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 - - Contents - Words: Keith Seume/fred Wes­ley Pho­tos: An­dreas Illg

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


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


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…

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