KING OF THE ROAD

Classic Porsche - - Contents - Words: Jo­sué Chevrel Pho­tos: Tom Wheat­ley

Hit­ting the high­way in a 917 – yes, that’s right, a 917…

Ex­cited! No, how about over-ex­cited! To­day, weʼre go­ing for a drive in a 917, with­out a race suit or hel­met. In a 917 on the open road – and legally, too! OK, so in­sur­ance costs pre­vent us from ac­tu­ally tak­ing the wheel, but even so, as a pas­sen­ger it prom­ises to be an un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ence. The owner, Clau­dio Rod­daro, went out of his way to al­low us to live this mo­ment – itʼs im­pos­si­ble to know how many (or rather how few) peo­ple have had the op­por­tu­nity to go for a ride in a 917, whether on road or track, so it was­nʼt an op­por­tu­nity we were go­ing to pass by!

In the his­tory of the 917, only two pre­vi­ous ex­am­ples have been ho­molo­gated and duly reg­is­tered for road use. The best known is cer­tainly that in­tended for the per­sonal use of Count Gre­go­rio Rossi di Mon­tel­era, owner of the brand Mar­tini & Rossi and, in­ci­den­tally, the first pa­tron of the fac­tory team in the 1970s. When a fi­nan­cial part­ner of this cal­i­bre calls for a small au­to­mo­tive favour, usu­ally the fac­tory is quick to help out.

We cov­ered the story of Count Ros­siʼs car in is­sue #54, but itʼs worth a brief re­cap. In 1974, Gre­go­rio Rossi had a de­sire to hit the streets in a gen­uine 917. Porsche looked through its in­ven­tory and ʻdis­cov­eredʼ one that had been gath­er­ing dust since the end of 1972. It was chas­sis num­ber 917-030, a test car that only ever raced at the 1000km at Zeltweg in the hands of Hel­mut Marko (a few days after his vic­tory at Le Mans) and Gérard Lar­rousse. It did­nʼt fin­ish the event, but it had made it pos­si­ble to test the new ABS brak­ing sys­tem in real con­di­tions.

Be­cause Mon­sieur le Comte wanted his 917 to be as close to a race car as pos­si­ble, the small mod­i­fi­ca­tions made at Weis­sach in­tended to make the ma­chine more ʻprac­ti­calʼ were lim­ited, more or less, to a muf­fler and a cock­pit that was trimmed in leather and car­peted. It was also painted a sin­gle sil­ver-grey colour so that it did­nʼt look out of place in his col­lec­tion. But no­body was fooled, cer­tainly not the TÜV…

Gre­go­rio Rossi turned to the au­thor­i­ties in Alabama (USA), who granted him a col­lec­tor ʼs regis­tra­tion on con­di­tion that the 917 never turned a wheel in the state! The car was driven from Stuttgart to Paris the very day the Count took de­liv­ery on 27 April 1975. Still owned by the Rossi fam­ily to­day, 917-030 is no longer el­i­gi­ble for use on the pub­lic road, its last regis­tra­tion (in Texas) no longer valid ac­cord­ing to Amer­i­can law.

The sec­ond ʻroad legalʼ 917 bears the chas­sis num­ber 917-021. Once again, this is a car which we have fea­tured

in the past (see Clas­sic Porsche #22) but to re­cap, it was raced for whole 1970 sea­son un­der the colours of AAW Rac­ing. To­day, it is best known for com­pet­ing in his­toric races in its ʻhip­pieʼ psy­che­delic liv­ery in the hands of owner Vin­cent Gaye. But at the end of the 1970 sea­son, the car ʼs ʻvi­tal or­gansʼ were used to re­build a 917 Spy­der with which Kin­nunen won the In­ter­serie cham­pi­onship in 1971.

