Porsche started slowly in the evolution of their post-war racing production program. Racing versions of the initial 356 series, such as the 550, progressed into the RS61, but they never really competed with the big boys in major races.
Gradually, a series of cars increasing in speed and complexity evolved, from the 904 to the 910 and beyond. Then, dramatically, they introduced the 917 in the March 1969 Geneva Motor Show. This tubular chassis 4500cc, air-cooled 550-horsepower flat-12 engine, with striking aerodynamics was an immediate success. In a few weeks it had set top-speed record at 340 kph at Le Mans, and a track record at an average speed of 240 kph. The design of this engine followed the dictate of Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) to reduce the average speeds achieved by the Ford MKIV and the Ferrari 330 P4. To accomplish this goal, they limited the prototypes to a maximum of 3000cc.
On hearing this, Porsche decided to re-design the 917 prototype and to manufacture it in 25 examples as a GT car because the new rules allowed for 5000cc engines for small-scale, production models. Obviously, they sold very few of these cars to clients. Meanwhile, John Wyer’s crew tweaked the car so it ultimately outlasted the Ferraris in the two subsequent years of racing. In fact, the only wins any other car had during 1970 and 1971 in the World Championship racing series were victories by a Ferrari 512S in the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1970 and in 1971, Alfa Romeo with their T33/3 won three of the World Championship of Makes races.
The reason stated for allowing “production” cars to displace up to 5000cc was because the ACO wanted to have other manufacturers taking part with their small-scale production models, particularly Ford and Lola. Thus, in March 1968 the regulators reduced the number of required production cars for homologation to 25. The design features in these cars were radical and different, an evolution from intense research at the racing department.
The highly efficient, horizontally opposed engine of up to 4955cc had one of the best horsepower-to-displacement ratios of any car ever built. The tubular chassis was light, and the overall design was extremely aerodynamically efficient, particularly the long-tail version. The long-tail, however, was hard to manage for some drivers, and there were other advantages to the short-tail, exclusive of top speed. The long-tails are designed specifically for high-speed straights at Le Mans, where in competition they achieved almost 240 miles per hour. Only five long-tail chassis were made (910-040 to 910-044, all in 1970).
This car, 917-043, has an exciting history. When it first appeared they painted it purple with random, psychedelic markings. After it qualified first, these markings were added to, with green and white edging all over the purple background. They chose Willi Kauhsen and Gérard Larrousse to drive the car in the 1970 Le Mans 24-hour. Gaining one position per hour they were third after seven hours. By the 20th hour, they were second and maintained this position just behind 917K drivers Richard Attwood and Hans Herrmann in the winning 917-023. This race, held in the rain, was a dramatic event and one of the most famous competitions in Le Mans history.
In a conversation with Willi Kauhsen at the Rennsport Reunion at Daytona in February 2008, Willi, ever so bright and alert recalled with a great excitement that race. They gave him the opportunity to drive at Le Mans because he tested the long-tail extensively at the Hockenheim Track, among other places. He felt confident he could tame the unwieldy beast. With a sparkle in his eye, Willi recalled that under the torrential rain at the 1970 Le Mans the windshield wipers had difficulty doing their job. The car seemed to lose traction and his vision was poor. He said, “I knew something must be wrong when I saw the headlights coming towards me!” Willi did manage to get control of the car and the second place finish in that race was truly exciting.
When 917-043 came back to the factory for further research, The Porsche administration still believed that there were advantages to a perfectly balanced long-tail body, and studies were undertaken by race designer Norbert Singer, working with SERA, and finally, a 1971 version of the long-tail 917 was produced. A new body was put on this chassis as the result of this extensive study.
In April 1971, 917-043 came to the Le Mans Preliminary Test. This car, piloted by Jackie Oliver (winner of the 1969 24-hour Le Mans race in a Ford GT40) set a dramatic record with the fastest lap in the course’s history, 3 minutes 13.6 seconds, an average speed of over 250 kilometers per hour and a top speed of 386 kilometers per hour, which was over 40 kilometers per hour faster than the 917Ks. This was good enough for the pole. They set these records on April 18th, 1971 and were a tribute to the Porsche administration’s dedication to the long-tail, which has been maligned because of its dangerous handling characteristics. Under John Wyer’s control, 917-043 performed admirably but while leading the race for eleven hours it retired at 5:00 AM because of weak oil pressure.
917-043 returned to the factory and the body was reconverted into the 1970 long version, which they used in aerodynamic tests for several years. In 1975 they sold the chassis and body to Vasek Polak after being renumbered 917-044, an aberration the factory corrected and later properly authenticated as 917-043. We could trade this car for an unrestored S-series Mercedes Tourer and a Cunningham C-3 coupe, a swap I never regretted.
It was indeed exciting to have the car on the track at Daytona in 2008 for the Rennsport Reunion. It remains a popular item in the collection, as one of the most externally recognizable Porsches. The problem, from a collector’s point of view, is that the winners of the 70s and beyond are prototypes and these cars are essentially inoperable on the road, and therefore do not get to use, even on our three-acre museum track.
Porsche 917-043 is part of the world-renowned Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum. Studio photography courtesy of Michael Furman.