Pretty in pink

Designed by the French, deemed ‘ugly’ by their German counterparts, this 917 proved that pigs can fly at Le Mans

It is not unusual for a racing driver to describe a racing car as a pig. It is rare, however, for a senior designer to declare that a racing car resembles a pig. And rarer still for the team to paint said car pink and carve it, like butchers, into cuts of meat outlined all over its bodywork. 

This is the strange saga that is the Porsche 917/20, which first appeared in public in the spring of 1971. And it's not over yet. On sale now in Europe, from Porsche Design, is a money box in the shape of a Pink Pig. There is, if you prefer, something known as an 'art ball chair'. It's priced at a mere £2880, this being a piece of trendy pink furniture for the Porsche fanatic (see Desirables, p131). Such is the legend of this racing car, only one of which was ever built. 

The car was the result of Porsche's relentless quest for ever more slippery aerodynamics, and it was aero specialist Robert Choulet of SERA (Societe d'Etudes et de Realisations Automobiles)in Paris who took on the task of creating a new body shape. The French company had previously worked on a new long-tail version of the 917, the Langheck, for the 1970 Le Mans 24 Hours.

Porsche's target was to extract drag numbers similar to the 917L, and the downforce numbers of the 917K, without resorting to the long and weighty tail that had been introduced in search of ultimate speed on the Mulsanne Straight. 

The result was the Pig, though the 'pink' part came later. Choulet eventually presented Porsche with what was generally agreed to be an ugly racing car. The 917/20 had an unusually wide body, with strange lateral overhangs which were designed to lessen the effects of air flowing over the wheel arches. The short, stubby car was revealed to the world at the traditional Le Mans test in April, sponsored by Martini & Rossi and driven by Willi Kauhsen and Gijs van Lennep. But Count Rossi, dismayed by its ugliness, refused to let the car run in his famous colours. So, in a rare moment of not-very-German humour, it was decided to paint it pink and mark out the bodywork in cuts of meat as a butcher might have done with a real pig. Amusing, no? 

The car is now in Porsche's 'Rolling Museum' in Stuttgart and is, unsurprisingly, the subject of much attention and discussion among visitors from all over the world. Klaus Bischof, who joined Porsche in 1968 as a race mechanic and worked on the Pink Pig at Le Mans in '71, is now director of the museum where the car is back in his care. 

"The car's history is quite incredible, a really important part of Porsche racing heritage," says Bischof. "I have so many memories as a junior mechanic with the car. In the beginning Ferdinand Piech decided to get the French to design this aerodynamic experiment, while the factory's own design department continued with their 917s which would be raced by John Wyer's team as the works cars. In Germany the engineers were not very happy about the French being involved and when Anatole Lapine, who was doing his own 917 back in Zuffenhausen, first saw the car in its garage he said it looked like a pig in a barn, declaring that his car looked like a proper Porsche. Herr Piech was very disappointed by the criticism and I'm sure he had words with Lapine in private.

"There was some tension between the Germans and the French, jokes about frogeaters, because the engineers at Zuffenhausen did not appreciate the French being involved in designing a Porsche. But Piech had been keen to do these experiments to find the best car to win at Le Mans, which is why he used the Martini team to run the car. He didn't want to take any risks with the John Wyer cars, which were the ones most likely to win." 

The Pink Pig was much wider than a conventional 917 and this caused problems with transportation before they even got as far as the test weekend at La Sarthe. Bischof remembers well the trials and tribulations. 

"It seems funny now, but it was too wide to fit in the race trucks, so we used an old military truck which we adapted as best we could. It was really designed for tanks or aircraft and there was a big round hole in the roof where the machine guns would have gone," he chuckles. "I drove this thing all the way to Le Mans — it took two days along country roads, there were no autobahns then, the gearbox had no synchro and it was limited to 75kph (46mph). You can imagine. I did this twice, for the test and for the race..."

