Fifty years ago in 1967, my friend Dan Margulies invited me to co-drive with him on the Targa Florio, the legendary road race in Sicily. I was only 26 and thought I’d be out of my depth – I knew from other drivers that it was no place to be gung ho – but in late 1966 we put in an order for a new 911 S with Porsche GB. We made a couple of visits to the Stuttgart factory, and chose a few options suitable for a long-distance race, notably a 100-litre fuel tank and the various engine improvements that came with the Sport kit.
Ten days before the race, I flew to Stuttgart to collect our Bahama Yellow 911, and arranged to have the Sport kit fitted on arrival in Sicily. A US air force pilot was there at the same time, whose new car was slightly delayed, so he asked to share the ride down to Austria – he paid for fuel with petrol vouchers from the US government, then I dropped him at a railway station.
I immediately felt comfortable in the 911, and had covered around 800 miles by Naples, which was the perfect chance to run it in. Then it was loaded onto the overnight ferry to Palermo where we met Dan on the dockside – he’d flown to Sicily to meet me. We went to the Porsche hotel, and the team fitted the Sport kit with new carb chokes and jets, removed the rev limiter, and replaced the silencer with a 906-type rear exhaust – a sort of megaphone. It really livened the 911 up. It had 182bhp, I think.
We did one lap of the 45-mile circuit in the 911, but then used a hire car – Dan felt that was safer because the locals were trying to put in a lap too!
The circuit was just as daunting as everyone had said. It’s non-stop with so many corners and in order to get the really quick laps you need intimate knowledge of the place.
Qualifying went quite smoothly. It was the first time the roads were closed, so you could use the full surface and the pace picked up considerably. I can’t remember where we placed, but I remember hitting around 130-140mph on the 4.25-mile straight, the car moving around in crosswinds, and being aware of a draft as the faster racecars came by.
The race started at 7am or 8am the next day in superb weather, and I couldn’t believe how many people were watching – the police estimated half a million, and it was absolutely packed. I was the faster driver, so I did the first three laps, Dan did the middle stint, and I did the final one. A dust storm had blown in from North Africa not long before, so the roads were really quite slippery and the surface was already in a very poor state of repair.
I remember trying to keep a little bit in reserve, and coming up behind cars, thinking I do hope they see me and give me some room – there were big rocks at the roadside that would easily rip off a wheel or damage the suspension beyond repair.
When I pitted I’d done more than 130 miles at high speed and really needed a drink, but we were only 30 seconds off the Porsche works 911.
Dan had lost quite a bit of time during his stint, so I set back out trying to catch the works car, but it was a bit of a pipe dream really and the brakes were at their limit coming down from the hills on the last lap. So when I crossed the finish I was absolutely amazed to find we were second in class and 11th overall. It honestly felt like a fairytale.
Dan had known Porsche competitions manager Huschke von Hanstein since the 1950s, and von Hanstein said “I’m glad you slowed Rob down a bit, I was frightened you’d get past us!”.
That night we were invited for a celebratory meal with Porsche, before I drove the 911 home. I’ve never had an adventure like it.