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The cars that made
Porsche history

by Bill Oursler

356 SL Gmund Coupe
550 Spyder
Type 817 Spyder
Type 718 and 804 Formula Two
Type 904
Type 906, 910, and 910 "Plastic" Type 908

The 356 SL (The Gmund Coupe)

Porsche's first official racing entry was the 356 SL which appeared at the famed Le Mans 24-Hour endurance classic in 1951, winning the 110cc category to begin a record of success that continues to this day. These cars were based on the hand built aluminum-bodied Gmund coupes constructed between 1948 and 1949, before Porsche moved back to Stuttgart from the Austrian mill town. With that move came the revised steel-bodied 356's which rendered the Gmund coupes obsolete.

When representatives from Le Mans approached Porsche about participating in the event, the left over Gmund 356's seemed a perfect solution, being far lighter than their newer counterparts. The 356 SL Gmund coupes achieved an outstanding record of success, not only at Le Mans, but also in a number of other events, ranging from rallies to speed record attempts. In all they served the factory from 1951 through 1954. Several also raced in North America, carving out their own winning tradition.

The 550 Spyders

The first 500's appeared in 1953. These were the first true competition-bred Porsches; lightweight, two seat, aluminum bodied, tubular framed, open-topped cars. The initial pair of 550's was unique unto themselves, racing only with Volkwagen-derived pushrod boxer four cylinder engines, fitted with detachable roofs. These dominated their class at Le Mans finishing one-two in the 1500cc division. Later, one of them won its category in the famed Pan Americana Mexican road race.

Subsequent 550's, all fitted with the four-cam Carrera flat four cylinder, carried on what the initial 550's had started. The became the dominant cars world wide in the small displacement sports racing categories in the factory's hands, but also in the hands of Porsche's customers who purchased every one of the quick little cars they could find.

In 1956, Porsche introduced a slightly modified Spyder, the 550A. This shocked the racing world when it won the brutal Targa Florio road race outright in its debut appearance, humbling such well-known and much more powerful rivals as Ferrari, Maserati and Jaguar. During the next five years the 550A continued winning, for the factory, and the factory's customers in almost every venue where it competed. Indeed, it was a car that got more attention for its occasional loses than it did for its nearly non-stop string of victories.

The Type 718 Spyders

The next step in Porsche's Spyder saga came in 1957 with the introduction of the Type 718, initially known as the "RSK" for its uniquely configured form suspension. In various forms, the Type 718 would be raced by factory and customers through the end of 1964. During that period it achieved an outstanding record which not only included class triumphs, but outright wins at the Targa Florio and in 1960, at the prestigious Sebring 23-Hour long distance affair in Central Florida. Many famous drivers, including American Dan Gurney, as well as Wolfgang von Trips and Jo Bonnier helped to polish their careers behind the wheel of the Type 718.

The most famous example of this Spyder variant was the W-RS, which was constructed in 1961 as a four-cylinder entry. The following year, fitted with a 2.0-liter flat eight, it began to win everywhere it went. It took important class victories not just in the great road races such as Le Mans and the Nurburgring, but also in the hillclimbing arena. Long a benefit for Porsche Spyders, it claimed the season championship with Edgar Barth in 1963 and 1964 before it was retired to the Porsche Museum.

The Type 718 and 804 Formula Two and Formula One Single Seaters

In the late 1950's the Porsche factory began its involvement in Formula racing by running virtually standard 550A Spyders. In the Formula Two portion of the annual German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, in 1958, Jean Behra, driving a modified Type 718 RSK Spyder with its seat located on the chassis centerline won the Formula Two race at the Rhiems circuit in France.

In 1959 and 1960, Porsche produced an open wheel, single seater version of the Type 718, using this to dominate the Formula Two championship during that latter Season, the last for the 1 5-liter formula The next year. When Formula One adopted the 1.5-liter displacement cap, Porsche appeared poised to claim the World Title. Unfortunately, things didn't go Porsche's way; the Type 718 being outclassed by Ferrari's Type 156 V-6.

For 1962, Porsche introduced the Type 804 that abandoned Zuffenhausen's traditional flat four cam, four-cylinder for a new boxer eight. While the engine was competitive, and indeed could be found for many years thereafter powering Porsche sports racing prototypes in 2.0 and 2.32-liter form, the Type 804 could not keep up with the British BRM and Lotus V-8's.

In all, the 804 won only twice, coming home first in the French Grand Prix at Rouen and again on its home turf at the Solitude Ring outside 01' Stuttgart in a non-points affair, Gurney being the driver on both occasions. At the end of 1962, Porsche withdrew from Formula One, not returning to the sport until 1983 as an engine supplier for McLaren.

