Taking it to the street…
As if the idea of driving a Porsche 962 on the street isn't crazy enough, there have been two examples of the legendary 917 which have been registered for road use, both with the blessing of Porsche itself
Words: Keith Seume
Photos: Porsche Archiv and H-D Seufert
Most of us have probably fantasised at one time or another what it would be like to drive a full-on race car on the street, something so jaw-droppingly outrageous that nobody in their right minds would even consider taking you on at the lights. Something like a a Carrera Cup 911, maybe, or an old 2.8 RSR. They'd be cool, sure, but let's face it, they'd still pass as just another 911 to the uninitiated.
No, what you need is a car that, in its day, won at Le Mans and has become such an icon that everyone with the remotest interest in cars would stop, dead in their tracks, nod in appreciation and give it the big thumbs-up. Something like a Porsche 917, for example.
The story of the ground-breaking 917 has been told and retold a thousand times, about how the flat-12-powered beast was created to take on the might of Ferrari and Ford at Le Mans, how later turbocharged versions destroyed the opposition in Can-Am races – and how a car-crazy Hollywood actor by the name of McQueen produced and starred in a movie, the sole purpose of which appeared to be to deify the 917. But most significantly, it was the car that allowed Porsche to gain its first outright victory at Le Mans in 1970.
It is no real surprise, then, that in this very issue the 917 is lauded as the greatest Porsche of all time, voted into that spot not only by those of us on the magazine but by a panel of knowledgeable Porsche luminaries. Surely, then, if there was a Porsche that would be the perfect basis of the road car to end all road cars, this is it?
Porsche, of course, never built a road-going version of the 917 – after all, it was far too impractical for such an application, wasn't it? Well, wasn't it? Actually, it seems nobody told Count Rossi – or Jochen Grossmann, come to that.
Count Gregorio Rossi di Montelera was one of the heads of the Martini & Rossi company, producers of the world famous Martini alcoholic beverage and, equally as significantly, major sponsors of Porsche's racing team. Martini (& Rossi…) had first bankrolled Porsche in 1971, inspired no doubt by the marque's victory at La Sarthe the previous year. The timing couldn't have been better, for relations with the leading sponsor, the Gulf Oil Company, had become somewhat cool of late. Team principal John Wyer felt that Porsche had not given his team enough credit for their efforts, while Porsche was apparently reluctant to share the glory…
Following discussions with Porsche, Rossi arranged to purchase chassis # 917-030. This was a short-tailed coupé which, in Martini livery, had been raced just one time at the Zeltweg 1000km event in June 1971. 030 is of particular historical significance in that it was the first car to race fitted with an anti-lock braking system (Teldix).
Driven by Gérard Larousse and Helmut Marko, the 917 qualified in third spot, behind the 917 of Attwood/Rodriguez and the Ferrari 312P of Ickx/Regazzoni. In the race itself, 917-030 was in contention for a win until a tyre failure saw Larousse heading off the track, damaging the car beyond immediate repair. Interestingly, the drivers had opted to switch off the anti-lock braking system during the race as they felt they needed more 'seat time' with the revolutionary set-up.
The day after the race, Porsche decided to repair the heavily damaged chassis and set about exhaustive testing of the anti-lock braking system, with Helmut Marko eventually managing to match the lap times set by Rodriguez during the race, which happened to be some two seconds a lap quicker than Marko's race best.
917-030 was never raced again, 1971 effectively marking the end of the 917's career as an endurance racer due to changes in FIA rules. From June until September 1971, It was used exclusively for testing by Porsche, driven by Willi Kauhsen, at both Weissach and Hockenheim while developing the Teldix system. The final test was held on 29 March 1972, after which the car was placed in storage.
In 1974, 030 was offered to Count Rossi, the Martini-liveried car undergoing a relatively modest refit to allow it to be used on the street. The two fins at the rear of the car were removed in deference to other road users/pedestrians, while the full race livery was reduced to a simple coat of 'Martini Silver' – a slightly blueish shade of silver. The interior of the car was retrimmed in black cloth, with a passenger seat installed and trimmed to match.
Mechanically, the 917 was pretty much left alone, with a stoneguard over the exposed horizontal cooling fan and a 911-style silencer being the only concessions to street use. With around 630bhp on tap (although probably less with the silencer fitted), it was heralded as 'the fastest car on the road'. The original magnesium wheels were retained, shod with fat Dunlop 'intermediate' race tyres, a space-saver spare wheel squeezed in the tail just in case…
But what now? Count Rossi realised there was little chance of getting the car registered in Germany, or in France where Martini had its offices. The solution was – and we can only begin to imagine how many strings were pulled, favours called in – to register the 917 in Alabama, of all places. The southern American state had a fairly liberal view on what constituted a road car, but even there the official word was 'We'll issue licence plates – just as long as you never drive it over here'.
