Porsche's hottest numbers
In 60 years the Stuttgart firm has produced some glorious cars. Picking the 10 best models would be tricky enough, but the 10 best individual chassis? Time to turn to a true Porsche expert…
By Michael Cotton
There was a time when I did not care for Porsches at all. There, heresy confessed! My school exercise books were covered in drawings of Ferrari and Maserati Grand Prix cars, beautiful front-engined machines, always red, and I was no fan of the rear-engined Cooper-Climax in which Jack Brabham won his first World Championship. It was too small, it didn’t make the right noise and seemed, well, puny against the Italian machines. The same went for Porsches, which lacked the sheer presence of the Jaguar D-types, Mercedes SLRs, Ferrari Testa Rossa and Maserati ‘Birdcage’.
You couldn’t overlook the Porsches, though, and in time I learned to respect the silver cars from the Zuffenhausen side of Stuttgart, the more so when Jean Behra and Hans Herrmann claimed third overall at Le Mans in 1958, with two more RS-Ks in fourth and fifth.
The year 1968 was special for me: appointed editor of Motoring News on my 30th birthday I immediately claimed the right to cover endurance racing (as well as Formula 1 and most of the F2 races – we were not overstaffed in those days). Vic Elford won the Monte Carlo Rally, a first for the Porsche 911, the Daytona 24 Hours in a 907, the Targa Florio in another 907, and the ADAC 1000Kms at the Nürburgring in the recently-introduced 908.
From then on I was hopelessly hooked on Porsche’s racing cars, and blessed my good fortune when the magnificent 917 took the world by storm in 1970 and ’71, driven by some heroic racers: Pedro Rodriguez, Jo Siffert, Brian Redman, Vic Elford and Derek Bell (and let me not omit Jacky Ickx, their big rival in the Ferrari 512).
I appreciated the integrity of top engineers Helmuth Bott, Peter Falk and Norbert Singer, and their never-ending quest for perfection, defined as generating enough speed for their products to win races with bomb-proof reliability. You don’t achieve 16 Le Mans victories in the space of 28 years without these qualities.
I worked through a golden era and I am thankful that I was present to bring reports to MN’s readers. Now, here are my 10 favourites. To make the task more challenging, the editor asked me to name my favourite Porsche racing cars by chassis number, so I’ve had to dig deep!
Porsche’s first major endurance victory was achieved in the Targa Florio race, Sicily in 1956, when Umberto Maglioli drove a 550A RS (Renn Sport) single-handedly over 10 laps of the mountainous ‘Little Madonie’ circuit, each lap 72 kilometres in length.
The 550A, a major advance on the 550 model, had a tubeframe chassis and was powered by a 1.5-litre, air-cooled flat-four engine developing 135 horsepower. It was a four-cam engine designed by a young engineer named Ernst Fuhrmann (who headed the Porsche company in the 1970s), and the 550A RS weighed no more than 550kg. It was ideal for the Targa Florio.
The Targa Florio was not on Porsche’s race schedule for 1956 but competitions director Huschke von Hanstein persuaded Dr Ferry Porsche to agree to a low-profile, single car entry. The 550A was trailered down to Sicily by two mechanics and entered for Maglioli – who had won the race in 1953 at the wheel of a Lancia – and von Hanstein himself. Von Hanstein did not do a practice lap, however, and when Maglioli signalled at his first pitstop that he would remain at the wheel von Hanstein walked up the course to take photographs among the orange groves, not reappearing in the pit area until the finish.
Mercedes, Maserati and Osca entered factory teams but they had their share of bad luck and Maglioli kept on driving for the full 720-kilometre distance.
The plucky Italian reached the finishing line in 7hr 54min, completely exhausted, dehydrated and with his bare arms badly sunburned. Incredibly, Maglioli went the full distance on the original set of Continental tyres, so his pitstops were for fuel and nothing else.
Back in Zuffenhausen, the Porsche production line was halted so that all the workers could greet the Targa Florio winner. The mayor of Stuttgart made a congratulatory speech and, in a moving ceremony, Ferry Porsche thanked everyone in the competitions department. This was the first of Porsche’s record-breaking 11 victories in the event.
718 RS60 051
A development of the tubular frame 550A race car, the 718-K claimed third, fourth and fifth positions overall at Le Mans in 1958, at the time easily Porsche’s best-ever result in the 24 Hours.
