The 1969 Porsche 917 was an unruly beast but it evolved into one of the best sports cars ever

It’s the centerpiece of a 1971 motion picture starring Steve McQueen. It brought Porsche its first two overall victories in the fabled 24 Hours of Le Mans race. In 1973, it became the fastest car to lap a closed course at 221.12 mph. It all but annihilated the competition in the Canadian-American Challenge Cup and pushed McLaren to quit the series altogether. It’s the Porsche 917 and, in 2019, Porsche celebrates its 50th anniversary with an outlandish prototype.

Few race cars have an aura surrounding them like the 917 does. That’s because it is Porsche’s first truly great sports car, one that raised the bar higher in both endurance racing and the unlimited Group 7 Can-Am series. But, in 1969, when Porsche first unveiled the 917, nobody wanted to drive it. All of Wiessach’s works drivers tried to seem busy when Porsche called them asking to test or race the 917, and there’s a reason for that, a reason that sits at the foundation of the 917’s legend and its incredible story of evolution.

Porsche Pays Tribute to the 917 in the Best Possible Way

Porsche Unveils a Stunning Concept To Mark The 50th Anniversary of the 1969 Porsche 917
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Eight years ago I made my first and, so far, only pilgrimage to the Porsche Museum. The museum is placed right smack at the entrance of the appropriately named city of Porsche Platz. There, inside a futuristic-looking building, are all of Porsche’s legends. You’ll see many racing cars because, of course, Porsche’s reputation has been built as much on the road as it’s been on the track and Porsche takes great pride in its racing exploits. It’s the manufacturer with the most overall Le Mans wins - 19 - and it never forgets about its rich heritage.

Last year, during the hugely popular Rennsport Reunion, the company unveiled a modern reinterpretation of the best Group 5 car of all times, the Porsche 935. Dressed in appropriate Martini threads, the 991-based track day special was a hit and, as we remarked, it looked even more menacing in black while testing at Monza.

Now, Porsche pays homage to another Group 5 car, one that’s even more revered than the 935. Granted, it’s a different sort of Group 5 car, one that raced at Le Mans four times (but Porsche only likes to talk about the first three outings) and was utterly dominant in 1970 and 1971: the Porsche 917.

Porsche Unveils a Stunning Concept To Mark The 50th Anniversary of the 1969 Porsche 917
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The modern-day 917 prototype unveiled this week to mark the 50th-anniversary of the 917 wasn't on display at the Geneva Auto Show where it would've turned many heads.

Instead, Porsche released one image of it and, for more, we’ll have to wait until May when a special exhibition will be opened to the public at the Porsche Museum. Called ’Colours of Speed: 50 years of the 917’, the exhibition will feature ten genuine Porsche 917s and this prototype plus tons of 917-themed merchandise.

So, what is this new Porsche 917? Well, if we are to judge by the wheels and the front fascia, it seems to be based on the hybrid Porsche 918 Spyder, but we don’t know anything about what lies underneath that luscious bodywork. After all, it might just be a sculpture on wheels, an engineless design study.

But we won’t get upset at Porsche because this thing looks amazing. The windscreen and roofline are basically identical to that of the original. The big difference, aside from the 918-esque front fascia, is the shape of the rear fenders. The original’s rear deck didn’t wrap neatly around the rear wheels, instead going up and ending with a pair of Gurney flaps on either side on the short-tail version. The long tail one was a different thing altogether as the rear deck was greatly extended and featured a sizeable wing by 1971. In 1970, only some vertical fins were in place, but they didn’t really produce downforce which was also the case with the 1969 long-tail bodywork as well as the short-tail one, both equipped with horizontal flaps that didn’t really do anything.

Porsche Unveils a Stunning Concept To Mark The 50th Anniversary of the 1969 Porsche 917
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Porsche unveiled the freshly restored 917 chassis #001 that was first seen on March 12th, 1969 at Porsche’s booth at the Geneva Auto Show and Porsche says that "when restoring vehicles from the company’s historic collection, the museum places great importance on retaining original material and taking into account the relevant history of its exhibits." That means the titanium fiberglass body, although largely new, looks the same as it did in 1969 and behind the seats there’s a 4.5-liter flat-12 capable of 580 horsepower.

