The car that made Porsche's reputation turns 50
Many Happy returns to the Porsche 917 which forged its reputation as a serious motor sport contender. All photos by Sundeep Bhatia.
It is hard to believe but there was a time when Porsche had never won an endurance car championship.
A change of rules in the late 1960's was exploited, by the Stuttgart manufacturer, as a means of an all out assault on the Le Mans 24 hour race.
Their decision was made in the light of the "Commission Sportive International " announcing that the International Championship of Makes would be run for three litre prototypes from 1968 through to 1971. Previously, there had been no limitation on capacity. The new limit was introduced in an effort to both reduce speed and to encourage manufacturers, involved in Formula one, where three litre engines were the norm, to take part in endurance racing.
However, CSI also allowed the participation of 5 litre Group 4 cars .
Porsche decided, at great expense, to take advantage of this rule change. In order for their creation to be allowed to compete, they had to build 25 examples. Work started, in 1968 with the stated aim of winning the 24 hours of Le Mans on May 14th 1970. The car was developed in a staggering ten months and was based on the Porsche 908 car.
In March 1969, a 917 appeared at the Geneva motor show, with a sales price the equivalent of ten Porsche 911's.
The car was built around a light spaceframe chassis,(42kg), which was permanently pressurised with gas to detect cracks in the welded structure.
Chief engineer , Hans Mezger, designed a new 4.5 litre 12 cylinder air cooled engine for the car, which used two 2.5 litre flat 6 engines used in previous Porsche racing cars.
To keep the car compact, the driver's feet were beyond the front wheel axle.
Early 917's were Hamstrung by poor handling. This was found to be caused by its "Long Tail" at the back. In the Le Mans of 1969, a private racer, called John Woolfe, crashed the 917 he was driving and died. The official team 917s did not finish the race.
1970 saw an improvement to the aerodynamics of the car utilising a short tail to improve aerodynamics at the back of the car. The official Porsche team raced in the oil company, Gulf , colours and Porsche also supported the Martini racing team.
The Porsche 917 in Gulf colours at the 2018 Goodwood Festival of speed. Photo by Sundeep Bhatia
It was a red and white Porsche 917 driven by Hans Herrman and Richard Attwood, saw a maiden victory for Porsche in a field where only seven vehicles successfully completed the race!
The 1970 Le Mans winner at the 2018 Goodwood Festival of speed. Picture by Sundeep Bhatia.
The most eye catching 917 to race was the Martini racing which, due to its colours, was widely referred to as the "Hippie car" or the "psychedelic Porsche." It finished second in the 1970 Le Mans race.
By the end of 1970, Porsche had become a dominant name in the field of endurance racing. Of the ten races in the championship, the two Porsche works teams had one every race except Sebring. The 917K won 7 out of 8 events that it entered. (The 917 was not entered, by the works teams, at the Targa Florio or at the Nurburbring.)
In 1971, a heavily modified 917,the 917/20 was painted in pink for Le Mans , with the names of cuts of meat written across it in German! This led to it being given the nickname of "The Trufflehunter of Zuffenhausen. It qualified 7th, for its only race, but failed to finish.
A radical change of rules, in 1972, meant that the 917 was no longer entered in Endurance racing. However, Porsche decided to focus on North American markets and the Can-Am Challenge.
With a revised 12 cylinder engine, putting out 850bhp, Penske racing won the 1972 series with a driver called George Follmer.
In 1973 , the 917/30,with a 5.4 litre engine, with up to 1580 horsepower, won the 1973 series winning all but two of the races.
This was the most powerful sports racing car ever built and raced.
Rule changes in 1974 meant that the 917 only took part in one race.
However, due to another change, in 1981, the 917 raced again and won the Brands Hatch 6 hour race at the end of the season!