Story and Photos by Zach Mayne
The Subaru WRX-powered 914 pictured here was built a little over ten years ago by an owner who wanted to give the nimble, vintage Porsche modern levels of performance. Ironically, the engine that this particular 914 is powered by is incredibly similar in overall execution to those powering the latest Boxsters and Caymans, which are motivated by a range of turbocharged, watercooled flat-4s. Porsche’s change from flat-6s to forced induction 4-bangers was a controversial move to say the least, not because of a lack of additional performance, but largely due to concerns that the new engines wouldn’t have the same Porsche-ness that flat-6s offer, both in terms refinement and sound. But the times are changing, and whether enthusiasts like it or not, these turbocharged 4-cylinders are here to stay.
With that being the case, we thought it appropriate to take a look back at the 914 pictured here. While the engine powering it is nowhere near as technologically advanced as the latest lineup of Porsche 4-cylinders, the setup is strikingly similar in spirit. Keith Wilson converted the 914 to Subaru power with the help of Renegade Hybrids in Las Vegas, NV. Renegade has been around since 1983 and is most known for the nutty V8 conversions it’s been performing on 911s and 914s over the years. Before Wilson acquired it, the Porsche actually belonged to Renegade and was originally slated to receive a good old American V8. Though it was missing it's original driveline, the car was rust free and just begging to be restored. Wilson purchased it with an eye towards having the company install a V8. However, to keep costs down he also wanted to go with a Porsche 901 5-speed gearbox. Unfortunately the 901 transmission has a limit on how much power it can safely handle, so pairing it with the stump pulling torque of a V8 was probably a recipe for disaster.
The vision for a powerplant swap evolved further when Wilson had a conversation with a mechanic from Subaru's World Rally team, who suggested he use a WRX motor instead. After all, the Japanese 4-cylinder is a horizontally opposed engine like the 914's original powerplant, the mechanic told him. Wilson agreed with the mechanic's thinking. "I think this engine solution is the closest modern day solution to the antiquated VW powerplant,” he says. Luckily for him, Renegade had recently developed a conversion kit that allowed a variety of Subie motor to power a 914. With the decision made to install a WRX motor, the next step was deciding exactly which generation engine to install. Usable candidates for the conversion range from the 1993 Imprezas to the the 2004 WRX STI. After studying the options, Wilson settled on the turbocharged, 2.0-liter, four-valve per cylinder boxer found in the U.S.-spec 2002 and newer WRXs, referred to technically as the EJ205 and which in stock form produced 227-hp and 217 ft-lbs of torque. The engine and wiring harness was purchased on eBay for a scant $2000. Installing a flat-6 911 engine with similar performance could easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars, so the cost/performance ratio in this case was a no-brainer.
Once he was in possession of the motor, Wilson turned the project over to the team at Renegade. The first step in getting the Japanese motor in the German sports car's engine bay is the installation of the company's custom engineered cradle style mount, which is hard-mounted to the chassis. The WRX engine and 901 gearbox are then attached to the cradle with rubber mounts, factory Subaru mounts for the motor and Porsche 911 Sport mounts for the transmission. According to Renegade owner Scott Mann, the cradle also makes this area of the chassis much stiffer, helping the car's handling. The WRX motor’s ECU is mounted in the rear trunk, since the wiring harness that Subaru uses is too short to allow the computer to be mounted in the cockpit. A small hole is drilled into the wall between the trunk and the engine compartment for the wiring harness. Surprisingly, that’s the only part of the rear of the car that gets touched by a saw in the conversion process.
For use in the 914, Renegade moves the stock WRX engine's intercooler to a flatter orientation but still on top of the motor to allow it to fit under the lower 914 engine lid. In order to fit in the cramped engine ebay, Renegade also has to move the turbo down and at a different angle, a change accomplished with custom brackets. There is a new up-pipe that goes from the stock WRX manifolds to the turbo, which also yields a performance increase since the catalytic converter is deleted in the process, leading to faster incoming air and reduced turbo lag. The stock WRX intake manifold is retained. The exhaust is very short, consisting of a custom Renegade downpipe and a short, auger-style muffler. The latter has metal welded in at various angles to stir up the air in order to muffle the exhaust sound, which is already somewhat muffled from the turbocharger.
