Driving a Porsche 917 Is Exiciting, Especially If You Can Do It On Public Roads
Low enough to drive underneath a semi, for realby Michael Fira, on LISTEN 09:38
The Porsche 917 marked Porsche’s breakthrough in sports car endurance racing. While well accustomed to victory in some of the world’s most famous races, it wasn’t until the 917 took to the track that Porsche was truly able to have a say in the battle at the front at Le Mans.
The car you see here is almost identical to those that won at La Sarthe and it even wears the legendary Martini & Rossi war paint but, unlike most other 917s, this one can be driven on the open road. If you dare.
The numberplates give away this road-legal 917
The year is 1969 and Porsche, cunningly, plans to homologate a purpose-built machine in the 5.0-liter sports car class of the World Endurance Championship.
Dominated up until then by the antiquated Ford GT40s and a brace of luscious Lola T70s, the Sports 5.0-liter class was effectively concocted to welcome mass-produced racers, unlike the "prototypes" in the 3.0-liter class of which no more than a handful of copies had to be made. The 5.0-liter cars, however, had to be made in a run of at least 25 units.
Despite being cash-strapped, Porsche went all-in with the 917, Ferdinand Piech fully believing that his brainchild could deliver where the 906, 907, 908, and 910 had failed.
Indeed, come 1969, a 908 LH came achingly close to winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans as Jacky Ickx in a Ford played cat-and-mouse with the veteran Hans Herrmann. In that same race, Porsche entered a bunch of 917s and they were by far the class of the field, qualifying some 20 seconds quicker than the 3.0-liter Ferraris.
But they were brittle. And they were scary. Underpinned by a gas-filled tubular chassis, the cars would flex every which way to the point that the gear lever would physically move between turns, making it hard for drivers to reach for it when needing to shift through gears. With 13-inch rims all around, it was twitchy almost everywhere and, down the really quick bits, the bodywork created absolutely no downforce meaning the car would weave from side to side down Mulsanne, scaring even the daring Vic Elford who’d never gone over 220 mph in a car before.
Luckily for Porsche, the aerodynamics were sorted, in no small part due to the involvement of John Wyer’s chief engineer John Horsman who redesigned the rear deck of the short-tail model. With money flowing in from Gulf Oils, who became the sponsor of the de facto Works-backed team, namely Wyer’s team that beat Porsche to victory at Le Mans in both ’68 and ’69, more updates were made and Porsche dominated for two years while Ferrari struggled, scoring a single win in 1970 with the 512S before briefly switching to the 512M.
For the record, the 512M (M for ’modificato’. naturally) could’ve probably taken the fight to the 917s and beat them as it did in a straight fit at both Zeltweg and Kyalami but Ferrari, looking ahead to 1972 when the 5.0-liter beasts were to be outlawed completely, decided to focus on developing its 3.0-liter contender and thus Porsche dominated effortlessly in ’71 as well, minus some run-ins with Roger Penske’s 512M.
Come the end of the year, most 917s were sent to the retirement home.
|Length||4,120 MM (162.2 Inches)|
|Width||1,980 MM (78 Inches)|
|Height||940 MM (37 Inches)|
|Wheelbase||2,300 MM (90.6 Inches)|
|Track (fr/r)||1,564 MM (61.6 Inches) / 1,584 MM (62.4 Inches)|
Some Group 7-spec cars raced on in both the Can-Am and the European Interserie but, generally speaking, the career of Porsche’s first Le Mans winner was over after just three seasons in endurance racing.
Count Gregorio Rossi di Montelera, an heir to the Martini & Rossi liquor empire, backed a Porsche-running team for years throughout the ’60s and ’70s and one of the cars adorned by the Martini colors won at Le Mans in 1971. As such, Rossi’s relationship with the suits in Stuttgart was a rather close one which allowed him to go in and purchase a genuine 917 from Porsche in 1974. That car was chassis #030, a car Rossi’s team had actually raced on one occasion back in 1971 but a puncture put a premature end to its one and only outing and the damage from the ensuing crash took a while to buff out.
Still, Porsche refurbished the car, probably because it was part of an important milestone in the company’s history as the testbed used by Zuffenhausen’s engineers to develop the anti-lock braking system. Rossi told Porsche about his plans to use the 917 on the road and, mid-shrug, Porsche installed some fender mirrors and silencers to the car.
