Ever wondered how racing Porsches got to the race track? Read on…
Marc Joly is passionate about every aspect of Porsche history including, among other topics, the trucks used to transport the works race cars. Through some testimonials and many rare photos, he takes us on a trip back in time to relive an era when each journey to the track was a minor epic…
Among the many passions which stir my imagination, there is the world of trucks – old trucks in particular. My own collection of models, which comprises over 1400 examples including a large number of 1/18th-scale Porsches, largely consists of trucks, buses and vans in 1/43rd and 1/50th scale. Of these, around 50 are models of Porsche race transporters and support vehicles!
Although I had no particular desire to drive the real thing, looking at the models and period photos I was fascinated by the stories they evoke. With that in mind, I decided to visit the Porsche Museum archives with a view to collecting as many vintage photographs as possible. I was greeted by Jens Torner, Porsche's long-serving head of the archives, who was delighted to assist, especially as it turns out that no other member of the press had expressed interest in the subject.
Jens quickly sent me a file in which he – and his predecessors – had put aside everything they ran across on the subject, which was great. But better than that, he was able to introduce me to former race transporter driver Werner Hillburger, who was able to tell me his side of the story – and here we must also thank tour guide Yoshiko, who was to act as translator as Werner doesn't speak a word of English!
Werner was delighted to be able to share his memories gathered over the 36 years he spent at Porsche. He was also
keen to announce that he shared his birthday with Ferry Porsche – 19th September – although he was born 21 years after the great man himself, in 1940. ‘I arrived at Porsche on 11th August 1964,’ he tells us, ‘arriving as a simple mechanic, to follow the development of the road and rally cars. In particular, I had to drive the work’s Mercedes van to the start of the Monte Carlo Rally. Then, one day in 1968, when the trucks were due to head to the Nürburgring, there was a moment of panic among the team bosses because they discovered there weren’t enough drivers.
‘They asked the mechanics if any of them had a truck licence and, as I had one, that’s how I ended up driving one of the big Mercedes LO317 transporters. In fact, I continued to drive them until the end of their life with Porsche in the 1980s. I couldn’t tell you how many kilometres I drove, but I do know that I never had an accident.’
(MJ: There is some debate about how many of these Mercedes were used by the factory: Werner says that three were purchased, but one was sold due to lack of storage space at the factory, whereas period photos – backed up by testimony from Jürgen Barth – suggest that there were indeed three trucks in use the whole time, photos showing the licence plates corroborating this.)
‘These truck journeys were not as long as you might imagine,’ says Werner, ‘because we only used them to transport cars to the numerous European events. We travelled all over Europe with them. It generally took a day to get from Stuttgart to Monza, but the longest trip was to the Targa Florio: 2500kms, three and a half days on the road and a very complicated journey. We used two drivers for the longer journeys, with a bunk bed to sleep in, although at the event itself we slept in a hotel.’
Werner recalls the MAN 415 transporter which preceded the Mercedes, and worked alongside it for a time. The contrast between the two models was significant, for they were from completely different eras: the MAN dated back to the late 1950s.
‘It was really complicated to drive,’ he recalls, ‘and was without any power assistance. In some manoeuvres, you had to work in pairs to turn the steering wheel! The clutch was also very heavy and the gear shift was complex, being spread over three levels. To shift into reverse, there too you had to work as a pair. Suffice to say, nobody fought to drive it as, given the choice, everyone preferred the Mercedes…’
It is the long trips to Sicily for the Targa Florio which provided the most anecdotes. ‘Herbert Linge, our manager, never hesitated to remind us as we were about leave that we were carrying a valuable load, up to two million Marks, in fact. On the route, the problems started in the Italian tunnels, which were very poorly lit, with many bends. You had to close your eyes when you entered them, then reopen them to get used to the change in light levels, which was not ideal. It was also necessary to be aware of height restrictions under bridges, which were not always well indicated. We had protective bars, just in case.
‘But it was in Sicily that things became most complicated, as we had to take to the small roads. They were so small that the Mercedes couldn’t make it round some of the hairpins in one go. We would have to go forwards and back, with the front and rear cantilevered over the void. Fans of the film “Wages of fear” by Henri-georges Clouzot will be familiar with this… But that wasn’t the end of our pain.
‘Once I almost got stuck turning in a small street in a village in Sicily. The truck couldn’t get past a balcony. It took ages – there were lots of people around and lots of arm waving. In the end we resorted to smearing some grease on the truck to help it slip past!’