The transmission was built by Brad Mayeur of 914 Limited in Illinois with a key change: first gear was eliminated by using a copper sleeve that goes over the internal shift rod. The sleeve prevents first from engaging while retaining use of reverse. The transmission is effectively a 4-speed, but the lack of first gear eliminates the chances of destroying the synchro from the added torque of the turbo motor. A Welmeister short shift kit helps make quick work of gear changes. Though the Subaru motor is fairly compact, the 914’s stock shift-rod doesn’t clear the oil pan and exhaust, so Renegade designed a new rod that goes around these components. A Renegade adapter plate mates the Porsche gearbox and Subaru motor. The clutch uses a 901 throw-out bearing but there is a custom billet-steel, 9-inch flywheel and custom pilot bearing. The clutch disc is a nine-inch Kevlar unit paired with the a Stage II pressure plate. Renegade says the clutch kit can handle up to 400 horsepower, which certainly exceeds the abilities of a stock 901.
Cooling is handled by a custom aluminum radiator mounted in the trunk in a sealed housing that is fed air by a cutout in the lower part of the front bumper. Another subtle touch is the lower spoiler on the car, which is a Renegade part that features a scoop-like lip to force the air into the opening. Renegade explains that when the cooling system was developed for its V8-powered 914’s they discovered it was necessary to cut openings in the rear part of the front wheel arches to allow the incoming air to flow through the radiator and out of the front trunk area. They use the same technique with the WRX-powered cars, albeit with smaller openings. The openings also increase brake cooling, since the outgoing air flows over the rotors.
With the WRX motor finally sorted and with a few performance teaks, Wilson estimates it’s putting out around 220 horsepower and 285 lb-ft of torque. That's way more than any of the original 4-cylinders or event the 2.0-liter flat-6 911 engine that powered the 914/6. Naturally the rest of the Porsche’s system’s have been likewise upgraded. The entire front suspension was binned in favor of the complete setup from a 1988 911 Carrera. The shocks were updated with fresh Bilsteins. There is also a chassis strengthening kit that consists of 1/8-inch plate steel welded the length of the longitudinals and then connected to the firewall. The front brakes were sourced from the same Carrera that the suspension came from while the rear makes do with 914/6 calipers and rotors. Kinesis K28 wheels were custom-spec’ed for the 914 and are shod with 215/45ZR17 front and 255/40ZR17 rear Falken rubber.
Though the powerplant is a completely different setup than the 914 left the factory with, Wilson decided to stay relatively true to factory aesthetics when it came to the exterior. Here he had steel 914 GT fender flares from Automobile Atlanta welded on to the fenders, which when paired with the Kineses wheels produced the desired mix of classic lines and modern performance to the build. The body was cleaned up before it was rolled into the spray booth by eliminating the vent grill that normally reside in front of the windshield, the antenna hole and side marker holes. The chrome trim that runs along the bottom of the sail panels was eliminated as well. Once the bodywork was ready the 914’s flared body was sprayed Granite Green Metallic (an OEM Porsche shade) and then reassembled with all new lenses and rubber seals throughout. Chrome bumpers from a ’73 914 round out the exterior changes.
The interior of the 914 was refreshed with new carpeting, door panels and a dash cap to cover up the cracked original dash. Bucket seats from Renegade provide needed side lumbar support for aggressive cornering, while the driver steers through a MOMO Race steering wheel and shifts with a MOMO shift knob. Lastly, Hollywood Speedometer was enlisted to restore the gauges, adding the WRX-appropriate 6,800-rpm redline to the tach.
The driving experience provided by this WRX-powered 914 feels strangely… right. At idle the exhaust note has a trademark Subaru flat-4 warble, a sound that reviewers said was present in the latest line of 4-cylinder Porsches. In this case, there is a deeper exhaust note than the engine would have originally had thanks to the super short muffler. Overall the engine has a mellow burble that is at once reminiscent of the original air-cooled Porsche motor but also smoother and less primitive sounding.
Like most turbo engines there is the expected lag before the turbo really starts spinning. When it does, around 3,500-rpm, we’re rewarded with an impressive shove in the back as the engine comes on boost and deploys that turbocharged acceleration, the exhaust note turning into a smooth growl as revs rise. Very strong power continues all the way to the 6,800-rpm redline, all the while accompanied by the insistent whistle of the turbo spinning happily away. When we lift to grab the next gear an audible shhpittt is emitted by the blow off valve.
With the 911 Carrera suspension doing its work in the twisty bits, the 914 corners in a flat, confidence inspiring manner. The generous width of the rear tires allow most of the power to be applied as the Porsche clips the apex of corners. There is definitely enough grunt on tap to overpower the rear tires’ grip and bring the 914 into varying degrees of oversteer. Fortunately, the responsive steering is quick enough to quickly counteract the slide. Fun would be putting it mildly when it comes to the driving experience offered by this modified classic. Overall, this is a well-resolved creation that, despite its unorthodox powerplant, still manages to stay true to its Porsche roots.
Renegade Hybrids • (866) 498-2421 • www.renegadehybrids.com • 4640 S. Valley View Blvd. Suite D, Las Vegas, NV 89103