Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How the Porsche 917 Works

        Auto | Other

Porsche 917 at the Racetrack
The Porsche 917K of Jo Siffert and Brian Redman being inspected during scrutineering at the Le Mans 24 Hours race, Le Mans, June 1970.
The Porsche 917K of Jo Siffert and Brian Redman being inspected during scrutineering at the Le Mans 24 Hours race, Le Mans, June 1970.
Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images

Ferdinand Piëch's goal for the Porsche 917 left nothing to the imagination: he wanted it "to be the best. Everywhere" [source: Porsche]. However, while the car was unveiled in 1969, it would be a while before it would achieve greatness.

The car's handling was so sloppy in early races that many drivers refused to pilot it. Porsche asked two BMW drivers for a 1969 race on the Nürburgring, but they refused, saying the car was too dangerous. Later on, a driver named John Woolfe was killed in a 917 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The car ended up only winning a single race in 1969 [source: Lieberman].

The 1970 racing season proved to be a better year once the Wyer team ironed out the kinks in the 917's handling. The car went on to claim victories at Daytona, Brands Hatch, Monza, Spa, the Nürburgring, the Targa Florio, Watkins Glen and at the Österreichring in Austria. The season's high point came in June when the 917 won the long-desired overall win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The car won nine of 10 races that year to secure the World Championship of Makes trophy [source: Porsche].

Footage from the 1970 Le Mans race was used to create the Steve McQueen film "Le Mans," where the 917 featured prominently in the story. The Gulf Oil 917K was driven by McQueen's character Michael Delaney as he battles Ferrari's 512 racecars.

The following year was equally successful. The car defended its world trophy in 1971 by winning eight of 10 races and once again won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This time, it set a record of 240 miles per hour (386.2 kilometers per hour) on the track's Mulsanne straight, a feat that has yet to be broken today.

The 917 became so dominant that the FIA once again changed their regulations, and the car was no longer eligible to compete. So Porsche brought it North America, where they entered it in the Sports Car Club of America's Canadian American Challenge Cup, better known as CanAm. This form of racing had far fewer regulations than the FIA races, so the car was able to compete with well over 1,000 horsepower. As could be expected, it dominated there as well [source: Porsche].

Only 65 examples of the Porsche 917 were ever built. Seven exist in the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, Germany, while many others are in the hands of collectors all over the world. They tend to command high premiums at auctions due to their prestigious histories -- and still inspire awe over their power today.


More to Explore