Unfortunately for Rossi, even authorities back in the ’70s weren’t too keen on allowing a 917, effectively a purpose-built race car with about 550 horsepower on tap from a 4.5 (all the way up to 5.0-liter, depending on the version) flat-12, to be driven on the roads. Rossi probably argued that his 917 came with a spare tire, a minuscule luggage compartment, and even a passenger’s seat but it was to no avail. I’d imagine that he even went as far as making the argument that, back in 1970, Porsche trialed the 917 down in Sicily on the roads that made up the circuit hosting the famed Targa Florio, which meant the car did get driven at least once on public roads, with plates, and traffic around it (that’s how practice was done at Targa Florio - with all the roads open to normal traffic).
|Configuration||912.10 180º V12|
|Displacement||4,907 cc / 299.4 cu in|
|Bore / Stroke||86.0 mm (3.4 in) / 70.4 mm (2.8 in)|
|Power||600 HP @ 8,300 RPM|
|Torque||415 LB-FT @ 6,400 RPM|
After a bit of lateral thinking, Rossi shipped his 917 across the pond and registered it in Alabama before sending it back to flaunt with it throughout Europe. His drive from Stuttgart to Paris in the Spring of ’75 is the stuff of legend and, amazingly, the car hasn’t been involved in a crash since being registered in the States. What is more, it served as a useful precedent when another 917 owner wanted to have his 917 registered for the road 42 years after Rossi did the deed himself.
Claudio Roddaro is a Monaco resident who decided to see just how laid-back the Principality is when it comes to registering a car there. He took full advantage of the existence of chassis #030 when he decided that his own 917, chassis #037 (the last 917 chassis stamp), should be road-legal.
It all began in the year 2000 when Roddaro bought a 911 Carrera RS 2.7 ’Lightweight’ out of necessity. He’d arrived in Italy to seal the deal on a Ferrari Dino only to find that that car had been sold while he was mid-transit and the dealer’s only other car for sale was the Carrera. "I didn’t really care about Porsches back then, to be honest. I was just going to drive back in it and sell it to a friend," Claudio recalls. However, the ensuing 310 miles, some of which were traversed at speeds in excess of 140 mph, were enlightening for Roddaro who fell in love with the car.
While that particular RS came and went (Roddaro sold it to one Jean-Pierre Jarier, the ex-Grand Prix driver), the love for Porsches remained and more and more started coming in, including a 908 LH not dissimilar to the that finished second at Le Mans in 1969. "I had that car for a couple of years and loved it… until one day I got overtaken by someone in a 917. And that got me thinking."
In 2016, the waiting game paid off and Roddaro, set on track by a phone call from Porsche’s ex-motorsport manager Juergen Barth, became the proud owner of chassis #037. As an un-raced example, the story of the last 917 built was somewhat twisty. Back in the day, it shared the garage with Martini Racing’s other 917s but was merely a spare that never sprung into action. Nearly a decade later, the Baur coachbuilding company (famous for making custom open-top BMWs among other things) acquired the car and stored it until 2003 when reputable Porsche collector Carl Thompson bought it.
Using his extensive stash of original 917 parts that came straight from Vasek Polak, Thompson was able to rebuild chassis #037, the actual restoration taking place over at Gunnar Racing. In 2006, the 917 first turned a wheel in anger in the hands of Stephane Ortelli during the Le Mans Classic weekend. A decade later, when it became the property of Roddaro, its gorgeous lines were adorned by the Martini & Rossi livery as seen throughout the 1971 season.
Soon after getting hold of a 917, Roddaro began the arduous of making it road legal. It wasn't as much a process of modifying the car - only turn signals were added -, as it was a case of working through the bureaucracy.
Basically, the only reason this 917 earned its plates (’649X’ because ’917X’ are bolted to the bumpers of a Citroen DS whose owner isn’t interested in selling them) is because Roddaro was able to prove that his car was identical to the Rossi 917. It all took about two months and through something called a "foreign registration certificate", Roddaro was able to get his 917 out on the road as it proved to be 95% original and thus basically identical to chassis #030.
As you’d expect, however, the car is as unsuitable for the road as you’d expect and on the odd occasion when Roddaro does drive it around Monte-Carlo, he’s followed everywhere by a service fan. Not that he’d need it, though, as the car proved bulletproof when entered by Claudio in the Masters Historic Racing series in 2017-18, but it’s nice to know you won’t be stranded when driving around in a 917. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Claudio does stop and pay at every toll booth although he could totally just drive beneath the gate.