The Porsche 917 Is Race Car King
Development began in the summer of 1968, with the then-head of Motorsports Development (and grandson to Dr. Porsche), Ferdinand Piëch, at the helm.
The Porsche 917 was designed to compete in FIA’s Group 4 class, which for that year had been revised to allow cars with displacement up to 5,000 CC. Piëch presented the necessary minimum production run of 25 cars to FIA officials on April 20th, 1969—thus beginning the remarkable career of one of the most significant racing cars to ever turn a wheel in anger.
From concept to initial prototyping, the design process took only ten months. Based on the existing 8-cylinder 908, the 917 retained that car’s 2,300 mm wheelbase, but the driver’s seat was shifted heavily forward within the chassis in order to accommodate a longer, 12-cylinder engine. The seat was shifted so far forward, in fact, that the car’s footwell and pedal box were fitted ahead I of the front axle. Legendary 917 driver Brian Redman once commented, “your legs were effectively part of the crash structure”, which was something to keep in mind when blasting down the Mulsanne at 240 MPH with nothing but a thin piece of fiberglass between your toes and the blurred, quite immovable objects in your peripheral vision.
The 917’s heart was an air-cooled, 4.5 liter flat 12. Labeled “Type 912”, the Mezger-designed motor featured a twin-plug ignition fed by two distributors, and gear-driven DOHC cylinder heads. Full of exotic materials and built with equally exotic methods, its magnesium crankcase housed titanium connecting rods and a complex, forged steel crankshaft, which was built up from two pieces and electron welded at the center, with the primary camshaft drive gear located in between. It could spin to a maximum safe speed of 8,000 RPM, at which point it twisted out 520 HP through a gearbox that contained only four forward speeds. Later developments made significantly more power, the ultimate of which was the turbocharged 917/30, a monster of a car that in qualifying tune produced up to 1,580 HP, or, in rather more terrifying language, 1,967 HP/ton. Imagine a Veyron with roughly 4,000 HP. On bias ply tires. With no AWD or stability control…
At its 1969 Le Mans debut, the 917 showed promise but ultimately failed to deliver a win. A privately-raced example crashed at Maison Blanche during the first lap, killing British gentleman driver John Woolfe, an event that led directly to the end of the running “Le Mans start” the following year. The two remaining works cars led for nearly 300 laps before both retired with clutch problems.
The year 1970 saw the car’s first Le Mans victory, when a red and white 917K (K for Kurzheck, meaning short) driven by Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood finished first in a soggy race that saw only seven ranked finishers.
Several iterations of 917 again saw action at the 1971 running of Le Mans, and among them was the famous 917/20 “Pink Pig”. Victory for Porsche came at the hands of Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep, who drove a special magnesium-framed 917K to win first overall. For 39 years they held the overall distance record until they were eclipsed by Audi in 2010 with a remarkable, diesel-powered R15. To this day, however, Marko and van Lennep still hold the record for fastest-ever lap.
Further developments of the 917, notably the previously-mentioned turbocharged 917/30, went on to dominate Can Am for a few years, before rules changes led to the car’s retirement in 1974. Capable of 0–60 in 1.9 seconds and with a 260 MPH top speed, the 917/30 was the only non-Chevrolet-powered, championship-winning car the series ever saw, and it is frequently cited as “the car that killed Can Am”.
Finally, in 1981, a privately-entered and modified car called the 917K-81 qualified in the top ten for that year’s 24 Heures du Mans but was forced to withdraw after crashing heavily about seven hours in—it was an anti-climatic retirement for one of the most loved race cars of all-time.
Throughout its dramatic history, the 917 brought Stuttgart both glory and heartbreak in equal measure. Drivers describe it as either a terrifying pig or an absolute revelation to pilot, depending on which of its many revisions they’re asked to recollect. It’s a car whose legacy is deeply ingrained in the history of high-level motorsport. Its varied shapes and often lurid liveries are evocative of a golden age where safety took a backseat to glamour, where the Mulsanne was chicane-less, and before drivers were polished PR teams in Nomex suits, captured pitch-perfectly and forever on film with McQueen at the wheel of a Gulf-painted 917K.