Which Porsche makes a better race car, the 914/6 or the 911?

Photography by Tim Suddard

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

Story by BS Levy

The 911 is surely the most iconic machine Porsche ever built, and likely represents the longest-running success story—on and off the track—in sports car history. And please, no frothing-at-the-mouth hate mail from Lotus 7 devotees.

Porsche’s sleek, swift yet sturdy 911 handled competition and commuter asphalt with style and aplomb, which made it both a legend in its own time and the lynchpin of the Porsche mystique for more than 40 years. That’s quite a run for a car that’s still, thanks to dedicated and continual evolution, considered “state-of-the-art” by most sporty-car experts. (Or, less charitably, a “triumph of development over design.”)

Originally designated the 901 until legal rumblings from Peugeot about three-digit monikers with zeros in the middle forced a last-minute change to 911, Porsche’s new baby was first shown at the International Auto Show in Frankfort in September of 1963. Several things were immediately apparent. 

First, it was a logical successor to the hoary and popular old 356, which itself evolved out of the humble but ingenious People’s Car that Dr. Ferdinand Porsche began designing in the early 1930s, and which eventually evolved (with substantial support from Herr Hitler) into the ubiquitous Volkswagen Beetle. 

Like the Beetle and the 356, the 911 stayed true to the same general principles and layout. All three cars featured an air-cooled, rear-mounted engine hung way out the back end, complete with that signature hard-edged cooling fan howl. Each had a torsion bar independent suspension on all four corners and the approximate aerodynamics of a fat pumpkin seed. Unlike the Volkswagen, however, the new 911 came with Porsche’s typically stratospheric list price  for the speed it delivered—at least in a straight line. 

Porsche’s new, revvy, substantially oversquare SOHC flat-six was only a two-liter—1991cc, actually—so their new car’s power and raw acceleration weren’t anywhere near what roughly the same money would buy in Jaguar’s flamboyantly sexy XKE or Chevrolet’s thundering new Sting Ray. Besides which, it took Porsche damn near two years to actually start delivering 911s to a long line of eager customers and dealers. 

But the delay was in some ways a tribute to Porsche’s dedication to “getting it right the first time” rather than letting customers be the factory’s test drivers/quality assurance specialists like some other marques we could name. So the finished product was good. And it was handsome in a smart, taut, yet aloof, Teutonic way.

The fit and finish were exemplary and the quality of engineering, materials and manufacture were arguably the best in the world. Even at its robust asking price, the 911 quickly found a following of loyal, even fanatical enthusiasts.

Part of this was thanks to Porsche’s firm commitment to motorsports, which had been central to the company’s philosophy, passion and corporate policy from the very beginning. It wasn’t long before their new 911 was winning every two-liter category trophy while harrying—and often humbling—far more powerful cars in the process. 

But not every driver could cope with it. The original 87-inch-wheelbase 911 with the approximate weight distribution of a short-handled sledgehammer made it either “a handler” or “a handful” depending on who was behind the wheel. Skillful 911 aces like Vic Elford loved the car’s ability to change direction in a hurry and knew how to use it, while countless ham-fisted duffers and clueless amateurs found their way off into the roadside scenery—usually backward! 

The 911 quickly evolved into a genuine cult car with its own magic, mystique, mythology and snob appeal, and this growing success in the marketplace was both mirrored and goosed by the 911’s unprecedented success in competition. The question, of course, became, “What could Porsche possibly do for an encore?”

Spreading the Love

One of the potential answers to that question was actually cooked up between Dr. Ferry Porsche and his friend/colleague Heinz Nordhoff, who was president of Volkswagen at the time. Enter the 914. 

The basic idea was to collaborate on an advanced, mid-engined two-seater that would be sold as both an upscale image car for Volkswagen and, with six-cylinder 911 power and upgraded trim and underpinnings, as a down-market alternative to Porsche’s pricey 911. However that wouldn’t be true here in the States; VW, Porsche and Audi were already embarking on a cooperative marketing/distribution effort in the U.S., and the new 914—even the four-cylinder cars—would be sold as Porsches.

