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The white fleet of Zuffenhausen

It's a photo for eternity. Every magazine that deals even remotely with racing prints it. And many fans have not forgotten it until today. The motif consists of 25 white Porsche 917s. On the 21st of April 1969, the twelve-cylinder sports cars in Porsche Plant 1 awaited their approval for racing. 50 years later, the men behind the 917 share their memories. And they've solved many a mystery.

Text: Michael Petersen Photo: Porsche 07.05.2019 6 min

It's a Monday, a rather grey beginning of the week. In the morning of 21 April 1969, the gentlemen of the FIA passed through the gate in Zuffenhausen. First they see the brick building which has hardly changed until today. Then they look to the left at the white fleet. 25 Porsche 917 are meticulously lined up for acceptance. Hermann Burst remembers: "The gentlemen remained in shock, so overwhelmed were they by the sight of the 25 racing cars.”

Five decades later, a Monday is grey again. In front of the old wind tunnel in Porsche's development center in Weissach, the air suddenly vibrates. A twelve-cylinder is brought to the right temperature with short gas bursts. In the cockpit Marc Lieb has taken his sitting position. Far forward and leaning backward sits (or lies?) - the Le Mans winner of 2016. After two or three minutes, he puts it into first gear, a jolt goes through the 917 with chassis number 001, which is the first to appear on the historical photo. Works driver Lieb rolls off towards the test track. The rumbling gets slowly goes lost between the buildings. High up in the houses heads are showing, some windows are opened. No one wants to miss this melodious performance.

Hermann Burst can keep talking. "Within four weeks we had to put 25 copies of the 917 on their wheels. It was my responsibility to make this happen." The overall project manager and responsible designer was Hans Mezger. The, today,almost 90 year-old, has created many a milestone for Porsche. The engine of the 911 is just as much a part of it as the TAG Porsche V6 Turbo. With this engine behind them, McLaren stars Niki Lauda and Alain Prost won the Formula 1 World Championship three times between 1984 and 1986. Mezger remarks: "The 917 was the biggest challenge the Porsche racing team had ever faced."

The new regulations for the Brand World Championship introduced in 1968 opened up a wonderful playground for manufacturers. Those who presented 25 identical sports cars were allowed to start in the five-litre class. With the best prospects for overall victories. The young engineer and technical director Ferdinand Piëch had had enough of class victories. He wanted to see his drivers at the top of the podium. The company, which had just turned 20 years old at the time, had only been able to do this on tight courses like the Targa Florio in Sicily. The light sports cars from Zuffenhausen were able to demonstrate their manoeuvrability there. On high-speed tracks, on the other hand, they had no chance against more powerful Ford or Ferrari.

Piëch had set a clear goal in the specifications. "The 917 must win the 24 Hours of Le Mans!" In June 1968, the men around Mezger began working on a racing car that would break all Zuffenhausen standards. Five litres capacity, twelve cylinders, 580 hp. A price was also fixed: 140,000 marks.

Three quarters of a year passed from the first drawing to the first prototype. "All of us in the racing department were electrified by this project, we felt like an elite and important for the company," says Gerhard Küchle, specialist for racing engines in Zuffenhausen from 1965 to 2005 and later in the Porsche development centre in Weissach, in retrospect.

Production of the 917 began in March 1969. In plant 1, space was created in a hall. Aerodynamicist Burst hired every available man to assemble it, and employees from production were also pulled. "I introduced three-shift operation in Zuffenhausen for this project," recalls Burst. More than 50 people worked on this project. The frames, which weigh only 45 kilograms and are made of aluminium tubes, were made from a prototype by the Baur body factory in Stuttgart. The plastic bodies were manufactured by the Rastatt wagon factory and joined to the frame there. Plastic body builder Roland Bemsel emphasizes: "No 917 was like the other, no door or hood would have fitted on any other specimen."

Electrics, oil lines, chassis, finally the engine - the 917 became a real racing car in plant 1. "It was difficult to always be able to provide enough parts," Hermann Burst looks back. Gerhard Küchle still knows that after a few hours of work around noon, the right components were often missing. "Then we went home, ate - and went on as soon as supplies came. Often it became eleven PM. Even if it should continue on Saturday, work was done. No one asked themselves if he had time at all on the weekend." Ten mechanics built 25 engines in two weeks. Well, there were others who helped. The 48 cylinder head bolts were particularly difficult to tighten. "We announced a competition and recorded with the stopwatch who fastened the screws the fastest," says Küchle with a smile, "our colleagues have done quite a job. He reports that Piëch was often to be found in the workshop. There was no 'no way' for the young, ambitious engineer. He wowed everyone.”

The public should not learn anything about Porsche's secret. Only shortly before his presentation at the Geneva Motor Show on 12 March, which attracted worldwide attention, did a press release give a first indication. But the 917 wasn't allowed to start in races for a long time yet. This required acceptance by the FIA. At the beginning of April, a first delegation inspected the parts ready for production. That wasn't enough for the gentlemen, they wanted to see 25 race cars ready to drive. Hans Mezger is sure: "Never before and never after has a homologation, i.e. the racing approval, been handled as strictly as in the case of the 917."

On 21 April, Hermann Burst had the 25 copies set up next to each other in the managers' parking lot. "At my request, the secretary had made sure that the area remained free." He himself and mechanic Werner Enz stretched a string and precisely aligned the fastest Porsche to date. They were all ready to go. Which one to choose? An FIA representative pointed to the number 12 in the line. He squeezed himself into the narrow cockpit and started the infernally loud twelve-cylinder quite normally with the key. He rolled the almost 100 meters to the gate, turned around and drove back again. "The was good at it, it only jumped a bit." The Armada wasn't ready to race yet. "Because some springs had not been delivered on time, we welded eyes to cut-off iron pipes and installed them instead of the springs," Burst reveals five decades later.

At noon the gentlemen were away from Zuffenhausen again. Hermann Burst asked Ferdinand Piëch and engineer Helmuth Bott what the situation would be like for a little party on the afternoon of April 21st. "The rather hesitant "yes" is still in my ear today." Burst, on the other hand, did not hesitate at all. "I called the Schwieberdinger Lammbrauerei (brewery), 90 minutes later a truck came with beer." Many other employees from Plant 1 came to this celebration. It's supposed to have been a long night.

Ferdinand Piëch's target was reached by the 917, albeit not in 1969. Hans Herrmann/Richard Attwood won in Le Mans in 1970, Helmut Marko/Gijs van Lennep in 1971. Equipped with turbo technology and well over 1,000 hp, the 917 dominated the Canadian-American CanAm series in 1972 and 1973. Which victory was the most beautiful? Hans Mezger hesitates until he says: "First, the first Le Mans victory. But I am also pleased that exhaust gas turbocharging has become established in automotive engineering with our 917." This technology for a radical increase in performance first dominated the race track, then the motorways as early as 1974 with the 911 Turbo (class 930).