The power of persuasion

Porsche had no plans for a 911 competition programme in the 1960s... until a prominent driver forced a rethink writer Vic Elford, photographer Matthew Howell

By the middle of my 1966, my third year driving for Ford, everything was falling apart. Retirement from the Monte Carlo Rally with a fuel pump failure; disqualification after winning the Rally of the Flowers in Italy because of mistakes in the homologation paperwork; retirement from the Coupe des Alpes after leading the entire rally when the distributor broke 40km from the finish in Cannes.

What could I do about it?

I had seen the first privately entered Porsche 911s on rallies and there was something about the car that stirred me into thinking it would be a winner. In Cannes I sought out Baron Huschke von Hanstein, Porsche's competition manager, and over a delicious lunch by the pool of the Hotel Martinez told him of my disappointing year with Ford (which, of course, he knew about) and my vision for the future. Unfortunately, he told me, Porsche had no rally department, no budget and was simply not interested in that side of the sport.

If there is one thing drivers have above other people, it is obstinate self-confidence. Instead of being put off, I suggested he lend me a car for the Tour de Corse later in the year, so I could show him the car's potential.

A couple of weeks later he called me from Stuttgart to give me the green light for Corsica; but there would be no practice car, no money, no expenses, just the car and a couple of mechanics. It was going to be an expensive risk, but I was so convinced of what was possible that I agreed. A couple of months later I was paying all the bills as David Stone and I completed a reconnaissance in a rented Simca before meeting Huschke, two mechanics and a red 911 on a trailer by the Bastia quayside. I looked inside their van and saw just a few spare wheels and tools, so asked Huschke when the rest would arrive. After the dramas at Ford, I could hardly believe my ears when he replied that there were no spares coming. I said, "Come on Huschke, if I am going to drive a factory Porsche, at least tell me what might break so I will know when it happens."

He replied, "But Vicky, my boy," (from that moment he would call me either "Vicky", "my boy" or both, whenever we spoke) "you don't understand. There are no spares because Porsches don't break!" Incredible though it may seem, no production-based 911 that I drove ever broke.

All my French friends in their Renault 8 Gordinis and Alpine 110s were curious to see what this newcomer could achieve on the tiny, twisty mountain roads of Corsica. Having heard horror stories from self-appointed experts about how the 911 was an oversteering monster that could never cope with such conditions, I was eager to find out for myself. I spent the 24 hours of the 'rally of 10,000 corners' learning to drive a 911 and discovered that the monster was a myth that asked only to be understood, coaxed and gently seduced into doing the right things. We finished third.

Until then Porsche had put all its competition eggs in two baskets; the 356 or Super 90 in its latest form and the 550, but now suddenly realised that almost unintentionally it had created a worthy successor.

The logical next step was the 1967 Monte Carlo Rally. Huschke was apologetic, saying he still didn't really have a budget to go rallying, but would I go along on an event-by-event basis? I had no hesitation in saying yes. At least this time I was going to be paid, have full expenses and a proper practice car.

After two weeks of reconnaissance the 911 had no secrets for me. I was right; it was the car of the future and no matter what the conditions, wet, dry, snow or ice, it was capable of doing everything better than any other car I had driven. We led virtually the whole way until going over the Col de Turini for the last time, when snow came out of nowhere and I was caught on the wrong tyres, dropping to third behind a Lancia Fulvia and a Mini.

In England the fledgling ITV created the first ever rallycross on a track combining asphalt, grass and just plain mud, and since the 911 and I had jumped into the headlines almost overnight, they insisted that I find one in which to do the event. Trouble was, the only available 911s in the UK were the few in the importer's showroom. After the Monte success the Aldington family was happy to lend me its stock-standard showroom demonstrator — GVB 911D — which even came complete with its normal hub caps. Ford entered two fully prepared factory Lotus Cortinas for Roger Clark and Brian Melia and, despite being bullied and attacked by both of them, my showroom 911 and I were able to win.

The poor Aldington family, having watched their expensive car being savaged on TV, were beside themselves, but on Monday morning I took their car back and found them all smiles because the phone had been ringing off the hook with potential customers wanting to know more about this strange but obviously great new car they had just seen.