Things changed, however, when Nordhoff suddenly, unexpectedly passed away, and his successor at VW wasn’t nearly so keen on the plan—particularly how VW’s new “image” sports car would be competing directly with a nicer, faster, upscale version of the same exact thing from Porsche. And it didn’t help that many details of the original cooperative venture were still at the verbal/handshake stages when Nordhoff died. 

The project continued, however, and the resulting two-seater, targa-roof, VW/Porsche sports car managed to be intriguing as hell in the cutaway drawings yet stunningly dull in the metal when released in 1969. While its mid-engined layout, wide-track stance, minimal overhang, 46/54 weight distribution and low, low polar moment of inertia promised outstanding handling and chassis dynamics, the body looked like a squared-off market basket—complete with handle. 

On the plus side, it was well-built, had that catch phrase “mid-engined layout,” and offered consumers an opportunity to get in on the Porsche mystique at a bargain-basement price. It became Porsche’s biggest seller for several years, even though 911 owners generally looked down their noses at 914 types—that is, if they looked at them at all.

Which is why the poor 914 also represented something of a problem for Porsche, since its superior balance and benign, decidedly un-Porsche-like handling meant it could be a real threat to their flagship 911 performance-wise if it was ever given equal power and tires. Which, as you can imagine, Porsche was careful not to allow. 

So when the 911-engined 914/6 debuted in September of 1969 with a 110-horsepower, 2.0-liter version of the famous flat-six, Porsche also quietly bumped the 911 line up to 2.2 liters for the 1970 model year—offering a minimum of 125 horses—to help underscore the 911’s superiority. 

But the balance of power was seriously threatened when the engineers and marketing types started fooling around with a special, lightweight, “916” version of the 914/6 that used the 190-horsepower drivetrain from the 911S plus stiffer suspension, wider wheels, fender flares and other assorted goodies. Porsche pulled the plug after just 20-some cars were built, and it was probably a wise move since the resulting car would have cost as much as a 911 to build and would have likely pinned a 911’s ears back in any contest of speed.

Sibling Rivalry

The legacy of the ugly-ducking-with-a-swan-underneath 914/6 lives on, particularly in the world of PCA Club racing and HSR vintage racing. There, a lively, competitive and very well-subscribed entry of 911s and 914/6s has led to some spectacular racing and rekindled the old sibling rivalry. 

In particular, there’s the HSR’s Klub Sport Porsche Challenge—produced, promoted and tirelessly overseen by Phil Bagley out of his Klub Sport prep shop in Riviera Beach, Florida. The series is open to under-2-liter 911s and 914/6s (there’s also a separate class for 356s) and generally runs as the last thing on the Friday afternoon schedule of your typical HSR race weekend. 

Big, deep, enthusiastic fields are the norm, and the racing can get pretty damn intense at the sharp end of the grid—or anywhere else in the field, come to think of it. The folks in charge work hard to keep it fun and friendly, and they know enough about these cars to keep a very tight lid on, um, “creative engineering.” 

All of this competitive, bantering rivalry has, of course, a single question at its core: Which is the hot setup? Engine out back or just ahead of the rear wheels? There’s only one way to find out, and it involves some laps at Sebring.

We enlisted the help of Jack Refenning and his son, Brady, who together run the 901 Shop in Stuart, Florida, and are longtime, highly successful Porsche racers/prep artists on both the pro and amateur level. No question they know as much as anyone in the country about setting up these cars.

Jack is a sharp, friendly, knowledgeable and hardworking Ohio boy who relocated to Florida, served his time as a line mechanic in a Porsche dealership, and ultimately left to set up his own shop. “The happiest day of my life,” he says with a small, wry smile, “was the day I had enough going on in the racing end that I could tell my street Porsche customers they’d have to take their business someplace else.”

Brady manages both the shop and the race team, and also does much of the driving and co-driving these days. (“He’s gotten too damn fast,” Jack says ruefully).

Six in One

Our 911 test car, yellow No. 27, is one of the early, somewhat unloved short-wheelbase models. However, this particular one has won a lot of races and is currently campaigned, with vigor, by 901 Shop key customer and longtime friend Tim Vargo and his daughter Laura. 

