Keeping It Real In London With An Icon 917K And A Set Of License Plates
Photography by Virgiliu Andone
A brilliant slash of white passes in front of me on the bleak streets of a big, dark city. It feels like being on a page of a comic book, a panel from Wangan Midnight cut out and pasted into London. The protagonist chasing his nemesis along infinite highways and down into the winding streets and stacks of buildings that add up to the megalopolis itself, wrapped tightly into the shadows of a neon-speckled night; I remember reading these mangas in the 1990s and being immediately drawn in by the melodrama and the coolness of the world created therein.
They pursue each other from behind the wheels of exotic supercars, race cars, and our more democratically beloved sports cars in the names of justice and love. That feeling of alternate reality that inspired so many of us growing up seems real in the presence of this car. It’s as if—long after being schooled on the existence Santa Claus—a reindeer-powered sleigh just stopped at the local newsagent for some fresh milk, right before my disbelieving eyes.
If this is possible, if this night really exists, if the darkness allows us to clearly read the distinct shapes of the 917K, then you surely have to wonder what else is out there, what other dreams we used to have that are worth resurrecting and pursuing, eventually shaping them into our realities. But we are not in Tokyo, and the owner of this car nonchalantly negotiating the one-way arrows and speed-limited streets in front of me has no connection with the graphic illustrations that gave life to the comics of my childhood. David’s story of owning this tribute to a motorsport goliath started in the grandstands of Brands Hatch, not by ripping off the plastic wrapping of a magazine, but by witnessing a piece of motoring history.
Even by the generous British standards, it was a very cold day. And a very wet one. David’s father must have had to kidnap him from his mother’s clutches to take him out to the track on a day all but guaranteed to deliver a cold for the start of the school week. Some things are more important than a few missed geometry classes, though. On the other side of the barriers, David witnessed a seemingly fearless Pedro Rodriguez counter-steering his Porsche 917K like a bat out of hell, cheating physics lap after lap, feeling the hot breath of the reaper on his face through every waterlogged corner.
Maybe it was the sight of the mighty Porsche powersliding through Druids, maybe it was the fact that Rodriguez won that race by some five laps, or perhaps it was the fact that he did so despite being handed a reprimand and having two laps deleted. What we know for sure is that on that day in 1970 is that an indelible memory was formed, the 917K becoming an intrinsic part of David’s identity, something he never wanted nor could shake off of his soul.
He grew up to be a very successful automotive engineer, who worked for some major manufacturers across many continents throughout his impressive career. His earnings allowed him to afford the delight of owning some very special supercars, quenching his thirst for the exclusive performance that such mechanical wonders can offer to those with the checkbooks or the debt tolerance to live with them. For all the love he had for his Alfa Montreal or his Lamborghini Espada, though, there was a hole that couldn’t be filled.
He knew his connection with the 917 had to be manifested in drivable form, somehow. Year after year, the legendary machine became more and more expensive, inching ever further from mortal reach.
But then came a curve ball, as is often the good or bad case in life. In a corner of the motoring press, a report surfaced about David Piper selling a 917 body shell. Just the shell, no internals. A cool piece of memorabilia for sure, but not a very useful piece of kit—unless you wanted to make a “Porsche canoe,” as the journalist speculated. Ridiculous, right? Well, not quite. That body shell was created for the deified McQueen film, Le Mans. Somehow the drivers did not manage to wreck enough fiberglass bodies during the shoot (many of the shots of the 917s are actually Lolas shod in Porsche bodywork), and this one was spared. What made it extra special was that it is an exact replica of the 917, with the moulds coming off a genuine car. It just so happens that the bare body was all it took for an extraordinary chain of events to be set in motion.
Nine years later, the white shell hatched into a full blown automobile. Quite how it got there defies belief. The entire design was reverse engineered, using the proprietary tools of the auto industry. It’s been CAD-modeled down to the smallest components, with a frankly shocking attention to detail. Not just the tubular chassis—which is recreated in steel rather than the original’s aluminum (or even rarer and less practical magnesium), but also immensely complex parts—such as the uprights—are as accurate as you can imagine.
Everything was stress tested and extensively documented. Wheels were made custom, complex crash tests were simulated, but rather than try in vain to procure or replicate the original air-cooled flat-12, power in this wonderful tribute comes courtesy of a 964-sourced flat-six with its exhaust tuned so that the sound is as close to the original’s as you can get with half the cylinder count. The cumulative result of all this work is a race-ready machine that delivers all the expected thrills on a circuit. That by itself would make the car an accomplishment, but there are other 917 replicas to choose from that can deliver on just that front. But it’s only half the story of this car.
What makes it even more inspiring is that it was never meant to make David feel like the legendary Pedro Rodriguez. Well, OK, maybe just a little bit. In essence, however, it has a totally different meaning. The 917K was part of his personality, an integral part of what he valued and how he projected himself into the world.
He is no racing driver, and has no airs about being one. He drives on the streets. He still goes to the same London spots that he went to in his formative years when all the money he had to his name was stuffed into his billfold. He needed a car that would suit his lifestyle, not a surrogate for an alternate reality where he plays the role of a ’70s racing driver. David put the work in to materialize his emotional connection with the spectacular Porsche, in order to create an Icon of his own. It took an immense effort and many thought it could never be done, but this is in fact a street legal car.
When it comes to recreations, continuations, tributes, homages, replicas, whatever you want to call them, oftentimes we are left wondering on which side of the debate to stand on. It’s really a case by case basis in my experience and for what it’s worth, I don’t have an exact formula to follow to lead me to a thumbs up or down. Authenticity is always easy to argue for, but on other occasions I believe more meaning and value is achieved by revisiting projects of the glory years gone by and making them more accessible.
We shouldn’t look down on somebody trying to enjoy a Cobra replica in peace, but if said enjoyment is predicated on trying to pass it off to unsuspecting folks as the real deal, well, that’s just plain lame. In the case of this “917,” it’s really easy for me to make up my mind. David is keeping it real. Real to himself, to who he always has been, and what he believes in. Despite the attention to detail and accuracy, Icon Engineering wasn’t just trying to recreate the Porsche 917K, but to live out a dream that’s lingered since childhood, and the admiration for this project goes beyond recognizing the effort involved in getting there. Who’s to say the sight of this thing on the streets won’t inspire the next kid to pursue an equally wild and fulfilling odyssey in the world of cars?