The biggest, baddest, meanest Porsche ever made turns 40 today. Happy birthday, Porsche 917.
Wiggle your big toe. Wiggle it with enough determination and your feet, clad in racing boots, will pop into place. All snug? All buckled up? Palms not too sweaty on the balsa wood shifter knob? Good. Your toes will now serve as figureheads on a great German ship of aluminum and titanium. Now say hello to the twelve air-cooled cylinders set to turn your cabin into a furnace and blast you down the Mulsanne Straight at 246 MPH.
When the Porsche 917 debuted at the Geneva Motor Show on this day forty years ago, nobody knew it would come to define the very spirit of Porsche. The 917 gave the company its first of 15 victories at Le Mans. In four years, it morphed into the most powerful racing car ever made. Steve McQueen turned it into a movie star in his 1971 film Le Mans. But on that March day, all Porsche had was an unsorted prototype with abysmal aerodynamics. It would have died a quick death if not for the willpower of Ferdinand Piëch, who would go through similar misery to produce a car with similar perfomance thirty years later in the Bugatti Veyron.
The difference between the two is that anybody can drive the Veyron—as proven by Top Gear’s James May—but when the 917 debuted, racing drivers would’t touch it with a stick. And just consider the titanic amounts of chutzpah one needed to get into any death trap of a 60s racing car, which killed drivers with greater precision than earlier examples of German engineering killed GI’s.
The 917 wouldn’t stay on the road. Its lightweight aluminum spaceframe was barely enough to contain the immense power of the engine, an air-cooled flat twelve which began life with 580 naturally aspirated HP. Before that could happen, an engineer by the name of John Horsmann had to figure out a new tail configuration to make the car handle. These days, we have computers and wind tunnels to help, but back then, aerodynamics was Formula 1 guys sticking random wings on tall struts and Jim Hall hacking away at his Chaparrals in Texas. Horsmann’s version increased downforce at the expense of drag and the 917 Kurzheck—German for “short tail”— was born. This was the car that won the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans, the stage for McQueen’s car nerd epic.
The 917 repeated its performance the next year before it was outlawed for 1972. Derek Bell, who would claim five victories with the 917’s successors, remembers in an article he wrote for the October 2008 issue of Octane:
Testing for the 1971 Le Mans, [Porsche chief race engineer Norbert] Singer asked me what revs I was pulling in the 917 down the Mulsanne Straight. I told him 8100rpm, which he said was a good thing because the engine would blow up at 8200rpm! That equated to 246 mph and we have never been quicker since.
The car would then cross the Atlantic to race in CanAm. With the addition of turbocharging it morphed into Moon rocket lunacy and became the Turbopanzer, also known as the 917/30, which made 1100 HP in race trim and won every race but one in the 1973 CanAm season. It retired at Talladega Superspeedway in 1975 with driver Mark Donohue—who had a week to live—taking it around the tri-oval in a 225 MPH blitz.
Yet ask people about the 917 on any side of the Atlantic and nobody remembers it anymore. Racing regulations and drivers have come and gone and Porsche has been away from Le Mans for a decade now. So why it the 917 still worth remembering? It was the last in a line of sports racers which were out to kill you, which pushed the performance envelope at the expense of safety and sanity, and when you swap your eyes with those of its driver, it still gives you a queasy, insane ride around Le Mans:
And remember: your toes, vulnerable little antennae, are in front of the front axle all the time. They get stuck in the aluminum bodywork as you wiggle for the brake pedal at the end of the Mulsanne at Mach 0.32.
Happy birthday, now, you big bad savage thing.