Some Porsche “experts” call the early, short-wheelbase Porsche 911 twitchy and difficult, but old No. 27 has won a bunch of races and is a four-alarm ball to drive. Note the typically sanitary and well-sorted 901 Shop presentation. 

Climb in and it’s your familiar, nicely tailored Porsche fit with all of the controls within easy reach. Then you fire up the whirring flat six—its deep, metallic Porsche rasp resonates through the entire car—and fish around for that out-of-the-H Porsche first gear to get things going. 

Porsche’s famous synchromesh gearbox is a well-proven piece of kit, but the gear linkage is kinda vague and rubbery, with longer throws than you might expect. You get used to it, but a snick-snick Hewland it definitely ain’t.

Out on the track, the 911’s steering is sharp, precise and well-damped except for some kickback if you smack it over the curbings (which of course I never did). The power under the right foot builds with a smooth rush from 4500 rpm clear to the 7800 redline we used for the test, accompanied by that singular 911 noise and cockpit presence—like you’re being pursued by the world’s biggest vacuum cleaner. 

Brakes are excellent as weight transfers to the front wheels without that unloaded, loosey-goosey feeling at the back end that you get in a lot of front-engined race cars. Truth is, you don’t really want to charge too deep into a corner in a 911, because what Porsches really do best is dig out of corners. You can mix and match gears to get the right ratios for any circuit and, if you do it just right, you get the car gathered up early so you can mash the gas down and come rocketing out of every corner with the engine smack-dab in the meaty part of the torque curve. Feels great when you nail it right!

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the handling yet.

More has been written on the subject of 911 handling with less understanding of it—Vic Elford’s and Alan Johnson’s excellent books excepted—than any other topic you can name. Okay, except for politics and religion. Sure, any basic Skippy School will tell you that you want to threshold brake into a corner, get the car rotated and start feeding in power so you can get a nice launch onto the straight that follows. 

Well, the thing about the 911—and especially early ones—is that it’s entirely too easy to get the damn thing rotated. Or over-rotated, in fact.

Now old No. 27 was so nicely dialed in that I never felt like the rear end was getting away from me, but getting it to do what I wanted—not too little, not too much—now there was a challenge! You can get yourself spectacularly sideways in a 911 and still bring it back from the brink, but as awesome as that might look from the peanut gallery, it’ll scrub off speed that you’ll never get back. Or at least not until the next corner, anyway. 

So you’re always working a 911, trying to get it poised and pointed and balanced and at just the right angle and attitude through every corner. But it’s fun, since the controls are lively, light and responsive and the chassis reacts in kind to your inputs. There’s a fine, symbiotic synergy between a 911 and its driver, and that stands in stark contrast to the fraught wrestling matches, ugly surprises and involuntary aperture contractions you might experience in certain other race cars I could mention.

Half a Dozen in the Other

And now, the 914/6. This particular example was Brady Refenning’s first-ever race car, given to him as a gift by a Florida surfer dude/friend known as Hot Curl. I am not making this up, and that’s why Hot Curl is lettered on the rear flanks in supposed fire and water—a color scheme that unfortunately didn’t transfer so well to the racing numbers. But it’s a good, solid car with a lot of successful racing miles under its lap belts, and I was really looking forward to driving it.

The 914/6 isn’t exactly gorgeous, but it’s wicked fast and easier to drive than the 911. Engine access, however, isn’t quite as good; the 911 gets the win in this department.

One of the things we wanted to do for this story was make sure that the engines and gearing on the two cars were as equal as we could make them, and at one point we even talked about running one car and then hauling the engine out and sticking it in the other to make absolutely sure we had apples and apples. 

The realities of available time plus other necessities made that impractical, if not impossible. However, Jack put both cars on a chassis dyno and fiddled with them mightily to get them equalized. But no matter what he did, the 911’s engine pulled stronger. So, in the end and with time running out, he added a little throttle stop to the 911 so the tiny blue lines on the dyno sheets would match up exactly.

