The population of the tiny village of Teloché in north west France is sound asleep. As dawn breaks upon the narrow and dusty Route du 8 Mai, a garage door opens and a solitary silver car is pushed silently into the cool morning air. It is 23 June, 1951, and the history of Teloché – and motorsport – is about to be written.
A few months earlier the racing world had raised a collective eyebrow at the news that Porsche, a company founded only three years before, was to compete at Le Mans, the world’s most prestigious and challenging sports car race. This was the sort of undertaking that required decades of experience at the highest level of racing, and besides, Germany was not exactly flavour of the month in post-war rural France. But under the auspices of Le Mans’ race director Charles Faroux, and with the future sole importer of Porsche to France, Auguste Veuillet, determined to find a drive, the wheels were already in motion.
Veuillet undertakes most of the logistics himself, sourcing an empty local garage in Teloché, four miles south of the Circuit Du Sarthe, where Porsche can be based. The owner of the garage, Georges Després, takes some persuading and is heavily criticised by his neighbours for what some see as a betrayal in bringing Germans to the village. But for the small and underfunded Zuffenhausen team Teloché is ideally located, allowing the cars to be driven to the circuit rather than trailered, and exploiting a little used entrance at the bottom of the Mulsanne Straight to avoid the rampant congestion further north.
The night before the race is a tense and bitter struggle for all involved. Three of the four 356 SLs Porsche is intending to enter have popped in pre-race testing and the mechanics are toiling for hours to get a second car going. In the end, sunrise still sees just one survivor, and as its exhaust note shatters the still Teloché morning, the mood in camp is decidedly mixed.
Wolfgang Berger, racing engineer, talks to six-time Le Mans winner Jacky Ickx in their Le Mans auto shop, Teloché, 1977
What follows is the stuff of Stuttgart legend, however, and by the following afternoon, Porsche is a name in world motorsport. Veuillet and his number two driver, Edmond Mouche have steered car 46 to an historic and improbable class victory and placed 20th overall. Porsche has laid the first footings in what will become a spiritual home of sorts, firstly in Telouché, and then later at Le Mans.
The following years see Porsche commit emotionally and financially to Le Mans, and Telouché becomes a cornerstone to their ongoing success. As entries and teams swell in size, the annual excursion sees half the village renting out rooms and services for the visitors, creating its own micro-economy and forming lifelong friendships in the process.
The tradition continues throughout the 1960s and '70s, with Telouché working as hard for Porsche as its own employees. No one minds the teeth-shattering scream of a 917’s midnight test run up the high street, or a pre-dawn shakedown that rattles the windows of top floor bedrooms. Madame Pechard’s Café des Sports serves early breakfasts for drivers and crew and keeps the kitchen open into the small hours for exhausted teams returning late from the circuit.
The union is only broken by the arrival of Group C in the '80s and the decidedly modern 956, where the increasing demands of technology and scale force Porsche to reluctantly base themselves at the circuit. It is the end of an era that has formed enduring ties between individuals and nations. Porsche is synonymous with Le Mans today, but it is a little lock-up in Telouché where the seeds of this lasting relationship were sown.