The aluminium-bodied Spyders, with booming exhaust pipes, were becoming familiar at race tracks around the world and the RS60 version, prepared for the new FIA regulations in 1960, was a further refinement with a full-width windscreen (25 centimetres tall), a proper luggage area and a streamlined fairing behind the driver’s head. The four-cam, four-cylinder engines were either 1.5-litre capacity and 150bhp, or 1.6 litres and 160bhp, the magic 100bhp per litre reached at last.
Success was immediate, and emphatic, at the second round of the 1960 World Championship of Makes. Hans Herrmann and Olivier Gendebien won the Sebring 12 Hours on the debut of the RS60, with a 1.6-litre engine and at a record speed of 84.92mph, followed by Bob Holbert and Roy Schechter in a 1.5-litre RS60 (718-052). This was Porsche’s first major win on US soil and it was hugely important in the positioning of the make in the North American market.
Significantly in Germany, the Sebring success was only the second World Championship win for Porsche after the Targa Florio, but the third World Championship victory soon followed with another outright win in the Targa Florio, again for 718-051, this time driven by Herrmann and Jo Bonnier. By switching cars during the race, Herrmann also managed to finish third overall in another RS60, co-driving Gendebien. At the end of the 1960 season Porsche tied with Ferrari on points, but the title went to the Italian marque on a third-position tie-breaker at the Nürburgring.
Vic Elford, at the height of his career, won the 1968 Targa Florio in this Porsche 907, in the finest drive I have seen in four decades of covering motor racing at championship level. A sirocco wind had been blowing for days from North Africa, making the weather stifling hot, and the road surface was breaking up badly in various places around the 72-kilometre Little Madonie circuit.
With 270bhp surging from the 2.2-litre flat-eight engine, the Porsche 907 was certainly the best car for the event, faster than the 2.5-litre Alfa Romeo T33 of Nino Vaccarella and Udo Schutz, and the fleet of 2-litre Alfas that formed the main opposition. Elford set the fastest practice lap in 36min 47.7sec, well inside the 47min 9sec lap record, despite stopping to see if team-mate Lodovico Scarfiotti was alright after crashing his Porsche. The Kentish driver must have been second-favourite to win the race… after local hero Vaccarella, of course.
The opening lap was a disaster for Elford, though. A rear wheel worked loose and he had to stop to tighten it. Then it worked loose again and this time the 907 plunged off the road, blowing the front-right tyre. Some willing spectators lifted the Porsche while he fitted the BFGoodrich space-saver wheel and carried on to the pits, losing no less than 16 minutes to Scarfiotti and Vaccarella’s Alfa.
From there, Elford put in a manic drive, breaking the lap record repeatedly and knocking 1min 7sec off the previous year’s record, lowering it to 36min 2.3sec. After four laps he was spent, veering into the pits to hand over to co-driver Umberto Maglioli – the hero of the event 12 years previously. The Italian performed well, for the three laps he was allowed, then Elford got back in to complete the remaining three laps, carving chunks of time off the leaders on each tour. He finally gained the lead on lap nine, overtaking Nanni Galli’s Alfa Romeo and pulling out nearly three minutes by the end of the 10th.
Elford didn’t stop at the pits after taking the flag, but drove to the back of the paddock in a state of exhaustion. Two litres of water were poured over his head, and two cigarettes fell from his numbed fingers before he could light the third. It was a heroic triumph, in my mind a piece of motor racing history.
That year Elford won the Monte Carlo Rally in a Porsche 911, shared victory in the Daytona 24 Hours, won the 1000 Kilometres at the Nürburgring, and finished fourth in the French Grand Prix at Rouen, in a Cooper-BRM. It was his golden era, a record that can never be matched.
Porsche had prepared single-seater versions of the type 718 sports car since 1957 conforming to the 1.5-litre Formula 2, and when Grand Prix racing switched to 1.5 litres in 1961 it presented Dr Ferry Porsche with a fine opportunity to
show what his company could do in the
Moving on from the 1.5-litre ‘Fuhrmann’ four-cam engines which developed 160 horsepower, Porsche built four new cars for the 1962 season conforming with the GP regulations. Helmuth Bott, later head of R&D at Weissach, was responsible for the chassis design which featured a much slimmer body with reduced drag, torsion bar suspension at front and rear, and disc brakes of Porsche’s own design. It was powered by an entirely new flat-eight cylinder engine, still air-cooled and with two valves per cylinder, developing 180bhp with four Weber twin-choke carburettors.