In reality, the car was rarely driven on the street, the few surviving photos of it on the road taken in the course of its drive away from the factory. The 917 spent most of its time in the underground garage at Martini in Paris, with occasional forays to Montlhéry for some private track sessions. In recent times, 917-030 was displayed at the 2009 Goodwood Festival of Speed, resplendent in its original silver (in the intervening years, the car had been repainted dark blue for a while) but with a more luxurious tan leather interior.
But contrary to popular opinion, Count Rossi's 917 was not the only such car to see street use. Chassis # 917-021 actually went one better, as it was issued with a VIN-plate by Porsche and was legally registered for road use in Germany.
Although it was built in the early long-tail format, 917-021 was upgraded to the latest short-tail design immediately prior to its sale in 1970 to Antti Aarnio Whuri, the Finnish Volkswagen importer who ran his own team, AAW Racing. Bearing its new team colours of yellow with red sill panels, it ran in the Monza 1000km, driven by Hans Laine and Gijs van Lennep. After a minor ‘off’, which damaged the rear suspension, 917-021 eventually finished in 11th place. The car's next outing was the Spa 1000km in May, where Laine and van Lennep finished in 5th place.
Eventually 917-021 made it to the startline of the 24 Heures du Mans. Again, Gijs van Lennep took to the wheel, this time accompanied by David Piper, with sponsorship from Sandeman’s Port. Piper had an accident at Tertre Rouge and although the car was patched up, van Lennep then had a puncture, a direct result of the damage inflicted on the chassis by Piper’s crash. The tyre eventually delaminated and the car was retired in the 11th hour.
Back at AAW Racing, it was evident that the chassis was in a bad way, so the car was returned to Porsche for repair. As the car was due to race just a few weeks later, the original '021' chassis was scrapped, with the mechanical components and bodywork transferred onto another chassis which Porsche happened to have in the stores. Still tagged as 917-021, the rebuilt car was returned to its owners in readiness for the 200 Meilen race at the Norisring on 28th June.
The ‘new’ chassis was, in fact that of 917-012, an early long-tailed car that had been crashed in testing at Daytona in November 1969. Porsche simply invoiced the car's owners for ‘repairs’, not even mentioning the fact the chassis had been replaced in its entirety.
In 1973, the chassis of 917-021 (that's the one used as the replacement for the first chassis by the factory itself) was sold, along with the remains of the bodywork to Manfred Freisinger, well-known purveyor of rare Porsches and parts. Freisinger let the chassis and body sit outside, untouched and seemingly unloved, until he was approached in 1976 by Joachim Grossmann, a carpenter from the Black Forest.
No doubt inspired by Count Rossi's adventures, Grossmann had a long-held dream to build a 917 for the road. A deal was struck and 917-021 was delivered to its new owner who, over the period of a couple of years, rebuilt the car – which still bore traces of its many paint schemes under more recent layers.
To be able to register the car for the road, it needed a VIN-plate. Incredibly, the Porsche factory was happy to oblige, supplying the one and only stamped VIN-plate ever issued to a Porsche 917, officially or otherwise. Grossmann has numerous photos in his albums which show the 917 on the street, bearing the licence plate ‘CW-K 917’.
In 1983, he sold the car via an intermediary to Florida-based collector, Don Marsh who rebuilt the car, returning it to race specification, this time with simple white bodywork reminiscent of the cars shown in the famous line-up of 25 917s taken in 1969. It was then repainted with purple and green bodywork, in homage to its days as one of the famous ‘hippie’ cars, and used for club races and demonstrations, still bearing its factory VIN-plate.
In 2002, the car was acquired by US race driver Bobby Rahal, who was determined to get the 917 back on the race track. With co-driver Brian Redman, Rahal took the car to Le Mans Classic in 2002 but it was afflicted with wheel bearing problems, forcing an early retirement from the event.
After a year, Rahal sold the car to Juan Barazi, who took the car to Switzerland to prepare it for use in a variety of events, including the Classic Endurance series. The car appeared at a number of tracks, including Silverstone, Spa-Francorchamps and Monza. It also appeared at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2004.
At this point a new name enters the story: Vincent Gaye. A successful and well-known classic racer, Gaye had long held a desire to own a 917, having had the opportunity to drive another example on his home track of Spa. Gaye’s enquiries led him to Juan Barazi, who sold #021 to the Belgian in 2008. Aware of the car’s complex history, and also of the claims by others that they owned the ‘real’ 917-021, he embarked on a lengthy and detailed investigation into its past, calling on the resources of the Porsche archives, the expertise of Jürgen Barth, and the memories and albums of every past owner – right down to Joachim Grossmann.
Today the car is among the best-known surviving 917s, and is certainly the most photogenic. But, sadly, it's days of being a road car are long gone. Mind you, it still wears its factory-issued VIN-plate, so who knows what surprises the future may hold?