Back in 1969 Porsche was assembling the first of what was to become its most desirable models ever, the 917 endurance racer. For a while there it was also the company’s most dangerous product.
By far its most famous feat was winning the Le Mans 24-hour two years on the trot – 1970 and 1971 and it had numerous other successes to its credit. Initially running an ultra-light (42kg) gas-filled space frame, it was powered by a diabolically simple concept – two of the company’s former flat six powerplants combined to form a flat 12. That engine started as a 4.5 litre unit that grew in capacity over time and ultimately produced 1100 horses in turbocharged form.
The legendary Frank Gardner was interviewed by Motorsport Magazine online and had this to say about his first experience with the car, which he co-drove with David Piper in the its first proper race at Nurburging. Evidently the pair was offered a suspiciously large amount of money to steer the thing.
“I think the reason they bestowed this honour on me was that every 917 driver was in hospital at the time…
“This was one of the very first 917s, with an alloy chassis, which was gas-filled. There was a big gauge in the cockpit, which measured the gas pressure, and that was there to keep you informed of the chassis’s condition. If it zeroed, they said, that meant that the chassis was broken, and I should drive mit care back to the pits.
“Once I knew what the gauge was for, I also knew that if it zeroed I wasn’t going to drive it mit care anywhere – I was going to park the bastard there and then, pick up my Deutschmarks and get home to Mum...” It turned out that the way the team found the crack was to wander around the frame with a cigarette lighter!
Gardner went on to say the thing had some entertaining power characteristics, with 300 horses at 5000rpm and another 300 chiming in between 5000 and 6000.
Then there was the rampant chassis movement. The early chassis flexed to an alarming degree. It was so bad he reckoned the gearshift went wandering: “You’d reach out for where the lever had been last time you used it – and it wasn’t there! It had moved.”
That said, the 917 evolved into a fiercely competent race car.
Ed’s note: The Frank Gardner quote is from a Motorsport Magazine feature on 917s, in the words of their drivers. See the full story here: tinyurl.com/y6acrqfh)