I was eagerly anticipating my time in the 914/6 as a result, since I was hoping/expecting that I would get a rare glimpse into exactly how the two Porsches differ, as well as which traits they share. Despite a cranky carb I did get a nice feel for the car, and it was nothing less than a revelation compared to the 911. Put simply, the handling and chassis balance of the 914/6 are so good it’s almost dull. It kind of feels like a big, numb sports racer—which is a compliment, not a knock—meaning it does everything the driver asks of it with ease and aplomb. In fact, you can do just about any dumb thing you want and not get in trouble, which is the highest praise possible for a production-based race car.

So it’s no surprise that the best 914/6s currently hold a slim, but consistent, performance advantage over the best 911s in HSR Klub Sport racing, even carrying 75 pounds of ballast—the rules mandate 2050 lbs. as-raced weight for a 911 including driver, and 2125 for a 914/6—with dead-equal engines, gearing and tires. Especially effective are the so-called “roadster” models built to SCCA Club Racing specs with the high, heavy, FIA-approved stock windshield replaced with a low and aerodynamically slicker Plexiglas screen. 

The two cars have a lot in common, which is no surprise. Hardware, bits and pieces on both are what you’d expect from Porsche, which means they’re well-made, intelligently engineered, thoroughly proven and made out of quality materials. The downside is that prices can also be what you might expect from Porsche. Then again, would you rather spend five bucks on something that’s going to break every other weekend or 25 bucks on something that’s good for a whole season? 

As for the hands-on wrenching experience, the 911 harks directly back to old VW Beetle practice, where you can essentially unhook a few wires, hoses and cables, undo a few bolts and drop the whole damn engine in your lap. Servicing the engine on a 914/6, on the other hand, is like working down a blessed mail slot. And the exhaust and shifter plumbing are kinda in the way if you want to try coming up from the bottom. 

Scott Windecker, 901 Shop’s designated ace wrench, put it in obvious perspective: “I’d rather do engine work on a 911 and transmission work on a 914/6.”

More Than the Sum

I had to do a lot of soul-searching and head-scratching when it came time for the final evaluation and judgment on this story. For all its apparent on-track superiority (borne out once more on the Sebring weekend, where 914/6s finished 1-2-3 in the Klub Sport race with 2:29 lap times, a tick ahead of the best 911s), I couldn’t shake the feeling that the 914/6 felt a bit dull and bland compared to the lively and involving 911. 

Two different shapes, one common powerplant: Both the 914/6 and 911 rely on Porsche’s proven 2.0-liter, flat-six engine.

Which is why I jumped at the chance to hop back into old No. 27 again for my final session of the day—especially after Jack spilled the beans about the throttle stop he’d put in to “equalize” the motors and kindly offered to yank it for my last run. (Truth is, I’d been a little down about my lap times compared to some of the other 911s on hand that day, and it was a relief to know I at least had a decent excuse.)

So off we went into the lingering, late afternoon sunlight. By that point the car and I were old friends, and I reveled in the way I could brake hard, sling it into a corner, feel it rotate just so and be down hard on the gas even before I reached the apex. What fun! 

And I got going pretty good too, reeling in and then keeping up with a guy (Juan Lopez-Santini, also a 901 Shop customer) who ultimately finished fifth overall and second home among the 911s in the 36-car Klub Sport Porsche Challenge Race on Friday afternoon.

In the end, I don’t think there’s any question that the 914/6 makes for a better race car than the 911. It’s for sure a much easier car to drive near the limit. Or, as 911 diehard Tim Vargo so accurately put it after sampling his first 914/6: “All of a sudden I realized those guys weren’t such heroes!” But benign can also mean bland and, at least by comparison, the 911 is by far the more lively, original, entertaining and involving car to drive. Simple as that.

You didn’t hear it from me, but sometimes there’s more to racing than just lap times.

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Comments
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wspohn
wspohn SuperDork
9/5/21 11:19 a.m.

When the 914/6 first aeared we had two of them being raced up here in BC. It made for some great racing as they were evenly matched.  IIRC, their close competition was a Morgan +8

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