IN 1997 MOTORSPORT MAGAZINE, well-respected at that time, did a poll of experts and readers to pick the Greatest Race Car up to that time. The Porsche 917 was chosen best overall by the experts while the readers chose it Best Sportscar and Second Best Overall. (Obviously not as discerning as Provinz readers!) This is the car that won Porsche’s first overall victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours race 50 years ago. The road to that victory was long and challenging.
Porsche, as a manufacturer, first went to Le Mans in 1951 with two aluminium-bodied 1.1-litre 356s. The car driven by Auguste Veuillet and Edmond Mouche finished first in class and 20th overall. Porsche cars have not missed a Le Mans 24 Hours to today. Many class victories followed and as recently as last year Porsche scored a class win.
John Horsman [from JWA] came along and noticed that only the top edge of the spoiler was covered with dead bugs and oil spots. He said we could build up the rear of the car with sheet aluminum.
In the ‘60s the goal became overall victory as Ferdinand Piëch, grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, became head of the racing department. As Volkswagen was funding the racing, if Porsche used air-cooled engines, Mr. Piëch acted as if he had an unlimited budget. This did eventually lead to internal problems but that is a story for another column. During the latter part of the ‘60s Porsche introduced a dizzying array of racecars. The 906, 907, 908, 910 all lead to the creation of the awesome 917. However, its gestation was not an easy one.
The car took only 10 months to conceive, design and build the 25 vehicles required for homologation. You may all have seen the famous photo of the cars lined up for the inspectors. All hands at Porsche helped in assembly including apprentices, messenger boys, secretaries, and other office staff. The first 917 had 66 percent more power than any previous Porsche engine. The engine was two flat-sixes joined with the power take-off in the centre which limited torsional vibration. The 917, however, was a difficult beast to handle at first. As Vic Elford said, “The car was unbelievably dangerous to drive.” Brian Redman called it “the Widowmaker.” (Legendary Porsche Inside History Of The Epic Cars by Randy Leffingwell.) Hans Hermann stated, “It was a horrible car, it irritated us. It jumped at the front, it jumped at the rear, it had oversteer, it had understeer.” (Porsche 917 The Heroes, The Victories, The Myth by Frodisch, Neshover, Rosbach, Schwarz.) Aerodynamics and its ramifications on braking were the biggest problems.
You may all have seen the famous photo of the cars lined up for the inspectors. All hands at Porsche helped in assembly including apprentices, messenger boys, secretaries, and other office staff.
Porsche hired John Wyer Automotive (JWA) and his Gulf oil sponsorship to run the race teams. They had been highly successful at Le Mans winning the 1969 race by 100 yards with Ickx and Oliver in a Mirage (redesigned Ford GT40). The car they beat was the Porsche 908 longtail driven by Hermann and Larrousse. In that race Elford and Attwood led from the fourth hour to the 21st hour in a longtail 917.
During August 1969 testing at the Österreichring in Austria both the Porsche team and JWA were there. Brian Redman drove the open 917 PA from the Can-Am series with a shorter higher tail. He commented, “You couldn’t believe it was the same car…and the car felt nice.” (Excellence Was Expected, Second Edition by Karl Ludvigsen.) Peter Falk, head of vehicle testing for Porsche, said of the tests, “John Horsman [from JWA] came along and noticed that only the top edge of the spoiler was covered with dead bugs and oil spots…He said…we could build up the rear of the car with sheet aluminum.” (Ibid.) (Horsman sadly passed away on April 14, 2020.) The improvement was an immediate four seconds, the equivalent to a 50-horsepower increase!
Later Falk recalled that “it was a solution that came from all of us. Later Mr. Wyer and Mr. Horsman said it was their work. And we naturally told Mr. Piëch it was our work! But it was really teamwork.” (Ibid.) Eventually the 917 went on to win half the races it entered. But the crowning achievement was to occur in the next year.
Hans Hermann told his wife following the previous years race that he would retire if he won Le Mans. Richard Attwood, his co-driver, wanted to race with the smaller engine (4.5 litres versus five) and with an experienced teammate. The conditions that year were atrocious. By keeping a steady pace and staying out of trouble the pair took Porsche’s first overall victory at Le Mans 50 years ago this June. Hermann did retire after winning and Attwood retired following the next season.
That next year the Porsche 917 won again with Van Lennep and Marko. In this race the 917 set the record for top speed in the race, overall distance, fastest qualifier and fastest race lap. The fastest lap record stood until 1989 and the distance record was not bettered until 2010.
The rules for these kinds of cars were changed for the 1972 season. This may have been on safety grounds as the 917 had reached 362 KPH (225 MPH) on the Mulsanne Straight. Another reason may have been that the cars of that era were drawing too much attention away from Formula One.
The 917 did have a life after that. In 1972 and 1973 Porsche and Penske with drivers Donohue and Follmer decimated the opposition in the Can-Am series. I was fortunate to see those cars, the 917/10 and 917/30 race at Mosport. I didn’t realize at the time how legendary those cars would become. We spectators were awed though that the awesome orange McLarens could be defeated. These versions of the 917 were so dominant which was one factor which led to the demise of that series at the end of the 1974 season. They were the first road-racing cars to race with over 1,000 horsepower! As well, Donohue set a closed-course record at the Talladega NASCAR track.
The Porsche 917 is truly a legend not just in Porsche circles but in motor-racing history. As recently as the June 2019 issue of Historic Racing Technology, its article on the restoration of the first 917 was titled “The Greatest Racing Car Ever?” The car may have had only a three-year career in the world championship with a couple of years more in other series but all who saw them then will never forget.
From a dangerous beast to a dominant and exciting machine the Porsche 917 can still be seen at vintage events. </>
Photos by the author, Stefan Walther, PCA UCR Vice-President and Porsche AG