The car ran well at the April test and afterwards there was a three-hour race which it very nearly won. That's another drama in the saga of the Pink Pig. "It was fantastic," enthuses Bischof. "There were just two of us as mechanics on the car and after practice Piech told us we had to save the engine for the race, and we had just two hours to get it changed. He said that if we got it done in time we could keep the prize money... so we did it and Willi Kauhsen and Gijs van Lennep took the car into a huge lead. Then, on the last lap, van Lennep stopped a few metres from the finish. We'd had problems with the mechanical rev limiter — it was like something from James Watt's old steam machines, a cable with lots of little springs — so we put this near the driver so he could disconnect it and run without the limiter. But van Lennep didn't do this — he just said the car would not run. So we went to the car, disconnected the cable, and I drove it over the finish line. But it was too late; we missed the prize money. I was upset and told van Lennep that a Dutchman would never win the World Championship..." 

Come the race in June, van Lennep did in fact win for Porsche, sharing the short-tail 917K with Helmut Marko for the Martini team. This was another experimental car, the magnesium chassis so light that weights were added to keep it within the regulations. Meanwhile the Pink Pig again ran well. Now there were two 8 Germans in the car, Kauhsen and Reinhold M. Joest, and a great deal of national pride was at stake for these two young works drivers.

"People joked, you know, that the Pink Pig would be out hunting in the forest," says Bischof. "But Kauhsen and Joest took it up to third place before half-distance despite a couple of stops for repairs. Then Joest crashed approaching Arnage corner. He said he'd had a brake problem and the car was trying to turn right, but I still don't believe that. I just don't believe there was a mechanical problem, the car was so strong, and if it was a brake problem then it would have happened to the other cars by this time. The master cylinders were damaged, yes, but we never found any reason why it had suddenly crashed." 

Many years later the car was shipped to America and restored by Porsche specialist Gerry Sutterfield who said that, when they took it apart, they saw the front brake pads were down to the metal and welded onto the disc. Sutterfield reported this to Porsche and speculated that it had miscalculated the brake wear, because 'Pink Pig' had less drag than the other 917s in the race and should have come in for new pads. This was the first time the car had been comprehensively taken apart since the race at Le Mans.

Finally, it seemed, Joest had been vindicated.

"That's impossible," argues Bischof. "All the 917s had the same braking systems, very strong discs, and after 11 hours that could not have been the reason. It would've happened much sooner if it was the brakes. Reinhold always said the car turned right, there was nothing he could do, but I've spoken to him and he knows I never believed that's what happened. He knows I still think this way, you can ask him." 

So I did. Now one of the most successful team owners in sports car history, first with Porsche and then Audi, Joest remembers clearly those Pink Pig days. 

"It was like no other 917," he says. "When I first saw it at the Le Mans test it was plain white, and in white it looked so much bigger than a 917 — shorter, stubbier, wider, and I thought 'My goodness, this is a race car?' But when I drove it the car was so much easier than what I'd driven before, very different, and on the straight it was better than I had experienced before. It had less drag, the balance was perfect and there was plenty of downforce. I have absolutely no idea why they painted it pink — maybe some joke from the design studio in Weissach — but it was fine by me, it was a special thing, and the effect was fantastic. I mean, you're still asking me about it after 40 years, and once I'm in the car I don't care what colour it is on the outside. For me, the important thing was that it was fast, and so it looked just fine as far as I was concerned. It was not pink inside, you know..."

At Le Mans there were problems with the Pink Pig in the early part of the race. Again, Joest recalls every detail. 

"We stopped before midnight to change the bolts on the cooling fan for the engine. All the long-tail 917s had already had this problem, so the Porsche engineers called us in to change the bolts on the turbine for the fan to avoid any damage to the engine. Then, two laps later, the throttle cable broke. But I was so lucky because it was just before the pitlane. I changed down for the corner and suddenly there was no throttle, so I used my speed to get down the pitlane and they were a bit surprised because I had no time to reach for the microphone on the old radios we had in those days. 

