Porsche 935 – racing's most underrated car?

It was a winner from the outset, the inspiration for the outlandish ‘Moby Dick’, and it’s still making its mark in classic races. Just don’t call the 935 a road car…


935 in its most extreme iteration, the 935/78 'Moby Dick'


Just to prove that dying embers burn hottest, the De Varzarez Enterprises squad droned around to claim surprise honours in the 1984 Sebring 12 Hours. That would be surprise in the pejorative sense. Few would have picked this equipe as likely victors but going into battle armed with a Porsche 935 helped. Old it might have been, prehistoric would be closer, but this bewinged monster had long since dominated the Floridian endurance classic. This was its sixth win at the bumpy airfield circuit.

It was also the last significant victory for the model, at least at international level. It had been quite a ride since Jacky Ickx and Jochen Mass gave the car its triumphant debut at Mugello in ’76. But then you could argue that it never really went away, variations of the 935 and cloned copies continuing to rack up wins in local series well into the ’90s. And that’s before you factor in its role as a pop culture reference point to a legion of ’80s pre-shavers; from celluloid stinker Condorman to Transformers toys, it cast a wide shadow.

Yet despite an enviable win tally, the 935 is rarely cited as a blue chip racing car. It’s not a true classic some might (wrongly) argue, due to its road car origins. At the end of 917 era, Porsche’s competition department turned to the 911 as the instrument of choice. With experience of forced induction from its Can-Am programme, it was only a matter of time before a turbocharged 911 spearheaded an attack on the Le Mans 24 Hours. Running in the prototype class for the 1974 event, a 2.14-litre (factored by 1.4 this equated to a normally aspirated 3-litre) variation on the theme proved more successful than anyone could have envisaged: Herbert Müller and Gijs van Lennep placed second overall behind the winning Matra.


Pre-935 911 at ’74 Le Mans


With the production 911 Turbo (Type 930) road car announced later that same year, a tie-in with a turbocharged racing version therefore made sense, Porsche’s toe-in-the-water approach leading to complete immersion for the 1976 season. Belated regulations from the CSI called for three classes in the World Championship of Makes, namely Group 3 for production GT cars, Group 4 for limited-run models and Group 5 for heavily-modified ‘silhouette’ racers. The new 934 slotted neatly into the middle category, being in essence a lightened and stiffened road car. Privateers predictably flocked to adopt the latest evolution, but project leader Norbert Singer had something more radical in mind. Enter the 935.

From the archive

Starting out with a standard steel bodyshell and floorpan, beefed up with additional bracing in line with the 934, much of the outer metal was substituted by glassfibre: only the roof was still made of steel. The regulations allowed free interpretation of the bodywork and Porsche’s backroom boffins made full use of that. The front end was detachable in two pieces for access to the fuel and oil tanks. At the rear, the intercooler for the fuel-injected and turbocharged 2865cc flat-six was installed within a box-like cowling which supported the rear wing. Beneath all the Tupperware add-ons, the 911 Turbo’s cast rear swing arms picked up on ball-joint mountings, while the front end was suspended by tubular wishbones with rising-rate titanium coil springs all round. Brakes – meaty, drilled and ventilated discs clamped by aluminium four-piston callipers – were lifted from the 917.

Following its triumphant entrance at Mugello, the 935 won again at Vallelunga by which time the rule makers insisted on a few tweaks for the remainder of the ’76 season. They demanded Porsche replace the air-to-air intercooler with a more compact water-cooled version. It made little difference to its outright pace, with only BMW’s 3.5-litre CSL giving any cause for concern before backing out at the end of the year. Given free reign for ’77, the by now twin-turbocharged brute won every round. By the following year, works development resulted in what was essentially a fully spaceframed car which represented the end of significant in-house involvement in the model. As is typical in Porsche lore, it was left to enterprising privateers to maintain the model’s relevance.

Jacky Ickx Porsche 935 Dijon

Ickx (No1) at wheel of 935 at Dijon during debut year


Yet before the works dropped out completely, it did usher in two distinct sub-species, the one-off ‘Baby’ being built to win a televised round of the Deutsche Rennsport Meisterschaft (DRM) at the Norising in June ’77. On learning that only the up to 2-litre class was going to be aired, Porsche president Dr Ernst Fuhrmann requested a smaller-capacity car be built in just eight weeks. Ickx retired this curio after being overcome by heat exhaustion. However, the Belgian made amends in the following round at Hockenheim, winning by half a lap.

More extreme still was the loopy 935/78, better known as Moby Dick due to its whale-like proportions. With a roofline lowered by 75mm and extensive spaceframing of the chassis/rollcage along with innumerable aero tweaks, this remarkable device would race only four times. At the Silverstone Six Hours in May 1978, Ickx and Mass won by seven laps. They then retired at Vallelunga and the Norising (a DRM event) before managing only eighth at Le Mans following frequent problems.

Yet this wasn’t the end of the project. All the blueprints were handed over to the Joest and Kremer squads, and from these they could construct replicas. The former built two cars, the latter developing the theme further through its K3 and K4 editions. Most famously, a K3 won the 1979 Le Mans 24 Hours with Klaus Ludwig sharing with Don and Bill Whittington. Yet of all the many 935 pilots, former British Saloon Car Champion John Fitzpatrick was one of the few to experience each significant iteration of the model.

