356 vs. 912

Two classic, rear-engined Porsches powered by four cylinders face off.

Photo: 356 vs. 912 1
December 7, 2012

BY THE END OF ITS MODEL RUN IN THE MID-’60S the Porsche 356 had come a long way from its humble postwar beginnings. In terms of handling, quality control, and toughness, few cars could come close to the definitive German sports car. But even as the faithful were extolling the venerable 356’s virtues, designers and engineers at Zuffenhausen had been heavily engaged in creating a completely new model to carry Porsche forward.

That new model, the 911, was widely hailed by the automotive press after the initial road tests at the end of 1964. Road & Track praised the new car’s handling, saying, “the car is neutral in behavior and perfectly controllable throughout the whole speed range and even on atrocious road surfaces.” Besides its clean styling, improved handling, and increased power, the new 911 commanded a significantly higher price than the outgoing 356. State­side, a 911 would set you back about $6,500 compared to about $4,700 for a 356 SC — the most powerful of the pushrod engine-powered 356s.

To avoid losing this important “entry level” market, Porsche began production of the 912 in April, 1965. It replaced the 911’s overhead-cam six-cylinder engine with a retuned version of the 356 SC’s pushrod flat four. The 912 was priced at the same level as the outgoing 356 SC. From the outside, the 912 looked nearly identical to its more powerful sibling. Only the color of the Porsche lettering (silver rather than the 911’s gold) and the silver 912 designation on the rear decklid gave away its true identity.

Photo: 356 vs. 912 2

And that brings us to a moment in time when — at least in Europe — one could choose between three Porsches: 911, 912, or 356 C/SC. Assuming the 911 was out of your price range, what would you do? Tick the box for the new model or buy the last available 356 off the showroom floor?

In hindsight we know the 356 would become an automotive icon and a solid investment. The 912, not so much. These days, a great 356 C or SC is generally worth at least twice what a comparable 912 will bring — and the delta only grows if the 356 is a Cabriolet and the 912 is a Targa. But current market value aside, which is the better car? What, besides an engine, do they have in common? And how do they compare on the road?

An objective look at both cars reveals that the 912 improved on the 356 in many areas. The 912 offered a dynamic new look and integrated lights and bumpers. It also took on a noticeably more aggressive stance: While the 912 is more than two inches narrower than the 356, it has a wider track.

Photo: 356 vs. 912 3

The 912 is easy to get in and out of thanks to its larger doors. And though narrower outside, the 912 is more than three inches wider inside (door-to-door), and 58-percent more glass area makes it seem even more spacious. The seats of the 912 are a bit wider, and there’s space in between them where the 912’s handbrake lever finds its home. There’s a bit more room in back for storage or the occasional passenger, and the 912 has a useful trunk up front with 6.0 cubic feet of space versus the 356’s 4.1 cubic feet. This newfound space was created by the elimination of the transverse torsion bars, the springing mechanism for the 356’s suspension.

Other aspects of the 912’s interior aren’t as pleasing. While many interior pieces from the 356 were carried over almost un­changed, some elements were up to the level of quality that 356 owners had come to take for granted. For instance, the generously padded armrests of the 356 SC were replaced in the 912 with less substantial pieces that gained a door release button but lost the rock-solid quality of the 356 part.

Nowhere is the contrast between old and new more apparent than with the dashboards. The 356 dash is painted body color and topped with an upholstered lip. It has a large chrome ashtray and a full complement of black push-pull switches with chrome-plated bezels. The 912’s dash is black plastic and vinyl with a narrow, brushed aluminum strip running its width. It has a rather flimsy ashtray and an assortment of knobs and levers set into and above the aluminum strip. There are the requisite large VDO gauges — combo, tach, and speedo — but the three units are set into a wide curved panel designed to accommodate the 911’s five dials. (The extra gauges could be ordered as extra-cost options.) While the 912’s interior would evolve and improve in subsequent years, there’s no denying that the bespoke quality that filled every nook and cranny of the 356 was left behind in favor of functional efficiency and cost cutting.

Photo: 356 vs. 912 4

On the outside, a modular approach applied to the 912’s new body shell, which was no longer welded up into one piece as was the case with the 356. This was not necessarily a bad thing in the real world, where accidents happen. “The 900-series body was much easier to build and to repair,” says noted Porsche restorer John Willhoit. “It required less skill in the finishing of the metal, and there was more consistency between cars so that you could replace parts. The 356s were all different and required more hand work, metal-finishing, and a higher level of welding ability.”

None of this should have come as a surprise; there was no way Porsche could have prospered had it continued to build cars as it had through its first 15 years — with so much hand work and custom fitting. And so, in designing a new car, Porsche took the opportunity to redesign the way it made its cars.

From the beginning of its production in April of 1965, demand for the 912 was high in Europe where it was first available. By the end of the 1965, nearly twice as many 912s as 911s had been produced.

Photo: 356 vs. 912 5

The 912 first came to U.S. dealers in 1966. While it is fairly rare to see early 912s on the road today, they are easily identifiable by their slim aluminum-and-vinyl bumper trim and plain chrome bumper guards. We spied the Irish Green 912 pictured on these pages as it sped by one day on two-lane road outside Nashville, Tennessee. With a view from the rear, we quickly identified it as a 1966 model due to the italicized silver 912 numerals at the lower right corner of the decklid.

