Very different from previous production Porsches, the 914 was an attempt by Zuffenhausen to introduce a lower cost model. Commercially it was only a moderate success, but it’s very distinct minimalist styling, though part of the idiom of the 1960s, was very much an in-house design.
Almost two decades after the first Gmünd coupés, the 914 was the company’s third new production car. The ‘Vierzehner,’ (fourteener), as the Germans referred to it, was conceived as a new entry level model and one which would widen the appeal of Porsche. The Porsche 912 which used the flat four of the discontinued 356 was only ever an interim model, too close from a marketing standpoint in both appearance and pricing to the 911. A new design, especially if it was significantly cheaper, could secure the future of a Porsche too dependent on one model. Zuffenhausen, though, was in no position to tool up for a new model, having just bought out Reutter, but its association with VW did present an opportunity and Wolfsburg itself was in the market for fresh designs: by the mid-sixties, its range looked dated, the Beetle comprehensively out performed by offerings from Ford and Opel in terms of performance, space and economy. The success of BMW’s Neue Klasse also showed the importance of the growing middle class market.
1960s Europe was characterised by a thirst for change, social, cultural and political, a product of a solid decade of prosperity since the Second World War. Industrially this was apparent in the interest in new designs and materials and a typical example was Gugelot Design of Neu Ulm, which devised attractive forms for the wave of consumer goods coming on to the market. Gugelot fancied an attempt at car design and its process which sought to mould glass reinforced plastic (GRP) panels to a GRP chassis attracted the interest of several manufacturers, especially the go ahead BMW, for which Gugelot produced a two-seater sports car design in this material.
The Gugelot concept was a slightly anonymous, seemingly front-engined affair with a flat, smooth front hood. Ultimately, the GRP process proved incompatible with mass production scheduling (the glue took too long to dry) and BMW went elsewhere. But new shapes and forms were in the air: the idea that form followed function was gaining ground and Gugelot was just one of several offerings which set automobile design departments thinking. This was certainly the case at Wolfsburg where a two-seater of this sort might profitably replace VW’s aging and lack lustre Karmann Ghia.
VW turned as usual to Porsche, which did much of its design and engineering. VW boss Heinrich Nordhoff and Ferry Porsche enjoyed a close relationship which went back to 1948 when Nordhoff was appointed to run VW, and had even briefly tried to lure Ferry away from Porsche to Wolfsburg. The two rapidly agreed an arrangement whereby Porsche would design a new sports car which Karmann would build at its Osnabrück plant. Fitted with VW’s new 1.7 flat-four (intended for the forthcoming VW411), it would be sold as a VW-Porsche; a proportion of fully trimmed 914 bodies would be delivered to Zuffenhausen for installation on the 911 assembly line of Porsche’s 1991 cc flat-six and these would be marketed by Porsche as the Porsche 914/6. Osnabrück was already delivering 911 bodies to Porsche so the logistics existed. On the face of it, the deal seemed a classic of synergy: VW would get a new sporty model which together with its new 411, would take it profitably up market. Porsche would get the low cost model it needed to supplement the 911 without the cost of having to invest in new tooling.
This background is all known and documented, but the provenance of the 914’s design has long been less clear. Writing in 2007 in Porsche, the Engineering Story, Jeff Daniels said, “Strangely, given the 1960s was a period when the automotive stylist really became established, nobody seems to lay claim to the overall styling direction of the 914.” Often the 914’s shape has been simply attributed to Gugelot. It is true that Porsche did look sometimes outside for design help: after his visit to the US and Detroit in 1956, Ferry began to realise the importance of styling, until then at Porsche, the preserve of Konstruktionsbüro stalwart Erwin Komenda who was essentially an engineer. In 1957 Ferry had asked Albrecht von Goertz, (of whose BMW 507 he was an unconditional admirer) to come up with a new Porsche design. In the event Ferry was so dismayed that the drawing which eventually materialised seemed to adhere to none of his conditions that he discarded it. By then, Ferdinand Alexander (Butzi), the first of the next generation of Porsche and Piëch children, had finished his art studies and was employed at Zuffenhausen under Erwin Komenda. The 356’s successor would be conceived in house.