The orig­i­nal chas­sis-body assem­bly of #021 was sold to Man­fred Freisinger in 1972 then, three years later, Joachim Groß­mann bought the re­mains for the price of a new 911. The man, a mod­est car­pen­ter, worked like a mad­man to re­build the 917, restor­ing it for the sole pur­pose of get­ting it ho­molo­gated for road use by TÜV. He ob­tained the cer­tifi­cate on 3 June 1977 with the regis­tra­tion num­ber CW-K917. The fol­low­ing owner made the de­ci­sion to re­store #021 back to a strictly com­pe­ti­tion con­fig­u­ra­tion, and so ends the story of the sec­ond street-le­gal 917...

And so to our sub­ject shown here. Clau­dio Ro­darro has been col­lect­ing Porsches for a few years now, with a pref­er­ence for Porsche rac­ing cars, in­clud­ing pro­to­types, and prefer­ably win­ning ex­am­ples if at all pos­si­ble. Heʼs the kind of col­lec­tor for whom the 917 rep­re­sents the Holy Grail, but they rarely come onto the mar­ket. When 917-037 ap­peared on a spe­cialised web­site late in 2016, Clau­dio Ro­darro leapt at the chance.

At first glance, #037 raises a few eye­brows. Var­i­ous 917 reg­is­ters list it as one of the four re­serve num­bers that were never as­signed. A 917-037 had been recorded in the en­try list for the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans, en­tered by John Wyer un­der race num­ber #22 for Hail­wood and Hobbs, but it turns out that it was chas­sis 917-026 which ran un­der this race num­ber.

Porsche works driver and his­to­rian Jür­gen Barth sheds light on this: ʻThis #037 chas­sis is the last one man­u­fac­tured by Bauer, who built the 917 chas­sis for Porsche from 1969. This chas­sis was not given a num­ber be­fore the end of pro­duc­tion. In the 1990s, it was sold by a for­mer Bauer em­ployee who had ac­quired it from his em­ployer. Then the

chas­sis passed briefly through the hands of Marco Marinello (Eleven­parts, in Zurich) who sold it to Carl Thomp­son, of Her­mosa Beach in Cal­i­for­nia. Thatʼs when 917-037 en­ters the scene.ʼ

Thomp­son was Race Direc­tor of famed Porsche dealer and team owner Vasek Po­lak for a long time; he knows the sub­ject by heart and it is he is who un­der­takes the assem­bly of the car from the chas­sis and a lot of spare parts from the fac­tory, in­clud­ing the twelve-cylin­der engine, se­rial #052.

Cal­i­for­nian spe­cial­ist Kevin Jean­nette of Gun­nar Rac­ing had the body moulds so agreed to build a new one. Un­veiled at the Rennsport Re­u­nion II in Day­tona in April 2004, #037 in its all­white liv­ery was the most para­dox­i­cal 917: it is the last 917 built, and can­not boast of any wins or even any proper rac­ing his­tory, but it is ar­guably the most authen­tic 917 of all.

Its chas­sis com­prises all its orig­i­nal tubes, each in per­fect con­di­tion since it never took part in a race. Ninety-five per cent of the parts used to build the car are orig­i­nal, a pro­por­tion which few other 917s could still boast after a sin­gle sea­son. The body re­mains un­re­paired, and weighs no more than it would have done orig­i­nally. One man can lift the engine cover, for ex­am­ple, which is not the case for all 917 cov­ers which have of­ten been re­paired many times over the years!

When the car reap­peared two years later at Techno-clas­sica in Essen, 917-037 be­came the prop­erty of Man­fred Freisinger, who en­tered Le Mans Clas­sic the same year, en­trust­ing the car to Stéphane Ortelli. Then, in 2011, Freisinger handed it over to Amer­i­can col­lec­tor Greg Galdi, painted in Mar­tini grey, be­fore it was de­liv­ered to La­guna Seca for the Rennsport Re­u­nion in Septem­ber 2011.

Since #037 does not re­ally have any race his­tory, Galdi started out with a blank can­vas on which he had full lat­i­tude to de­ter­mine the liv­ery he would like. He chose the one fea­tured on 917-023 on the day of its last race at Day­tona.

“IT IS AR­GUABLY THE MOST AUTHEN­TIC 917 OF ALL…”

The Mar­tini liv­ery was ap­plied on the spot, while the car was still in its trailer!

