It’s big. It’s fast. It’s held the lap record on the Nürburgring for 27 years. Ready?
There is something awesome and terrifying about the slow yet relentless way Porsche came to dominate sports prototype racing. The 24 Hours of Le Mans used to be a Ferrari game. So much so that in the early 60s, proper development would not start on their Formula One car until June, until Le Mans was in the bag. It was always in the bag. At least until Ford swaggered in with a car you may have heard of: a certain GT40.
Meanwhile, making steady progress year by year, Porsche were building away at their own prototypes. In 1969, they produced the 917, an absolutely terrible and undriveable car. Then they fixed it and it won everything and it became the Turbopanzer and—oh my god it killed Can-Am!
In the early 80s, the rules for sports prototype racing were replaced with a new set of regulations—Group C—which demanded new designs. Porsche’s answer was the 956, a ground effects aluminum monocoque powered by a turbocharged flat-six. What flat six? An all-aluminum
3.6 2.65-liter flat six turbocharged by Messrs. Kühnle, Kopp und Kausch, popping out 600+ HP even under low boost.
One of the men who called it home was Derek Bell, the only man who can wear a bowl ‘do and not look ridiculous. After stunt driving for Steve McQueen in his movie Le Mans, he went on to win the eponymous race five times. What he did on his off days was install a camera in his car to make In Car 956. The title says it all, really:
The 956 was also a perfect candidate for the IMSA GT championship, if not for some pesky American rules about pedal box design. Like in the 917, the feet of a 956 driver were in front of the front axle. Now, who would possibly object to sticking their feet in front of a front axle at 250 MPH?
Schulz, produce zee Pedalboxvergrößerer! The resulting Porsche 962 was basically the same car with the driver’s feet in relative safety.
These are beautiful, clean racing cars, very frightening racing cars. If Derek Bell’s banzai lap there didn’t make you queasy, consider this: for the 1983 Nürburgring 1000-kilometer race, Stefan Bellof stuck his 956 on pole with a time of 6 minutes 11 seconds. That’s an average speed of 125 MPH. Around the Nürburgring Nordschelife. Yes, video:
Bellof, the Sebastian Vettel of his age, was just a bit too fast for his own good: two years later, he was killed at Spa in Eau Rouge corner when he crashed his 956 into Jacky Ickx’s.
But the single greatest feat of the 956/962 was the fact that twelve years passed between its first and last victories at Le Mans. And, good lord, you can even drive one on the public road. In 1994, Australian racing driver Vern Schuppan stuck indicator lights and license plates on his 962 and called it the Schuppan 962CR:
Yes, it comes in black and no, you probably can’t afford it. But it’s proof of my secret theory that nothing beats street-legalized Le Mans prototypes when you’re looking for the coolest road car in the world.
Just ask Count Giovanni Volpi:
But that’s a story for another day.
Photo Credit: Darrell Ingham/Allsport, Yoshihiro Inomoto, formulanone/Flickr, RioLoverZ/Flickr, Count Giovanni Volpi