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912E and 924: The real story of two of Porsche's most maligned entry-level cars

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Article by Rob Sass

People often seem to forget that Porsche was founded on a bedrock of four-cylinder engines. For the first 16 years of its existence, anything other than a horizontally opposed four-cylinder was heresy in Zuffenhausen, and virtually all of Porsche’s competition successes prior to the 906 were achieved with four-cylinder cars. Yet today, buyers have all but heckled the brilliant 718 Boxster/Cayman out of the marketplace, simply because it has a four. It’s nothing new, the first taste of the 911’s brilliant flat six back in 1964 seems to have made life terminally difficult for any four-cylinder Porsche that followed. Few have been more maligned over the years than the 912E and its successor, the 924. Were they really bad cars, or did not-a-911-ism deal them a particularly harsh blow?
Porsche 912E

The 1976 Porsche 912E was a last-minute stop-gap that was only sold in North America. Around 45 years ago, 914 production was coming to a hard stop, but the 924 was still nearly a year away, and back then, Porsche still felt the need to field an entry-level car. While no more 914 body shells would be produced, the 914’s VW Type 4 2.0-liter engine was still very much in production. There was also no shortage of G-body 911 shells, so the decision was made to mate the two, thereby reviving the four-cylinder 911 better known as the 912. The “E” suffix simply indicated that the car was now fuel injected (Bosch L-Jetronic). Response was anything but feeble, and Porsche managed to move almost 2,100 of them in a single short model year. (For the record, that’s probably more that the total of 718s that Porsche will sell in the U.S. in 2020.)
In spite of the fact that sales and critical response were not at all bad, the 912E would leave a legacy to last a lunchtime—the car that was quickly forgotten by most, and to the extent that it was remembered at all, it was heartily disliked by opinionated Porschephiles. But was it actually a bad car? Far from it. Period road testers actually liked the car quite a bit. Car and Driver clocked theirs at 0-60 miles per hour in 9.8 seconds with a top speed of about 120 mph. Not anywhere near quick by today’s standards, but for the Malaise Era, it wasn’t bad at all. It would smoke the fastest Mustang II available and run neck-and-neck with a car that today enjoys a huge reputation — the BMW 2002 tii. When Car and Driver tested the full Porsche lineup for 1976 (the 911, 930, and 912E), they actually preferred the pleasant and tractable 912E as a daily driver, marveling at its 30 miles per gallon highway mileage and 600+ mile range.
Yet in spite of its inherent goodness — nice low-end grunt, light weight (under 2,400 pounds), and easy serviceability, it quickly became quite fashionable in Porsche circles to dump on the 912E. As they became really cheap, the cars became fodder for really bad builds, engine transplants, and worse. And did we mention that they got cheap? Really cheap. I bought an extremely nice original paint (Light Yellow) example in Tacoma in 2006 for just $6,500. And I had at least one well-known pundit opine that even at that bargain basement price, I got soundly taken to the cleaners. I disagreed. I put 10,000 trouble-free miles on the car, selling it to someone in Belgium only because said pundit convinced me that the car was the essence of a repeatable deal — they would always be readily available for cheap money. Fast-forward a decade and a half, and the nameless but opinionated individual has been proven quite wrong. The price delta between a 912E and a 911SC is surprisingly small. Maybe $5,000 to $10,000.  With a tough, galvanized body and a rugged VW Type 4 engine that costs about a third to rebuild as a 911 motor, it’s maybe the closest thing to a perpetual-motion machine that Porsche has ever built.
Porsche 924

Above: Nathan Leach-Proffer ©2018 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

The 924’s back story, like that of the 912E, was a bit serendipitous. Originally known internally as Project 425, it was supposed to be a VW/Audi sports car developed under contract by Porsche. But VW decided to go with the MK1 Golf-derived Scirocco to replace the sort-of-sporty Karmann-Ghia, so Porsche decided to buy back the 425. With its front-engined, rear transaxle architecture, the 924 was beautifully balanced, and Harm Lagaay did a fine job refining the rather homely styling of the original 425 prototype.

The first cars from model year 1977 were underpowered with just 95 horsepower. Within a half a model year, that was bumped to 110 hp, about the same as a 911T from eight years earlier. (Actually, it was perhaps a bit more due to the measurement change from SAE gross to SAE net horsepower.)  Acceleration, however, was no quicker than the 912E, or even a 2.0-liter 914, for that matter. Handling, however, was in a different universe. Delightfully neutral under most circumstances, understeer was easily managed, and oversteer — while more difficult to provoke without the power and extreme rear weight bias of a 911 — was easy to catch and counter-steer through.

Above: Nathan Leach-Proffer ©2018 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

The interior of the 924 was comfortable with the same superb high-back seats as a G-body 911. Ergonomics and ventilation were modern and efficient. A massive removable sunroof on most cars was a nice touch. Only a rubbery shift-linkage (on the four-speed and both five-speed boxes) and a harsh freeway ride detracted from the driving experience. Critics also carped about the retrograde step of VW-sourced rear drum brakes and the lack of noise-vibration-harshness (NVH) attention to the Audi four-cylinder. Neither are really as unpleasant as you’ve been led to believe.

Like the 912E, the beauty of the original 924 is its simplicity. The engine is a non-interference design, so if the timing belt breaks, you’re just temporarily stranded, not temporarily stranded and left with an $8,000 bill. A clutch replacement costs a fraction of what the same job would cost in a 944 Turbo.

Neither the 912E nor the 924 stack up well against the more powerful and more expensive cars from Porsche, and that was their downfall. It was an unfair comparison. Pitted against actual in-period rivals from other manufacturers, it’s a different picture. Compared to a BMW 2002tii, the 912E is just as quick, simpler to maintain, and a good deal prettier, not to mention significantly more rust resistant. It’s the same for the 924. Against a Mazda RX-7 or an Alfa Romeo Alfetta GTV, the 924 stacks up well. Slightly slower than an RX-7, it’s far simpler to maintain and slightly better constructed. It’s no contest against the similar transaxle Alfa, which was slower and far less robust.

If simple pleasures really are the best, it’s probably high time to look at the 924 and the 912E in a new light. While prices for the 912E are quite high, nice 924s can still be found for well under $10,000.

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