In De­cem­ber 2016, Clau­dio Rod­daro bought and repa­tri­ated 917-037 to Monaco. And with that came the idea (make that ʻde­sireʼ) to take a tour of the For­mula 1 cir­cuit in a 917, very early on a Sun­day morn­ing when the roads are still de­serted. But it would­nʼt be pos­si­ble with­out a li­cence plate and, as such, would re­main a dream. Or would it?

When two other cars of the same type have al­ready been granted the nec­es­sary regis­tra­tion doc­u­ments else­where in the world, itʼs the­o­ret­i­cally a lit­tle eas­ier to mo­ti­vate the au­thor­i­ties in Monaco. At the very least, it would have been nec­es­sary to build a con­crete file, with sup­port­ing doc­u­ments of all kinds, such as FIA doc­u­ments or Jür­gen Barthʼs let­ter stat­ing that the 917-030 driven by Count Rossi in 1975 was iden­ti­cal to #037 in all re­spects.

Clau­dio laughs when he re­mem­bers: ʻIn Monaco, itʼs like in France. In cases like this, they try to hang around to dis­cour­age you. Ev­ery­one passes the ball to some­one else. But as Monaco is very small, the ball canʼt travel very far and is quickly passed back! It did­nʼt take more than a cou­ple of months...ʼ

Tech­ni­cally, a 917 is not much more than an evo­lu­tion of the 908, of which some fac­tory spec­i­mens were road­reg­is­tered. They have all the light­ing, in­clud­ing turn sig­nals, a horn, a pas­sen­ger seat and even a spare wheel. All that was re­quired was the VIN plate, which Porsche pro­vided!

It is thus that, with the regis­tra­tion doc­u­ments in our pock­ets, we head out for an as­sault on the roads which over­look Monaco. But be­fore that, weʼll have to wake up the beast from its slum­bers, sit­ting be­tween two 911 RSRS that seem dis­pro­por­tion­ately high. Apart from when you turn the steer­ing wheel, push­ing it by hand to pull it out of the park­ing

“IN DE­CEM­BER 2016, CLAU­DIO REPA­TRI­ATED 917037 TO MONACO”

lot re­quires no more ef­fort than with mov­ing a 356.

Start­ing the engine is quite a rit­ual. Itʼs not quite like a mod­ern race car, where a team of tech­ni­cians stands by, but itʼs not some­thing you can do sin­gle-hand­edly, ei­ther. In the ab­sence of Mas­simo, the me­chanic whoʼs been look­ing after his ʻbabyʼ since its ar­rival in the col­lec­tion, Mat­teo will fol­low us all day in the Scud­e­ria Clas­sica as­sis­tance truck. Well, you can never be too sure…

It would be too easy if the twelve cylin­ders could be coaxed into life with just a turn of the key when cold. You need a touch of choke – ex­cept there is­nʼt one, so one me­chanic has to man­u­ally op­er­ate the en­rich­ment de­vice on the fuel-in­jec­tion, while an­other holds the engine cover. A third per­son then turns the key on the dash­board.

While the fuel pump whis­tles away, the starter turns over, two, three times and then the flat-12 bursts into life, spit­ting the oc­ca­sional flame from the ex­haust. It coughs and com­plains, itʼs vi­o­lent, it punches you in the di­aphragm. But itʼs alive!

The first step is to add fuel. Thereʼs noth­ing specif­i­cally re­quired, and the lo­cal ser­vice sta­tion serves 98 oc­tane petrol. You might think the size of the 917 would be a prob­lem, but itʼs eas­ier to ma­noeu­vre than a 356 – and you donʼt even have to open the bon­net to fill it with fuel.

We left with the two cars for the first of a se­ries of pho­tos on the high­way to Nice. Weʼd taken the trou­ble to warn the po­lice about our in­ten­tions. Clearly, noth­ing can sur­prise them: ʻAs long as it is reg­is­tered and in­suredʼ was their only com­ment. In fact it was other mo­torists who were the prob­lem: as we tried to take our pho­tos so they wanted to take theirs from their works vans and fam­ily sa­loons.

