Looking at it now, it's easy to forget that the Porsche 917 is a production sports car. When the FIA decided that the Championship of Makes would be for 3.0-liter prototypes – ostensibly to slow the climbing speeds at places like Le Mans – it also allowed 5.0-liter sports cars, as long as at least 50 were built for homologation. That was an easy target for the Ford GT40 to hit; other manufacturers didn't jump so quickly. But when the homologation threshold was lowered to 25, Porsche bit.
Thus the 917 was born. With a stunningly lightweight spaceframe chassis that used magnesium and titanium to keep the weight down and a 4.5-liter, 180-degree flat 12 engine, the car was a beast. Porsche almost didn't hit the homologation deadline; only a heroic push by the factory to put 25 working examples in front of FIA inspectors – and producing one of the world's most famous photographs of idle racing cars – meant that the car was able to contest the 1969 season.
“The first one was almost an undriveable monster,” says Vic Elford (ABOVE), who despite that fact describes the 917 as his favorite Porsche racer. He should know – he's perhaps the only driver to pilot every iteration of the car and drove the car to victory at Sebring in 1971 in addition to doing much of the driving in Steve McQueen's movie, Le Mans. Prior to that, he won the European Rally Championship in a 911 (and won the Monte Carlo Rally) and helped score Porsche's first overall victory at Daytona in a 907 in 1968. He was also very successful at the Nurburgring, but that was one of the races where Porsche chose to race the 908/3 over the 917, the other being the Targa Florio.
Given his success in other Porsche models and his description of that first version of the 917, it seems a curious choice as his favorite. “But I liked it because it was so much faster than anything else in the race, even though it was very difficult to drive,” he says of the 1969 Le Mans car. “It was not very nice to drive because we were going into unknown territory. Before that, none of us had been above 200mph. Suddenly that one was doing 220. Nobody knew much about aerodynamics and the suspension was pretty basic compared to what it was a year later.
“By the following year we had the long tail, with that first 150mph lap. I loved that car. It was beautiful. It was not easy to drive; it was demanding. You had to be very precise. The short tails were comparatively easy to drive, but I loved the long tail because it was so fast, much faster than anything else. It was just such a wonderful car. It rarely broke, and was always super fast under the guidance of people like [Porsche engineer] Peter Falk. We had the best brains in the business, so we had the best cars.”
Elford has a favorite chassis, although he didn't discover that until fairly recently – the No. 25 he raced at Le Mans, chassis No. 042, in 1970.
“I never knew chassis numbers, and I didn't even know this was the case until recently, but my favorite was the 1970 long tail, which became the No. 21 Martini car for 1971. Above being the fastest, it was probably the most beautiful paint job ever on a 917,” he says of the '71 livery. Elford didn't finish the 24 Hours of Le Mans either year, although his teammates won both – Richard Atwood and Hans Herrmann in 1970 and Helmut Marko and Gijs Van Lennep in '71.