The story of R4

Total 911 - - Contents - Writ­ten and pho­tographed by rich Pearce

To­tal 911 re­veals the fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory of this Lemon yel­low 1967 R pro­to­type

Be­fore the 20 orig­i­nal 911 Rs were made, Porsche as­sem­bled four pro­to­types. To­tal 911 tells the thrilling story of the last pro­to­type, R4, and its jour­ney from Ger­many to the US via an in­vol­un­tary so­journ to a ware­house in Marseille, France

Such is the his­tor­i­cal im­por­tance of the 911 R for Porsche, it’s lu­di­crous to think the car was rel­a­tively un­heard of for years for even the dis­cern­ing en­thu­si­ast com­pared to, say, a 2.7 RS. In­deed, it wasn’t un­til the ar­rival of the 991 R last year, it­self a sem­i­nal mo­ment in the legacy of our beloved 911, which re­ally shone a light on those 20 early cars and their acute sig­nif­i­cance to the brand as­so­ci­ated with Stuttgart’s pranc­ing horse. It's shock­ing to think some of those 20 orig­i­nal 1967 Rs were still avail­able as late as 1970!

The brain­child of one Fer­di­nand Piëch and the light­est Ne­unelfer to ever leave the Zuf­fen­hausen fac­tory, the R set the bench­mark for the end­less engi­neer­ing evo­lu­tions Porsche would ac­com­plish for its cher­ished 911 plat­form. Per­haps more im­por­tantly though, its cre­ation re­ally started the 911’s un­ri­valled rac­ing legacy, some­thing which, more than 30,000 race vic­to­ries later, Porsche is still proud of.

The R wasn’t just built so Porsche could go rac­ing – plenty of early 911s in both 'T' and 'S' guise had al­ready tasted suc­cess in com­pe­ti­tion at var­i­ous events around the planet – more­over it was an in­quis­i­tive ex­er­cise to find out just how much the com­pany could evolve its new 911 sports car for com­pe­ti­tion pur­poses. In the end, these cars marked the be­gin­ning of the process of a Porsche 911 sports car be­ing ho­molo­gated, a move which would cul­mi­nate in many his­tor­i­cal feats at some of the world’s most fa­mous races and events. That’s quite an im­print on his­tory. Sim­ply put, Porsche’s later and notable suc­cess at La Sarthe, Day­tona and Se­bring (to name a few) all starts right here with the cre­ation of the 911 R.

Though there were only ever 20 pro­duc­tion 911 Rs built, four pro­to­types were ini­tially cre­ated, those cars pulled from the pro­duc­tion line orig­i­nally in 911 S spec­i­fi­ca­tion. Piëch’s quest for the ul­ti­mate 911, which at this stage was still be­hest in short wheel­base for­mat, would then lead to the R's con­certed of­fen­sive of more weight and less power. The lat­ter was ad­hered to by swap­ping out the 160hp flat-six 'S' spec en­gine for the 210hp, twin-plug mo­tor found in the 906 race­car, with op­ti­mised magnesium crankcases en­clos­ing a light­ened and bal­anced crank­shaft, ti­ta­nium con­nect­ing rods and light­weight forged pis­tons. Big triple car­bu­ret­tors topped the flat six, which re­alised peak power at a whop­ping 8,000rpm. This was mated to a 901 trans­mis­sion with dog-leg first gear, the shifter it­self moved back 100mm from its ’S’-spec mount­ing po­si­tion. Mean­while, the R was put on a diet thanks to one of the most ex­treme ex­er­cises of par­ing back that any road-go­ing sports car had seen be­fore or since.

Some of this work formed what would later be­come stan­dard 911 weight-sav­ing pro­to­col, as ex­er­cised on the 1973 2.7-litre Carrera RS and be­yond. For ex­am­ple, body pan­els were made out of fiber­glass (the bon­net was re­in­forced with small strips of balsa wood), win­dows (aside from the wind­screen) were plex­i­glass and met­al­work was drilled where pos­si­ble. This per­fo­ra­tion was most ex­ten­sive on the R, the treat­ment ex­tended to seat rails and foot ped­als, as well as the unas­sisted deck­lid struts.

On top of this, there were fur­ther, more ex­treme mea­sures to save weight car­ried out by Rolf Wütherich on the R. This in­cluded sim­ple plas­tic doorhan­dles, tail-lights re­placed for sim­ple items that weighed much less, as well as the re­moval of the front grilles.

The re­sult was breath­tak­ing: Piëch’s R was by some dis­tance the fastest road-go­ing 911 ever cre­ated at the time. It would only be usurped in terms of power by the 3.0-litre RS some seven years later, while the R’s 0-60mph sprint time proved a record for a 911 with li­cence plates up un­til the RS 2.7. Key to this was its feath­erlight 800kg kerb weight, which gave it its ti­tle as the light­est-ever 911.

How­ever, due to the sales arm at Porsche not be­liev­ing 500 units of the car could be sold at the time, the R was ef­fec­tively rel­e­gated from ho­molo­ga­tion to pro­to­type class for com­pe­ti­tion, which is a key rea­son why only 20 fur­ther ex­am­ples of the R were made af­ter those four early pro­to­types. Nev­er­the­less, the R en­joyed suc­cess, most notable of which was over­all vic­tory at the 1967 Marathon de la Route at the Nür­bur­gring, along with five longdis­tance records af­ter an R stepped in to take the place of a Porsche 906 at Monza.

