White lightening

Porsche’s 908/3 was Lotus-like in philosophy, but its crash diet didn’t stop it from munching some of racing’s roughest roads. Paul Fearnley meets with a scantily clad model performer…

The twist, bump and grind of the rocky and rolling Targa Florio; the launches and splashdowns of the other-worldly Nurburgring. Car-breakers both, right? Yet this gossamer machine with its translucent bodywork played one like an old fiddle and rocketed into the far distance at the other. Even more remarkably, 10 years later, admittedly in a lesser era of two-seat racing, Porsche’s pared-to-the-bone 908/3 was still competitive in privateer hands.

For years Porsche’s racing squad had punched above its weight, so much so that people forgot how small the Zuffenhausen concern was as sportscar racing reached its apex. But that only seemed to strengthen the resolve of Ferdinand Piech — Ferry Porsche’s nephew — to deliver a knockout blow. When in early 1969, as the tech boss of the Experimental Department, he ordered that the 25 917s required by homologation be rushed through, workers were drafted in from the 911’s production line: racing was suddenly the priority, not a sideline. The company was flat out. Make or break. That it was simultaneously working on a car designed purely to win two specialist races is bewildering.

Le Mans was its main aim, and the mighty 917 was the car. Targets B and C were the Targa Florio and the Nurburging 1000Km, for which the mighty 917 was definitely not the car. Porsche had a habit of upstaging Sicily’s motorsport passion play, but had found it harder to win Germany’s second-biggest race: indeed, it had won the Targa seven times before it began its own ‘Ring cycle in 1967. It would prevail at the Nordschleife the following year too, in the car that ended its long-accepted role as plucky underdog. For 908 was its first racer based around an engine that sat on a designated capacity limit. Until its 3-litre air-cooled flat-eight appeared, Porsche had always left itself a comfort zone: if it won, everybody marvelled at its underpowered overachievers; if it lost… well, it was expected to. But this softly-softly approach wasn’t Piech’s bag. He wanted to go toe-to-toe with the big hitters. And by the end of that first 908 season, he was on the ropes. A second Nurburgring Porsche win was the new car’s only major success in a troubled year. The marque’s famed reliability had deserted it, which was odd because 908 was meant to be the sorted 907— which won that year at Daytona, Sebring and Targa Florio — with 26 per cent more power.

In truth, the firm had broken its rule of continuous evolution. It had complicated things by building a heavy dry-sumped six-speed gearbox and jettisoning the proven eight-cylinder firing order of the superceded Type 771. These matters were put right in the 908/2 of 1969: in came a simpler, five-speed transaxle, out went the debilitating vibes of alternate power strokes from each bank. The updated 908 was smoother and more usable, and Porsche went for the throat: four, five, even six cars per round, five straight wins (three for the Spyder, two for the Langheck), its first world sportscar title — and the nearest of Le Mans misses. Piech was vindicated.

One of the small concessions made by Porsche during this hectic time was the axeing of its European Mountain Championship programme. During the 1960s it had produced increasingly specialised, ultra-lightweight, wheel-at-each-corner cars for this demanding, if scenic, series. The last of these was the outlandish 909 Bergspyder of late 1968. The trick to this car was the placing of its gearbox between engine and final drive. This moved the driver forward, centralising mass and sharpening direction-change via improved use of the ever-fattening tyres of the period. It competed only twice, but its legacy would be a long and successful one.

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Push the recessed button and lift (with one finger) the driver’s door up and forward. Ahead lies the starkest of cockpits. But what’s that? Slowly it dawns on you: that bar running along the bottom edge of the dashboard is the front anti-roll bar. Put it another way: with the 26.5lb epoxy bodywork removed, you can touch the right-front tyre while still strapped to your seat. Put it another way: the rack is mounted above and slightly behind your knees. You’re ‘cab forward’ in a 908/3 because, like the Bergspyder, it’s engine-gearbox-diff. Your feet are at least 8in ahead of the axle line and are ‘caged’ by a spindly frame that carries oil cooler and master cylinders. There is some panelling-in, but this is only thin fibreglass meant to keep small stones out of the cockpit. Let’s face it, you’re the crumple zone inside this 77lb spaceframe.

“If Colin Chapman had known how much effort went into making the 908/3 light, and how light it was, he would’ve had a fit,” says Vic Elford. “But I felt so secure in it that I never considered it unsafe. It was so controllable that the confidence it gave me was huge.” Yeah, but you’re Vic Elford; I’m just me. He’s right, though, no car has ever felt so alive.