But the livery pays tribute to a different 917, chassis #023, the car that won Le Mans in 1970.

The Red and White Paint Scheme was Only Used at Le Mans

1969 - 1971 Porsche 917K
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For 1970, Porsche decided to externalize its works team which is to say its works drivers were no longer going to drive cars entered by Porsche, but by a few top privateer outfits hand picked by Porsche. The de facto top team was J.W. Automotive Engineering founded by one John Wyer. Wyer, the former Aston Martin team boss when the British manufacturer won Le Mans in 1959, had won Le Mans two times on the trot when it was offered by Porsche the chance to take over development of the 917 and run it in 1970. If you think about it, it was the natural thing to do because the 917s and the 908s were beaten in 1969 by a Ford GT40 Mk. I entered by John Wyer.

But Wyer’s team, despite fielding two immaculate Gulf-sponsored 917s (and up to three at Le Mans) driven by some of the era’s best drivers like Jo Siffert and Pedro Rodriguez, never won at Le Mans with the 917. The team that avenged Porsche after years of near misses with the 906, 907, and 908 was Porsche KG Salzburg, a team co-owned by Ferdinand Piech who oversaw Porsche’s motorsport involvement from behind the scenes in the past and wasn’t particularly chuffed at the idea that a Briton would now lead the Porsche assault.

Porsche Unveils a Stunning Concept To Mark The 50th Anniversary of the 1969 Porsche 917
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The Salzburg-based outfit entered the whole 1970 World Sportscar Championship, usually with two 917s for each race. Chassis #023 debuted at the BOAC 1,000-kilometer race at Brands Hatch where, in treacherous rain, Vic Elford and Denny Hulme finished runner-up behind Pedro Rodriguez who was unbeatable that day as Chris Amon, himself driving for Ferrari that day, remarked: "Nobody told Pedro it was raining!"

Up next, #023 showed up at Monza where it qualified third but did not finish after a puncture gravely damaged the rear bodywork.

Vic Elford and Kurt Ahrens, Jr. teamed up again for the 1,000 Kilometers of Spa where the duo finished third behind the battling Gulf-sponsored 917s. The 917 didn’t race at the Nurburgring, both KG Salzburg and John Wyer electing to run the updated 3.0-liter 908/3 that was a better fit to the profile of the Nordschleife, so chassis #023’s next race was Le Mans.

Kurt Ahrens, Jr. and Vic Elford both drove the car in practice but, come race day; two other drivers shared driving duties: former Mercedes-Benz F1 driver Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood. The German got beaten by John Wyer’s operation in 1969 and was looking to go one better in 1970 as that was going to be his final Le Mans start.

Porsche Unveils a Stunning Concept To Mark The 50th Anniversary of the 1969 Porsche 917
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In all, seven 917s took the start at Le Mans that year, two of which were in long-tail specification. Five of them were fitted with the 4.5-liter engine but two, the Salzburg-entered long-tail example and the No. 21 Gulf Porsche for Kinnunen and Rodriguez came fitted with 5.0-liter units. Elford took the pole with the big engine long-tail beast and reached 245 mph on the Mulsanne Straight. By comparison, thanks to dodgy aerodynamics, Attwood and Hermann could go no quicker than 205 mph. Come race day, though; this discrepancy didn’t matter as rain evened things out.

Ferrari had the numbers with 11 512S chassis spread across five teams. All four of the works cars were in long-tail specification, and Enzo had last year’s winner, Jacky Ickx, in one of his cars. However, Ferrari’s day was miserable: six cars crashed out (one marshal dying in the crash involving Ickx’ car) and engine trouble took out three others. Only one of the two N.A.R.T. cars reached the finish line and the Ecurie Francorchamps entry. Porsche also had its fair share of trouble: Mike Hailwood binned the No. 22 Gulf 917 and the other two of John Wyer’s cars suffered engine failures.