Two of these cars, tested for the first time in March ’62, were allocated to Dan Gurney and Jo Bonnier, and it was in the fourth chassis built that Gurney achieved Porsche’s first and only GP victory at the Rouen-les-Essarts circuit, which hosted the French Grand Prix on July 8.
Gurney only managed sixth place on the grid, the tall American decidedly unwell with a fever. The team doubted that he would go the 54-lap distance in very hot conditions, but he called on all his reserves and after 20 laps he was up to third place behind Graham Hill’s BRM and Jim Clark’s new Lotus 25.
At 33 laps Clark retired with a suspension failure, and Hill’s BRM stopped on the circuit on lap 44 with an ignition problem, letting Gurney through to lead the last 10 laps. He had lapped second-placed rival Tony Maggs’ Cooper-Climax, and the Porsche team was jubilant.
A quarter of a million spectators turned up to watch the German Grand Prix four weeks later, 15 laps of the Nordschleife, and perhaps they were disappointed as Gurney managed only third place behind Hill’s BRM and John Surtees’ Lola-Climax.
Porsche withdrew from single-seater racing at the end of 1962, finding that the demands of being in Grand Prix racing were beyond its resources, and concentrated on what it did best: endurance racing, in which the flat-eight engine played a very important role.
Jo Siffert, ably backed by Brian Redman, dominated the 1969 Six Hours World Championship race at Brands Hatch in this car, even qualifying faster than the lap record he had set the previous July in the British Grand Prix, driving Rob Walker’s Lotus 49.
The 908 model, introduced in 1968, was the first 3-litre racing car made by Porsche, designed and built to new regulations introduced by the FIA. At last, Porsche had a car that could fight for victories throughout the season, rather than waiting for larger-engined Ferraris, Fords and Chaparrals to fall by the wayside. Class wins were no longer interesting for the Zuffenhausen company.
Switching from Dunlop to Firestone tyres, Siffert claimed pole position on the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit at 1min 28.8sec, no less than 5.8 seconds faster than he’d gone the year before in a Porsche 907, and even faster than his 1min 29.7sec lap record in the Lotus 49. This was sensational! How could a sports car weighing 600 kilogrammes and powered by a 360-horsepower air-cooled engine be faster than a 500kg, open-wheel Formula 1 car powered by a 410 horsepower Ford Cosworth DFV?
Confidence evaporated when the Siffert/Redman Porsche was being warmed up. One electrical circuit for the twin-plug ignition system was faulty, so the combustion was not complete. The electronic control box was changed, to no effect, then the distributor was changed, again to no effect. There was no time to change the coil, so Siffert started from pole position in a car that was not running as well as it should, lacking 400rpm.A Ferrari led but was delayed first by a puncture, then by a stretched throttle cable, allowing Porsche to make a clean sweep of the podium. Siffert and Redman won comfortably, at an average of 100.22mph, from the sister cars of Gerhard Mitter and Udo Schütz, and Vic Elford with Richard Attwood. This was the first World Championship victory for the Porsche 908/02 and the first time that the team of three cars had raced with complete reliability. This performance put Porsche on course for its first World Championship of Makes, at the expense of JW Automotive’s Gulf-sponsored Ford GT40 team.
Fame is everlasting for the Gulf Porsche 917 raced by Pedro Rodriguez and Leo Kinnunen at Brands Hatch in 1970. Yes, back to Brands Hatch, where so many exciting sports car events were run over the years with sponsorship from BOAC. In 1970 the event was run over 1000 kilometres, unfortunately in wet, horrible conditions, which seemed to bring out
the best in drivers like Rodriguez and Jacky Ickx.
The Ferrari 512s of Chris Amon and Ickx claimed the front row of the grid, Vic Elford was third in the Porsche Salzburg 917, Jean-Pierre Beltoise fourth in the shrill Matra 650, and Jo Siffert and Rodriguez were only fifth and seventh in the 39-car line-up, rather lower than team director John Wyer had expected.
