The 917: Porsche's Biggest Gamble
A look at the beginning of the 917 and a focus on Chassis 001 in 1/18
Piëch and His Gambit
Ferdinand Piëch. One of the greatest automotive company leaders of the 20th century. He green lit the 911, the Audi Quattro, and even the Bugatti Veyron. To me, however, the greatest risk and achievement under his leadership was the Porsche 917.
For 1968 the FIA announced that the up-to-5-liter class must produce 50 cars within 12 months. The sports-prototypes limited to 3 liters didn't need to follow this requirement and thus Porsche had the 908 filling that niche nicely, they knew that 50 cars would push their capabilities. Once the 1968 season was underway, the FIA announced that in 1969 they would change the rules so that only 25 cars must be produced to be homologated for the 5 liter class so as to remove barriers and increase participation in the top class.
Piëch was tired of getting 'close' at LeMans, and wanted an overall win. Ford and Ferrari had been dominating it, and Porsche's 3 liter cars simply didn't have the grunt. They would hit the top 5 in every LeMans starting in 1965. Piëch saw his chance. Despite competing with the development of the latest 908 spider, having an incredibly short timeline to make 25 cars, and Porsche itself running out of money; Piëch moved ahead, risking the future of the company.
The car was developed in secret. Porsche had announced they would bring their latest sports-prototype to Geneva in 1969, but everyone assumed it was just an updated 908 (since that was also in the works). The 917 being built on a shoestring budget also used quite a lot of 908 components. The biggest difference from the 908 would be the all-new 912-type 4.5 liter 12-cylinder engine. It was given the 912 designation by being a Porsche engine (9), and having 12 cylinders (9-12). Unfortunately, the Porsche 912 already existed, so the car itself had to take a different name, hence the 917.
Hans Mezger (who sadly passed away in 2020) was put to task to create the 12 cylinder. He started by taking the basic form of two 911 flat-6 engines. Instead of being a boxer, it has a vee-type motion of the engine. This gives it better mechanics to handle the incredible power and torque for the 24 hour races. It does still share individual components from the 911 engine though.
An all new pressurized aluminum tube frame (to detect cracks) was created and an updated body from the 908 was created with help from the SERA institute in Paris and the wind tunnel at Zuffenhausen.
A body update from the 908LH
Debut and Homologation
Chassis 001 was likely assembled just 2 days before its premier at Geneva in 1969. Despite debuting to much fanfare and surprise, the fact that it was assembled so close to the show deadline would foreshadow the rest of the car's homologation.
Because of the rush to get the 25 cars out the door by the week after Geneva, many of the staff at Porsche were enlisted to help build the cars. There were rules required to have the homologation approved by the FIA officials, which did give leeway to the automotive companies, allowing for them not to be fully assembled and even just the engine blocks accounted for but not built. Sadly Porsche was even further behind than that and were forced to push back their inspection date to a month later. On April 21, 1969 Porsche had their 25 917s lined up all in white with the lead car being the white/green car that debuted at Geneva (shown in this article). All had their longtails attached and were ready for inspection. The cars were officially homologated on May 1st, but that was too close to the first race of the season at Monza.
The 917 would have to have its first battle at LeMans.
The Life of Chassis 001
Of course most of us know the rest of the 917's history. The car wouldn't win a race until near the end of the 1969 season, but once 1970 rolled around it would be utterly dominant in every series it raced in until it was forced into retirement from endurance racing, then Can-Am, and finally from Interserie in 1975.
This initial car, chassis 001, would live a much cushier life. It was used initially as a testbed, being the first car built, but its life was mostly for display. Even in September of 1969 it would be repainted to be in the Frankfurt International Motor Show. Right after the show it was repainted in the gulf blue/orange for the press release indicating its first factory-backed team. Gulf/Wyer was the only factory-backed team in 1969 and thus was being paraded around in their colors.
In September of 1970, it would then be converted to replicate the '70 LeMans winner - sporting the red-and-white stripes of the winning Salzburg car. It would be used as a running show car in this scheme up until 2018. If you saw the Salzburg winner in this period of time, it was likely to be this chassis 001 car.
Chassis 001 Reinstated
Starting at the beginning of 2018, Chassis 001 was dismantled and the restoration process took place. Using a plethora of historic data and 3D cameras, Porsche was able to recreate the original car. They took the proper care to ensure that as much of the original pieces could be reused.
Finally in April of 2019, Chassis 001 debuted alongside the first 917/30 Chassis and two other 917s at Goodwood. Porsche would then have Chassis 001 and many other 917's on display at the Porsche Museum in celebration of 50 years of the 917. It was a wonderful feat and even more remarkable that Porsche keeps their historic cars in running order for all of us to enjoy.
Throughout this article I've been showing pictures of what I believe is the only scale model made of Chassis 001 as shown at its debut in Geneva in 1969. I had had quite a difficult time finding one this year, since it went on sale in 2019, and only 300 examples exist so it quickly sold out. Made by BBR, it is about as close to perfect as you can get. I will say, the model resembles the original car more closely than the restored 1:1 car. For example, the front air-intake is too large on the restored car, and the restored car uses the clear engine cover instead of the amber-tinted one presented here by BBR.
The only quibbles I have are that it is of course a sealed-resin model (typical of BBR), and the side-exhausts could have probably done with a bit more detail. Otherwise the rest of the details are excellent and the quality is also excellent. The panel lines are a little soft, but they are perfect.
Overall I'm extremely happy with the model and it is one of maybe two models I own where it has valve stems on the tires. Not sure why that blew me away like it did. It's the little things.
Let's check out some more details:
Velocity stacks could have had actual holes through them, but the quality here is still quite high.
That fuel cap is incredible. Also the quality of the wheel/tire is top notch.
Excellent attention to detail in the interior proportions despite being sealed. My biggest gripe? WHERE'S THE BALSA WOOD SHIFTER, BBR?! Why is it just black plastic?!
Little 'rivets' on the headlight covers are nice. Headlights themselves are even better.
Valve stem! And a look at the disappointing exhaust tip. Clamp for the rear bodywork is quite excellent though.
Linkages to the rear winglets are incredible.
Classic "Porsche" script always gets me excited.
Inspired by Porsche
Finally, I took some images trying to replicate some of the 50 year celebration photos that Porsche created in 2019. I don't have a computer that can use Adobe Illustrator (seriously Adobe, what's up with not supporting slightly older systems?), so I had a fellow diecast photography friend (and genius) help me with some graphics. Frank (franks_showcars on Instagram) is seriously talented and has made me want to upgrade my computer so I can start doing graphics like him in my images. Instead I sent him some photos I took and let him do his thing.
Pictures to copy made by Porsche:
Pictures made by me and graphics added by Frank:
Not bad, eh? Could've nailed it with a few more tries, but I think this is close enough to what I wanted.
To: Porsche. Bottom: me and Frank.
Top: me and Frank. Bottom: Porsche.
Well thanks for reading! I hope you got even more appreciation for the story of the 917 and this specific car that is a critical part of its history.