The engine also gave up on the pole-sitting 917 that had led extensive periods of times with Elford at the wheel so, by midnight, only two Porsches were still going: the Martini-sponsored long-tail car and the short-tail No. 23 of Herrmann and Attwood.
Porsche Unveils a Stunning Concept To Mark The 50th Anniversary of the 1969 Porsche 917
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The Englishman considers himself lucky of coming out ahead after 24 hours. "My win there was lucky," he said in an interview with Ferdinand Magazine. "We only qualified fifteenth fastest - it was more a case of other drivers losing than my winning. But, having been leading by six laps in the previous year with three and a half hour to go when the transmission broke, I deserved a bit of luck," he added. And that victory was lucky given that the Anglo-German pair did no testing prior to arriving at Circuit de la Sarthe. The two had previously driven chassis #020 that year.

After its tenure with Porsche KG Salzburg, chassis #023 raced three more times in 1971 in the hands of Martini International Racing but finished only once, at the 1,000 Kilometers of Brands Hatch on a lowly ninth overall. After that, the car was retired and currently sits in a private collection, away from Porsche’s vault.

The 917 Was Off to a Rough Start in 1969

Porsche Unveils a Stunning Concept To Mark The 50th Anniversary of the 1969 Porsche 917
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Few would’ve guessed in 1969 that the 917 would become the star we all know and love. That’s because it was, quite frankly, a dreadful car in 1969. The 917 was built to Group 4 specifications (renamed Group 5 in 1970) that allowed for big-engine sports cars to be entered in the World Sportscar Championship with one condition: each interested party had to build 25 units of each car. At the times when the ruleset was first introduced, in 1968, only two cars were eligible to compete in this class: the Lola T70 and the Ford GT40. The bulk of manufacturers were, instead, competing with 3.0-liter prototypes that adhered to Group 6 rules. As per those rules, you could build bespoke race cars with either an opened or closed cockpit as long as the engine’s capacity did not exceed 3.0-liters. The new class was penciled down at the end of 1967 when, scared by the spending spree born out of the Ford vs. Ferrari war, the CSI (precursor of the FIA) no longer allowed prototypes with engines bigger than 3.0-liters to compete in the world championship. That’s why Chaparral never returned to Le Mans, and that’s why the Ford Mk. IV never raced again and nor did Ferrari’s glorious 330 P4.

Ferdinand Piech was the man that urged Porsche engineers to conceive the engine for the 917 but what resulted was something scary, an engine exceedingly powerful for the flimsy gas-filled aluminum chassis it sat in.

To make matters worse, the aerodynamics were dreadful. The car’s body was slippery, which made it fast, but it generated no downforce. Instead, it created lift! Attwood drove the 917 in 1969 and told many times how he’d look in the mirror while driving down the Mulsanne Straight and notice how, as the car traversed the five-mile piece of straight road, he’d see more and more of the sky above. Basically, the rear of the car was squatting heavily, and the car had to be severely slowed down before the hump located shortly before you’d brake for the Mulsanne Corner because it would’ve probably taken off otherwise.

The 917 first appeared at the official Le Mans test day in March of 1969 when only Rolf Stommelen and old-hand Hans Herrmann drove. Its race debut took place in May at the dauntingly fast Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the Ardennes forest. The drivers? Udo Schutz and Gerhard Mitter, both with many years of Porsche experience to draw on. They tentatively qualified the car on eighth place overall, but the engine gave up. You’ll notice that Porsche’s other works drivers stuffed their physiques in a bunch of 908s. Jo Siffert and Brian Redman, for instance, drove chassis #003 in practice but resorted to a 908 Coupe for the race and duly won ahead of the Ferrari 312P driven by David Piper and Pedro Rodriguez.