Once weʼd got our track­ing shots ʻin the canʼ, it was time to head off in the di­rec­tion of La Cor­niche be­fore the pre­vi­ously ac­com­mo­dat­ing po­lice be­gan to lose their pa­tience due to the traf­fic prob­lems we were caus­ing. The 917 is so low that the roof is only just above the level of the para­pet along­side the road. But while the 917 may be so low itʼs hard to spot from an­other car, you canʼt fail to hear it. The throaty roar of the flat-12 res­onates against the wall and fills the air with sound.

Itʼs time to take our place in the cock­pit. Who said ʻcrampedʼ? The lady who pre­vi­ously oc­cu­pied the ʻpas­sen­ger seatʼ seems to have been cut out for the role, a sim­ple ques­tion of size that must cor­re­spond to that of the tub, the roof height and shoul­der width. Iʼm afraid I donʼt en­joy the same com­fort, thatʼs for sure! Climb­ing on board is quite sim­ple, the sill that has to be ne­go­ti­ated is nei­ther as wide nor as frag­ile as that of a 962. But after that it gets com­pli­cated, when I try to find a place for each of my legs as I slide to the bot­tom of the tub.

The chas­sis tubes and the dash­board are the prob­lem – I canʼt see it, but I know that the clutch pedal is by my right

an­kle (Iʼm sit­ting on the left side) while the left is jammed against the chas­sis. Can we re­ally close the door? Ouch! My shoul­ders are squeezed on both sides, my head against the door – I am stuck. And so much the bet­ter be­cause, even when ho­molo­gated (as a 1970 car), the pas­sen­ger har­ness was­nʼt even on the list of op­tions.

Clau­dio en­gaged first gear. Itʼs too late to turn back now. The 917 is a sa­cred mon­ster whose rep­u­ta­tion pre­cedes it. There are those twelve cylin­ders be­hind my shoul­ders and, in #037ʼs con­fig­u­ra­tion, the 4.9-litre engine pro­duces more than 600bhp in an ob­ject that, while wet, weighs just over 600kg. Okay, with two peo­ple on board thereʼs a lit­tle ex­tra weight, but you canʼt ig­nore the ex­tra­or­di­nary power to weight ra­tio of 1000bhp per tonne.

Of course, thereʼs no sound­proof­ing and what you hear from the out­side is what we hear in the cock­pit. As we exit the park­ing spot, I tuck my head into my shoul­ders and await the jolt…which does­nʼt come. The sus­pen­sion of the 917 proves amaz­ingly com­pli­ant, but then the car was built at a time when race tracks were far from the bil­liard-ta­ble smooth sur­faces they are to­day.

The ac­cel­er­a­tion that fol­lows is phe­nom­e­nal. You feel the glass­fi­bre of the pas­sen­ger seat weaken un­der the gforces which mul­ti­ply your body weight, at the same time as you feel the beast com­ing alive. The thrust is in­de­scrib­able, with noth­ing else to com­pare it to in the com­mon au­to­mo­tive uni­verse.

Clau­dio is more than fa­mil­iar with the han­dling and char­ac­ter of the 917, and has al­ready driven on cir­cuits like Val­lelunga, Jarama, Monza and the Nür­bur­gring. He knows how ef­fi­ciently the 917 slows down, and when you have to brake – I trust him.

This does not pre­vent a slight ner­vous twitch when a bend is fast ap­proach­ing. Surely heʼs for­got­ten that I have nei­ther har­ness nor a grab han­dle? The force of the ac­cel­er­a­tion is only matched by that of the brak­ing, but to see Clau­dio hav­ing fun with­out re­ally fight­ing, I have the clear feel­ing that the 917 is an ʻeasyʼ car to drive, even on open roads.

Itʼs the ideal way to es­cape to the hills above Monaco on a Sun­day morn­ing at dawn, maybe less so for longer trips. Although Clau­dio will ad­mit to hav­ing gone to din­ner one evening in Italy in the 917… CP

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