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Porsche celebrates the iconic 917’s 50th birthday

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All photographs courtesy of Porsche AG.

What some might call a loophole, others might call taking maximum advantage of the rulebook. For 1969, Group 4 sports car racing required cars with engines displacing up to 5.0 liters to reach 25 production units before FIA homologation status would be granted. Going into 1969, the only cars homologated were the Ford GT40 and Lola T70.

Previous Porsche racers had adhered to the more lax prototype class that required no minimums, but capped engine capacity at 3.0 liters. So, when Porsche introduced the 917, with its 4.5-liter flat-12 engine, at the Geneva Motor Show on March 12, 1969, the groundbreaking race car caused quite the stir, particularly with Porsche’s plans to produce 25 examples before the year was out. On the stand at Geneva was 917-001, the prototype, test bed, and show car, finished in white with a green nose. Its long, flowing lines, smooth curves, bubble canopy, and long tail all spoke to the high speeds needed to win at Le Mans. Along with being a technical tour de force, it was a sight to behold.

Just a week after the 917’s global debut at Geneva, Porsche’s plans to drive a 240-mph ground-bound missile through the loophole in the rule book hit a temporary snag when the FIA’s International Sporting Commission (CSI) inspectors refused to grant the 917 its certificate of homologation. Stipulating that 25 cars had to be finished, inspectors only saw three complete cars, 18 in production and parts available to build a handful more. Porsche famously put every available person to use building the remaining cars, working overtime to complete the task. On April 21, 1969, at its Zuffenhausen works, Porsche precisely lined up the 25 completed 917s in a tight row, ready for inspection, the green-nosed Geneva show car leading the other 24 all-white examples. The CSI inspectors signed off on the new model, licensing the 917 as an homologated Group 4 sports car, beginning May 1, 1969.

Though it took a while, the 917 famously dominated Le Mans. Turbocharged and with its roof cut off, it absolutely crushed the competition in Can-Am. It set speed records at the Circuit de la Sarthe and Talladega. It won championships and races on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s no wonder that the Porsche 917 has been given the moniker of the “greatest race car ever,” or, as Penske star driver Mark Donohue declared it, “the perfect race car.” Including the 917’s first victory at Le Mans in 1970, Porsche has now won that most famous endurance race a record 19 times.

To celebrate the 917’s half-century mark, Porsche spent the last year restoring 917-001, the prototype used for testing and the car displayed on the Geneva show stand. Because it had been changed several times in the past five decades, both as a test and show subject, Porsche went deep into its archives and pulled out all the stops to bring the car back to its original white with green nose configuration.

After the 917’s debut in Geneva, and a not-so-hot debut at Le Mans where the powerful, raw, and untamed 917s began developing a reputation as a dangerous handful for even the most skilled of drivers, the prototype 917-001 made it to the Frankfurt International Motor Show later in 1969, appearing in white with orange accents. When John Wyer’s team took over 917 racing in Europe for the factory (as the two-time reigning Le Mans champs with a Ford GT40, no less), the team experimented during a practice session by cobbling together a more truncated tail that seemed to solve airflow problems at high speed. With 917-001 in its hands, Wyer’s team fitted the short-tail 917K bodywork to the show car and painted it in the team’s iconic blue-and-orange Gulf livery. The Porsche-family-affiliated Porsche Salzburg team, the winners at Le Man in 1970 with a 917K, later took possession of 917-001 and painted the car to mimic its winning livery.

With so many changes over the years and in quest to authentically restore the prototype to its Geneva show colors and configuration, Porsche museum mechanics and craftsmen teamed with some of the former mechanics and engineers who had previously worked on the car. They consulted the original blueprints and analyzed the body and frame to determine not only the original configuration, but also which materials could be reused and which needed to be replaced. The front and rear body sections and rear aluminum space frame were recreated to original standards.

To celebrate the 917’s 50th birthday, the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart will exhibit a special display titled Colours of Speed — 50 Years of the 917 from May 14 to September 19 this year. Among the items on display will be 10 917 racers, which Porsche is proud to boast as having a combined output of 7,686 horsepower. Leading that display will be the white and green Geneva show car, 917-001. Among items on display will be a reimagined 917 “concept study” of what a modern iteration of the car would have looked like. Porsche will also publish a companion book on the 917 for the show.