Take the religious following of air-cooled Porsche 911s, then reduce that to the community of folks who are evangelists for the four-cylinder 912, and you've got a group of seriously passionate people. Like most passionate people that I've met, they want to bring you into the fold and show you why whatever it is they love deserves attention.
In my experience this often doesn't go well. For starters, if people continually hype something up, you'll be let down when you eventually get to experience it. There's also the universal truth that no matter how much you might love something, that doesn't mean those you share it with will automatically love it too.
I thought that was a universal truth, but after driving a 912, I'm not so sure.
(Full Disclosure: I'd been following Eric on Instagram for a while before meeting him at a car show. I asked if I could shoot his car sometime and he said yes. Then I asked if I could drive it and he said yes. You should follow him too @lazybonecafe)
What Is It?
This is a bone stock 1969 "902" Porsche 912. It's simply beautiful, or is it beautifully simple? Perhaps both. However you look at it, the car offers one of the purest driving experiences this side of a go-kart.
The 912 replaced the 356SC in 1965 and carried on as the entry-level Porsche until production ended in 1969. During the five year manufacturing run Porsche built nearly 32,500 examples, including the 100,000th Porsche which was a Targa for the Baden-Württemburg Police.
The car did really well in its time. It even outsold the 911 during the first couple years of production, perhaps because buyers realised what an incredible Porsche bargain it was. I doubt Porsche was happy about their flagship getting outsold by a "lesser" version with a four-banger.
The 912 was replaced by the 914 in 1970. A number of factors contributed to the unfortunate decision to axe the 912 from the lineup, but the primary one was the 914 was supposed to cost less to manufacture.
That didn't end up being the case, and when 914 production ended in 1976, it was replaced by the 912E for one year. They brought a dead car back! That never happens anymore.
Yet the "923" 912 was just a stop-gap car meant to keep an entry level offering on the table while Volkswagen and Porsche finalised the front-engine 924. VW's Type 4 2.0-litre air-cooled motor that made 80 horsepower was used to move the 1,086kg "G-Series" Porsche body. In other words, this was not the same car as the first 912.
The appearance of the 912E was the most appealing thing about it, but that's not the case with the original 912.
The Coolest Parts
There's nothing in the 912 that doesn't need to be there, and that's one of the most attractive parts of the whole package. It's minimalist without being devoid of comfort, and relaxed without being boring. The 912 is one of those cars that feels so indicative of the era in which it was built that it messes with your head.
Houndstooth seats, a single driver's side mirror, a large thin rimmed steering wheel — this car is a time machine. Once inside, you may find yourself complaining about Nixon and marveling at the fact that man walked on the moon. (If that even happened, right?)
What you won't be doing is thinking about the outside world or figuring out how to make your mobile phone accessible. You get in and forget about everything else because you have to drive, not simply operate, this vehicle. Five gauges, four forward gears, and three pedals offer up infinite joy.
As the sun went down the dim glow of the gauges became more apparent and damn does that enhance the experience. With no excess ambient light in the cabin they stand out as a great bit of design, not to mention being easy to read.
Surrounded by darkness I felt more like a pilot checking instruments for vital information, rather than a driver casually checking my speed.
There's nothing quite like looking out over the frunk of an early Porsche at night, pavement rushing at the nose, illuminated by the soft amber halogen headlights. Not sure I'd be so enamoured with it in dense fog or a torrential downpour, but on a clear summer night it's just perfect.
What It's Like To Drive Today
Time to address the gigantic elephant in the room: yes, this car is slow. Not glacially slow like their distant air cooled relatives of the same era, but slow nonetheless.
However, unlike those VWs, the 912 makes up for the lack of shove with one of the most rewarding driving experiences I've encountered.
When you get into a rhythm and are on the same page as the car, it's a blast to hustle through corners. Owners have repeatedly told me that their cars are more rewarding to run through twisties than the original 911 because they offer better weight distribution and superior handling.
Until I drove Eric's car I had to take their word for it, but I was sceptical. Having driven a 1969 911 (albeit a heavily modified one) I wasn't so sure that the 912 would live up to the hype and make me a believer.
After all, I do like to go fast, but I'll be damned if I wouldn't rather drive the 912 everyday.
It really is well balanced and when I was in the right gear through a corner it felt so good. Keeping the revs up is a must if you're attempting any sort of spirited driving, above 3,000 RPM at least. As it wasn't my car, I was a bit timid to wind it out at first, but Eric reminded me that it is what the car wants.
So I put the 1.6 litre flat-four through its paces and, surprise, surprise, it was great. Instead of the howling sound you get in a 911, you get a throaty rumble that will be familiar to anyone who has owned a Subaru with a hole in the muffler. I liked the way it sounded and that was with a stock exhaust.
I highly recommend a quick search on YouTube to hear the sonic excellence than can be achieved with one of these motors.
Yep, I get it now. I understand why the cult of 912 is a thing and why people join it. It's not just a baby 911. It stands on its own and truly has its own merits.
Driving a slow car fast is hard; it requires practice and patience. Both of those things seem to be in short supply these days and we've nobody to blame but ourselves. Modern technology and more specifically modern cars offer us instant gratification at every turn. You can hop in just about any sports car and feel like you've mastered it within hours. If it's just straight-line speed you're looking for, any family sedan is capable of reaching triple digits with ease. There's no emotion involved; nothing special about it.
Driving the 912 is undeniably special, whether you're giving it everything you've got in the canyons or cruising alongside the ocean. It wants to be your friend, it wants you to have a good time and all it requires is your attention. It won't bite you the way a 911 will if you're not engaged, but you won't get the whole experience either.
That these cars remained overlooked for so long because they had a four-cylinder engine is a testament to how ridiculous the enthusiast community can be. Eric was one of those smart individuals who saw the writing on the wall early on and picked up a 912 back before the bubble began to inflate.
The cat has been out of the bag for a few years now, and 912 prices are right up there with 911s. Given the choice at the same price point I'd go 912 and in fact I intend to.
The car has had my attention for years, but now it has my respect.