A product of expedience, Porsche’s 936 won Le Mans three times. Strange, then, that it isn’t more revered…
By Gary Watkins
Think of your favourite Porsche Le Mans racer. Many would plump for the 917 or, just as likely, the 956/962. Relatively few would pick the car that is sandwiched between them in the lineage of Stuttgart sports-prototypes. Yet this car scored more victories in the Le Mans 24 Hours than the 917, allowed Jacky Ickx to drive his best ever race and set Derek Bell on the road to becoming a sportscar superstar. It was even the catalyst for the car that followed. Step forward the 936.
The 936 is the forgotten Porsche sports-prototype. That’s bizarre considering its record. This Group 6 roadster went to Le Mans every year between 1976 and 1981 and was a frontrunner each time. It won on three occasions and arguably should have done so twice more. Not bad for a parts bin special built in double-quick time, a car that was more than once rushed back into service at short notice.
The 936 was conceived at a meeting held at Weissach late in 1975, though exactly who suggested it is a matter of debate. Norbert Singer, Porsche chief engineer at the time and project leader on the 935 Group 5 contender, insists it was the invention of Porsche board head, Dr Ernst Fuhrmann.
Singer was present at what he calls a “remarkable meeting” attended by Fuhrmann and Professor Helmuth Bott, whose remit as research and development director included motorsport. “Suddenly Dr Fuhrmann asked us about the new Group 6 rules for 1976,” remembers Singer. “He said, ‘You are always saying that you have a lot of 917 parts in stock, suspension and gearboxes. We have the engine [from the 935], so all we have to do is a new chassis frame and bodywork.’
“The suggestion caused a stir at a meeting called to discuss the new 935 being developed for Porsche’s return to motorsport as a factory entry in the World Championship of Makes,” adds Singer. “At first we didn’t understand why he was pushing for this new car, but in the end we understood that it was because a prototype would have a much better chance at Le Mans than a Group 5 car.”
Others present that day maintain that it was Bott who came up with the idea of the car. Among those is Manfred Jantke, Porsche sports boss at the time.
“It was definitely not a Fuhrmann project,” he insists. “If you had to pick one person as the architect of the 936 programme, it was Bott. It was quite an emotional thing for him. He loved prototypes and he considered only a mid-engined machine to be a real racing car.”
The identity of the father of the 936 will probably remain a mystery given that Fuhrmann and Bott are both dead, but what is clear is that the car was built in an amazingly short period, and in some secrecy. The aim was to surprise Renault, which would be returning to La Sarthe for a second year with its Alpine-built prototypes in 1976. So much so that some say there was even an attempt to keep the car secret from Dr Ferry Porsche.
That explains why the 936 was developed almost completely without the aid of wind-tunnel testing. “Fuhrmann didn’t want us to go to the tunnel,” says Singer. “He said, ‘You must do it by your experience.’ The only testing we did was when the car was finished and that was in the full-size Volkswagen tunnel.”
Porsche ended up with what Jantke describes as “a very conventional” design. “The 936 was certainly not the ultimate racing car of its time,” he says. “It was a good solid racing machine, a compromise car built on a low budget.”
The ‘bitza’ was testing at Paul Ricard in late February, after a brief shakedown at Weissach. That’s not bad considering the project didn’t get underway until the previous December.
The first car ran in black, up to and including its race debut in the Nürburgring 300Km in April, though the Martini stickers for which the car is famous were in place. Some have claimed that this was all part of a plan to keep the car a secret. Jantke disputes this: “It was a development car, so it wasn’t unusual for it to run like that.”
The 936 didn’t win on its debut in the opening round of the new World Sportscar Championship: a sticking throttle ensured that Rolf Stommelen finished only fifth. Excluding a loss to two non-points scoring Can-Am cars at Mosport, it was the car’s only defeat during its WSC campaign, albeit against limited opposition. Most importantly, the 936 dominated the race it was built for – the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Porsche new boy Jacky Ickx and Gijs van Lennep were ahead by the end of the first hour, and that’s where they stayed. Their lead stood at as much as 16 laps and the eventual margin of victory was 13 laps.
Porsche returned to Le Mans in 1977 with an evolution of the car, featuring revised bodywork and twin turbos, known as the 936/77. Ickx was paired with fellow three-time Le Mans winner Henri Pescarolo, while Barth shared with Hurley Haywood. The bad news for Porsche was the multi-million franc effort mounted by Renault, which had three factory Alpine A442s and one semi-works car on the grid.
Three hours into the race, Porsche looked out of it. The fastest of the German Group 6 contenders had just blown up, while the second entry was languishing down the order after a long stop at the start of the second hour. There was no way that the second-string crew of Le Mans new boy Haywood and Barth, whose day job was selling racing Porsches, were going to claw back the 28 minutes lost to the Renaults while the fuel-injection pump was changed.
They were counting without Ickx. He may have just seen Pescarolo trail into the pits after over-revving the Porsche’s engine, but he was still hungry for a third straight Le Mans victory. At 8.21pm, he eased himself into the second 936. Ickx’s greatest drive was about to begin.
Nearly three hours later, he emerged from the car with a new lap record and a place in the top six, eight laps behind the leading Alpine-Renault. He had also lost four kilos in body weight such were his efforts, but that didn’t stop him taking the car back from Haywood 90 minutes later.
When Ickx climbed out of the car for a second time after another double stint, the remaining Martini Porsche was up to third, the gap to the leader was down to six laps and Renault had suffered its first engine failure.
“As we put them under more and more pressure, they started to go faster and faster,” says Barth. “Then they broke down one by one and we moved into the lead.”