"After that the car was fantastic again, just normal pitstops until 3.30am when I came to brake for Arnage. I touched the brakes and the car turned right into the wall. There was no warning, and it happened so fast there was nothing I could do. I was a factory driver, and if I'd made a mistake then of course I would have told the team. Back in the pits I told them about the brakes and there was a bit of... you know, smiling.., but that's what happened." So Joest must have been relieved that the subsequent inspection in America supported his story?

"It was many years later, but yes, it was still good to get the confirmation," he says. "But I would still have preferred to have got a good result in the race, especially as I was driving a factory car. You cannot ask me why we didn't stop for new brakes, I don't know that, and we trusted completely the engineers at Porsche. Maybe they should have checked the brakes, I don't know, but I know what Klaus Bischof thinks — he has told me, and that's his opinion. I was in the car and I tell only the truth."

So how does Joest look back on the unusual car after all these years? "It was a really good car and in my opinion it did have good potential. Each of the 917s had different strengths and weaknesses on different parts of the circuit. The Pink Pig was as good as the others on average and good enough to run at the front at Le Mans. The aerodynamics were very good indeed. On the Mulsanne, it was more stable than the 917K and it felt lighter, not so nervous. They were all good cars, the best of their time, and the engine was as reliable as a Volkswagen Beetle. All Porsches were like this, but with the 917 you both feared and respected it. 

"I remember at Buenos Aires in 1971 it was my first race with my own 917, and Derek Bell told me, 'Be careful my friend, first time with a 917, be careful'. Then in practice he came up behind me, tried to pass and spun across me. I still laugh about that with him. Maybe he forgot his respect for the car on that lap... Anyway, I would have loved to race the Pink Pig more often but it's history now."

Back in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen Bischof has ambitious plans for the Pink Pig's resurrection so that it can run alongside the other 917s in his magnificent rolling museum.

"In the beginning it was my job to prepare the car in the best possible way for exhibition, not for running," he explains. "But now I want to get the Pink Pig back into full running order. The car has no crankshaft — maybe Mr Sutterfield has it on his desk, I don't know — but we have our own workshop and we have enough parts to get the job done. It is my personal ambition to get all the cars running, all the cars I worked on as a mechanic. I'm talking to my new boss at Porsche about this plan and I've asked him to fight for this. We still have the old military truck, and I want to put the Pink Pig back on it, take it to the workshop at Weissach and get it running on the track again. We have to do this; I will do this. I have fights with my colleagues about it but we must do it while all the old mechanics are still around to see the car run again.

"Steve McQueen made the 917 into a movie star with his film of Le Mans, but I tell you, to see Pink Pig on track again will be an even bigger story."

Bischof hopes that the restoration can begin later this year. As far as the mighty and unforgettable 917s are concerned, the 917/20 may have been the runt of the litter, but it will always have a special — and unique — place in Porsche's racing history.

Thanks to the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart for their help with this feature (www.porsche.com/uk/aboutporsche/porschemuseum/)