At the start, in atrociously wet conditions, Barrie Smith had an accident that you could see coming from a mile away, losing control of his Lola T70 at Clearways on the opening lap and smashing into the outer wall near the start-finish line with a crash that shook the press box. Yellow flags were waved vigorously, and then Rodriguez was shown a black flag with his number on it: come in, number 10, for a lecture from clerk of the course Nick Syrett about the perils of passing under the yellows.
Syrett opened the Porsche driver’s door and wagged his finger at the impassive Mexican, delivering a homily that was almost certainly not striking a chord. Then after 30 seconds at rest the Gulf car rejoined the race distinctly sideways. Rodriguez set about catching and passing all his rivals with a virtuoso display of wet-weather driving, power-sliding out of Druids and down to Bottom Bend. Amon spun his Ferrari, Ickx needed a new windscreen wiper, Piers Courage spun his Alfa Romeo along the main straight, an example copied (less successfully) by his co-driver Andrea de Adamich.
But Rodriguez made no mistakes at all, passing Elford forcibly on the inside line through Paddock Bend on lap 16, and then did the same to Amon to take the lead on lap 20. Within six laps he was 23 seconds clear of the Ferrari, an astonishing performance, and by the time he handed over to Kinnunen shortly before half-distance, he was a full two laps ahead of the field.
The same Gulf Porsche 917-016 was driven by Rodriguez and Kinnunen to victories at Monza and Watkins Glen in 1970, and was used as a practice car throughout the ’71 season.
Why would I choose as one of my favourites a Porsche that won but a single race? Because the 935/78, dubbed Moby Dick on account of its low, sleek bodywork which reminded people of the aquatic mammal, was the ultimate racer of its breed. It was the ultimate 911 if you like, built to tease the very limits of the FIA’s Group 5 regulations. The floor pan was dropped by four inches, the gearbox was turned upside down so as to make a straight line for the driveshafts, and the 911’s steel bodywork was sheathed in new, plastic bodywork which utterly changed its appearance.
With 750 horsepower or more at the disposal of Jacky Ickx and Jochen Mass, the 935-78 annihilated the Porsche customer teams taking part in the Silverstone Six Hours in 1978, a perfect debut resulting in a victory by seven clear laps.
The customers, led by the Kremer brothers and Georg Loos, were vociferously unhappy, but Porsche never really intended to give them a drubbing. Rather, the 935-78 was designed to go to the limit of the regulations and to have a Group 5 GT car capable of getting a good result at Le Mans. It could never be a Le Mans winner, though, as designer Norbert Singer conceded, on account of its fuel consumption enforcing more pitstops than the lighter and less powerful 936s would require.
Moby Dick did not cover itself in glory at Le Mans. Like two of the 936s it was powered by a flat-six engine with water-cooled cylinder heads, improved cooling allowing the fitment of four valves in each cylinder and a consequent increase in engine speed to 8500rpm.
The 935 was by far the fastest closed car on the Mulsanne Straight at 366km/h (227mph), but it got through 120 litres of fuel every 45 minutes, and developed a nasty misfire early in the 24 Hours resulting in the injector pump being changed. With other delays, Moby Dick finished eighth overall at Le Mans, fourth in the Group 5 category. Moby Dick inspired the Kremer brothers to build a less complex version, the 935 K3, powered by the familiar air-cooled engine, and this succeeded in winning at Le Mans in 1979.
This special version of the 908, with the driver seated so far forward that his feet were ahead of the front wheels, and with the differential located behind the gearbox, was prepared specially for just four demanding events – the Targa Florio and the Nürburgring 1000 Kilometres, in the 1970 and ’71 seasons.
One particular car stands out from the others, chassis 008, because it won three of these four races and was then bought by Reinhold Joest who campaigned it with great success throughout the ’70s. In 1975 he replaced the flat-eight 3-litre engine with a turbocharged flat-six which gave it a new lease of life, winning the opening round of the World Sportscar Championship at the Nürburgring in 1976, and the European Sportscar Championship in ’78 with victories at Monza and Vallelunga, second at the Nürburgring and third at the Salzburgring.
Ferdinand Piëch presented five Porsche 908/03s like a proud father in Sicily in May 1970, three in Gulf colours and one liveried for Porsche Salzburg; the fifth was a spare, in case of accidents during practice. The four race cars each bore the symbol of a suit of cards, a heart for rally ace Björn Waldegård and Richard Attwood, a club for Pedro Rodriguez and Leo Kinnunen, a diamond for Jo Siffert and Brian Redman, and a spade for Vic Elford and Gerard Larrousse.
