The 50th anniversary of Porsche’s 917 has triggered a wave of interest and appearances for the cars. Porsche has led the way with a significant display at its museum. The centerpiece of the ‘Colours of Speed’ exhibit is the newly-restored 917 Chassis 001.
Ferdinand Piech reveals the 917 at the Geneva Salon. Photo: Porsche Archive
Chassis 001 was the first 917 to appear in public. According to Walter Naher’s authoritative book, 917 Archive, there is no record of the exact date of completion, but it was likely March 10, 1969 allowing just one day for transportation to Geneva. The car was unveiled at 3:09 PM local time on March 12 in the Swiss Auto Club booth at the Geneva Motor Show press day. The original body shape may now look slightly dated but it must have been stunning to the assembled journalists. Looking similar to a longtail, 3-liter 908, but more purposeful and menacing, the real news was under the tail. Since the development of the 917 was a well-guarded secret, few could have guessed Porsche would be showing and offering for sale a Group 4 ‘Sports’ racer with an air-cooled flat 12 engine displacing 4.5 liters. The price was listed at DM 140,000. That was about $35,000 or a little under $250,000 in today’s money.
Porsche competition manager Rico Steinemann made a brief statement before Ferdinand Piech, as head of R&D for Porsche and the father of the 917, removed the cover himself. Several of the Porsche factory team drivers were also present for the unveiling. Jo Siffert, Gerard Larrousse and Gerhard Mitter can be seen in the photos along with Vic Elford. Elford was particularly enamored of the 917, a case of love at first site. In his book, Reflections on a Golden Era in Motorsports, Vic wrote: “I fell in love with its curves and the sensation of power that emanated from it, even while it sat still and silent.”
Twenty-five Porsche 917s lined up for homologation inspection. Photo: Porsche Archive
Chassis 001 made its next appearance on April 21, 1969 in the forecourt of Porsche’s race shop in Zuffenhausen, first in line of course. The occasion was the homologation inspection of the initial run of 25 917s. As a Group 4 ‘Sports’ racer, the rules required that Porsche build 25 cars in order to race in the World Sports Car Championship. The FIA/CSI representatives (Delamont and Schmidt) duly reviewed the line-up with Ferdinand Piech and the Porsche team. 001 was then used for some testing duties in 1969. Walter Naher lists tests at the Nurburgring Sudschleife (May 14 with a short tail, engine damaged) and Weissach (in June, an extended wheel bearing test over 220 kilometers on the skid pad).
Chassis 001 in IAA Frankfurt Motor Show colors. Photo: Porsche Archive
Chassis 001 in Gulf announcement colors. Photo: Porsche Archive
In early September, chassis 001 was shown at the IAA Frankfurt Motor Show (International Automobil Ausstellung). The car was white with orange stripes, orange wheels and wore race number 3. The car was then painted in Gulf colors for the announcement of the partnership between Porsche and JW Automotive on which took place on September 30, 1969, at the Carlton Tower Hotel in London. After this press reception, the car was put on display at the Earl’s Court Motor Show. A discreetly small John Wyer signature appeared on the left front wheel arch. Although Herr Naher doesn’t list it, at least one photo exists showing 001 at the Jochen Rindt Motor Show in Vienna (in Gulf colors with a large Porsche badge on the nose). Likely this would have been in November of 1969. The Rindt event moved to Essen after Rindt’s death and continues to this day as the Essen Motor Show.
Historic Porsche display at Courtanvaux Castle. Photo: Porsche Archive
The next appearance was at Le Mans in 1970, but not for racing. Chassis 001 was part of a display of historic Porsche racing cars at Courtanvaux Castle. A 917 engine was also part of the display and at this stage the car still wore its 1969 Le Mans-style, longtail bodywork and Gulf colors.
In September of 1970, chassis 001 was converted to 917K bodywork. For the Paris Motor Show of October 1970 it was painted in red race number 23 Porsche-Salzburg livery to replicate the appearance of Chassis 023, the actual 1970 Le Mans-winning car. Herr Naher lists October 6, 1970 as the official date for 001 to be transferred to the Press Department as an exhibition car. It also appeared at motor shows in London, Brussels and Germany (Essen) during this period. In the spring of 1971 it came to the US for the New York Auto Show.
