356 vs. 912

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

December 7, 2012
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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.

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.

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.

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
  • TechArt GrandGT
  • Stefan Johannson on Porsche
  • Tech Forum: Pre-purchase inspection, Part II
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