4. Alignment, exhaust – and a road trip!

So, after what seemed an eternity, the 914 was finally on the road and being used as the Karmann, VW and Porsche engineers intended. Initial trips out reminded me of why I loved my 914/6 so much – and also of how stupid I was to sell it when I did. Oh well, you live and learn… Driving any ‘new’ old car for the first time is always a slightly nerve-wracking experience as, unless you’ve just given it a complete rebuild, you can never be sure how well it’s been maintained in the past.

 

The 914 had passed an MOT test prior to being registered, which it flew through without comment, but there were some aspects of the car I wasn’t happy with and will need attention at some point. Last time I told of how the suspension alignment was well out of kilter, and how getting the tracking done had improved things – but the rear end geometry still needed sorting as we didn’t have the necessary shims to set the camber. Then there are the brakes. Yes, they stop you, but they don’t inspire confidence. Maybe I’ve gone soft and become used to the big servo’d brakes on the Cayman which preceded the 914.

 

The pedal feels spongey, yet doesn’t pump up, which would have suggested air in the system, and the brake hoses are new. It reminds me of the 356C brakes I had on a Beetle of mine: the soft feel was, or so I was told, due to the calipers flexing – maybe that’s it? Whatever, the brakes are on my ‘to do over winter’ list. I’ve been talking with Chris Rudling at Carbon 12 Racing about a four-pot billet caliper conversion designed specifically for 914s – watch this space (but don’t, whatever you do, hold your breath…).

The engine was effectively new, having only covered around 800 miles since a rebuild. With 2056cc, dual Webers, a ‘fast road’ cam (WebCam 86a) and big-valve heads, it should be good for around 125bhp – more than the output of a stock 914/6, so with the lighter weight, it ought to feel pretty brisk. It didn’t – it felt flacid. A trip to Rawspeed’s rolling road in Plymouth netted a pathetic 95bhp at the flywheel. Basically about what a standard 2.0-litre puts out on a good day. Graham Rawlings fiddled around with the timing and rejetted the carbs but to little avail. It was obvious the engine was being strangled, first by the tiny 28mm chokes in the 40IDF Webers and secondly by the awful stock one-year-only 1.8 heat exchangers and Bursch exhaust. Swapping the chokes (venturis, if you will) for 32mm items made a difference in the way the car drove, but I knew there was no way round the fact the exhaust was strangling the motor. Trouble is, 914 exhaust systems are expensive.

 

I bit the bullet and ordered from Design 911 a pair of stainless SSI heat exchangers in the later and far more efficient 2.0-litre style, and a Dansk twin tailpipe sports muffler. A call to my friend Nigel Allen near Newquay saw the car in his workshop and straight onto the lift where the original exhaust system was unbolted in minutes (the benefit of working on a recently-rebuilt engine!) and laid to one side (anyone want to buy two 1.8 heat exchangers and a Bursch muffler? Drop me a line…). In addition to the SSIs and muffler, I’d also had to buy a new support bracket to suit the new exhaust system, which I sourced in Germany, but other than that we were good to go. The two tailpipes just – but only just – cleared the rear valance, but would have rattled against it while driving, so we cut two semi-circular notches to provide the necessary clearance.

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The exhaust sounds totally different – to be honest, I’m not sure I like it that much. It’s louder and has the typical SSI metallic ring about it. Out on the road, at around 70mph, it has a bit of a drone, which can be tiresome, but the car does feel more ‘peppy’ with the free-flowing exhaust and larger carburettor venturis. Ming Tang Lee, owner of Vintage Speed in Taiwan who made the exhaust system for my El Chucho 912/6 project car, has kindly offered to make me a one-off silencer that will flow as well, if not better, but will have a more mellow exhaust note. Again, watch this space…

 

Every two years, I head off on a trip to Germany and Belgium to attend a couple of major VW events: Bad Camberg or Hessich-Oldendorf, and European Bug-In. This year it was the turn of Bad Camberg (in Germany) and European Bug-In, held at the old Chimay race track in Belgium. My passenger, as always, was Ron Fleming, former joint owner of FAT Performance, one of the best known VW race engine builders in the USA – and an expert on VW Type 4 or Porsche 914 engines.