Though the 911 R’s story in it­self is full of won­der­ment, our fo­cus here is on a spe­cial pre­pro­duc­tion ver­sion, its tale pos­i­tively fas­ci­nat­ing – es­pe­cially when you con­sider its pre­text as an early ex­am­ple of ar­guably Porsche’s most sig­nif­i­cant model in its his­tory.

By way of a back­ground, those four R pro­to­types are today known as R1, R2, R3 and R4, so named in ac­cor­dance with their pro­duc­tion dates. The car you see in our pic­tures is that of R4, the last R pro­to­type Porsche built, which today can be found in Scotts Val­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, its Lemon yel­low coach­work glis­ten­ing un­der the show­room lights at Canepa. How­ever, its jour­ney to this point is noth­ing short of re­mark­able, tak­ing in four coun­tries and two con­ti­nents, de­spite still be­ing the low­est-recorded mileage R still rolling the planet.

De­scribed by Canepa as one of the last and most orig­i­nal 911 R pro­to­types, R4 left the fac­tory in Ger­many on 12 May 1969, headed for the fa­mous Porsche dis­trib­u­tors, So­nauto, in west­ern France. So­nauto de­liv­ered the car to pri­va­teer racer Vic­tor Blanc, who promptly en­tered R4 in the Ronde Cévenole rally. Leg­end has it that Blanc missed a few pay­ments on the R, ac­cord­ing to Canepa, and so the car was re­turned to the dealer Étab­lisse­ments Balsa, and read­ied for auc­tion on 15 Oc­to­ber 1970 – lit­tle more than a year af­ter it had left the fac­tory.

How­ever, R4 would never make it to auc­tion. It was stolen a day be­fore and dis­ap­peared for more than 20 years with­out a trace. It would be 1991 be­fore, by com­plete chance, the car was found hun­dreds of miles away in a ware­house in Marseille. The car didn’t stay on France’s south coast for much longer, promptly re­turn­ing to Étab­lisse­ments Balsa as the R’s last le­gal owner. It had only 2,300 kilo­me­tres dis­played on its odome­ter.

Not long af­ter, the car found a new home in Great Bri­tain with a Mr Martin Konig, stay­ing on the Bri­tish Isles for a fur­ther 15 years un­til 2006, when R4 ended up mak­ing its way across the At­lantic, and wind­ing up at the doors of Canepa. De­spite its in­ci­dent­packed life, Bruce and his team found R4 to be in near-orig­i­nal con­di­tion, com­pletely dam­age free, no doubt thanks to its pro­longed dry stor­age in Marseille for two decades. Canepa were par­tic­u­larly amazed at the con­di­tion of those fac­tory fi­bre­glass pan­els, for ex­am­ple, which were found to still be in nearpris­tine con­di­tion, which the com­pany says is very rare in­deed for a car built ex­clu­sively for com­pe­ti­tion pur­poses. Sim­i­larly, the tub was found to be dam­age free, with no cor­ro­sion present.

De­spite this, Canepa de­cided R4 should be re­stored to its full, for­mer glory, rem­i­nis­cent of the day it left the Porsche fac­tory on 12 May 1969. “From the per­fect dash ma­te­rial to flaw­less pa­per hoses un­der the hood, all the orig­i­nal parts were present and re­us­able,” Canepa tells To­tal 911, which sig­nif­i­cantly boosted R4’s restora­tion process. “Race car restora­tion usu­ally in­volves the re­pair of a mul­ti­tude of sins cre­ated over a ca­reer of ruth­less com­pe­ti­tion, but R4 had no sins. Not one.”

Today, this Lemon yel­low 911 R boasts just 9,176 kilo­me­tres af­ter re­sid­ing in a prom­i­nent col­lec­tion for the last ten years, a high­light of which was its fea­tur­ing on the lawn at the 2013 Peb­ble Beach Con­cours d’ele­ge­nace. Now, R4 is ready for a new home once more. “We be­lieve it’s the finest ex­am­ple of the 911 R in the world, pe­riod,” Bruce Canepa says, and we quite agree with him.

That it is one of just four pro­to­types of what is very likely Porsche’s most im­por­tant 911 ever cre­ated is one thing. Then you must con­sider the his­tory of R4, that it was sold late and never ex­ces­sively raced, be­fore be­ing stolen and dry-stored for years, ac­cu­mu­lat­ing less than 10,000 kilo­me­tres in half a cen­tury of ex­is­tence. The re­sult is a story that’s as unique and as cap­ti­vat­ing as the car it­self – and thanks to the work of Canepa in restor­ing it back to fac­tory fresh, its fu­ture is as bright as its vi­brant Lemon yel­low coach­work.

“R4 was stolen a day be­fore auc­tion and dis­ap­peared for more than 20 years”

Above Twin spark flat six from 906 race car was de­ployed in the R right Pe­riod dual Bosch ig­ni­tion coils and Bendix fuel pumps sit in place

Above Note dele­tion of clocks, glove box lid, ra­dio, and car­pets, plus the man­ual shifter's slight re­lo­ca­tion

Above Light­weight bumpers, sim­pler rear lights, plex­i­glass and deck­lid pins saved weight

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