1976 Porsche 912E Review: I Could Love You if Only the World Were Different
Living in the shadow of a big brother is not an easy place to be.
Porsche once used to build cars with far less concern for legacy and brand implications than what you see today, and the 1976 912E is perhaps the finest example of that. It is Volkswagen-powered, entry-level, and virtually indistinguishable from a 911. To the modern world, the 911 is a legendary silhouette; in the mid-'70s, the one-year-only 912E was built with planned obsolescence from its inception—for buyers seeking cheap(er) fun. Imagine that today.
But it's the nature of the world to change; for example, did you know that the word egregious once meant that something was astoundingly good? Nowadays, of course, egregious means "conspicuously bad," but the word originally comes from the Latin root egregius, which literally translated meant "standing out from the flock"—in other words, praiseworthy. It only took on its current-day meaning when writers in the late 16th century overused the word sarcastically, and it's had a negative connotation ever since. Society turned the word into its inverse, and if you used it as it originally intended today, you'd simply confuse your audience.
This is not a Porsche 911, and the world cannot understand why.
1976 Porsche 912E Specs
- Price: $10,845 (in 1976)
- Powertrain: 2.0-liter naturally aspirated boxer-four | 5-speed manual | rear-engine, rear-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 86 @ 4,900 rpm
- Torque: 98 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
- 0-60: 11.3 seconds
- Top speed: 115 mph
- Quick take: A good car cloaked in the body of a much greater one.
To the casual eye, this may look like a 911. But it is, in fact, a Porsche 912E. It was built especially for American buyers in the 14 months between the discontinuation of the mid-engined 914 in 1975 and the introduction of the front-engine 924 in 1977. To bridge this year-long gap with no base model to sell, Porsche decided to take the Volkswagen-based, air-cooled flat-four that had lived in the engine bay of the U.S.-spec 914, slap it into the rear of a 911 body, and sell it at a significant discount. The resulting car was the 912E, which retailed for three grand less than a 911S while still offering the style and handling of one (albeit with roughly half the power). It was immediately discontinued after the introduction of the 924, and thus is Porsche's only car ever built with planned obsolescence in mind.
Despite this creation of convenience and short lifespan, critics still enjoyed it. Contemporary reviews praised its excellent fuel mileage (nearly 25 mpg!) and easy-to-maintain pushrod four-cylinder, and of course, sang the praises of the shared 911 platform. Because, well, who wouldn't? It is no secret that after many years of watching Porsches tear out of Cars and Coffee meets from the sidelines, as soon as I got the chance to drive one, I finally understood the magic. An air-cooled, rear-engined Porsche is a special dish and one that I've never found replicated by any other manufacturer with the same taste and satisfaction as the classic 911. It is a car steeped in the mystique that only decades of consistent perfection can deliver, and Porsche has delivered damn-near-constant perfection for a very long time.
So when a bright-yellow 912E landed in my driveway, it was a cause for excitement. This specific example is one that's been written about before quite extensively on this site, but with only one year of production and a little over 2,000 made, the rarest part of a 912E is pretty much just seeing one.
Immediately, I took off for the downtown of my new home in Reno, Nevada, eager to shoot the iconic silhouette under the neon lights of the noir-aesthetic casinos. The city is constantly bathed in purple and red and blue light, and the classic rear-engined Porsche silhouette is the perfect companion to such moody illumination. The fastback of a 911 is timeless—just like the siren song of the casino bulbs—so I knew they'd pair perfectly.
As I headed downtown, I noticed the same strengths in this car that I'd found in its big-brother 911 I'd reviewed nearly a year ago, because it is a 911 until you open the trunk. The seating position remains one of the best I've ever experienced, with an unobtrusive dash and a steering column that lends itself well to both relaxed, single-handed cruising and hard-core, white-knuckle leverage at the limit. The manual rack itself is my benchmark for how steering in any sports car should feel, and it accomplishes this nearly 50 years after it was sold. The visibility, with the iconic hood humps framing the road ahead and a massive amount of headroom, is unrivaled even by the airy, pre-rollover-crash-standard contemporaries of its day.
