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Many significant motoring anniversaries are being celebrated this year – Zagato and Bentley’s centenary, the Mini’s 60th, Ford Capri’s 50th… the list goes on. Two of the less remarked upon but nevertheless significant anniversaries come from the same city, from the same stable, but are two very different sports cars. In fact, just about the only things they have in common are the badge, two seats, four wheels and a mid-engined layout.

Other than that, these two cars represent two extreme interpretations of the mid-engined sports car, designed for two very different purposes. I’m talking of course about the Porsche 914 and its super-powered sibling, one of the greatest racing cars ever made, the legendary 917.

By 1969, Porsche had fully established itself as a manufacturer of high-performance sports cars, even though it had – at that stage of its history – only really made two types of road car – the 356 and the 911/912. The days of offering niche models of niche models and becoming the world’s most profitable car company were still decades away.

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of most things Porsche (though I draw the line at some of their recent forays into SUV-dom), and while I’ve tasted contemporary Porsche ownership in the form of the 996, I still dream of an early ‘70s longhood 911. However, I rate the 914 highly too – especially in a suitably bright colour and without the heavy US-required bumpers of the time – so much so that it was on my short-list when looking to scratch my classic car itch a few years ago. Had I found a good 2.0-litre example at a decent price, there might well be one in the Wawryk garage now instead of die Zitrone.

Both cars were introduced to the public in 1969 – the 917 in March,
the 914 in September – and became pivotal models in Porsche’s history.

In the case of the 914, pivotal because although not the first mid-engined road car, the 914 was the first genuinely mass-produced car with its engine located just behind the driver’s head (it’s hard to claim that the Matra Djet, Lamborghini Miura or even the Lotus Europa were mass-produced). Almost 119,000 were built over a seven year span, and it was to prove to be the template for another step-change in Porsche’s history over a quarter-century later in 1996; the Boxster, which even shared the 914’s controversial “push me, pull you” styling, though it was somewhat less straight-edged.

The 914 is a car which splits opinion, even among Porsche fans, and not just because of its styling but also because of it being a joint project developed with Volkswagen; indeed, non-US market cars carried a VW-Porsche badge, and the 1.7-litre engine came from the VW 411. Porsche needed a replacement for their entry-level 912, VW were looking to replace the Karmann Ghia, so both companies were motivated to work together, although in the end it didn’t quite work out that way.  Of course, Porsche and VW were to collaborate in a similar way just a few years later with the 924, which was at least less controversial looking.

Despite the fact that it divided opinion in terms of its looks, the 914 was universally praised for its handling and practicality, and the targa arrangement also drew praise, with the roof panel fitting snugly into one of the two luggage compartments. Bill Boddy at Motor Sport Magazine raved about the 914, even in 1.7-litre form, calling it “one of the great new cars of the 1970’s”, particularly praising it’s handling “to competition standards” and its general on-the-road behaviour, though wishing it had more power and a better gearchange. Motor Trend magazine selected the 914 as its Car of the Year in 1970, and in the event, the majority of 914 sales were in the USA, and it outsold the 911 by a distance.

In recent years, 914 values have been rising steadily in the wake of the 911’s inexorable elevation above and beyond the average person’s budget. A good 1.7 will now set you back in the region of EUR 15-20k, a 2.0 nearer EUR 20-25k, and 914-6’s, if you can find one, have breached six-digit sums, as much as the best 911’s.

Although Porsche had already enjoyed considerable motorsport success prior to 1969, via cars such as the 904, 906 and 908, success at the highest level – which at the time meant the Le Mans 24 Hour race – had eluded them. So in the 917’s case, pivotal meant being the car which finally enabled Porsche to take on and beat the Ford GT40 and Ferrari 512S at the famed La Sarthe circuit, by building a car so fast, so powerful and so brutal that it’s still talked about in awed, hushed tones to this day. Porsche built the required 25 cars for homologation, and even produced a sales brochure, ready to take on the established powers of Ferrari, Ford and Matra.

The ultimate contenders for a game of Top Trumps?

The car’s early race history was both chequered and tinged with tragedy. It raced for the first time in the Spa 1000km in May 1969 but failed after just one lap, and in its Le Mans debut privateer John Woolfe crashed fatally. There were stability and aerodynamics problems which made the car extraordinarily challenging to drive, especially at speed. The 917 did however finish the season with a win in the 1000km at Zeltweg, Austria, but it had not been a successful first year.