“The early 935s were prone to understeer which turned to oversteer out of corners,” he recalls. “They were very difficult to balance on the throttle because of the turbo lag. The Georg Loos cars were always like that but the Kremer-built K3’s aerodynamics were better, with more downforce on the front which made them easier to turn in. They also had a better intercooler arrangement which got rid of most of the turbo lag. Porsche was very conservative and always thought more about reliability than ultimate performance. This paid off in the long-distance races but many of our races in the US were shorter so we could run more turbo boost, higher revs and even bigger capacity motors.”

One of the few races that eluded ‘Fitz’ was Le Mans. In 1980 he came close, as co-driver Brian Redman recalls. “When you consider that these were basically modified street cars, it’s amazing what Porsche did,” says the affable ex-pat. “They were powerful, reliable and handled reasonably, as long as you were close to the limit of adhesion. The 935s had cockpit controllable turbo boost pressure controls. When I first drove for Dick Barbour, he said, ‘Brian, you must never change the boost setting; leave it at 1.2 bar.’ Well, I couldn’t understand why I kept qualifying lower than I thought I should have. One day at Road America, I asked 935 expert Rolf Stommelen if he ever touched the boost. He looked at me with amazement, and said, ‘Brian, do I ever touch zee boost? I turn it as far as it vil go!’ Problem solved…


This Whittington/Ludwig Porsche 935 on way to victory at 1979 Le Mans


“For Le Mans in 1980, Dick had a brand new K3 for him to drive along with John and myself. John put it on pole but soon after a new rule came from the control tower: pole was not for the fastest single lap, but the average time for the three drivers. That made us second. Dick was some way off the pace but in the last few laps put in a decent time. After he heaved himself out of the car, perspiring profusely, he said, ‘How did I do, Bri?’ I replied, ‘Great, Dick, you’re on the pace.’ ‘Yeah, I knew I could do it,’ he added. When I moved my hand in a twisting motion, he cried, ‘Brian, I swear before God, I never touched the boost!’ Yeah, right! We led for a long time in terrible weather before losing a cylinder in the early hours of Sunday morning. At around 6am, I came into the pits for a driver change and Dick took over. As usual, you wait for a lap to see the car go safely by. Not this time: into the pits he came. Dick says, ‘Brian, you guys are paid to drive in conditions like this – get back in!’ We finished fifth overall and first in the IMSA class. We should have won.”

From the archive

No matter, Redman did at least scoop the following year’s Daytona 24 Hours for the equipe (his second win there in a 935). Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, sealed 1980 IMSA honours for Barbour before going it alone to field his own 935s. “The races we won in IMSA in ’83 were particularly satisfying as we were up against the new GTP cars from Lola and March,” he says. “IMSA had banned the 956 which was a political thing. They didn’t want Porsche to keep winning all the races so they brought in a rule about drivers’ feet having to be behind the centreline of the front wheels. Then the 962 arrived in America in ’84 and that was the end of the 935.”

Not quite, the 935 continuing in IMSA into 1986 by which time it was comprehensively outclassed by more modern fare. Closer to home, 935s – or near approximations – have been a staple of club racing from one-make Porsche series to the Intermarque Challenge and more recently the British GT Championship. When the latter was formed in 1993, grids seemed to comprise entirely of 935s. Bringing things full circle, they are now mainstays of stand-alone historic meetings, from Classic Le Mans to Monterey and the wonderful Porsche Reunion events.

In period, the Porsche 935 won more than 100 top-flight races, including 24-hour victories in France and North America. They looked like nothing else on this planet, or any other for that matter, and ran the sonic spectrum from two chainsaws mating to frenzied shriek. Throw in memorable liveries, a roll-call of aces, the odd movie idol (Paul Newman shared the second-place finisher at Le Mans ’79) and you have one of the most remarkable sports-racing cars of all time. Even if it is just a modified road car. Ish.

Mike Wilds: “I raced one”

This likeable veteran made his Le Mans debut in a 935. It didn’t end well…

“I met a Swedish guy called Jan Lundgard at the 1980 Brands Hatch 1000km race. Jan owned a spaceframe 935 with Kremer bodywork and a unique turbocharged, 1.4-litre flat-six engine. I tested the car in Sweden before he offered me a drive at the following year’s Le Mans 24 Hours. I was down to drive alongside him and Axel Plankenhorn. The car handled well but it did have a tendency to understeer. The engine also made it that bit more difficult to drive due to the immense turbo lag. You really needed to left foot brake while your right foot kept the throttle open to help keep up the turbo’s rpm; then you’d be fired out of the corner.

“The car ran well in practice but the engineers were worried about turbo temperatures along the Mulsanne Straight. They insisted we lift off the throttle for two seconds at two points down what was a very quick straight. We duly complied but sadly the car melted a piston at about quarter-distance. The team removed the engine in the pitlane and attempted to replace the offending piston but it was too badly damaged. The crowd gave the mechanics a huge round of applause for their efforts, though. I had the first of my seven drives at Le Mans in 1981. It really was a fantastic event and it became my all-time favourite – and most frustrating – motor race.”