With my precious tootsies offset towards the centre, a typically big Porsche ’tiller’ in my gloved mitts and that motor growling in my lug’ole (this is the smooth one?), I nurse the car out onto the… road! Very Targa. Don’t worry, we’ve got a trade plate taped to that peekaboo tail, so it’s all above board. And anyway, if I’m stopped by the polizei I can explain how road-car it (nearly) all is. For if a driver’s safety was not atop Porsche’s ‘to do’ list, his comfort over long distances was: the clutch’s feel is long and light, the brakes are activated by a pedal soft enough to make press-on heeling-and-toeing tricky and the gearbox, as ever, is fully synchro-ed. Porsche also melded a go-kart feel with just the right amount of alleviating suspension movement, while the engine pulls hard from the needle-stop. Which is a good job, because I’ve pulled away in third!

The gearbox’s gate is very narrow and is fitted with an idiot-proof selector mechanism. Sadly, this is proving that I’m an idiot. Worried about dropping into second from fifth, Porsche’s engineers made it so that the only option from top (out on a dog-leg for a reason explained later) is fourth. Nor is it possible to hook into second from here: it’s third or fifth for you, my lad. That’s fine, I’ve no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is that the gate itself seems canted towards the centre of the car. Instead of an H-pattern, I am faced with what is best described as a narrow W: first is selected by pushing forward and slightly in; second is back and slightly away; third is forward and slightly away, etc. Once again, this is fine — until you miss fourth from fifth. From here, it’s back to fifth — or nothing. And once you get into a tizzy, the problem exacerbates. Leo Kinnunen, the Finn who set fastest lap in the 1970 Targa, talked of a stiff gearchange; Bjorn Waldegard, who made his racing debut with a 908/3 in the same race (see page 92) mentioned being used to nursing Porsche gearboxes because of his 911 rallying experiences. The other surviving 908/3 drivers I spoke to — Elford and Brian Redman — had nothing bad to say about the ‘box. Ho hum.

Somehow sensing that there isn’t an Elford or a Redman aboard, the engine does its level best for me. Sure, its 911 basis, two-valve head and wide valve-angle was hardly cutting edge at the time, but how much power do you need to hustle a 565kg car? Believe me, 360bhp is plenty. Crack those slides and 908/3 is offlike a jackrabbit, nose hunting across the road, sniffing out the next apex. Photographs done, I give it a little squirt. It’s not much more than a mile back to our base, but it’s a narrow, tree-lined B-road with a couple of downhill sweepers, a big stop at a roundabout and a 90 right. The lady in the Opel gets a shock as this pure-white pure shape crests the rise, but otherwise it’s quiet and I get a wriggle on. It’s enough to wet the whistle: Targa in a 908/3 must have been mind-bending. This car changes direction like one of those bikes from that failed first ‘computer movie’, Tron. It stops on a pfennig, possesses synapse responses — and wows whoever gets in it: Walter Rohrl reckons it’s one of the best Porsches he’s ever driven….

That one of the rally greats should rave about it comes as no surprise. The motorsport codes find their node at 908/3: all-rounders Elford, Kinnunen and Gerard Larrousse excelled in the car. But then the Targa Florio today is the special stage rally it was, in hindsight, always destined to become. Thirty-three years ago, though, it was still the most challenging of all road races — and Porsche was detemined to win it for a 10th time. The car in these photographs — test mule, chassis 003 — was shipped to the island a month before the May 3 event and it pounded round, in and out of everyday traffic, until four brand-new cars arrived for the race.

Porsche’s change of attitude was obvious upon their arrival: American Dick Soderberg’s beautiful, uncluttered shape was bedecked in the most in-your-face paint jobs yet seen on a Porsche. There was no need to be low-key white any more —they had something to shout about.

And how. Kinnunen was almost 1min faster in practice than Elford’s best lap of the previous year. And in the race, despite a fantastic effort by Nino Vaccarella and Ignazio Giunti in the unsuited Ferrari 512S, Porsche’s latest car scored a 1-2 courtesy of Jo Siffert/Redman and Kinnunen/Pedro Rodriguez.

“When I first saw the car I was worried that it might be difficult to control,” admits Redman. “You were so far forward that I wondered if you might not be able to feel what was happening behind you. But it proved to be a fantastic car. Manfred Bantle, the guy responsible for most of it, doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He got his sums exactly right: it was nimble, compact and responsive, with fantastic mechanical grip — the perfect combination for the Targa. It had fifth gear off on a dog-leg because you only needed it once per lap on the Targa, perhaps twice on the Nordschleife, and it had lots of low-down torque. For me, it was the first true modern racing car — minus the downforce.”

