Rebuilding the monster: Porsche 917's audacious return to Le Mans in 1981

Le Mans News

Forty years ago the Porsche 917 made a surprise comeback at Le Mans with the Kremer brothers - a full decade after its second and final win. Adam Cooper recounts the story

Kremer 917 in the 1981 Le Mans 24 Hours

Kremer Porsche 917 had a short lived run in the 1981 Le Mans 24 Hours


I was too young to see it race in its heyday, but the Porsche 917 has always had a special place in my heart. I guess it started in about 1973, when I bought a couple of Super Champion 1/43rd models on different family day trips to Calais.

I was only about eight at the time, and just becoming aware of motor racing. Picked at random from a display of different 917 liveries in the local Monoprix, by chance my two selections turned out to be the Le Mans winning cars from 1970 and 1971.

As I became more steeped in motor racing history in the following years I never thought that I would get the chance to see the real car race in anger, but in 1981 my dream came true. A decade after the 917’s last proper appearance the Kremer brothers crafted a replica and ran it against contemporary machinery at both Le Mans and Brands Hatch.

Ten years is a long time in motor racing. Just consider the developments we saw in Formula 1 technology between the McLaren M19 of 1971 and the carbon fibre MP4 of 1981.

“I didn’t think it was a good idea, actually, but I was contracted to Kremer”

Having said that, sports cars have sometimes had a longer life span. An original Porsche 908 appeared in World Championship races as late as 1980, while cars derived from the 956 design of 1982 were still racing at Le Mans well into the nineties. And the Ferrari 333SP was active long after its 1994 debut – testimony to the quality of the original concept.

But there was something very special about the return of the 917. That’s because it was cut off in its prime at the end of ’71, when new FIA rules made it obsolete after three years of frontline action.

It survived a little longer in brutal CanAm form, but we’re talking here about the classic, elegant lines of the coupes raced by the likes of Jo Siffert and Pedro Rodriguez, and made so famous by Steve McQueen via his Le Mans movie.

When the design briefly became eligible again for international competition, justice was somehow served.

Porsche 917s at Pebble Beach in 2021

Porsche 917 had a colourful but short racing history – extended with angular Can-Am versions


Through the seventies Erwin and Manfred Kremer achieved considerable success with a variety of Porsches, notably the 935. They also worked on historic cars, including 917s, and over the years hatched a plan to build a “new” version.

The idea lay dormant until 1981, when they realised that, with a few updates, the car would be eligible for Le Mans. New Group C FIA rules were coming in ’82, and closed cockpits were in vogue again.

“During a period of about two years we collected and bought parts of the 917,” Erwin Kremer told me a decade later. “As we had enough parts, I contacted Porsche and they liked the idea. They gave me the original spaceframe chassis drawing, and helped me to get more spare parts. They also built for Kremer two new 917 engines.”

The brothers also tested the water with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest. The ACO was well aware of the public’s fascination with the original cars, and knew that the return of a 917 would be something to promote.

“They heard that a 917 would be built in Germany,” said Kremer. “So four top officials, including Alain Bertaut, came to Cologne. They were very enthusiastic about this project.”

Kremer 917 chassis

Kremer 917 was built with the assistance of original Porsche blueprints


French real estate company Malardeau agreed to back the project, and two drivers it backed in touring cars – Guy Chasseuil and Xavier Lapeyre – were earmarked to drive, alongside regular Kremer 935 racer Bob Wollek. The latter had some reservations when he first learned of the project.

“When I was starting motor racing and the 917 appeared everybody said that it was a monster, difficult to drive, it was all over the place,” he told me in 2001.

“So eventually when somebody tells you you’ve got to drive it, you think hmmm… The other thing is I hadn’t got a clue how that thing would be in 1981 against modern cars. I didn’t think it was a good idea, actually, but I was contracted to Kremer, and they decided this was the thing they wanted to do.”

With a customer’s original Gulf car as a useful template the Kremers built a car that was still recognisably a 917, with suitable updates. The chassis was stiffer, and the bodywork was tweaked, with slab sides and a deeper nose added.

From the archive

A large rear wing upset some purists, although some cars did run one at Le Mans in ‘71. It also had air jacks, which were unknown in its heyday. A 4-speed CanAm gearbox was used, and there was a choice of 4.5 and 4.9-litre power units.

By now dubbed 917K-81, the bright yellow car was given a shakedown on the Nürburgring short circuit just before Le Mans.

“It appeared to be a very easy car to drive, actually,” said Wollek. “I’d been driving 935s with up to 740bhp, so I wasn’t impressed by the power. But it was well-balanced, and didn’t seem to be what people had told me about 10 years before.

“But when we got to Le Mans the car was desperately slow, or at least the lap times were not there. Eventually we realised the car was slow in a straight line, perhaps because they’d added a big wing on the back and some downforce on the front, which actually made the car easier to drive. But it was ridiculous compared to the speeds the 917s used to do 10 years before.”

