Editor’s Note: Welcome to the Octane Icons, a new series born from our newly minted Octane channel. In the coming weeks, we’ll bring an enthusiast’s mindset to a vehicle that has made its mark on the automotive world, whether by design, engineering, performance, historical significance, influence or all of the above. This week we examine the Porsche 917, a car with a difficult and storied journey — created with the singular purpose of winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Its Place in History
As a kid, I worshiped the 917. My prized possession was a 1/18th scale 917 in red, white and blue Martini Racing livery. There was good cause for this passion. In 1968, after years of of being dominated by the likes of the Ferrari 250 and the Ford GT40, Ferdinand Piech committed himself to designing and building a Porsche that could take the checkered flag at Le Mans. Using the Porsche 908 as a starting point, Porsche set to work, taking advantage of revised rules from the Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI) of the FIA (the sanctioning organization for competition racing at the time) dictating that only 25 units of an entered race car need to be manufactured, rather than the usual 50 for the 5.0 liter Group 4 racing category. Porsche spent considerable money to produce 917 under the new rules, designing the car in less than 10 months.
In the summer of 1968, CSI visited the Porsche plant to find that only three working cars had been finished while the rest were still being completed; Porsche’s homologation (compliance with racing standards and evidenced by a certain number of production cars) was rejected. Porsche was told to get the remaining 22 cars finished. Nearly a year later, Piech was finished with his 25 cars and lined them up outside the factory for CSI to inspect. He had finished.
Based on a less rigid but substantially lighter aluminum frame, the 917 already had an advantage over its heavier predecessor, the 908. The suspension coils were made out of titanium, further decreasing weight. So obsessed was Porsche with decreasing weight (thereby increasing the power-to-weight ratio) that they even made the shift knob out of balsa wood. The most impressive part of this tour de force, however, was the 4.5 liter 12-cylinder engine that beefed up the 908’s 8-cylinder and boasted 580 horses. The Porsche was light, crazy fast and, as it turns out, incredibly dangerous.
The aerodynamics of the original 917 (longtail) allowed for higher speeds but created less downforce, making the car jittery and apt to handle badly. Drivers were afraid of the car, and for good reason; driver John Woolfe was killed in a 917 in 1969’s Le Mans race after he lost control of his car on the first lap.
The 917 was upgraded with a riotous 5.4 liter flat 12 cylinder that produced 1,500 horsepower, reaching a top speed of 250 mph and hitting 60 in an unheard of 1.9 seconds.
Porsche then handed over its racing endeavors to Jon Wyer/Gulf Racing. Their Chief Engineer, by the name of John Horsman, noticed something that others had apparently overlooked: he spotted dead gnats along the body of the 917 rather than at the rear spoiler, lending credence that the airflow was not making it to the rear end, contributing to the car’s instability. A few ad hoc modifications were made to the rear end and the spoiler, improving downforce and making the car shorter.
Thus, the iconic Porsche 917K was born. The shortened 917 went on to dominate the “World Championship for Makes” in 1970 by taking not only the 24 Hours of Le Mans but also Daytona, Monza, Spa, Watkins Glen, Brands Hatch and the Austria Ring. In 1971, with a slightly larger displacement, it won Le Mans a second year in a row. Its position had been solidified and Piech’s goal had been attained, not once but twice. If that doesn’t say enough about the 917, in the 1971 movie Le Mans, Steve McQueen used the 917K as his primary car during filming (though we’re still a bit peeved that he wrecked one).
Why It Matters
The 917 was born out of a dream that was, at times, a nightmare: designed and built in under a year, the modification of an older Porsche that couldn’t bring home the Le Mans title, fearsome to its own drivers for all the wrong reasons before it finally went under the knife, and finally, a champion time and time again. The 917 was so good, in fact, that the FIA eventually banned the car, but Porsche had the prescience to bring it to the States for Group 7 racing at Can Am, where there were no displacement rules, and upped the 917 to a riotous 5.4 liter flat 12 cylinder, replete with twin turbos and a colossal 1,100 horsepower. The turbo boost was augmented to 39 psi and this 917/30 actually created 1,500 horsepower, letting loose at a top speed of 250 mph and hitting 60 in an unheard of 1.9 seconds.
In the 1973 Can Am season, the 917/30 won every race but one. Something had to be done about it, frankly. The car was eventually retired from Can Am in 1974 when Can Am instituted a rule disqualifying any cars that got worse than 3 mpg, but it was too late. The 917 had made its mark on the world of automobile racing, bringing Porsche to the forefront and utterly crushing its competition. The 917 had birthed six versions and through re-engineering and tweaks over the course of more than a decade. Today it stands as one of the most memorable racing cars in history.