*

Back in Stuttgart I was now welcomed with open arms as Huschke laid out plans for our immediate future. But first I needed to know who was who in my newfound team and I was rapidly introduced to Huschke's two Miss Fixits, Thora Hornung and Evi Butz (now known as Mrs Dan Gurney). Although they had no experience of motor sport they became almost overnight the two people who could fix it, find it, create it or invent it, whenever I needed something.

Three months earlier there had been no rally department. Now two cars were being prepared by Hermann Briem, who until then had been responsible for the Customer Service Department. One was my practice car and the second a purpose-built rally car destined for the Geneva Rally, which we won — but that was only the start of a busy weekend.

The Shell Berre Company in France was sponsoring a Challenge covering events that had differing coefficients according to their importance. They were open to anyone driving on Shell products and large cash prizes could be won at the end of the year. The rally finished on Saturday and on Sunday there was the high-coefficient Mont Ventoux hillclimb, 400km away in Provence. As the Porsche factory team was on Shell, Huschke had already agreed that I could take it to the hillclimb, assuming it was still in fit condition after the rally, so after a few hours sleep I was on the road to the charming little town of Bedoin and the start of the fabulously fast 21km climb.

The organisers were aware that I knew the climb well, so waived the compulsory practice run. My friend Jean-Pierre Hanrioud was also entered, but with two cars; his own Porsche 911 and a Ford Mustang. One of the attributes of the Mont Ventoux is that there are two roads to the summit, so at the top the competitors were able to descend the other side and make their way back to the start. Jean-Pierre went first in the Touring category and then, as the GT cars lined up, it rained. Normally I would have been delighted as I love the rain and did indeed set by far the fastest time in GT, but Jean-Pierre was still on his way back to Bedoin to take the start in his 911. By the time he got there the rain had stopped and the road was dry, so I finished second.

Back in England the Aldingtons were faced with the question of what to do with their now less-than-beautiful showroom demonstrator. The two tiny rear seats actually allowed the car to compete in the British Saloon Car Championship, so with what was becoming more and more enthusiastic help from Stuttgart, a battered GVB was sent to Germany and came back to England as a racer. On March 12 1967 it became the first 911 to race in the UK and throughout the year we had some epic battles with Lotus Cortinas driven by such giants as Paul Hawkins, Graham Hill and Frank Gardner. I went on to win the 2-litre class.

After our year together, GVB went on to win more races before suffering an engine bay fire and almost being abandoned. It was then restored to its original condition and in 1982 became part of the Russell family. In 1992 Peter Russell drove a full season of rallies with his son Rob as navigator and by 2010 Rob himself was driving it, making the podium at various classic race events. Some 45 years after her first victory, GVB still looks like new and Rob still drives it occasionally in circuit events.

*

Next up for me was the Stuttgart Solitude-Lyon-Charbonnieres Rally — and the start of a wonderful partnership. When I saw the regulations, the route and the make-up of the tests and special stages I realised this would be no ordinary rally. It started with a pure race on the classic Solitude road circuit and I calculated that this alone would account for about 40 per cent of the overall result. Ideally I would have driven the rally with one transmission for the race and then changed it before heading south to the French mountains. That, of course, was not possible so the next best thing was to combine two transmissions into one and it was here that Porsche's racing experience and forethought played into our hands.

Virtually all cars at that time had a four-speed gearbox and two, maybe three, final-drive ratios available, which meant that overall gear ratios could be altered but ratios inside the box could not be changed relative to each other. Porsche had already gone way beyond that, by having a five-speed gearbox as well as numerous interchangeable ratios within the box. In fact, there were no fewer than 43 gearbox ratios available as well as three different final drives, which meant that no matter what the requirement I could almost always build exactly the gearbox I needed.

Solitude was long and fast and I calculated that I would need a 'racing' car with a top speed of about 160mph, but as soon as we got to the mountains I would need a 'rally' car with a top speed of only about 110mph. This meant that as soon as we got to the mountains my 'racing' fifth gear would be useless and, worse still, first gear would be about as high as my normal second, which would put enormous strain on the clutch getting away from the start line on the mountain tests. My new friend Hermann Briem and I sat down and put together on paper the gearbox that I wanted, but he was worried that I would wear out the clutch before the finish. Finally, sitting over a drink together one evening, I told him that now I really knew and understood the car I was sure I could make it to the finish.

