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FERDINAND PIËCH, who was ousted from Volkswagen AG’s supervisory board on April 25, 2015, carefully chose—and won—many of his other battles. An example concerns the all-conquering Porsche 917 and its homologation in international sports car competition. The tale contains intrigue, timing and seemingly super-human effort.
In the late 1960s, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile engaged in one of its recurring episodes of social relevance (akin to today’s Formula 1 hybrids, each battery of which costs around $50,000). Back then, the F.I.A.’s Commission Sportive Internationale regulated its most exotic sports racing cars, Group 6, to a modest displacement of three liters. Group 4 permitted engines of up to five liters, but only in production models, this term defined as 50 or more examples produced per year.
It wasn’t until the CSI reduced this requirement to 25 cars annually that automakers showed interest.
In particular, at the 1969 Geneva International Motor Show, Porsche stunned the motorsports world with a 12-cylinder Group 4 race car called the 917.
The 917 was listed at DM 140,000 (perhaps $35,000 then, $225,000 in today’s dollar), ten times the price of the company’s 911 sports car back then. And even so, its price came nowhere near the 917’s development costs.
Ferdinand Piëch, Porsche head of motorsports, had a formidable task: not only develop this extremely complex race car, but also display 25 of them by March 31, 1969, thus allowing entry in the 1969 season. What’s more, Porsche vowed that the 917 would win the 1970 Le Mans race, only 15 months away (which, indeed, it did).
Innovations in the car were legion. In the interest of lightness, its shift knob was balsa. Elements of its intricate multi-tube aluminum chassis performed double duty in conveying oil from a front-mounted cooler to the car’s mid-mounted air-cooled flat-12. To monitor its integrity, the chassis was pressurized and fitted with its own gauge.
As another example, the 917 invoked automatically variable downforce via rear-wing-mounted elevons, flaps responding to suspension movement.
The definitive homologation tale is in the book Porsche: Excellence Was Expected: The Comprehensive History of the Company, its Cars and its Racing Heritage – 2008 Update by Karl E. Ludvigsen Published by Bentley Publishers 2nd (second) edition (2008) Hardcover: On March 20, 1969, while the Geneva 917 was still on display, a CSI inspector arrived in Stuttgart to assess whether the required 25 cars would be completed by March 31.
The inspector found three completed 917s, another 18 being assembled and sets of parts for seven more. He demanded that the 25 cars had to be built.
“Of course we could easily put all the cars together,” Ludvigsen cites the Porsche point of view, “but we’d only have to take them apart again to get them ready for racing.” Nevertheless the CSI representative insisted that both the letter as well as the spirit of the regulation be met.
An agreement was reached. “Come back on Monday, April 21st,” the CSI rep was told.
At this point, Piëch enlisted the full contingent of Porsche mechanics and technicians. Each engine alone took 160 hours of assembly. As a car was completed, it was moved out of the assembly hall to make room for the next one.
On Saturday, April 19, 1969, “When the last fastener was screwed down on the last 917, the mechanics took down a laurel wreath from the wall, laid it on its nose, and topped it by a sign lettered crudely on cardboard: ‘Nr. 25.’ ”
The following Monday, Piëch and engineer Helmuth Bott met two CSI officials at Zuffenhausen. They stayed for photo ops.
“Would you like to drive one?” the visitors were asked, “You can choose any one you like.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015
Great story about a great car. Though already an ardent fan of Ferrari back then, I still liked the 917 – especially the short tail version in Gulf livery. Too bad the Ferrari 512S/Ms never really were able to stand up to what could have been an epic battle between the 5-liter sportscars. I have an idea that I have read somewhere that the 917 was nicknamed the “widowmaker”. Where did that come from?
I remember some of those facts about the 917, but don’t ever remember seeing that the shift knob was balsa! I would think in the heat of battle it would be squeezed to pulp.