Indeed, Porsche’s elite shied away from driving the 917 in those early days. Brian Redman recalled one of those dreary calls from Zuffenhausen. "[They called] to come and test it, and I thought, ‘Hmm, they’ve got ten drivers in the team – why do they want me?’ So I said I had some very important business, but I’d see if I could put it off, and I’d call them back in an hour. I rang Siffert: ‘Seppi, have you tested the 917 yet?’ ‘No, no, Brian,’ he said. ‘Not me. We let the others find out what breaks first!’"

Australian Frank Gardner remembers a similar call but, unlike Redman, he accepted the drive.

"The money they were offering was certainly good enough to cross a strip of water and get in the thing. I think the reason they bestowed this honor on me was that every 917 driver was in the hospital at the time, recovering from various stages of disrepair," Gardner remembered in his legendary laconic style. He had to "cross a strip of water" from the U.K. to mainland Europe because the 917’s second ever race was at the Nordschleife. His partner? David Piper, who’d just driven the much better Ferrari 312P at Spa.

Porsche Unveils a Stunning Concept To Mark The 50th Anniversary of the 1969 Porsche 917
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"Piper did one lap in practice at the ‘Ring, and was all for going back to England," mentioned Gardner. Eventually, the two did race and, after qualifying tenth overall (37.6 seconds slower than the pole-sitting 908/2), they finished eighth. "In addition to paying me money, they tried to take up a collection for an Iron Cross, which they reckoned I’d earned,” jokingly remarked the Australian legend. His description of the experience of driving the 917 at the Green Hell makes for an amazing read, one that is guaranteed to have you aching with laughter.

After his heroics with the pesky 917, he was invited to drive the car at Le Mans too. "Again, the money was great, but I’d had my lesson. Rolf Stommelen went like hell with the thing, but he had the whole of the Fatherland on his back, and he had to rise to the occasion." Stommelen took pole and, basically, that’s all that Porsche was aiming for as Rico Steinemann, Porsche’s Competition Manager, told his drivers that the car is probably going to expire. One of them, though, the car Attwood and Vic Elford drove, lasted over 21 hours. But things got better from there.

When the 917 showed up again for a race, in August of 1969 at the Zeltweg circuit in Austria (currently known as the Red Bull Ring), it featured a new setup at the back of its 'kurz heck.'

Two cars were entered, both by privateers and the No. 29 won piloted by Jo Siffert and Kurt Ahrens, Jr. Richard Attwood and Brian Redman drove the other one to finish third. Siffert and Piper then finished sixth at the Japan GP for sports cars in October and Piper was on hand again to partner Richard Attwood in the Kyalami 9-hour race in November. There, in South Africa, the 917 won for the second time, three laps ahead of former 917 pedaler Frank Gardner who was more than happy to get behind the wheel of the familiar Lola T70 Mk. III.

Porsche Unveils a Stunning Concept To Mark The 50th Anniversary of the 1969 Porsche 917
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As I said, the 917 returned in 1970 with revised aerodynamics and crushed Ferrari’s answered, the hastily developed 512S. At the end of 1971, the 512S had only won one race (the 1970 Sebring 12 Hours) versus 14 for Porsche. Granted, Ferrari had to start from scratch after campaigning the 3.0-liter 312P in 1969 and, by late 1970, when the 512M was introduced, Maranello was more than capable of fighting Stuttgart on equal grounds. But Ferrari again returned to the 3.0-liter formula in ’71 with the 312PB and the 512M as run by privateers couldn’t match the 917, with one exception: the Penske-prepared Kirk. F. White 512M. But that’s a story for another day. And another story, at least as interesting, is how Kremer Racing brought the 917 back from the dead to make the best out of a loophole in the ruleset in 1981. The whole thing didn’t quite work, but it goes to show what an amazing car the 917 was if a team thought it could make it competitive again after a 10-year hiatus. To put it into perspective, that’s as if I’d turn up at Le Mans this year with a modified Audi R15 or Peugeot 908 HDi FAP.

Further Reading

1969 - 1971 Porsche 917K High Resolution Exterior
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Read our full review on the 1969 - 1971 Porsche 917.

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