With my 'racing' car I easily won the Solitude race and headed off to France with a healthy lead. Carefully easing the car off the line at the start of each test, we gradually increased our lead until we came down from the mountains for the last time and I knew we had won; but first we had to cross the city of Lyon, then the second largest city in France, at about midnight and make it to the finish line at the Casino of Charbonnieres. That's when the clutch started to slip. What followed was probably the most difficult 30 minutes of driving of my entire life as we guessed or ignored potential traffic and bent a few of the rules, knowing that if I stopped the car would never start again. I kept my promise to Hermann just and we won. When the mechanics went to retrieve the car after it had sat out all night in a cold parc ferme, there was no clutch. They had to push it away.

The Tulip Rally was next and both the car and the event were even more dramatic, with only mountain tests, and I designed my gearbox around the very low final drive ratio with 20, 40, 60, 80 and 100mph maximums in the gears, which gave shattering acceleration away from the start. Hermann was very dubious about my low final drive, which was normally used only for hillclimb cars driving short distances, and he was worried it would not last a rally distance.

The real drama started on the first night. Driving car number one I was first on the road and, as I came out of a tunnel high in the Alps, I found the road covered in sheet ice. I was on racing tyres that, of course, had no grip at all and we slid straight into the rock face, bending the whole right front fender and bumper back onto the wheel. A tow-rope around a convenient telegraph pole and a few violent jerks freed the wheel enough to get to the next time control and service, but we were three minutes late and I would need to get that back on the timed special stages. We set about doing it, going up the Col de la Faucille hillclimb faster than the outright record until then held by an F2 car and facing a downhill test on the Ballon d'Alsace, a gift for the Mini drivers, you would think. I thought so, too, but we set fastest time, a second quicker than Timo Makinen in a Mini. We set the fastest time on every test and won by 46 seconds, which was actually 226 seconds if you discount the three-minute penalty after our 'icecapade'.

*

Porsche was by now totally convinced it had created a world beater and was already in the process of refining it for the next rally, my favourite, the Coupe des Alpes, when the covers came off the new lightweight 911R. The basic 911 S or T was already outclassing the competition and I was sure the 911R would completely destroy them. Unfortunately this would not be the success I expected. On the first day I had a puncture and lost three minutes changing the wheel, and it happened again on the next stage! Six minutes lost on two stages meant all hope of winning was probably gone. But worse was to follow, much worse on a human scale.

The Col d'Allos was a beautiful hillclimb, zig-zagging up the side of the mountain, and at some point my eyes caught a flash of blue ahead. As we approached I realised that there was a wrecked car way off the road to our right. We learned later that the driver had made a mistake on the road above and gone straight through a hole in the outside retaining wall, tumbling almost vertically down the mountain before coming to rest at our level. Despite seatbelts, the accident had been so violent that both crew members had been thrown out.

I stopped and immediately set up a roadblock to halt competitors behind us, while we went to the crew's aid. We found Jean-Pierre Rouget, the driver, beside the car, but it took time to locate his co-driver. First on the scene was a British crew in an Austin-Healey and they willingly agreed to help stop other cars as they arrived, so I could go to the top of the hill and tell security what had happened. From the top the police radioed for help but refused, quite reasonably, to go back down the hill, worried, like me, that others had got past my roadblock and might be coming up at full speed.

I loaded blankets and first-aid equipment and started back down, lights on and horn blaring, concerned that there might be some idiot for whom getting to the top was more important than someone's life, but I made it safely.

Years later, when I was living in France, I was at a cocktail party one evening when a pretty young woman whom I didn't know walked across the room, put her arms round me, kissed me and said, "Merci Vic."

"Pourquoi?" I replied.

"Because Jean-Pierre Rouget is my husband and you saved his life."

Sadly, co-driver Jean-Claude Roitburg died from his injuries.