 

In 1970, Porsche reached agreement with the John Wyer Automotive Group and, combined with sponsorship from Gulf Oil, the JW Gulf cars became Porsches works team, and featured one of the greatest racing team liveries ever – the pale blue body with orange centre stripe. It was a picture of a JW Gulf 917 on the front cover of a copy of Motor Sport magazine in my dentist’s waiting room when I was a boy which drew me into the world of motor racing. However, it was a 917K from a second “works” team, Porsche Salzburg, which took the win, piloted by Hans Herrmann and Englishman Richard Atwood, with a Martini-liveried car coming in second. The 917 thundered down the Mulsanne Straight at a recorded 240mph or 386km/h! A quite astonishing speed, faster than anything previously seen at Le Mans. Remarkably, a 914-6 came in sixth overall, with just seven cars finishing a race flooded by torrential rain.

The 917 won all but one of the World Sportscar Championship races that year, and its dominance continued until the end of 1971 where it won Le Mans a second time before regulation changes rendered it obsolete. From 1972 onwards, Porsche instead deployed the 917 in ever-more powerful variants to dominate the Can-Am championship in North America, culminating in the most powerful car ever raced, the 917/30, capable of producing a ludicrous 1,580bhp, though it made do with a mere 1,100bhp in race-tune. Even the incredible 2016 Bugatti Chiron, with its W16-cylinder, quad-turbocharged 8.0-litre engine can’t match that.

In all, eleven variants of the 917 were built for different categories of sports car racing over the years, with a total of 59 cars being produced, after which Porsche retreated from sports car racing for a while.

Obviously these two cars – while both playing a significant part in Porsche’s history – are to all intents and purposes nothing like each other, but just for fun, let’s compare the two; a kind of Top Trumps game, if you will…

Porsche 914 1.7 Porsche 914 2.0 Porsche 914/6 Porsche 917
Price then (in UK) £1,655/€1,800 £2,163/€2,350 £3,475/€3,750 £16,000/€17,300
Value now €15,000 to 20,000 €20,000 to 25,000 €70,000 to 120,000 €12,500,000
Engine Size (cc) 1679 1970 1991 4.5, 4.9 and 5.0
Cylinders 4 cyl boxer 4 cyl boxer 6 cyl boxer 12 cyl boxer
BHP 80 100 110 450 to 630
Weight (kg) 940 950 985 800
BHP per tonne 85 105 111.5 562.5 to 787.5
Top Speed km/h 186.5 190 207 390
0- 100km/h (secs) 13.3 10.5 8.7 2.3
Length 3.98m 3.98m 3.98m 4.12m to 4. 78m
Width 1.65m 1.65m 1.65m 1. 98m to 2.03m
Production nos. 115, 646 Incl. in 1.7 numbers 3,332 59

Of course, in this game, the 917 obliterates the 914 in every respect (other than production numbers) as it did its opposition on racetracks around the globe; in fact, it’s hard to compare a 917 to anything, but that isn’t really the point. Instead, it’s that one manufacturer could produce two such astonishingly different cars at more or less the same time, taking major financial, reputational and engineering risks when they were still relatively small (Porsche passed the 14,000 cars produced mark in 1969; last year alone, the company delivered 256,255 cars worldwide).

50 years later, both cars live on, at least in spirit. The Porsche Boxster is widely considered one of the world’s greatest and purest modern sports cars, and Porsche themselves have commemorated the 917 with a concept study called the 917 Living Legend. It looks incredible, but remains – and will remain, so Porsche say – a study; in fact, it is just a full-sized clay model. Yet I’m sure if sufficient demand were generated, they would struggle to resist the lure of wealthy collector’s cash – though I personally hope they will as I’d like to remember the 917 for the ground-breaking sports car that it was rather than yet another limited edition continuation.

 

3 Responses

  1. Anders Bilidt

    Has there ever been a bigger combined anniversary? Quite possibly the greatest racecar ever produced celebrating its first 50 years, and not least the classic Porsche which surely represents best value of money while managing to have a design and character quite remote from any the other classic Porsche which is equally celebrating its own 50 years. Epic!

    Reply
  2. Claus Ebberfeld

    Amen. I absolutely agree to everything above and like @Anders og the author have also been considering the 914 – as my first Porsche, by the way.

    One correction, though: Porsche is not the most profitable car company – Ferrari is. And by quite a margin. Go figure.

    Reply
  3. Zack Stiling

    Well remembered! The 917 was recognised at the Goodwood Members’ Meeting with a few parade laps by the prototype, a Gulf 917K and three Can-Am models, but I must confess that the model’s birthday had, by now, slipped my mind. Even watching the cars being driven ‘sedately’ was a very rewarding spectacle.

    Reply

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