The Type 904

Often referred to as the first of the "modern" Porsches, the 904, developed in 1963 and first raced in 1964, featured another "first" for Zuffenhausen, a full fiberglass bodied coupe, bonded to a steel channel frame. Intended to use the new boxer six from the then just introduced 911, it wound up employing the aged Carrera four cam four-cylinder instead. Even so, this engine was enough to help the 904 dominate the 2.0-liter production sports car class for Porsche for the next two years. That success was achieved mainly by Porsche's customers, the factory concentrated on running a small fleet of six and eight cylinder powered 904's of its own in the 2.0-liter prototype category.

As had its customers, the factory came dominate the division with its coupes, enjoying nearly total success from Daytona and Sebring through Le Mans in 1964 and '65. The only blemish on the 904's record came in 1965 when it was defeated in the hillclimb arena by Ferrari's Type 166 Dino Spyder. In an attempt to keep the 904 on par with its Ferrari rival. Dr. Ferdinand Piech, the newly appointed head of Porsche racing, converted the 904 from a coupe to an open-topped car. Those efforts were in vain; however, they led Piech to pursue new directions in design that would take Zuffenhausen to the top of the sport.

The Type 906, 910, and 910 "Plastic" Porsche Sports Racing Coupes

With the failure of the 904 hillclimb Spyders, in August 1965, Piech and his engineers introduced a tubeframe open topped car created over a three-span, that utilized the hubs, brakes, and 13-inch diameter wheels from the Type 33 Lotus single Formula One Grand Prix racer. Dubbed "the Ollon Villars" Spyder after its debut event, this was the foundation for all of Porsche's subsequent prototypes up through the famed 917's and later the 936's that last won at Le Mans in 1981. Although this important car didn't beat the Ferrari - due largely to a lack of development, it did win the hillclimb crown in 1966, ironically using a coupe body.

In January of 1966, the car that the Ollon Villars Spyder had spawned, the Carrera 6, or 906, made its debut. Intended strictly as a circuit racer, this coupe featured the earlier car's tubeframe, however, it didn't have the Spider's advanced suspension. Rather it used the same running gear as the 904, with its rather antique 15-inch diameter wheels. This retrograde step was forced on Piech by his uncle, company head Dr. Ferry Porsche, who did not want to waste the suspension components completed in anticipation of a second batch of 904's - cars canceled in favor of the 906.

Despite the compromise, the 906 took up right where the 904 left off, dominating the two liter 2.0-liter production sports car category using finally the 911's six cylinder engine. As with the 904, the factory ran several 906's on the 2 0-liter prototype category, some in long tail form and some with the boxer eight. No matter which version, or which class, the 906 dominated; winning victories at all the major international events. Even on occasion challenging for the outright honors - this despite the then intense battle between Ford and Ferrari for domination of the sport.

Despite its success, Piech remained unhappy with compromised 906. By the summer of 1966, his engineers had produced its replacement, the 910. Virtually identical to its predecessor, with the exception that it had abandoned the 904-suspension design run in the last hill climbs of the season, the 910 showed much potential. Over the winter this was developed into reality. The new coupe debuted in the 1967 Daytona 24-Hour endurance event with a class victory. Interestingly while there were both six and eight cylinder versions of the 910, the car was never intended to achieve "production" status. However, because of Piech's edict that new cars be used at every race, enough were built that the six-cylinder 910 did eventually qualify as "production sports car".

Like the 906, the 910 was a winner, the highlight of its career being an outright triumph at the Nurburgring 100 KMs in 1961. This came on top of its similar performance in the Targa Florio where it collected the overall honors. With these, as well as several other high overall placing, the 910 had propelled Porsche into the thick of the 1967 contest for the World Manufacturers crown with Ferrari.

Even so, Piech was getting ready to sell his 910 fleet to Porsche privateers, having pushed the envelope even further with the introduction of the new 907 at Le Mans that June. While all subsequent versions of the 907 would be eight cylinder powered, these two long tail coupes used fuel injected flat sixes While one retired, the other won its class, finishing high up in the overall rankings.

For the 1967 Brands Hatch season finale Porsche fielded both a short tail 907 as well as the venerable 910 in an effort to upset Ferrari. This was not to be as the Italians finished ahead of Zuffenhausen in the British affair to take home the coveted championship. Porsche would achieve some measure of revenge the following January at Daytona where three 907 long tails would sweep the two, three places in the American 24-Hour.

