Watch Porsche’s Most Iconic Race Car Stretch Its Legs

Today, Porsche is one of the most recognizable makers of sports cars and high-end SUVs in the world. The company is a bright spot for the embattled Volkswagen Auto Group, having nearly doubled its sales over the past five years. And love it or hate it, the Porsche’s practice of funneling profits from blatant moneymaking models like the Cayenne and Macan into the development of refining its unparalleled driver’s cars is the model of what we wish every sports car builder would do. On top of that, a victory at Le Mans this year reminded the auto world that the company is also a racing powerhouse, not just a builder of fast toys for the wealthy.

But it wasn’t always this cheery for the German automaker. In the 1960s, the company was in serious trouble. With the 911 lineup and nearly identical inline-four-powered 912 as its only offerings, the company was in dire financial straits. Its 907 and 908 race cars were successful, but to keep costs down, it was rebuilding them after every few races and selling them off once they got too tired for the factory team. But in 1968, the FIA announced that homologation requirements would drop from 50 cars to 25. Along with the dominant Ford GT40 beginning to show its age, and Ferrari out of endurance racing for the year, Porsche decided to go for broke and build a world-beater.

Bryn Lennon Getty Images Sport
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images Sport

The project, headed by future Volkswagen AG CEO Ferdinand Piëch, was almost ruinously expensive for the company, but it was also pretty efficient. Just 10 months after development began on the car, called the 917, it was on the track — and it was a complete disaster. Porsche had hoped to build the ultimate endurance racer, instead it had cars that listed for 10 times the price of a 911 (which still couldn’t recoup development costs) and would lift off at speed like a newspaper in an updraft. So in 1970, the company added weight, and a radical “short-tail” design, releasing the car as the 917K. With that, the racing world changed forever.

Jean Francois Monier/AFP/Getty Images

In the 197os, the 917 dominated the LMP class circuit. After being effectively shut out by Ferrari and Ford in the previous decade, the Porsche made its old rivals instantly obsolete. Once the 917 hit the circuit, tradition and prestige no longer mattered; the ’70s belonged to Porsche, and by and large, the 917 was the reason why.

With the success of the 917, Porsche was suddenly on the cutting-edge of the automotive world. The 917’s wind-cheating shape, and radical, 560 horsepower flat-12 engine (two 911 flat-six mills joined together), made it one of the most instantly recognizable cars on the track. It proved to be so formidable in fact, that in 1974, the Can-Am racing series banned the car from competition because its dominance was causing spectators to lose interest.

Jean Francois Monier/AFP/Getty Images

All told, Porsche ended up building over 40 917 variants between 1969 and 1971. And while they are among some of the most desirable cars to ever come from Stuttgart, the unquestioned kings of the hill are the Gulf Porsches: those baby blue and orange cars immortalized in Steve McQueen’s 1971 film Le Mans. In 2014, the car McQueen used in the film was projected to become the first $20 million-plus Porsche sold at auction before the seller pulled out at the last moment. With the cars being so valuable, it’s rare to see them on the track anymore. But with the fifth annual Porsche Rennsport Reunion gathering at Laguna Seca raceway near Monterey, California this weekend, the company is bringing a 917, and if the video above is any indication, it’ll be ready to party like it’s 1969.

“You know, Patrick, the throttle are made just zero and full. To hold it in half, it’s not really made for this.”

This is the warning given to Porsche driver Partrick Long by a German-accented engineer before taking the car on a shakedown run at Willow Springs in the California desert. While he’s talking about the 917, it could be used as a motto for all Porsche works cars, past and present. Back in 1970, the 917 gave the company a much needed shot in the arm, and it went on to dominate motorsports well into the ’90s.

Today, the company is in the best shape it’s ever been in thanks to its SUV sales. Without the 917, it might never have made it this far. For a chance to experience eight decades of Porsche history, check out the Rennsport Reunion official site, and if you live in Southern California, do yourself a favor and head to Laguna Seca this weekend.

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Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.

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