The owner turned out to be a graphic designer who had taken meticulous care of the car since purchasing it from a Cali­fornia dealer in 2009. The Karmann-bodied car was produced in April 1965 and was sold out of Los Angeles Volkswagen & Porsche in July 1966. It still had the original engine and four-speed transaxle when the current owner purchased it. A respray in 1981 had held up well, and the leatherette interior had been partially redone. The odometer showed 10,000 miles after having flipped over to all zeroes once.

Among collectors, nicely restored 356s are more common than 912s, and it wasn’t hard to locate a matching-numbers, Signal Red 1965 356 SC sunroof coupe restored to a high standard and owned by a knowledgeable Porsche collector. This one is a European-spec car with the correct amber front turn signals, amber-and-red taillights, and rear reflectors positioned beneath the rear bumper (instead of above it as on U.S.-bound cars). Aside from these details, and a Euro-specific heating system, it’s identical to a U.S.-spec 356 SC. With its leather upholstery, electric sunroof and Blaupunkt radio, it represents the top-of-the-line, end-of-the-line 356.

Photo: 356 vs. 912 6

Seated in the 356 SC, the big wheel comes readily to hand with your left elbow resting on the nicely contoured armrest. While there is no feeling of being cramped, the windows and the windscreen are quite close.

The jewel-like instruments set in the painted dash, the hand-upholstered dash lip and the detail on the stainless-steel steering wheel spokes all speak to an old-world aesthetic. Every­thing fits, and even smells good, like a bench-made shoe.

Underway, the 356 feels solid and stable. Only subtle inputs to the big wheel are required to initiate directional changes. Steering effort builds quickly in tight corners, and the front end wants to push. If you’re not in too deep, you can lift slightly and then floor it to reset the back end and reign in the front of the car.

Photo: 356 vs. 912 7

The 356 comes into its own in medium-to-fast corners, where its light, communicative steering and hunkered-down rear end encourage the dance so long as you keep the engine in its powerband and avoid mid-corner throttle lift, which — at speed — can quickly unsettle the car and allow the heavy rear end to rotate in an inconvenient manner.

The 912 has a welcoming open feel as we slide into the seat behind a similarly large steering wheel. There’s more room, and while the dash isn’t as appealing as the 356’s, the car offers an excellent view forward through the large windscreen. A particularly easy clutch uptake gets us going, and the car feels light on its feet, which are 165R15 Michelins on 15×4.5-inch rims — the same as the 356.

Once the 912’s engine is warm, we give it full throttle in first gear; it pulls well. Flooring the throttle at 3500 rpm in second and third gears produces a surge that can only be described as adequate. Okay, it’s about the same as the 356, but, with an extra 130 pounds to motivate, no gearing advantage, and larger air cleaners/silencers on an engine that sits a little further back in the car, the 912 seems a little less willing. It’s worth noting that the close-ratio five-speed, something that was never available on a 356, was a $75 option favored by most road-testers of the day.

Photo: 356 vs. 912 8

The 912 tracks beautifully, even over rutted roads that upset the 356. Credit its four-inch-longer wheelbase and new suspension front and rear. Porsche had finally banished the twin-trailing-arm front and swing-axle rear suspension. In the fast stuff, the 912 takes a set and goes where you point it, and — unless you really load it up — you can back off the throttle mid-corner with impunity. In sharper corners, the 912 pushes to the point that no toe-dance will correct mid-corner. You just have to back off the throttle and wait for traction to return.

Spend some time with the 912 and you begin to appreciate how easy it would be to live with. Its capacious interior, larger front trunk and more composed nature make it a more “normal” car than the 356. With the exception of the dashboard, the 912 is full of interior cues to make the traditional Porsche owner feel at home. The seats, wing windows, rear quarter windows, dome lamps, upholstery, heater controls and pedal assembly are carried over nearly identically from the 356.

The 912 is a handsome companion, too. One can envision a young Butzi Por­sche, canting his head just so as he contemplated the shape of the 356 and envisioned the new Porsche he was asked to oversee. “It should be a new Porsche of course, as good or better than the old,” he said in a 1966 interview with Road & Track. “And in the same pattern, but not necessarily with the same form.”

That reinterpretation of the Porsche shape is unquestionably dynamic. With its svelte, windblown lines, integrated bum­pers and wrap-around indicator lights, the 900-series car looks ready to spring forward, while the 356, with its fully formed curves and shiny ancillary ornaments, invites more lingering contemplation.

The 912 surely has the more competent chassis and, overall, it received many im­provements. So, has the collector market got it wrong? In terms of value, perhaps, but the 912 lacks in one in­tangible area where the 356 still shines brighter: soul. The 356 is full of it. It’s a car that you fall in love with and never want to let go of — handling quirks and all.

I’m sure a handful of mid ’60s Porsche shoppers struggled with which car to buy. The 912 would have been the logical choice, the 356 the sentimental favorite. To choose the 356 was to live in the past, glorious as it may have been. But, if you had never owned a 356, you wouldn’t know what you had missed and surely you would grow very fond of the 912. You couldn’t go wrong. And then, in a heartbeat, the 356s were all snapped up and the next chapter of Porsche motoring began.

Also from Issue 207

  • 2013 Porsche Cayenne Diesel (U.S.)
  • Turbocharged RSR for the street
  • Carbon fiber "Boxster" prototype racer
  • Anniversary 1973 911T Targa
  • Smart Buy: 1987-88 924S
  • Porsche Carrera 3.2 vs. Ferrari 328 GTB
  • Stefan Johannson on Porsche
  • TechArt GrandGT
  • Tech Forum: Pre-purchase inspection, Part II
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