Profile – Porsche 956

The 956 was one of the most successful sportscars ever. Here’s chassis 004’s history. Third at Le Mans and a string of seconds in other races made it the nearly car of the 956 clan
Words: Gary Watkins. Photography: Alex P

The formation finish, staged for the benefit of the cameras, has become commonplace at Le Mans thanks to a certain manufacturer from Germany. Before Audi’s domination of the event, though, another German marque made sure it generated the maximum publicity from a one-two-three finish at La Sarthe. A trio of Rothmans-liveried Porsche 956s running line astern at the end of the 24 Hours in 1982 has become one of sportscar racing’s enduring images. Look at those photographs now, and you don’t dwell on what the car has just achieved on its Le Mans debut. Rather you think about what it would go on to achieve during the next 10 years and beyond.

A legend was born at Le Mans in 1982. The 956 and its long wheelbase successor, the 962, went on to become the most successful prototype sportscar of all time. It claimed no fewer than six Le Mans victories, the last a full 12 years after its debut. One year later, in 1995, the car took its sixth win in the Daytona 24 Hours and didn’t finally disappear from the international sportscar arena until the end of the decade. No one could have imaged what was to come on that summer’s day in June ’82.

The car bringing up the rear of the Porsche hat-trick in 1982 was the fourth of Porsche’s new Group C prototypes off the production line. Hurley Haywood, Al Holbert and Jurgen Barth kicked off a stop-start career for a chassis that would go on to be raced by sportscar legends Derek Bell and Jochen Mass, rising stars Stefan Bellof and James Weaver, and Formula 1 refugees Alan Jones and John Watson. Perhaps most significantly, the pioneering Bosch Motronic engine electronics, one of the cornerstones of the success of the 956/962, was first used at a race where 956 004 was on the grid.

The car also had the honour of leading Le Mans. Americans Holbert and Haywood topped the leader board at one-quarter distance and stayed there for another two hours. Then it all started to go wrong.

First, Haywood fell ill, forcing Porsche to draft in Jurgen Barth, who was a roving reserve for all three works entries. Then, the car lost the driver’s door. Contemporary reports suggest Holbert was driving at the time, but Barth is insistent that he was at the wheel.

“It seems the door hadn’t been closed properly,” remembers the 1977 Le Mans winner. “And then bang! It flew off down the Mulsanne Straight.”

A wheel-bearing failure scuppered any chance of a comeback, but the car moved back into the podium positions in the final hour. Barth was a clear third Porsche when he crossed the line, albeit 19 laps down on the winning 956 driven by Jacky Ickx and Bell.

Chassis 004 was on duty again when the World Endurance Championship resumed at Spa in September. The new Motronic electronic management system, which did away with mechanical fuel injection, was to be found on the flat-six engines of the two Porsche entries. Two months later, at the non-championship Kyalami event, 004 was the only car running Motronic, and Bell wasn’t happy.

“I always used to bitch that Jacky got all the new stuff first, but this time I had the latest kit,” recalls Bell, who was sharing with the Australian Vern Schuppan for the race. “There was a throttle lag problem with the Motronic, which wasn’t a too bad until it got dark. It was difficult to get on the power if you couldn’t see through the corner.

“Vern and I were well off the pace, so I went to Peter Falk [Porsche’s team manager] and said I didn’t want to run the system. Jacky piped up and said he would.”

The Motronic-equipped engine would go up in smoke, though, during practice soon after the swap, and Ickx and Mass would win with mechanical injection. “That was typical of Jacky Ickx,” says Bell. “He always came away smelling of roses.”

Second place at Kyalami was part of a sequence of runner-up spots for chassis 004. Bell and Schuppan had been second at Spa, while the Briton would finish in the same position, together with Porsche junior Bellof at the Belgian track one year on, as well as third at Brands Hatch.

The car wouldn’t race again for another 12 months when Porsche entered a third car for rally star Henri Toivonen to drive. The Finn was unable to take up the drive for medical reasons, his place being taken by out-of-work grand prix driver Watson. Former World Champion Alan Jones joined Schuppan in 004 at the Sandown 1000Km in Australia in December ’84.

After one more start as a camera car at Silverstone in 1985, the racing career of 956 004 came to an end, but Porsche decreed that it wasn’t quite time for it to become a museum piece. The deaths of Manfred Winkelhock and Stefan Bellof in customer 956s in ’85 led to a safety drive instigated by Porsche Research and Development boss Professer Helmuth Bott.

“Professor Bott wanted us to look at the safety of our cars,” explains Porsche uber-engineer Norbert Singer. “He wanted our chassis to be crash tested at 80km/h. We achieved our objectives with reinforcements to the chassis as well as changes to the barriers. The idea of putting foam inside tyre barriers came from Porsche.”

Chassis 004 was crash tested as part of this investigation and the remains of the car were sold in the early 1990s. The purchaser was Willi Kauhsen, a former Porsche test driver and multiple Interserie race winner at the wheel of a 917/10.

Kauhsen rebuilt the car in conjunction with John Thompson, whose TC Prototypes company was leading after-market builder of 956/962 monocoques through the car’s career. Thompson was given the two tubs used in the crash tests to repair and he “stripped them apart and used as many original bits as possible”.

Now, 004 is back in long-tail Le Mans ’82 trim – minus the ill-fitting door. Paint on 24 hours’ worth of race grime, and it’d fit right into one of those famous photographs.