 

My trip began with a four-hour drive from my home in Cornwall to Dover, where I overnighted ahead of catching an early ferry to Dunkirk. It’s always exciting (well, I find it exciting) to board the ferry as the first stage of a European ‘jolly’, and once parked up, I was accosted by a German lady who couldn’t wait to tell me how much she liked my car! Clearly a lady of impeccable taste. On the road to Germany, it soon became clear that the 914 was the centre of attention wherever I went. At one service area, a well-healed gent in his German registered Range Rover Sport sauntered over and told me how he’d always wanted a 914 when he was growing up but could never afford one. With a cheery wave, he headed back to the motorway. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, we got used to people waving as we cruised along the autobahn – I was woken from my reverie at one point by a loud ‘beep’ from a car horn, only to find a Ferrari Daytona alongside me, the driver waving enthusiastically and giving me the thumbs up. That’s a first for me! Then, not long after, I caught up with a 356 Carrera 2, the occupants of which were equally as enthusiastic. Drive a 914 in the UK and most people have no clue what it is – in Germany everyone knows and appears to show it respect.

The 914 was perfectly happy cruising at 70-80mph on the autobahn, the 30°C outside air temperature not causing any problems – the needle on the un-numbered temperature gauge stayed steady at around the three-quarter mark, and soon dropped if I slowed down. Ron Fleming’s comment was that the guy who built the engine built a good one, so there you go. I had been a bit worried about the engine to begin with, I must confess. When starting from cold, it seemed noiser than I expected but someone then asked ‘Does it have JE pistons?’ – which it does. What I could hear was piston slap, which gradually went away once the engine warmed up. The JE forged pistons have zero wrist-pin offset, so tend to be a little ‘loose’ when cold. Ally that to the fact that the aluminium crankcase of the Type 4 motor always amplifies mechanical sound, and there you have it. I could relax. By the time I got back home to Cornwall, over the ten day period I’d covered just under 2000 miles, without any major problem. The only maintenance I’d carried out was to fit a pair of hose clips at either end of the front anti-roll bar to stop it moving from side to side on twisty roads, causing it to knock against the struts. The ‘floating’ design was floating a little too much due to worn bushes, so that’s another job on the winter to do list.

 

I mentioned last time that the left-hand rear tyre rubbed slightly on the inner wing when cornering due to the excessive camber on that rear wheel (see photo above). To overcome this, I needed to source some alignment shims, and the car was then booked back in with Williams-Crawford in Saltash, near Plymouth, to have the geometry checked. It turns out there were no alignment shims fitted on the left side, so no wonder there was so much camber. The factory setting is to have one degree of negative camber on each rear wheel, plus or minus 10 minutes. After alignment, my 914 now has 1°1’ negative on the left and 1°8’ on the right – as close as we could get with the available shims, and well within tolerance. As for toe-in, the factory recommends 10 minutes plus or minus 10 minutes. We now have one minute on the left and three minutes on the right, so again well within limits.

 

The difference out on the road was dramatic. I have never experienced such a change in the feel of a car following suspension alignment. It tracks straighter, turns in better – and the left rear tyre no longer rubs on the inner wing. Result! So far, all in all, I’ve covered about 3000 miles since importing the car and am on the whole very pleased with it. Yes, I have the brakes to attend to and I need to take a close look at the floor to see if it needs repairing (old underseal can cover a multitude of sins, after all) but for the most part the work I plan to carry out is down to my plans to make the car my own. Next stop is to change the discs and hubs for the five-lug conversion and swap over to the Fuchs-style wheels I have tucked away. Then I plan to get rid of the ugly US ‘safety’ bumpers in favour of some lightweight glassfibre replicas of the Euro-spec steel bumpers.