Unlike von Goertz’s effort, the Gugelot design was altogether more inspiring and Butzi took on the new VW Porsche design project, apparently handing it to Heinrich Klie, effectively by then his assistant, who had come to Zuffenhausen in 1953. Essentially an engineer, Klie’s role in the 914 is made clearer in Michael von Klodt’s definitive work, Das Grosse VW-Porsche Buch, which quotes Butzi as saying that the Gugelot design “had a few similarities to the 914,” but that was all. The ‘Vierzehner’ was an internal Porsche design. Klodt goes on: “The first sketches were made in 1964 at the Porsche Design Studio. Five different sketches were chosen for the final design choice in early 1966. All five sketches were turned into 1:5 size clay models. The (unanimous) vote went to a model designed by Heinrich Klie, then head of the Porsche Studio, who also designed the Porsche Formula 1 car and the Carrera 6.”
For the 914, Klie drew up a mid-engine installation, which was how Porsche had always built its competition cars, but had not tried this on production models. As well as improving handling, (the siting of the engine ahead of the rear axle enhances the polar moment of inertia) a mid-engined car can be optimised as a dedicated two-seater. In the case of the 914, this meant a cabin uncompromised by space restrictions and luggage room both fore and aft, making the 914 a true tourer. Its Targa roof, which was stowed neatly in the rear trunk would further enhance its appeal. Visually, Klie’s design differs significantly from the mainstream by having smaller overhangs and a striking ‘wheel at each corner’ stance. Its roofline to some extent appears to be derived from the RS 61 coupé of 1962, and there are also hints of the 904 in there. When launched, the 914 in fact would prove remarkably individual looking, and if it bore any similarity to any other design at all, it was perhaps to Ron Hickman’s Lotus 47 Europa (also mid-engined) which came out in 1966.
The subsequent history of the 914 is a classic “what might have been,” especially given the success of the Boxster with the same configuration 30 years later. However, the 914 was doomed from the start, not just by its split identity, perceived in Germany as both a VW and a Porsche yet neither a VW nor a Porsche. In Britain, the importer, AFN, simply refused to let journalists drive the four cylinder version (which had only an unflattering 80 hp), and this was typical of the negative attitude towards the 914. From Porsche’s point of view, even powered by the flat six, the new model would not be a commercial success: before the VW-Porsche could be launched, Heinz Nordhoff died and his successor, Kurt Lotz who came from outside the Porsche –Piëch –VW clique, chose not to honour the largely gentleman’s agreements Nordhoff had made with Ferry Porsche. The upshot was [Ed – on the instruction of Lotz] that Karmann charged Zuffenhausen full price for the body of the 914/6 which meant that that its market price was dangerously close to the (now 2.2) 911 T.
The 914 never took off in Europe, but marketed through the new Audi+Porsche organisation in America and branded as a Porsche, not the ambiguous VW-Porsche labelling as in Europe, the majority of the 118,000 914s eventually built would find homes in the US. Porsche might have done more with the 914/6. Its chassis, largely developed by Helmut Bott, would have taken almost treble the power as the experimental flat-8 engined version showed: two were built, a 300 hp version which was Ferdinand Piëch’s car and a 260 hp carburettor model, a sixtieth birthday present to Ferry Porsche, in which he reputedly drove over 10,000 km. Alas, slow sales and a full model development programme – updating and turbocharging the 911 and designing the future 924 and 928 models plus external consultancy, took priority. Baron Huschke von Hanstein was made responsible for marketing the 914, but Piëch would not let him develop a race version that would have endowed the 914/6 with some sporting credibility. In the end, only 3338 914/6s would be made plus eleven very potent 2.4-litre 916s. Meanwhile VW would lose all interest in the 914, Wolfsburg’s disastrous slide to virtual bankruptcy and metamorphosis into a front wheel drive/water-cooled engine company, finished any further hopes there might have been for the 914.
