5. Wheels and suspension
Four-lug wheels have never looked right to me, pretty much regardless of what kind of vehicle we're talking about. Visually, there’s just something ‘unbalanced’ about the way they look – well, that’s in my opinion. As soon as I bought my 914 I knew that high on the list of priorities would be a swap to five-lug hubs, allowing me to fit classic Fuchs-style wheels all round. The 914/6 I once owned had Fuchs wheels and it looked so much better for it.
At the front, swapping from four-lug to five lug can be done in one of two ways. The purist way, for want of a better expression, is to swap the entire front suspension for that off a 911. That way you also have the opportunity to benefit from bigger brakes. It’s a straight swap (struts, wishbones, hubs, discs, calipers and all) but, it has to be said, it’s no longer a cheap option. The days of being able to pick up a complete 911 front end for £100 have passed, and whatever you buy will almost certainly need to be rebuilt with new inserts, bearings, bushes, etc, etc.
The other alternative is to have the four-lug brake drums (the fronts are of VW origin) redrilled and fitted with press-in studs. It's a relatively inexpensive option and, working to a budget, was the one I opted to take. Yes, I do plan on upgrading the brakes and this will involve some one-off development work, of which more at a later date. Until then, though, the stock brakes will suffice.
At the rear, the procedure to swap from four-lug to five is similarly straightforward – well, in theory. The disc itself simply slips over the rear hub (the handbrake is part of the caliper, not an internal drum brake, as is the case with the 911) so redrilling that is easy. The hubs – or rather, drive flanges – can be redrilled, too, but the problem is that the most common four-lug flanges can be quite thin and once you've drilled and spot-faced them to accept press-in studs, there's not a lot of meat left.
The solution is to either track down some genuine 914/6 rear hubs (expensive and not easy to come by) or to look for some early hubs which came from the factory with cast-in bosses for the extra studs. I managed to find some for sale on eBay in Portugal and handed these, along with front and rear discs, to Chris Rudling of Carbon 12 Racing to machine for me.
The task of carrying out the swap was given to Nigel Allen, who runs a VW and Porsche workshop not far from my Cornwall home. We did run into one problem in as much as I'd bought the wrong year front discs (my car is a 1975 model, and the discs changed in late 1972), meaning the calipers wouldn't fit, but once sorted it was a straightforward enough swap.
Wheel-wise I had purchased a set of Maxilite 6Jx15 Fuchs replicas (yes, I know I'd already bought some Group 4 '7R' Fuchs-style rims…) and had them shod with 195/65x15 Dunlops. These all fit neatly within the standard 'narrow' bodywork without having to resort to 'rolling' the rear arches – a common problem on 914s when non-stock wheel and tyre combinations are used. Karmann, who built the bodies, weren't the most accurate fabricators, and every 914 we've seen has more tyre clearance on one side than the other – as much as 8mm difference is not uncommon!
The car looked better already but still sat too high for my taste – 914s destined for the USA had the front suspension raised so that bumpers and headlights were now of the 'correct' height to meet new legislation. Not a problem in Europe, of course. I had no idea what the suspension set-up was on the 914, or whether the dampers had ever been changed in its lifetime. The rear springs were new, but I had no idea of the spring rate, either.
I decided to go the whole hog and purchased a set of Bilsteins from Design 911 (excellent service as always!) and turned to my other local specialists, Williams-Crawford, to install them. The original Boge front strut inserts were completely shot, one of them leaking badly. The rear dampers were original Boge, too, but the springs proved to be near-new 100lb Weltmeisters – perfect: not too soft, not too stiff. Stock springs are in the 80–90lb mark, so these would help stiffen things up without rattling my fillings.
Swapping over to the Bilsteins was another pretty straightforward job, followed by a full four-wheel alignment on Williams-Crawford's new laser equipment. For now, we've set the geometry at factory stock, and will take it from there. The car sits about 50mm lower at the front and 35mm lower at the back, with no clearance issues. I also took the opportunity to install a pair of 'Turbo' tie-rods to get rid of the rather soggy feel to the steering thanks to the original rubber-bushed couplings.
As soon as I drove the car down the road, the difference was obvious. Turn-in felt much 'sharper' and body roll was reduced dramatically. The Turbo tie-rod conversion is definitely one I'd recommend to anyone with a 914 or early 911.
The next step is to beef up the front and rear anti-roll bars, and to that end I have just purchased a used Weltmeister aftermarket bar for the front, and am on the look out for a suitable uprated rear bar. If anyone knows of one available, let me know!
I love this car and am enjoying the process of making it 'mine'. Next was to swap over the bumpers for something a little less clumsy – and heavy. Oh, and to get rid of the ugly US-spec side-marker lights. Boys and their toys, eh? When will we grow up?