Really? Has it been forty years since Porsche rolled out the 917? Man, I am getting old. I remember when those were new. They hit the scene as a complete, but inevitable surprise, and at the time, it looked like they had a ton of potential, but also had a bunch of … well, let’s just call them quirks. Quirks that could get you killed.
From 1960 to 1970, sportscar racing was in an upward spiral. The money was adding up at an enormous rate. What Jaguar spent at Le Mans in 1960 wouldn’t even pay for Porsche’s transporters by 1970. And that was all tied into decades-long trend of a new marque unseating and older, more successful team, only to be toppled by yet another newcomer. Jaguar begat Ferrari, and Ferrari begat Ford, whose main, base-level thought seemed to be, “To win, throw money and horsepower at the problem.”
Porsche wanted the crown of winning at Le Mans, and with it the aura of building the best sportscars there are, and they also saw Ford’s example, and seemed to take it to heart. So out came the checkbook, and soon out came a monstrous flat 12 engine, that, by the time it was fully developed by the likes of Roger Penske & Mark Donohue, was cranking out FAR in excess of a thousand horsepower.
The chassis design? Well, that’s where that whole “quirk” stuff I mentioned earlier came in.
Porsche have never been handlers, and their chassis design has been … well, John Surtees once described them as being “agricultural”, let’s just leave it at that. The 917s tube-frame was rigid enough, but the bodywork on the first-gen cars was frightening. And I mean that literally.
At the time, the whole point of race car aerodynamics was to punch as clean a hole in the air as possibly; maximize top speed, and let the chassis handle stuff like grip. So the first version of the 917 featured what was called “The Long Tail” body work. A huge aft section streamlined the airflow off the back of the car.
It also produced horrendous amounts of rear end lift, but only “at speed”. And by “at speed” I mean “at speed above 220 MPH”. Which is not only frighteningly fast, but also teamed up with the 917 being fine up until that point. The answer was one of expediency more than anything else. There was “short tail” body work that was being used in the North American CanAm series and also in its Euro counterpart, the Interseries. By simply swapping out the rear engine cover, the lift went away. So did about 10 MPH of top speed, but it was worth it, since the factory was running out of guys that were willing to hold their foot down all the way down the Mullsanne.
That expediency of saying, “Hell I dunno. Let’s try this!” is what turned the whole ballgame around, and put Porsche in a position of such utter domination that now, 40 years later, their records still stand.
Anyway, 40 years on, Porsche has decided to commemorate their success and brought a collection of 917s to this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed.
At Goodwood the 917s were accompanied by an array of drivers reunited with their race cars such as Richard Attwood, former F1 driver and 1970 Le Mans winner for Porsche, Brian Redman was behind the wheel of the 917/30 CanAm racer, David Piper, who bought a 917 new from the factory in 1969, will be driving his own car and Jackie Oliver, who was the Le Mans winner in 1969, drove a Gulf-liveried 917.
Photo from Flickr user