Elford held similar views but met with a very different fate on the car’s debut. Vic was reckoned to know every pebble along the Piccolo Madonie’s 44.7-mile lap, and was the pre-race favourite. But the rock in the road on lap one was something not even his mental pace-notes could cope with. He swerved, hit a kerb and broke a steering arm that “was about a thick as two pencils”. But he and Porsche Salzburg would gain their revenge less than a month later at the ‘Ring, where the 908/3 proved 20sec per lap faster than the 908/2 had been in 1969.

There had been fundamental change at Porsche towards the end of the latter year: with the title wrapped up early, Piech farmed his cars out for the later races. Porsche Salzburg — a Piech family-owned concern — was the first to enjoy his patronage, and it was joined in 1970 by Slough’s JWA. The rivalry was intense: talk to Redman and Salzburg got first dibs on new bits; talk to Elford and JWA was the teacher’s pet. At the ‘Ring, however, it would appear that it was the Salzburg squad in the know, fitting larger oil tanks to circumvent the problems that sidelined the leading JWA car. Elford, co-driven by Kurt Ahrens Jnr, took the win, while team-mates Richard Attwood/Hans Herrmann were second in 003’s only contemporary competitive run.

Porsche would win a second manufacturers’ title in 1970 — breaking its Le Mans duck with the 917 — and would continue this form into ’71: a second Le Mans victory, a third world title. By this time, however, 908/3’s slow-circuit advantage had been whittled away. The 3-litre sportscar formula was looming for ’72, and Ferrari and Alfa had joined the party a year early in preparation. Crucially, they had brought F1 engines with them; Porsche had shelved plans for a four-valve ‘F1’ unit after it had disappointed on the dyno. This meant that 908/3 was outgunned, although still substantially lighter.

Elford/Larrousse were in contention on the Targa until they suffered two punctures on one lap, thus handing the win to the Alfa T33/3 of Vaccarella/Toine Hezemans. Redman, meanwhile, suffered a fiery first-lap crash: “All they found was a big black hole, at the bottom of which lay the crankshaft!”

At the ‘Ring, Elford/Larrousse were able to keep sufficient pressure on the faster Ferrari 312PB and Alfa of Jacky Ickx and Rolf Stommelen to cause them to wilt, and this 1-2-3 result was supposed to be the final hurrah for 908/3. Except it wasn’t.

One of the proposed changes for 1972 was the introduction of a 650kg minimum limit. Porsche knew it could not compete on those terms and turned its attention to Can-Am. By 1975, though, as sportscar racing lost its edge, Reinhold Joest, a driver and a team boss with a golden touch, realised that a 908/3 fitted with bodywork copied from the Can-Am 917/10 and boasting a 2.1-litre turbo six from the 911 Carrera RSR racer could be competitive. Three cars were so converted with Porsche’s tacit approval — and with good reason. As the FIA vacillated between Groups 5 (roost of Porsche’s dominant 935) and 6, Zuffenhausen was secretly building a two-seater, the 936, for the latter, and any prior info on its turbo would be useful.

Joest gave them plenty to chew over. Although 908/3 is a spartan machine, it’s strong where it needs to be — gearbox casing, engine mounts and hubs appear sturdier than required — and only a little beefing-up was needed to ensure that it could cope with the increased stresses caused by the turbo’s extra 200bhp. The gearbox was marginal, but the car was reliable. And quick. Joest scored two seconds, three thirds and a fourth at Le Mans in 1975. In ’76, his car won at the ‘Ring.

And 908/3 didn’t stop there. By 1980, a time when sportscar racing had descended to almost a run-wat-ya-brung level, Siggi Brunn, whose firm was responsible for the rebuild of 003, was running a standard 908/3 in historic and contemporary racing when he and Jurgen Barth came within an ace of winning the Silverstone Six Hours. True, the big guns were silent, awaiting the outbreak of Group C in ’82, but even when they were loosed off, one of Brunn’s now-twin turbocharged warhorses upstaged the new car at the prestigious Norisring race that year, John Paul Jnr leading briefly from pole and finishing sixth with a delaminated rear wing.

The heroic 917 hogs the limelight, but was its little cousin the better car? There is some substance to its argument, for although 908/3 was super-light, it was no lightweight.