For many years it was thought that chassis 001 might have been re-numbered 009, possibly in preparation to replace the damaged chassis 009 after the Sebring race in 1971. There is no evidence currently to support this, however. The car remained in the Porsche Museum collection, standing-in for the 1970 Le Mans winner for the next 45 years. 001 came back to the US in 1998 for the ‘Double 50’ celebration at Watkins Glen, organized by Brian Redman. This event celebrated Porsche’s 50th anniversary as a manufacturer and the 50th for racing at Watkins Glen. Also in 1998 the car was shown at Laguna Seca during the Monterey Historic Races. The most recent appearance in the US was in 2015 at Rennsport Reunion V.
Chassis 001 at Rennsport Reunion V. Photo: Jay Gillotti
The restoration project began in January of 2018 with a technical assessment that established feasibility and the originality of many components. Disassembly began in February of 2018. 3D scanning and CAD technology along with the original factory drawings were used to recreate the nose and tail. The frame for the 1969 long tail also had to be recreated along with the rear axle kinetic lever system. This was designed to actuate flaps moving up or down depending on the direction of a turn. As ‘moveable aerodynamic devices’ the flaps were outlawed after the 1969 Le Mans race. The roof section, windscreen and doors were original and did not require rebuilding. The new body was completed and painted by January of 2019, leaving only a few weeks to reassemble the car. The Porsche Newsroom article on the restoration can be found at: https://newsroom.porsche.com/en/2019/history/porsche-917-001-disassembling-restoration-museum-17525.html.
The restored chassis 001 poses with Concorde 002. Photo: Porsche Archive
Prior to the opening of the new exhibit, Porsche debuted the restored Chassis 001 at the Retro Classic show in Stuttgart. This was in March, almost 50 years to the day since the car was first shown in Geneva. Porsche then took Chassis 001 to the Goodwood Member’s Meeting for exhibition runs along with four other 917s. While in England, it posed with Concorde 002, also celebrating a 50th birthday, at the Fleet Air Arm Museum. The YouTube video link (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqBA1JIJ5l4) shows 1970 Le Mans-winning driver, Richard Attwood, visiting with Concorde pilot Tim Orchard. ‘Colours of Speed’ runs until December 8th at the Porsche Museum and all the 917 fans in the US hope that Chassis 001 will make an appearance in the US sometime in the next few years.
Jay is the author of “Gulf 917,” a comprehensive history of the Porsche 917s associated with the JW Automotive/Gulf Racing Team. The book is available at www.daltonwatson.com.
I was casually leafing through a recent copy of the Porsche Magazine, Christophorus, (March 1998), when a number of splendid black and white photographs of road racing cars of the 50’s and 60’s caught my attention. Somehow it is appropriate that photographs of cars of that era be black and white; color would be totally superfluous, even distracting. Staring at the photographs I am immersed in the facial expressions of the drivers who betray, in their open face helmets with goggles, their intense concentration and total commitment to their work. Today’s closed-face helmets add a significant safety margin, but, alas, photographer and spectator alike are deprived of contact with the drivers. Among the many iconic cars presented in this story are early Porsches – RS Spyders, RSK’s, 550’s – driven by the likes of Masten Gregory, Jo Bonnier and Ricardo Rodriguez.
Ricardo Rodriguez practices a Le Mans start in his #39 Porsche 1600 RSK just prior to the 1960 Grand Prix held in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Tom Burnside, copyright The Revs Institute.
The featured photographer is Tom Burnside, who traveled the road racing circuits from 1954 to 1968, capturing the essence of sports car racing in those early years after World War II. On page 36 of Christophorus I study Ricardo Rodriguez, caught by Burnside’s lens as Rodriguez leaps over the door into his Porsche 1600 RSK practicing the traditional Le Mans start in 1960. Rodriguez is wearing a short-sleeved golf shirt, goggles dangling around his neck, driving gloves without fingers (like today’s bicycling gloves), and – not to be missed above his penny loafers – his pants legs gathered up around his ankles under small belts to keep his pant cuffs from interfering with the furious pedal work that lies ahead. I know Mexicans are very proud of their motherland, so Rodriguez uses electrical tape to write MEXICO in block letters on the faring behind his head restraint.
