Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep pull into the lead in their Porsche 917, at Tertre Rouge during the 24 hour race at Le Mans on June 13, 1971.

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Porsche 917 Specifications

The 917 was designed to race in a class of cars with smaller engines than the Ford GT40, which dominated the World Sports Car Championship for years with its massive V-8 engine. But don't let the word "smaller" fool you -- the 917's engine had a little less displacement, but it was nothing to fool around with.

The car packed a 4.5-liter, air-cooled flat-12-cylinder engine, similar in design to the flat-six or boxer engines used in the Porsche 911 sports car. The 917 engine initially had 520 horsepower, could do the zero to 60 miles per hour (96.6 kilometers per hour) dash in 2.5 seconds and had a top speed of close to 250 miles per hour (402.3 kilometers per hour) [source: Read].

The engine was capable of far more than that. When Porsche began using the 917 to compete in Can-Am racing, which carried far fewer regulations than other events, the engine was tuned and turbocharged to produce anywhere between 1,000 and 1,500 horsepower. Even today it ranks among the most powerful racecars ever to compete.

But an engine is nothing without a body to put it in, and fortunately, the 917 had an impressive one. It featured a lightweight aluminum frame that weighed just over 100 pounds (45.4 kilograms), and included a variety of weight saving measures like a gearshift knob made from balsa wood. The body itself was made of fiberglass [source: Lieberman].

In addition, the car featured interchangeable rear ends. Teams could choose between the "long tail" with low drag for races with lots of straight sections, or the "short tail" for races with curves when downforce is called for. Other iterations of the car included a combination long/short tail, and open-cockpit "Spyder" versions.

The 917 is also famous for coming in a variety of paint schemes, including the famous Gulf Oil colors, as well as a "Pink Pig" version and a psychedelic green-and-purple "Hippie Car" model raced by Martini Racing. Hey, it was the 1970s, after all [source: Porschebahn].

In the next section, we'll look at what made the Porsche 917 so memorable today -- its penchant for winning races.