Once Stolen And Now Perfect Following A Canepa Restoration, This Is The Last Prototype Porsche 911R
Photography courtesy of Canepa, by Zach James Todd
The first generation of the Porsche 911 is lauded for its simplicity; ranks of the 901’s dedicated followers will praise its direct feedback, its ability to communicate, and the analog nature that removes the dilution of other sports cars of its time. I’ve been lucky enough to drive a couple of E’s and T’s and S’s to confirm this praise, but one can only guess at the degree to which all of this is amplified when driving something like a Carrera RS. And the R that gave birth to it, and the rest of the 911’s racing career? That car is mythological. It has the kind of silence-inducing aura very few objects possess, automotive or otherwise. Forget the contrivances of the new car bearing its name, the original is a wholly individual product, and in the eyes of many, the ultimate 911. You’ve seen myriad hot rods donning the bullet rear lights and plastic window louvers, but to come across a genuine R is entirely different. Regardless of how well someone’s constructed their tribute, the real thing is infinitely just, more.
This is a car that doesn’t really have provenance, rather, it’s a car that creates it, and it has done so for every racing 911 that followed, and thus the 911 at large. The R does have a history though, and it was born from the pursuit of lightness. Early in the 911’s production, in 1967, Porsche took a quartet of S’s and decided to see how much mass they could remove from their top sports car. 20 production versions would follow, but these first four were the prototypes, and the purest examples of the philosophy. These four cars began a homologation process that would lead to the RS, and by extension, to the likes of the RSRs, RSR Turbo, 934s, and 935s.
While the roughly 2,300-pound weight of the S is decidedly light, Porsche engineers somehow managed to remove about a quarter ton from it. From a car that we collectively think of as unfettered! This was achieved through an aggressive regiment of swapping in materials and wholly removing others; the doors for instance are GFK fiberglass. As are the deck lids front and rear—even the hinges were made of lightweight aluminum. And where steel was necessary for the body’s rigidity, it was often reduced to a thinner gauge. You already know there was to be zilch in the way of sound deadening and insulation. Carpets? No way. Here, have a rubber mat to cover the bare floors. Clock in the cluster? Unnecessary. Covering the key tumbler? Why? Glovebox door? What do you need to put in there besides something that weighs something? No door then! The windows were plastic, and the rolling mechanism was also targeted and replaced, with a simple leather strap. It’s surprising that it wasn’t simply a piece of looped twine.
This fanatical removal of poundage alone would have resulted in a quick bit of kit, but a 1,991cc twin-plug flat-six belting out a peak 225hp and able to spin up to an 8,000rpm redline made its performance even more hyperbolic. Even more hyperbolic, that’s a kind of a tautology, but it’s not wrong here; this was a featherweight, high-strung, and nothing-untouched effort to take the early 911 to its extreme form. Remember, this was only a few years after the 901’s introduction to the world, and there was as of yet no notion of how far that idea would develop. This car was it. Emphatically so. It was a race car built from an accomplished road car, and it borrowed from the company’s fully-fledged competition cars like the 906. The oil tank for instance was molded in a close mimic of the 906’s design, and it shared the same fittings, filler, and thermostat. It also swapped the pattern of the 901 transmission for a dogleg layout if its racing bent wasn’t already clear enough.
So what are we looking at here? This is R4, the last of that small group of prototypes, and surely the most original and complete of them. It’s life was a bit tumultuous though. It was originally sold in 1969 to a Porsche distributor in France, who would turn it over to its first owner. He missed a few payments on the car, causing its return a dealer who would turn around to auction off the car in 1970. Only it never arrived to that auction. It was stolen the day before it was to be sold. It was effectively lost to the world for the next two decades, until it was discovered sitting in a warehouse in Marseilles. In surprisingly good condition no less.
After its discovery, R4 was returned to its last legal owner, the French dealer, Etablissements Balsa, with a total of only 2,300km having been turned. It was sold to a man in the United Kingdom next, where it would remain for a period of time before finally making its way to the United States in 2006. This arrival stateside brings us to now, as soon after it was brought over, it found its way to Bruce Canepa’s. You may know the name, and if you don’t, you’re in for a treat. As is easily deduced by the caliber and quality of the cars that enter and exit the Californian facility, Canepa is simply world class when it comes to restoring and maintaining our most prized pieces of motorsport and sports car history. R4 would be in good hands, and arguably the best.
Though it would undergo a full restoration at Canepa, the car was exceptionally original and free of the typical scars suffered by so many decades-old race and prototype cars upon its arrival. Apparently the thieves, while not showing much concern for the property of others, did in fact care for the car. At least to the extent that they kept it hidden away in a dry place for the duration of its MIA period. It was intact, original (every single fiberglass panel survived), preserved. Free of the blemishes and quick-fixes and imbedded history of a typical racing car’s rough life, R4 was, and surely is, a remarkable car. Having been owned by the same individual for the past decade, it now shows a scant 9,176 total kilometers on its dash. The quality of its restoration reflects the care and knowledge of Canepa, but it also offers a clear view into the birth of a racing legend still being told.
H/T to Canepa for sharing the history of R4 with us