THE 917 MAN
Set deep in the Swabian countryside, an unassuming basement workshop is home to the man with more experience of working on Porscheʼs flat-12 917 engine than any other. We track down Gustav Nieche, ʻMr 917ʼ…
Classic Porsche meets Gustav Nieche, the ‘go-to’ man for all things 917
Way back in 1958, a young newlyapprenticed mechanic by the name of Gustav Nieche travelled by train from the Swabian town of Besigheim on the banks of the river Neckar, to Canstatt, near Stuttgart. He was on his way to seek employment at the Daimler factory. It was a time of growth in post-war Germany, and skilled workers were in short supply, meaning the motor industry was on the lookout for young welltrained craftsmen. Gustav fitted the bill perfectly.
But the train journey was proving tiresome for the young mechanic, so he decided to get off the train at Zuffenhausen instead and resolutely made his way to the workshops of the still young Porsche factory in search of employment. ʻWhat do you want, young man?ʼ came the question from the workshop foreman – and that was pretty much the interview taken care of. Gustav now had a job as a Porsche mechanic – but not just any mechanic.
The new recruit found himself in the ʻsportsʼ department, initially working on chassis construction, welding frames and suspension components. Within a couple of years he was travelling across Europe with the racing department as part of the Formula One team, and was also involved with the development of the new Porsche 904 GTS. Later, he moved into engine development and supervised building engines for the 910 and 907 for use in the Targa Florio, and those of the 908 hillclimbers and the legendary 909 Bergspyder.
In 1970, Gustav Nieche made the jump across the ʻPondʼ. Porsche sent him to the USA to support American importer and racing team owner Vasek Polak. The Porsche 917/10 and 917/30 ran in the American Can-am series and the team needed a capable technician. For years, Gustav was on the road in the USA, and around the world, working as an engine specialist. The complex eight- and 12-cylinder engines of the 908 and 917s have remained his speciality to this day. ʻI know precisely how long each stud should be on these engines,ʼ he smiles, before adding ʻThere is probably not a single 917 engine on which I have not worked, certainly not one that still runs today…ʼ
And some of these engines are brand new… At the age of
75, Gustav is still building them in the cellar of his terraced property. Items of discarded living room furniture serve as a workbench and parts shelves. It looks bizarre: fullyassembled examples of the most successful and legendary racing engine ever sit brand new on an old coffee table in the basement. Itʼs lucky that so much know-how and so many skills are still preserved. Gustav uses many new parts, some are original new stock but most of them replicated. Cases, shafts, plastic parts – thereʼs nothing that cannot be restored or recreated.
ʻAt the time, Porsche sold everything that was no longer needed to America.ʼ Vasek Polak stored everything but, many years later, most of it found its way back to Germany. Gustav was there when the deal was sealed and, from then on, his new client provided him with parts for the construction of new engines. Itʼs been a good 30 years since Porsche lost its appetite for the successful eight- and 12cylinder engines and Gustav took care of everything that was still driving, or was to be rebuilt, on his own. He rented a small workshop in the neighbouring village and quickly made a name for himself among the tight-knit community of 917 owners. His meticulous work and Swabian perfectionism spoke for themselves.
He knew many drivers and teams from his time as a Porsche racing mechanic. English racing driver and team owner David Piper ordered an engine from Gustav around that time. ʻHe wanted to have it delivered to the Bahamas,ʼ smiles Gustav mischievously. ʻPiper said, “but first put it to the test” and I replied, “David, I do not have a test bench, but itʼs easy. You install the engine, press the button and start driving”. Piper went on to win the following five races with this engine in his 917.ʼ
Nieche continues: ʻThe engines are simple and reliable. They only produced about 120bhp per litre, which is not much for a racing engine – they were just so reliable.ʼ When asked if there were any overheating problems due to the air cooling, he replies ʻNo, no, the fan cooling was perfect, the baffles worked well. We never had heat-related problems,ʼ he recalls.