The organisers sportingly neutralised the next few hours of running so everyone could catch up, but for us it finished very quickly as the engine suddenly dropped on to three cylinders.., and then stopped. We could do nothing but await the arrival of a service crew, who discovered that a circlip had somehow been left off when the engine was assembled, thus disabling a camshaft. It took them an hour or so to fix it and the engine then ran sweetly — all the way back to Stuttgart.

So the first outing in the 911R left the promise unfulfilled — but not for long as Porsche had entered two 910s for Mitter/Schutz and Neerpasch/Stommelen as well as the 911R for Gijs van Lennep and me for the 500Kms of Mugello, a twisty 42-mile circuit in the Tuscan mountains. It was similar to the Targa Florio, but faster. This time everything went well; the 910s finished first and second, of course, but Gijs and I finished third, only 20 minutes back after more than 500 kilometres and we were the only three cars on the lead lap at the finish.

*

1967 had never stopped being a year of learning, both for me in driving the car and for the factory. From the 1930s one of Europe's classic competition rallies had been the Liege-Rome-Liege, close to being a road race from Liege in Belgium to Rome and back. In the early 1960s tourist traffic forced a move away from Rome and the event became Liege-Sofia-Liege, again almost a road race the whole length of Yugoslavia and back.

In 1966 even that became a victim of progress and the organisers were forced to abandon the roads of Europe and come up with another idea. The rally had also been known as the Marathon de la Route, so the Royal Motor Union of Liege decided that a marathon around the 20-mile lap of the NiIrburgring (using both Nordschleife and Sudschleife) would measure up to their ideals; three days and four nights, 84 hours, non-stop.

Jochen Neerpasch and I did it in a Lotus Cortina and were leading after 72 hours when the cylinder head gasket failed. The cars would run about two and a half hours on a tank of fuel, so Jochen and I had decided that in order for the off-duty driver to have sufficient time to eat and sleep, we would drive three stints at a time — seven and a half hours.

In 1967 the organisers allowed teams of three drivers instead of just two and I was teamed with Jochen again and Hans Herrmann in yet another first from Porsche, a 911R with a Sportomatic gearbox. We started to discuss how we would split the driving between the three of us. Hans and Jochen came up with a simple answer, announcing together, "Well Vic, you're the rally driver, so you drive at night when its dark, cold, raining and foggy — and we'll do the rest!" So we drove in convoy from the official start in Liege, two of us in the car and the third one in a service vehicle, and at about 10pm on the first night I set off on the first of four seven and half hour nights driving around the NiIrburgring. We had no problems and won comfortably, the first and I believe the only time a Sportomatic gearbox was ever used in a factory race/rally car. It certainly played a big part in our success as it was much more relaxing and less tiring to drive for long periods than a conventional 'box. By the end of four consecutive nights like that I felt that I knew every blade of grass by name and it stood me in good stead for the future, because I went on to win the Niirburgring 1000Kms three times and the 500Kms twice over a four-year span.

*

So much had happened in the year since I dragged Porsche kicking and screaming into international rallying that it was difficult to grasp the tremendous strides we had made together, but there was still one major objective on the horizon. In January 1968 we left the start line in Warsaw en route to Monte Carlo. The early days were uneventful but I was a little tense as we started the last 600km tour in the Alpes Maritimes, thinking about how we had come so close the year before.

On the long road section to Saint Saveur co-driver David spent time calming me down, reminding me that there might be less ice than the night before when we last checked, but certainly not more, so by the time we went to the start to go up and over the Col de la Couillole I was totally relaxed. I elected to go on racing tyres with the feeling that this stage would be decisive; very tight and twisty on the way up but with long fast stretches on the way down, when we'd be hitting 120mph through the patches of ice and snow. Over the 26km stage we were quickest by almost a minute.

I smoked in those days and was so nervously exhausted that it took me about five tries before I could light a cigarette. When I asked David how many corners I could have taken faster, he replied "two"; I thought maybe three.

So after dragging Porsche where it didn't want to be, I was able to offer the company its first European Rally Championship wins and the Championship itself, victory in the first ever rallycross, victory in the British Saloon Car Championship and the ultimate — victory in the Monte Carlo Rally. It was the first time for Porsche, but the last for a Brit.