As for Heinrich Klie, the 914 was undoubtedly the high point of his 20-year career at Porsche. Michael Klodt says that in 1966, he resigned from his role as manager of planning and coordination of Style Porsche, and was replaced by Butzi Porsche. 1966 was also the year in which Erwin Komenda who had overseen Porsche styling since 1931, died. Since the company’s decision to develop Butzi’s rather than Komenda’s ideas for the 901 (911), Komenda had been steadily marginalised and perhaps Butzi’s elevation at this time simply reflected the de facto hierarchy in Style Porsche. In any case, Heinrich Klie’s career did not, it seems, develop any further.
Invited by Ferry, who had courted him for some years, designer Tony Lapine arrived at Zuffenhausen from Opel in 1969 with a remit to bring some of GM’s styling flair to Porsche. He recalls a design department which consisted of Butzi, Klie and a couple of others plus himself. Gradually Lapine built up a team, recruiting notably Wolfgang Möbius and Dick Söderberg from Opel, and Harm Lagaaij who was the first of a new graduate generation schooled in styling and design. By 1972, the Porsche design studio had moved to the newly built R&D site adjacent to the track at Weissach, and Butzi had left to found Porsche Design in Austria.
It was a busy time. Lapine had a team of over 25 people with projects as diverse as a car design for the Russians (Lada) and a refashioned cockpit for the Airbus as well as Porsche tasks – the 924 and the G-series 911. He remembers that he never quite knew what to do with Klie, who by then was the only employee he had inherited. “He just used to work away at modelling stuff for Butzi. I never saw him at the drawing board. I often used to say ‘Mr. Klie, is there anything I can help you with?’ I never really found out why he was still there.” Wolfgang Möbius also recalls Heinrich Klie, “Yes I was quite friendly with him. I did hear that he had been involved in the Targa hoop and the design of the Fuchs wheel, but he was really a modeller, not a stylist.”
The twenty-five year old Harm Lagaaij who would go on to design roles at Ford in Cologne and BMW before returning in 1989 as Porsche’s design chief, understood immediately that Klie was an anachronism. “When Tony Lapine came, it was a total transformation – the whole business of styling and design became a proper department, not an offshoot of engineering. With all these people around, Heinrich was a bit lost and I think he retired after a couple of years.”
Heinrich Klie died in 1999 at the age of 85. One man who got to know him in his retirement was Norbert Schlüter from the German Westfalen 914 club. “I had been restoring a 914 for years, but in the end, I gave up and sold it to a guy in the Netherlands because I just didn’t have time. Then only two weeks later I happened to be in Munich and I saw a classified advertisement for a 914 for sale locally. It was no ordinary 914 either, but the very car built in 1971 and used in the Porsche design studio until 1974, when it was acquired by Heinrich Klie. This 914 was evidently a one off having the special instrument panel mentioned in Das Grosse VW-Porsche Buch. Of course, I had to have it!”
Having bought Klie’s original car which was in run-down if salvageable condition, Norbert was keen to talk to its designer and original owner. Through the Porsche club he was able to ascertain that the former Porsche employee was living somewhere near Kassel, and by working his way through all 20 Klies in the local phone book, Norbert tracked him down to Göttingen. Heinrich Klie was delighted to learn that his 914 still existed. Having no children of his own, in 1983 he had passed it on to his nephew and lost sight of it. Amongst the material that the former designer gave Norbert were two Porsche posters on which he had marked the cars on which he had worked. As well as the 914, these indicate he was involved with the 356 from 1957 and all the 911 variants to 1969. The charts also confirm that he had a hand in several of the racing Porsches including the 550 Spyders, the F1 804 and the 904 and 906 models. Klodt says his involvement was essentially chassis design. Klie also handed Norbert the Studio’s 914 1:5 scale clay model that he had received on retirement.
The author wishes to thank Norbert Schlüter (VW-Porsche 914 Club Westfalen) and Andy Schmidt ( 914 World) for their help with this article
Written by: Kieron Fennelly
Images by: Corporate Archives Porsche AG