A change of ratios made a big improvement, but Wollek had more on his mind than technicalities.

“Funnily enough, it was the very first and last time in my life that when I left my house, I had a very bad feeling. I just did not feel right – I felt that something was wrong, something was going to happen to me. I was very, very uncomfortable. I just did not know why, and that feeling started when I left my house, and it just followed me all the time.

“When the race started we were still slow, and were nowhere, miles behind the leaders. Which upset me, because I honestly thought at one stage we had a good chance to finish well up.”

Kremer 917 at Le Mans in 1981

The 917 still looked the part at Le Mans in 1981, but was off the pace of the modern machines

Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images

The first hours of the race were scary, and saw a series of horrific crashes on the Mulsanne Straight. In one a marshal was killed by debris from Thierry Boutsen’s WM, while in another Wollek’s contemporary Jean-Louis Lafosse lost his life. Although he’d got up to ninth, Bob was deeply unhappy.

“This was too much. I could not take it anymore. I spoke to a friend I met in the pits and said to him, ‘I don’t like this, I hate this race. The only thing I’d like to do is **** off and go home.’

“He said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘I just get the feeling that I’m going to get killed here’. He said, ‘You know what, Wollek? **** off and go home.’ ‘You think I can do that?’ ‘Of course, if you don’t feel OK, **** off.’ So I ****ed off…

“My intention was just to go home, get out of this. I didn’t want to drive that car any more.”

“I went to the pits and I spoke the Kremers and said, ‘Look, I’m unhappy, I don’t feel well, something’s going to happen to me. I don’t want to go on.’ And I left. Which never ever happened to me before or since. I went back to the hotel, packed and drove home.

“At that stage I thought it was the thing to do, and looking back, I did it right. Kremer couldn’t understand, and they thought that I was going to retire from racing. But my intention was just to go home, get out of this. I didn’t want to drive that car any more.”

Few people noticed that he had even left, because the car was withdrawn in the eighth hour, after Lapeyre had damaged it.

“Two weeks or so later there was a German championship race with the 935,” Wollek recalled. “The Kremers spoke to me on the phone and said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘No problem.’ ‘What about Le Mans?’ I said, ‘I told you before, and that’s it. Forget about it.’”

From the archive

The 917K-81 sat idle until the final round of the World Championship at Brands Hatch in September. This was the last race for which the car would be eligible, and the Kremers decided to prove that they hadn’t wasted their time. The circuit, scene of the famous Rodriguez performance in the 1970 1000kms, seemed like the perfect stage. But would Wollek give it a second chance?

“Eventually the Brands Hatch race came up, and they said, ‘Do you want to drive that car again?,’ and I said ‘No problem.’”

This time Bob had a strong partner in the form of Henri Pescarolo. The race also saw the debut of the prototype Ford C100, the first works car of the new Group C era that would properly kick in in 1982.

The Porsche was in its element at Brands. Wollek qualified third and ran near the front from the off, even leading for a while. He loved every minute.

“I was behind Manfred Winkelhock in the C100, and for laps and laps I was on his tail. I cannot walk on water, so of course it was good! It was easy to drive, it was well-balanced, it had good grip, it had good traction, the engine didn’t feel very heavy.”

I wasn’t at Le Mans, but I was a teenaged paying spectator at Brands that day, and for a while the 917 legend came to life, and one could imagine what it was must have been like to see a field full of these wonderful cars and their Ferrari 512M nemesis. The dream didn’t last long.

“I’ve always thought that if the car hadn’t retired at Le Mans, the breakage would have happened there”

“Eventually coming up into Dingle Dell the steering failed,” Wollek explained. “I just lost the car and spun. I didn’t hit anything, and the engine was still running. I put it into first gear, turned the steering, and nothing happened. So I had to park the car and walk back to the pits.

“When I got there Manfred Kremer told me I was an asshole, and I was going too fast! ‘Nobody can drive a 917 at that speed and keep up with Winkelhock in a modern car.’ I said, ‘You better shut up and go have a look at the car…’”

The failure put Wollek’s earlier feeling of impending doom into perspective. It did not escape his attention that, even allowing for some testing, and practice and qualifying at Brands, the car had still not clocked up anything like 24 hours of running.

“What actually happened at Brands was due to fatigue. I might be wrong, but I have always thought that if the car hadn’t retired at Le Mans, the breakage would have happened there…”

Nevertheless at Brands the Kremer brothers had salvaged some pride – their plan had actually worked. However, the car was now effectively a museum piece once again. They held onto it for a while, and eventually it was sold.

Meanwhile my two precious 1/43rd models survived years of racing round the carpet, and they now have pride of place in my office at home, joined by other Super Champion models that I acquired many years later. Along with a dozen 1/18th 917s in various classic colour schemes…