The weight of the cars was down to 540kg, or 50kg less than the 908/02, Piëch explaining passionately that every gramme saved was one less to brake for the corners, one less to carry round the corners and one less to accelerate out.
Siffert set the fastest practice time in 34min 10sec (nearly two minutes faster than Elford’s banzai lap in the 907 two years previously), but he and Redman had to work hard for their victory, scrapping with Vaccarella and Ignazio Giunti in the larger, heavier Ferrari 512S.
This same car, chassis 008, also won the ADAC 1000Kms in 1970 in the hands of Elford and Kurt Ahrens, and the German race again in ’71 with Elford and Larrousse, before starting its new life with Joest.
Porsche built four 936 sports-prototype racing cars to the Group 6 regulations framed for 1976 but only raced three of them, the fourth kept as a spare and later sold to Reinhold Joest. Chassis 002 was the Le Mans winner in 1976 (Jacky Ickx/Gijs van Lennep), 001 won the 24 Hours in ’77 (Jürgen Barth, Hurley Haywood and Ickx), and it was the turn of 003 to triumph at Le Mans in ’81, a perfect race in that it suffered nothing worse than a punctured tyre and made only 28 pitstops, losing the least track time of any prototype.
This Le Mans win, the sixth for Porsche, followed the appointment of Peter Schutz as CEO at Zuffenhausen in January 1981. One of the first questions asked by Schutz was: what are we doing at Le Mans? Racing the four-cylinder cars. Can we win? No! What have we got that could win? R&D director Helmuth Bott outlined the dormant 936 programme, and straight away engineer Norbert Singer was put in charge of a rapid development.
Two 936s were prepared, 002 and 003, with a development of the turbocharged flat-six with water-cooled cylinder heads. At a capacity of 2.65 litres the power was raised to 620bhp, and to cope with this power and torque delivery the old Can-Am four-speed gearbox was resurrected, heavy but bomb-proof.
The Jules men’s toiletries company sponsored the two-car team, with tasteful signwriting on the virgin white bodywork. The open sports cars looked a million dollars, and performed like champions. Well, that of Ickx and Derek Bell performed impeccably and beat two Ford DFV-powered Rondeaus by 14 and 19 laps respectively, in a real textbook outing. That of Jochen Mass and Vern Schuppan, by contrast, had a series of minor problems and finished a lowly 12th.
To choose one Group C Porsche, whether a 956 or 962, from the 120 built by the factory for its own Rothmans-sponsored team as well as a great many customer teams in Europe, America and Japan, is a real challenge. Between them, these cars achieved seven Le Mans victories, 44 World Championship victories, 54 IMSA victories, 33 victories in Japan, 66 in Interserie and 14 in the German Supercup series.
Just one? I’ll go for the riveting victory by Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell at Brands Hatch in October 1982 in the Rothmans-Porsche 003, the car that finished second on its debut at Le Mans (Jochen Mass and Vern Schuppan) and had won at Spa and Fuji (Ickx and Mass), wrapping up the World Endurance Championship of Makes.
Just one title remained for Ickx, the World Championship for Drivers, and to secure this the Belgian needed to beat Riccardo Patrese in the Lancia barchetta, a 1.4-litre turbo machine that was not a Group C car and was not subject to the strict fuel consumption formula.
This was a race in two parts, stopped early when the two Ford C100s collided with each other in driving rain, then restarted with the two ‘results’ aggregated. Ickx was 10 seconds ahead of Patrese when the race was stopped, but later in the afternoon Bell was kept out too long on rain tyres on a drying track, losing nearly a lap to the Lancia as a result.
Ickx clawed that distance back on Patrese in the last hour, driving superbly in gathering darkness and overtaking slower traffic in a demonstration of mastery. He was the King of Kent that afternoon, though he failed to catch the Lancia by a mere six seconds at the flag. But wait... on aggregate, Ickx was the overall winner by 4.7 seconds, and the World Championship was in his keeping.
In June 1983 the Rothmans-Porsche 956-003 was the Le Mans winner for Al Holbert, Vern Schuppan and Hurley Haywood, confirming its place in history.