Then I glance over at page 37 and I can’t believe my eyes – a photograph of road racing cars in the 1960 Havana Grand Prix! It is obvious in the photograph that the race is being run on the wide-open spaces of a runway, and then I shudder as goose bumps course up and down my spine. I WAS THERE! It’s the first time I’ve seen a photograph of that event, which took place on the Columbia Military Airport in suburban Havana in early 1960. I was born in Havana, and it so happened that we had our home on 21st Avenue, between 82nd and 84th streets. The military airport, which was the venue for this race, was at the south end of 84th street, only one block from my house. As a young child, oftentimes I would run up to the fence to see bombers, propeller fighters, venerable DC3’s and assorted aircraft warming their radial piston engines at the eastern end of the runway (visible at the far end in Burnside’s photograph). My favorite airplane was the Lockheed Super G Constellation, an early 1950’s transatlantic carrier with its unmistakable triple vertical stabilizer and four piston engines of 9,000 combined horsepower. Its crew would carefully warm up one engine at a time, and I would wait patiently, staring through the cyclone fence at the monster about 200 yards away. The pilot would hold the brakes, rev up all that horsepower until the window glass on our houses shook, and then release the brakes, beginning the takeoff roll, headed to parts unknown. Like some annoying song that sticks in your head, the roar of those engines is still in my ears.
But how did this Grand Prix race come about? The late Joel E. Finn, the author of the prized book, Caribbean Capers, wrote that “Kenneth ‘Ken’ Coleman of West Palm Beach, FL, had been involved in road racing for some years as an active member of the Florida Region of the SCCA.” Flinn indicates that it was Coleman who approached the new Director of the Cuban Sporting Commission, Captain Felipe Guerra Matos (“Guerrita” to his friends) and convinced him that organizing a sports car race would entice tourists from the US, whose numbers had plummeted. I personally remember the gentleman, Guerrita because my mother’s younger sister, Edith Romagosa, was his Executive Secretary. This explains why my Dad and I had unfettered access to that Grand Epreuve.
Finn goes on to explain that Guerrita accepted Coleman’s proposal and allowed Coleman and two other Cubans with racing experience, Juan Garcia and Alfonso Gomez Mena to coordinate the Havana Speed Week. After concluding that the seaside boulevard, “El Malecon”, the venue used in previous races, was unsafe and uncontrollable. (In a personal conversation I had with the late Phil Hill when I asked him which was the most difficult track he had ever experienced he said El Malecon in Havana because sea water is constantly washing over the wall onto the street and creating a soapy scum on the pavement). For a venue, Coleman’s team chose the military airport, Campo Libertad (Freedom Camp). They decided to hold an event, Havana Speed Week, commencing on February 20, 1960, and concluding with the GP on Sunday, February” 28. The 3.11-mile course at the airport was set to run clockwise, for a total of 65 laps (about 202 miles).
Action near Havana Country Club: Alfonso Gomez-Mena (sporting Cuban flag on the hood) in the #14 Ferrari 250 GT LWB, leads Jim Jeffords, USA, in the #4 Chevrolet Corvette C1. Photo: Tom Burnside, copyright The Revs Institute.
Back to the photographs. As I was only 11 years old at the time, so my father was at the track with me. He mentioned that he helped keep lap times for one of the teams during the race in 1958. I think it was for a team of privateers with a Mercedes sponsored by the Cuban cigarette makers, Trinidad y Hermanos (the MB factory teams had abandoned racing after Pierre LeVegh’s crash at Le Mans in 1955). As I stare at the photograph I recall the ripping sounds of small bore engines, straining at their redlines, the musical sequence of heel & toe downshifting and the pungent smells of racing oil, clutch and brake dust and racing fuels (which occupy a special place in my sense of smell, right next to cordite from antiaircraft shells and exploding bombs, but more on this later). I remember that the spectator stands lining the runway were provisional, made of wood, housing the makeshift pit area along the “front straight.” My house was so close to the runway that I could stand at the fence and watch the racers run the left sweeper in the “Curva Camaguey” followed by the tight right turn into the long straight. That was the most important sequence for the quickest lap. Crowd control was evidently not terribly tight, what with next-to-nonexistent racing car restraints like a hay bale every ten feet or so. But such was the innocence of that era: on track, my Dad let me roam about at will, evidencing all confidence that I would be alright.
Observing the photographs taken by Burnside, there are many signs and banners advertising products – Shell gasoline, Goodyear tires, LASO batteries, Hilton Hotels (the racing headquarters were at the Habana Hilton) Coca-Cola, and Polar and Hatuey beer. This may seem totally obvious to readers, but there’s more. Later that year Fidel Castro ordered the “intervention” of all businesses, beginning with the expropriation of major U.S. corporations. On August 6, 1960, the Castro government formally nationalized all foreign-owned property in the nation. By the end of 1960, the revolutionary government had stolen more than $25 billion worth of private property owned by Cubans – 1960 was the end of private enterprise.