“Jacky was outstanding,” says Jantke, the man who had brought Ickx to Porsche the year before. “He was a guy who would do anything and everything to win and that day he went definitely over his physical limits: he looked 100 years old after the race. We talked about it again a couple of years ago. He said that he now realises it was the biggest thing he ever did.”
Like all good Le Mans tales, this one had a final twist. After being in the car for just a handful of laps, Haywood came back into the pits with 45 minutes to go, smoke billowing from the Porsche’s flat-six. The engine was effectively dead, but the 936 was so far ahead of the second-place Mirage that it needed only to take the flag to be declared the winner.
Number three cylinder was blanked off and Barth limped around for two laps to take an extraordinary – and unexpected – win. What is arguably the greatest comeback in Le Mans history was complete.
Porsche returned to Le Mans in 1978 with a three-car fleet of further-revised 936s, two of which used the new four-valve water-cooled heads already seen on the 935.
The chance of a 936 hat-trick appeared to have disappeared early on. Two of the three entries were in the pits at the end of the second lap. It set the tone for the rest of the race. All three cars hit problems, Barth, Bob Wollek and Ickx, who had again switched cars, scoring a best result of second, five laps behind the winning Renault.
There were no plans to race the 936 at Le Mans in 1979. The focus was on the forthcoming Indycar engine to be used by Ted Field’s Interscope team. That was until David Thieme, the maverick boss of Essex Petroleum, decided he wanted to sponsor Porsche. The decision to go back to La Sarthe wasn’t made until April, which meant “using the parts we had”, says Singer. That proved crucial in a race that should have been a cakewalk for Porsche, given that Renault was now concentrating on Formula 1.
Instead, engine problems did for one, while Ickx was disqualified for receiving outside assistance after an injector belt broke.
The Porsche 936 came close to another win in 1980, though the record books suggest the Joest Racing car driven by an on-loan Ickx and Reinhold Joest was a 908/80. In reality it was nothing but a 936 – one built by the factory.
Joest, not for the last time in his career, used his connections within Porsche to get hold of a car some sections of the company didn’t want to see racing. The veteran team owner reckons that Fuhrmann was trying to persuade him to trade in his 908/3.
“He wanted back the 908/3 and to give me a 935,” recalls Joest. “I was not interested, so I spoke with Mr Bott, who liked prototypes. We came up with the idea to build a chassis frame, which was called a new 908/3, but in reality it was 100 per cent 936.”
Joest, who had persuaded Porsche to loan him Ickx for the weekend, should have won. Even the need to change an injector drive belt on Saturday night didn’t appear to have irrevocably damaged their bid for victory. The 908/80 had come back from sixth into the lead when fifth gear broke, allowing Jean Rondeau to become the first man to win the race in a car bearing its driver’s name.
The desire of a Porsche director to win Le Mans resulted in one final hurrah for the 936 as a factory entry. American Peter Schutz had come in as head of the board and asked a similar question to Fuhrmann all those years before.
“We were running through our programmes for the following year  and we told Schutz about our plans with the 944,” recalls Singer. “His question was whether it was possible to win overall with that car. We had to tell him no, at which point he said, ‘What can we do to win overall?’ The only thing we had was the 936.
“The capacity limit for turbocharged engines had been opened up, which allowed us to use the engine developed for the [stillborn] Interscope Indycar. We knew that engine was reliable because in that kind of racing at the time you had to run a long time at full throttle. All we had to do was convert the engine back from methanol to petrol.”
The 1981 race also marked the re-start of Derek Bell’s association with Porsche. A 917 driver in a JW Automotive entry in 1971, he returned to the factory in 1980 at the wheel of a 924 Carrera. He didn’t want to drive the car again, so he signed up to race Steve O’ Rourke’s EMKA BMW M1 for 1981. Then came a chance meeting with Porsche engine boss Valentin Schäffer at Monza. “He asked me what I was doing at Le Mans,” remembers Bell. “When I told him, he said, ‘Pity, because we wanted you to drive one of our 936s.’ That night Steve said he would be flattered to let me go to Porsche. I phoned Jantke on the Monday and said I was available. I’ll never forget his reply: ‘Good, now we have the best two sports car drivers in the world. You will drive with Jacky.’ ”
The story of Bell’s subsequent victory with Ickx in the Jules-sponsored 936 is another legendary Le Mans tale. “I’d never sat in it before practice and virtually first time out I set the fastest time I’d ever done around the place,” says Bell. “I thought, ‘What a car’, and, of course, we stormed off and won the race.”
Le Mans 1981 turned out to be the “start of the rest of my career” for Bell because the success that weekend resulted in the decision to build the 956 for the forthcoming Group C formula. “The decision to go Group C was only made after Le Mans,” says Singer. “We realised after winning that we had a powerful and reliable engine and that played a part in the decision.”
The career of the 936 didn’t finish in 1981. Joest continued to field 908/80 in German DRM sportscar events through into 1982. He even built a long-wheelbase Group C version of the car to run in the world championship. This coupé, known as the 936CJ, last raced at Le Mans as late as 1986. There was also a Kremer-built 936 that also saw service in the DRM.
The factory’s successes with the 936 were achieved with just three chassis. That’s one reason, thinks Singer, that the car is sometimes overlooked. “There were never any customer cars,” he says. “We had to make 25 917s for the homologation, so they raced everywhere, and we built more than 100 956s and 962s.”
There is one person who rates the 936 as his favourite Porsche. “The 936 isn’t overlooked by me,” says Haywood, who would go onto win Le Mans in both the 956 and the Dauer 962GT. “When I am asked what is my favourite Porsche, I always go for the 936,” he says. “That car, especially with the Indy engine, was a fabulous car to drive: a real sweetheart.”