At some point thought turned to rebuilding complete 917s and who better than his old friend Dieter Kunberger to work with Gustav – they knew each other from their time together at Porsche. Nobody was better able to build the space-frame welded from lightweight tubing than Dieter, who learned his skills at a young age in the Zuffenhausen racing department. Dieter has created eight or nine frames in the last thirty years since working with Gustav, always at the weekend or in the evenings after work. ʻThese were often long nights,ʼ they recall. ʻOften the neighbours came by with a few bottles of
“METICULOUS WORK AND SWABIAN PERFECTIONISM…”
homemade wine, while we told them old stories from our time at Porsche – tales of the long-distance mountain races, or our experiences of racing in America.ʼ
Ferdinand Piëch was responsible for the sports department at the time Gustav worked there. ʻPiëch was hard but fair,ʼ he recalls. ʻFor the first time, he also took we young mechanics to the races. Before, it was a privilege of the old guys. The money that came from the teams and sponsors for onsite support, he also distributed fairly among us all – it used to be different. Piëch was always there until late into the night,ʼ Dieter remembers. ʻAnd he watched everyone closely. Always. One time at Brands Hatch he fell asleep in the middle of the night while sitting on a box and fell off it. Nobody dared laugh…ʼ
Back in the race department, Dieter and his colleague needed about six weeks to weld together the elaborate frame made of lightweight tubing. The first two frames for the Le Mans homologation cars were created in the racing department in Zuffenhausen, after which the work was sent to outside contractors. ʻNot all suppliers came to terms with aluminium welding. You have to know how much longer you have to cut the tubes, so they are exactly the right length afterwards, because aluminium contracts after welding. Many frames ended up a bit too short – those ones got sent to some of the customer teams. They werenʼt good enough for us,ʼ says Dieter…
ʻAt the request of Ferdinand Piëch, we then welded air
“PIËCH WAS ALWAYS THERE LATE INTO THE NIGHT…”
valves in the sections of the rear end. Compressed gas in the network of tubes revealed in the shortest possible time any bad weld or a crack as a result of accident damage or fatigue. It was a great idea,ʼ says Dieter.
ʻThen came the experiments with magnesium alloy tubing in the same wall thickness as the aluminium tubes. This saved an additional three, four kilos of weight, but no-one has ever given much thought to this frame. Most of the time, we didnʼt even tell the drivers they were sitting in a car with a magnesium frame – the chances are no-one would have dared go on the track. And yet such a car one day won at Le Mans. It was a great endorsement for us.ʼ
Instead of using a solid steel plate like the one in the Porsche racing department, Gustav and Dieter had to install a jig for the construction of the new frames on a carefully measured wooden panel in their workshop. It took about a year for Dieter to complete a 917 chassis from the original plans. ʻThe original tubing with a wall thickness of 1.6mm is scarce and you canʼt get it any more, so we use tubing with 2mm-thick walls. There was still some of the original tubing stored at the factory, which I wanted to buy, but they used it to make marking posts for the test track in Weissach. Too bad,ʼ Dieter remembers.
The Gulf-liveried 917/10 waiting in the workshop for its twelve-cylinder is a car built from scratch, everything from the door latch to the valve covers. ʻThe car was burned out following an accident and Dieter did not want to repair the bent frame, so we have just rebuilt everything,ʼ says Gustav modestly. Behind the workshop are still a few fragments of the old frame. ʻAt some point he will finish it,ʼ Gustav is convinced. ʻThen the original frame number will connect the racing car with its celebrity former owner and his tragic fate.ʼ
What happens when the last 917 leaves the workshop is uncertain. Gustav still wants to build some racing engines, but an entire vehicle? Dieter dismisses the idea, but who knows what might happen when the two sit at night in the workshop, set among the Swabian vineyards? Anythingʼs possible… CP
Above: Not your average coffee table art! Household furniture is ʻrepurposedʼ in the workshop, including a coffee table used as an engine bench…
Below right: Keepers of the Holy Grail: Gustav (right) next to his old friend Dieter Kunberger – companions since the earliest days of Porsche racing history
Below left: Perfect work wherever you look, be it welding on the aluminium frame or the fuel tank itself
Above: Full set of 24 valves and springs for a 917 engine await their moment of glory. Gustav looked after the original yellow 917/30 many years ago in the USA
Below: Just like in the old days, based on the original design drawing Dieter Kunberger has welded many examples of the 917ʼs aluminium frame
Above right: Ready for rebuild, 917 crankcase sits casually on the workshop dining table…
Above left: Drawing showing angles of tubing and every minute dimension in detail. Such experience is priceless
Below left: Just like in the old days, a broomstick holds up the lightweight 917 engine cover. A specialist company has perfectly reproduced them by hand!
Below right: Portrait of former customer and 917 owner David Piper keeps watch over Gustav and Dieter…