That was a good beginning to what Porsche hoped would be its first Manufacturers crown. Fueling those aspirations was a change in the regulations which now limited all prototypes, such as the 907 coupes to a maximum of three liters, the international authorities having summarily banned the big Ferraris and Fords from the scene in a hasty decision made after Le Mans the previous June.

Such was the tightness of the time frame, that officials decided that production sports cars of which at least 50 examples had been made, could race as long as their engine displacement didn't exceed 5.0 liters The short, and long term effects of this were to be huge. In the meantime, though, Porsche and Piech weren't worried as they were about to introduce their own 3.0-liter prototype, the 908 - a 908 fitted with a simple eight -cylinder powerplant based in large measure of the 911's boxer six.

The 907 would soldier on throughout 1968 while Piech's men would struggle to make the initially troublesome 908 an effective tool to accomplish Zuffenhausen's goal of winning both at Le Mans and in the Makes title chase. Unfortunately, the aging but reliable Ford GT 40 came away with both those prizes. The 908 was constantly breaking down, while the 907 didn't have enough "punch" to stay even with the John Wyer run, Gulf Oil sponsored Fords. Things would be different, however, in 1969.

The Type 908

Perhaps more than any of the other cars of its era, the 905 was unique. It started life as a clone of the 907 with a new, simplified Type 901 boxer six derived 3.0-liter flat eight. It wound up Its career in the early 1980's with a completely different chassis, and a turbocharged six cylinder powerplant akin to what could be found in the 934-935 silhouette prototype coupes as well as the 936 prototype Spyders.

When it was first introduced in the spring of 1968, however, the 908, both in short and long tail forms were virtually indistinguishable from its 907 predecessor. Only the keenest of eyes noting the slightly different air ducting, and the slightly revised rear aerodynamic package of the "langhects" that included a full width wing and movable, suspension activated flaps.

Although the 908 won the 1000 km event at the Nurburgring in only its second race appearance, engine vibration woes kept it from achieving further success that year. The best the new coupe could do was a third at Le Mans, which had been pushed back from its usual June date to September by political unrest in France. The following year was to be quite different; this despite the utter failure of the 908 charge in the season opening 24 Hours of Daytona, where again engine problems sidelined Porsche's hopes for a victory.

After that, with the exception of its close defeat at Le Mans by Jacky Ickx's Gulf Wyer Ford GT-40, the 908 ran flawlessly to give Porsche its first ever World Manufacturers title. The disappointment of losing at Le Mans was indeed painful, however, the overall success achieved was something of which Zuffenhausen and Piech could be proud. Interestingly, these accomplishments in large measure came not with the traditional long tail coupes, although these were used at high-speed tracks such as Daytona. Monza, Spa, and Le Mans, but rather with a new open-topped Spyder, the 908-02.

This came into existence because of a new set of regulations for the 3.0-liter prototypes, which permitted the simplified bodywork configuration. Actually, there were two versions of the Spyder in 1969; the original whose flowing fender lines followed those of the coupes, and the later 908-02 "flunder". This car featured a flat upper surface that produced a pleasing overall shape that would later spawn the body design for the first 917 Can-Am Spyders.

No matter what the body or chassis configuration, the 1969 908's all featured a revised engine that employed a new crankshaft, which eliminated the vibration problems that had so plagued it the previous season. Such was the competitiveness of the 908 and its modified eight-cylinder that after factory use the cars continued to be campaigned for another five years or so in private hands, often challenging their younger rivals for the top honors in their class. Perhaps the most famous of the 908's customers was movie actor Steve McQueen who took his 908-02 Spyder to second overall and first in the prototype division at Sebring with Peter Rebvson as his co-driver in the run up to his movie "Le Mans".

While the 908 had been largely consigned to the back burner by the new 917 12-cylinder in 1970, it had not quite finished its service for the factory. Realizing that the heavy 917 would be unsuitable for such events as the Targa Florio and the Nurburgring - both of which were extremely important to Porsche, Piech and his engineers produced a new 908. The 908/3, used the standard 908 drive train, but otherwise was based on a lightweight 1968 hillclimb Spyder, the 909.

As a factory entry, the 908/3 saw service in just four events, the Targa Florio and the Nurburgring rounds of the Manufacturers Championship in both the 1970 and 1971 seasons. Of these appearances, the 908/3 was victorious three times, winning the Targa Florio in 1970 and the Nurburgring both years. After that the cars were sold off. In 1975 several were fitted with turbocharged sixes, Herbert Muller using his Martini example to help him win his second straight Interserie title that year. The cars continued to soldier on through the first part of the 1980's - still surprising competitive -until the new Group C prototype regulations came into force in 1982.

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