the US, where they will be simply cheaper Porsches. The head of VW dies, and there’s nothing on paper regarding this deal. VW holds all the cards. Volkswagen then crucifies Porsche on costs, resulting in all the cars costing far more than they were supposed to, and the 914-6 “Porsche” in particular costing almost as much as a “real” Porsche 911. Sales targets unmet, quality problems abound, dealers complain, buyers moan, junkyards are filled, the car gets a second lease on life as a club racer, everybody swears to not make the same mistake twice. There you have it.
In Germany, the derisive name “VoPo” was applied to the Volkswagen-Porsche four-cylinder. With just eighty horsepower, this was not a rapid car even by the standards of the day, and it cost plenty of money. The original cars turned a 19-second quarter-mile, and that got worse once the big bumpers and smog equipment of 1972 arrived. By 1974, the 914 2.0 cost $6000 in an era when a 911S cost twelve grand and the almighty Carrera cost $13,500. Put another way… a 1974 Z28 could be had with ALL the goodies for $4500, and it would smoke a seventy-six-horsepower emissions-compliant 914 six ways to Sunday. I’m starting to think this whole “Porsche doesn’t offer value” thing has historical roots beyond the 2010 Carrera S.
To be fair, the last 914s were much better than the original ones. Over time, Porsche added such luxuries as a passenger-side sliding seat and an engine that didn’t burst into flames at the earliest opportunity. The car also had a lot of credibility with SCCA racers at the time. Even today, there are people who put everything from a modern 911 Turbo engine, to a WRX four-cylinder, or even a small-block Chevy, in the cars. The resulting 914s are notable for the way in which they are not faster than their donor vehicles, yet significantly more exciting to maintain and fix.
A flared-fender, balls-out variant, the 916, exists mostly in myth. Six were produced and only two hundred of those survive today. (I wonder if that has something to do with affordable fiberglass 916 body panels created by aftermarket producers?) Porsche realized quickly that selling a mid-engined car for the same money, but less profit, than the 911 was a losing game.
The final production numbers were telling. 118,982 were produced. 3,351 of them were “Porsche” six-cylinders. The rest were VoPos. The big winner here was Volkswagen, as usual. The 914 didn’t keep the lines at Stuttgart humming, and it didn’t contribute much to the bottom line. What it did do was damage the Porsche brand in the United States, and it accomplished that mission with zeal.
The 914 misadventure came to an end when VW asked Porsche to develop another sporting car for them. But this time, Porsche learned their lessons well and made sure to protect their own interests. Unlike the 914, which was done on a handshake and left Porsche powerless against the mighty state-owned Beast Of Lower Saxony, the 924 deal was done on a handshake and… oh, dammit. But that’s a story for another time.