The Porsches 917 from 1969 is by many regarded as the racecar above all others. Le Mans success speaks its own language, as does moviestar status in McQueen’s legendary movie “Le Mans”. Then there’s also its reputation as the widow-maker. Yet in 1970, Porsche were experimenting with an even more brutal version with no less than 16 cylinders.
I still remember the first time I learnt of this 16-cylinder monster. I was paging through a big and glossy book showcasing the impressive 917. There, on one of the many pages, was a horsepower dyno sheet with numbers I had never seen before: 755 HP. And then it went on to say “16-Zyl.-Motor”? Astonished and intrigued I hastily read on, and learnt of this huge 6.5-litre, 16-cylinder, combustion-engined version of Thor’s Hammer! The dyno sheet was dated the 24th November 1970 as the day where those Zuffenhausen engineers stretched their latest project to a frightening 200 horsepower more than the “normal” 12-cylinder 917 could manage. Of course, we all know that more is always better, right?
Well, not always. Here on ViaRETRO, as with any other place that has to do with cars – be that on the world wide web or out in reality – talk often turns to power. Or horsepower to be more specific. That’s where the conversation often becomes fairly unnuanced, as way too many seem to truly believe that more is always better. Of course, more power canindeed be better, but the car needs to be judged as a whole, and that whole still needs to be well balanced. It’s a classic case of “More wants More”. But if the balance is lost in that process, then less will in fact be better.
Nowhere is that exemplified better than in motorsport. Out on the track, there is not much to debate. It’s pretty black and white as the seconds tick away and the stopwatch tells the cold truth.
It was with the Can-Am series in their sights that Porsche decided to develop an even bigger engine. That in itself was perhaps a sound enough thought process, as that was what everyonedid in Can-Am, where 8-litres and beyond was the norm. During development, Porsche’s thorough testing naturally showed the bigger engine to more powerful, but when it was installed in a functioning prototype, the conclusion was a lot less positive. The new 16-cylinder engine was both longer and heavier, both of which had a negative effect of the handling characteristics and dynamics of the prototype racer. It’s believed four different 16-cylinder engines were built, which delivered between 700 and 880 horsepower depending on engine size.
The decision was made to discard the 16-cylinder program, and focus was instead turned to further development of the existing flat-12 engine with turbo-charging. That was to be Porsches chosen weapon as they lined up for the 1972 season with 850 horsepower – less than the most extreme of the 16-cylinder engines, but the balance was maintained and the car proved a winner!
So if you don’t believe me when I say that more is not always better, then perhaps you can at least believe Porsche.