Maurice Trintignant, France, negotiates a right-hander onto the front straight in his #9 Maserati 300S. Photo: Tom Burnside, copyright The Revs Institute.
I wish I could give you more details on how the race went. Neither my father nor I had the foresight to hang on to a race program. But how was I to know, at age 11, of the magnitude of the event before me? Although my idol, Juan Manuel Fangio was not there, here were gathered the world’s best dueling at 180 mph in their golf shirts and penny loafers, darting about on skinny Dunlops sans driver restraints. Researching racing history, I found one version of the program (complete with someone’s handwriting) which listed 43 entries representing 14 nations. Among them were well known competitors including Joaquim Bonnier (Porsche RSK 1.5L), Jack Brabham (Cooper-Monaco 2.5L), Ettore Chimeri (Ferrari 3.0L), Masten Gregory (Porsche RSK 1.5L), Dan Gurney (Maserati 2.9L), Stirling Moss (Maserati Tipo 61 “Birdcage” 2.9L), Ulf Norinder (Porsche RSK 1.5L), brothers Pedro (Ferrari 3.0L) and Ricardo Rodriguez (Porsche RSK 1.5L), Eddie Sachs (Nisonger KLG Special 5.3L), Harry Schell (Ferrari 4.1L), Carroll Shelby (Porsche 1.5L), Maurice Trintignant (Maserati 3.0L), Huschke Von Hanstein (Porsche RSK 1.5) and Rodger Ward (Ferrari 2.9L). (Briggs Cunningham had been invited but refused to participate because Castro had already expropriated his businesses in Cuba). One Italian lady, Ada Pace, hurled her OSCA MT4 around the airport runway, her helmet more likely a leather head sock, with goggles and, in the tropical sunshine, sporting a sleeveless blouse – her careful manicure evident in her fingerless driving gloves. She finished her race!
Pedro Rodriguez, Mexico, in the #10 Ferrari 250 TR 59, finished second overall and second in class in the 50 lap main race. Photo: Tom Burnside, copyright The Revs Institute.
As I look at the photograph, Tom Burnside suddenly becomes my hero, the only person who can bring back details of a memory that I’ve carefully nurtured all these years. I become infatuated with the photograph – I must locate him. Finding a phone number for him, I ever so cautiously ring him up. He answers. I can’t believe he answers his own phone! I introduce myself, and I tell him about the photograph and that I was there. I’m thinking he’ll say, “Yeah, so what, I know many people who were there, big deal.” But instead, he says, “You’re the first person who has contacted me who says he was there!” Burnside remembers that Stirling Moss drove a birdcage Maserati (a white number 7, I remember distinctly). He also knows that a Jaguar XKSS was entered (and that it was just repatriated from Cuba to the US for some astronomical sum). He also tells me about the time in ’57 when he was in Havana for the Gran Premio, staying at the El Presidente hotel where he received a visit at 3:00 am from Castro’s representatives, who take him back to their lair (but that’s Burnside’s story to tell). At the airport, he said the race was run clockwise using the runway with mostly curves to the right using some of the service roads. There is one more personal detail that I recall: as the featured race ended and the crowds were leaving, I gathered a few of my friends and stuffed wads of paper in the tailpipes of spectator cars parked all around our neighborhood. Then we watched with glee as the wads rocketed out of the tailpipes when the engines were started.
One year later, on Saturday, April 15, 1961, at 6:00 am, the thunder of low flying airplanes shook the house. But accustomed as we were to airplanes overhead, this was different: there was more than one, and their approach to the airport was not supposed to be over our house, and they are coming in TOO LOW! Then all hell breaks loose as these airplanes begin strafing the military airport and Castro’s Czechoslovakian 4-barrelled antiaircraft batteries reply in kind. The ground leaps as bombs hit their targets. I grab my baby sister out of her bed and our family runs screaming into the dining room, sliding under the dining room table, everyone praying loudly for God to spare us and literally feeling every bomb hit through the cold hard, tile floor. I have never before or since been so afraid for my life. We expect a bomb to hit our house any second as the bombers (CIA-supplied Douglas A-23’s of the anti-Castro assault force of Alpha 66) make their runs at their targets. Twenty minutes later the bombers leave, but they have decimated the airport. The ordinance, which had been trucked into the air base only a week earlier, is now exploding at will. We run to the car, in our sleepwear, not stopping for anything. We drive away to my mother’s cousin in the western suburbs of Miramar. Two days later, 1,500 men make shore in a crocodile-infested swamp known to the rest of the world as the Bay of Pigs.