Rob Widdows

"That's impossible," argues Bischof. "All the 917s had the same braking systems, very strong discs, and after 11 hours that could not have been the reason. It would've happened much sooner if it was the brakes. Reinhold always said the car turned right, there was nothing he could do, but I've spoken to him and he knows I never believed that's what happened. He knows I still think this way, you can ask him." So I did. Now one of the most successful team owners in sports car history, first with Porsche and then Audi, Joest remembers clearly those Pink Pig days. "It was like no other 917," he says. "When I first saw it at the Le Mans test it was plain white, and in white it looked so much bigger than a 917 — shorter, stubbier, wider, and I thought 'My goodness, this is a race car?' But when I drove it the car was so much easier than what I'd driven before, very different, and on the straight it was better than I had experienced before. It had less drag, the balance was perfect and there was plenty of downforce. I have absolutely no idea why they painted it pink — maybe some joke from the design studio in Weissach — but it was fine by me, it was a special thing, and the effect was fantastic. I mean, you're still asking me about it after 40 years, and once I'm in the car I don't care what colour it is on the outside. For me, the important thing was that it was fast, and so it looked just fine as far as I was concerned. It was not pink inside, you know..." At Le Mans there were problems with the Pink Pig in the early part of the race. Again, Joest recalls every detail. "We stopped before midnight to change the bolts on the cooling fan for the engine. All the long-tail 917s had already had this problem, so the Porsche engineers called us in to change the bolts on the turbine for the fan to avoid any damage to the engine. Then, two laps later, the throttle cable broke. But I was so lucky because it was just before the pitlane. I changed down for the corner and suddenly there was no throttle, so I used my speed to get down the pitlane and they were a bit surprised because I had no time to reach for the microphone on the old radios we had in those days. "After that the car was fantastic again, just normal pitstops until 3.30am when I came to brake for Arnage. I touched the brakes and the car turned right into the wall. There was no warning, and it happened so fast there was nothing I could do. I was a factory driver, and if I'd made a mistake then of course I would have told the team. Back in the pits I told them about the brakes and there was a bit of... you know, smiling.., but that's what happened." So Joest must have been relieved that the subsequent inspection in America supported his story? "It was many years later, but yes, it was still good to get the confirmation," he says. "But I would still have preferred to have got a good result in the race, especially as I was driving a factory car. You cannot ask me why we didn't stop for new brakes, I don't know that, and we trusted completely the engineers at Porsche. Maybe they should have checked the brakes, I don't know, but I know what Klaus Bischof thinks — he has told me, and that's his opinion. I was in the car and I tell only the truth." So how does Joest look back on the unusual car after all these years? "It was a really good car and in my opinion it did have good potential. Each of the 917s had different strengths and weaknesses on different parts of the circuit. The Pink Pig was as good as the others on average and good enough to run at the front at Le Mans. The aerodynamics were very good indeed. On the Mulsanne, it was more stable than the 917K and it felt lighter, not so nervous. They were all good cars, the best of their time, and the engine was as reliable as a Volkswagen Beetle. All Porsches were like this, but with the 917 you both feared and respected it. "I remember at Buenos Aires in 1971 it was my first race with my own 917, and Derek Bell told me, 'Be careful my friend, first time with a 917, be careful'. Then in practice he came up behind me, tried to pass and spun across me. I still laugh about that with him. Maybe he forgot his respect for the car on that lap... Anyway, I would have loved to race the Pink Pig more often but it's history now." Back in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen Bischof has ambitious plans for the Pink Pig's resurrection so that it can run alongside the other 917s in his magnificent rolling museum. "In the beginning it was my job to prepare the car in the best possible way for exhibition, not for running," he explains. "But now I want to get the Pink Pig back into full running order. The car has no crankshaft — maybe Mr Sutterfield has it on his desk, I don't know — but we have our own workshop and we have enough parts to get the job done. It is my personal ambition to get all the cars running, all the cars I worked on as a mechanic. I'm talking to my new boss at Porsche about this plan and I've asked him to fight for this. We still have the old military truck, and I want to put the Pink Pig back on it, take it to the workshop at Weissach and get it running on the track again. We have to do this; I will do this. I have fights with my colleagues about it but we must do it while all the old mechanics are still around to see the car run again. "Steve McQueen made the 917 into a movie star with his film of Le Mans, but I tell you, to see Pink Pig on track again will be an even bigger story." Bischof hopes that the restoration can begin later this year. As far as the mighty and unforgettable 917s are concerned, the 917/20 may have been the runt of the litter, but it will always have a special — and unique — place in Porsche's racing history. Thanks to the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart for their help with this feature (www.porsche.com/uk/aboutporsche/porschemuseum/) Rob Widdows