Take a look at this photo: Even the most casual car buff could probably tell that this is a classic Porsche. That long hood, targa top, sloping roofline, engine clearly planted behind the rear axle. It’s a 911, one of the most iconic cars to ever hit the streets, right? If you cared about cars at all, you could see that. Why, there’s no mystery here at all! What kind of clickbaity garbage is this?
Well, you’ve got some attitude, pal. Because this isn’t a 911. It’s a 912.
The 912’s lifespan was brief, just six nonconsecutive years versus the 911’s 52 years-and-counting run. But its place in history is assured; it may be one of the lesser known models in company lore, but it served an incredibly important role for Porsche when the future didn’t seem so certain. It bridged the gap between the present and the future, then returned at a time when the company desperately needed help in the U.S. market. For decades, the 912 was considered a consolation prize — a slow Porsche for people who couldn’t afford a classic 911. But since time has been good to any vintage Porsche, the 912 is finally starting to get the respect it deserves.
In the early 1960s, Porsche had developed a cult following around the world thanks to its nimble, air cooled, rear-engined sports cars. Its 356 model had been in production since 1948, and was the epitome of the “race on Sunday, commute on Monday” ethos. Over 75,000 would be built, and from young drivers getting into racing to chic cosmopolitans, Porsches delivered something that no other car could. Plus, at around $4,200 (roughly $32K today), they seemed attainable. As it creeped into its third decade however, Porsche began work on a 356 replacement. The 911 was an improvement in virtually every way, but there was a problem: It was much more expensive than any 356. The company needed a stopgap, and its answer was the 912.
When it was introduced in 1964, the 911 already had many of the characteristics it would carry for over 30 years. A powerful air-cooled flat-six out back, fantastic suspension and brakes, a spartan but luxurious interior, and gorgeous bodywork designed by Ferdinand “Butzi” Porsche. But while the 911 was a technological leap above the 356, it also cost $6,400 — a lot more than the older car. Not wanting to lose customers to the price hike, and eager to use this new architecture as much as it could, Porsche combined the 356 and 911 to create a new entry-level model.
The 912 debuted in Europe in 1965, and fit the bill perfectly. It was the last year for the 356, and while the 912 shared its body, suspension, and much of its interior with the 911, it got its 1.6 liter engine — albeit detuned to 90 horsepower — and four-speed manual transmission from the older car (though the 911’s five-speed was available as a $35 option). When it arrived in the U.S. in early 1966, it carried a $4,700 price tag. In its first two years on the market, it outsold the more powerful 911 nearly two-to-one.
On top of being cheaper than a 911, the 912 was also more nimble. Early 911s have long been considered to be a handful to drive because of their massive weight imbalance, but the 912’s smaller engine made the car 200 pounds lighter over its rear axle. By the time Porsche notoriously fit 50 pounds of weights behind the front bumper of their cars in 1966, the 912 had become a great little corner-carver. There was still plenty of oversteer at the limits, but it wasn’t nearly as lively as its bigger brother.
In 1967, the iconic Targa model debuted, and was available on both 911s and 912s. In 1968, the 912’s interior was revised to comply with U.S. safety standards, and became a little less spartan. Where amenities like a heater were once optional, the 912 was becoming a little more accommodating — just as 911 sales began to take off. 1969 saw significant revisions to the chassis and a slight lengthening of the wheelbase for improved handling. Increasing costs meant the 912 was beginning to approach base model 911 prices, and with a new entry-level model on the way for 1970, the car was discontinued.
This new model, the 914, was a joint development between Porsche and Volkswagen, and was a true entry-level car. The mid-engined, targa-topped coupe featured avant-garde styling, pop-up headlights, and a VW-sourced, 1.7 liter air-cooled flat four mounted amidships, though a flat six was made available later. Starting at under $3,700 (around $23K today), it was a true Porsche for the people, though it quickly became a liability for the brand. As the 911 got hotter and Porsche’s reputation grew even further, the 914, with its Volkswagen-based engine and engineering, developed a reputation as an impostor. Never mind that it was a nimble little corner-carver that won Motor Trend’s 1970 Import Car of the Year award. To purists, the car’s 13.7 second zero to 60 time seemed to say it all.
The 914 disappeared after 1976, and was slated to be replaced by an all-new model, the 924. A Porsche-Audi joint project, the 924 was a thoroughly modern, affordable grand tourer with a water-cooled inline-four mounted up front — a radical departure for the brand. In fact, Porsche had so much faith in its newfound front engine/rear drive layout that it began to consider scrapping the 911 altogether. It was already starting to show its age, and the company was eager to start a new chapter.
But production issues delayed the 924’s release, and set the company scrambling to find a short-term solution. So for 1976, the 912 returned as the 912E. Built for the U.S. market, the 912E had the final iteration of the 914’s 86 horse, fuel injected 2.0 liter four mounted in a slightly back-dated 911 body. In a year when just over 10,000 911s were built, Porsche sold a healthy 2,100 of the revived 912s.
And that’s where the 912 story ends. Despite a strong start, history wasn’t kind to the car for a very long time. The “entry-level Porsche” tag ran deep (even if it never really deserved it to begin with), and well into the ’90s, many 912s were driven into the ground, then cannibalized for parts to help restore more expensive 911s or 356s. But within the last 10 years, as everything with a Porsche badge on it has begun to skyrocket in value, the 912 has gotten a second chance. And now that there’s a market for them, collectors are beginning to appreciate them for their balanced chassis, classic lines, and unique handling characteristics. They’re beginning to lose their reputation as a compromised 911, and are finally being recognized on their own merits. The 912 was the important bridge between Porsche’s earliest successes, and one that it’s continued to refine to this day.
The current 911 may be better than ever, but it also starts at over $80K. If Porsche was feeling crazy and wanted to boost sales even more, drop a new turbo four and revive the 912 for a third time, we’ve got a feeling that it would have a hard time keeping up with demand.