And of course, the pictures once I'd arrived downtown were perfection. There is very little in the automotive world that is as evocative of cinematic fantasy as the arched fenders and rear-engine silhouette of a Porsche 911. I found myself making movie-film-formatted crops just for the neon-drenched streets of Reno, choosing to play up the vivid Hollywood nature of the car and the city as much as I could.
But it's not a 911, and this is not Hollywood.
...And A Mundane Heart
How is it not a 911?
Well, for one, it has 86 horsepower at the crank from a wheezing Volkswagen Type 4 motor propelling it. Whereas the 911 of the era is powered by the 3.0-liter flat-six pushing out around 150 hp, the 912E can barely keep up with its contemporaries in a straight line. In a 911, the tack-sharp throttle response and linear torque curve add to the experience, encouraging even a novice to yaw the car with the gas pedal; the 912E just doesn't have the power to do it consistently, and so I found myself pitching it into corners and finding that even with my foot on the mat, there was none of the swift-footed, knife-edge character of the more sprightly 911.
But more insidiously, it looks exactly like a 911 while it falls so short of it. In another era, where air-cooled Porsches had remained niche curiosities for a select few automotive enthusiasts, the 912E would still be entertaining. It still handles well and it carries the same strengths of the 911's chassis, which alone could make it an eminently enjoyable sports car. I do not expect the pulse-pounding excitement of a Viper in a reasonably priced sports coupe from 1976, after all. But this is the present day, and air-cooled 911s are the hottest cars on the entire planet, with prices rapidly piercing the exosphere and achieving low-Earth orbit.
As a result, I just felt conspicuous as I shot the 912E in downtown Reno, in a way that was unbecoming of an 86-hp economy sports coupe. Everyone's eyes bored into me as I took pictures of the ostentatious, bright-yellow Porsche, the one that shows up in music videos as a shorthand for financial success and sex appeal. Then I would turn the left-handed key and the Volkswagen powerplant coughed to life, I'd watch confusion roll over their faces, and all I could feel was that I'd deceived onlookers. I'm so sorry, I imagined myself saying to them. This is not what you believed it to be.
And while Porsche never intended for the 912E to be a 911, the world in the 46 years since it was built has changed drastically. When the 912E initially landed on American shores, it was a perfect entry point to the brand for buyers who couldn't justify the expense of the 911S; in 2022, driving a car with this silhouette into the city feels like driving a base-model BMW sedan with M badges hastily tacked on it. It's imposter syndrome on wheels; it can no longer just exist on its own because of the body it inhabits and the baggage that form carries, and so it will always feel a bit like it's pretending to be something it never was meant to be.
Escape Society; Enjoy Anew
So the only remaining option for the 912E while I had it was to get away from the prying, judgemental eyes of city dwellers. I headed into the desert, and then the 912E shone as it was originally meant to. And here, with the pressures of the automotive world stripped away and nothing but blacktop, sand, and God to reckon with in the most remote stretches of Nevada, I finally understood why this car exists, and why it's found such a devoted set of owners.
Bradley Brownell, the owner of this specific 912E, drives the ever-loving hell out of it. Cross-country road trips, dirt road excursions in the furthest reaches of the Mojave—whatever you can think of, this car's probably done it—and it's been eminently enjoyable the entire time for him. And it's enjoyable because it's a car when the tulip-craze mania of the Porsche world is stripped away from it and it's evaluated on its merits. He is not investing in stocks with four wheels; this Porsche has damn near 170,000 miles on it, and he told me to put as many on it as I felt like. It is a low-power '70s shitbox meant to wring out to the limit and discover the world in, and have some fun in the process.
With the societal pressure removed, it became clear that in another era—one of sane pricing and lower hype—the 912E makes complete sense. It's a gorgeous car with enough power to be fun, and all the handling prowess of the greatest sports car to ever come from Germany. Driving a classic car over dirt roads without a care in the world is one of life's greatest joys, and with just me and the endless sky above, the 912E gave me that delight anew.
But as I drove back into the city and listened to Infinitis and Hondas rev at me, and onlookers judge the wealth I don't have, I remembered once again that cars can't exist in a vacuum. As much as I wish I could rip down dirt roads in this sandy Porsche forever, I have to go get water and groceries, and every time the world reminds me: the 912E will never again just be a fun, cheap sports car. That's an egregious sin against automotive enthusiasm, but then again, none of us choose what our creations mean as the decades pass.
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