The story of R4
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 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
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