At the time, the rules governing driver safety were nothing like they are today, including those concerning speed and time spent driving. ‘The Mercedes LO317 could drive at 110km/h (68mph) with ease, and Ferdinand Piëch asked us to drive at this speed in order to get to the circuits as quickly as possible. There were no tachographs, of course, but we recorded our departure and arrival times in a notebook. I remember when, on my way to Wolfsburg one time, I got arrested by the Police when the needle was stuck on 80km/h…’
During his 36 years with Porsche, which included around 30 years as a driver and mechanic, Werner worked alongside all the drivers and managers associated with the marque during what could be regarded as the most legendary period, the late 1960s and early ’70s. Relationships weren’t always easy. In particular, he remembers Ferdinand Piëch as being somebody with
“THE MERCEDES LO317 COULD DRIVE AT 110KM/H”
whom you didn’t joke.
‘One day, he asked me to remove a clock mechanism on a car to save weight. I made the mistake of moaning a little, so he yelled at me that if I found anything else weighing 10kg, then I should remove that from the car, too. I had to remove the clock while he stood watching. I was suspicious of him after that when I dealt with him as he was not a gentle person.
‘I also remember an incident with Professor Fuhrmann, who asked me to change the wheels on a car. There was a problem with the jack, and the car fell. He also yelled at me, saying “My cleaning lady and my children would have done a better job than you!” I got my revenge a little later at Zelweg: his children cleaned the windscreen of the truck, which was covered in mosquitos, and they did it rather badly – which I made sure they knew!’
About the drivers, Werner is a little more discreet. When asked if anyone had crossed him, he smiles and simply replies: ‘Well, if they weren’t nice to us, then we weren’t going out of our way to help them…’ After some reflection, he adds ‘Jo Siffert was a really good guy, but the one who left the biggest impression on me was Stefan Bellof. On the one hand he was young and very fast, on the other he was close to the mechanics and regularly came to help us, even with tidying up. He ate with us whenever he could…he was really nice.
‘The day he was killed at Spa, the team managers decided not to tell us straight away that he was dead, so as
“ABOUT THE DRIVERS, HE IS MORE DISCREET”
not to distract us from our work while the race continued. But it was a shock to all of us. Otherwise, generally speaking, every time Porsche won, the atmosphere was great – when they lost, we didn’t make many jokes…’
Werner drove the Porsche trucks until around 1990. When the good old Mercedes were sold after their 15-year career – what followed was the era of the big articulated vehicles, always Mercedes to begin with, followed by MAN. It wasn’t easy to start with. ‘We had no experience with this type of truck. We practiced driving techniques at Weissach and we thought we were ready when we headed off to Silverstone.’ But maybe they weren't quite ready…
‘Getting on the ferry, we were loaded in reverse. I had to do a lot of manoeuvring, which was difficult. We were honked at by other truck drivers – it wasn’t a very glorious time, but we soon got the hang of it. These brand new trucks arrived around 1983, and they changed our lives – a new era was beginning.’
Werner’s career, though, is defined by the epic sight of those two big Mercedes LO317S, driving together. They were often accompanied by smaller Mercedes LP608 trucks, which were painted identically. ‘I can tell you,’ says Werner, ‘the first time we arrived with these trucks in 1967, we really made an impression on the other teams!’
He also recalls the story of the famous ‘Pink Pig’ 917, which ran at the 1971 Le Mans, driven by Jöst and Kauhsen. ‘The Pink Pig was too wide to fit in our trucks, so the decision was made to buy an old Magirus truck that had fought in the Algerian war, and which still had bullet holes in it! They cut the bodywork so the widened 917 would fit, but driving it was a bit of a punishment. It would only travel at 60km/h and was very uncomfortable.’
When we look at the gleaming race transporters in use today, we can see how far things have come. ‘I am always impressed when I see them,’ says Werner, ‘as we didn't always take time to wash them after a trip – they were left as they were.’ As we think back to the days of the 917, everyone agrees that it was a heroic era. But among the heroes of the time, let us not forget the mechanics and truck drivers, who played their part in making history, too.
These are the vehicles which best symbolise this heroic era, and if we could speak of only one truck in the history of Porsche race transporters, it would have to be the Mercedes 317 – or rather, all three of them, since three identical vehicles were built in 1967, finished in the famous red that identified all Porsche race support vehicles since the early 1950s.
They were designed on the chassis and drivetrain of a bus, with bodywork built by Robert Schenk. The engines produced 210bhp. They appeared in the red livery from
1967 to 1970, then in 1971 one was loaned to the John
Wyer team and repainted in the famous Gulf livery, but predominantly orange, while another truck was painted in grey to reflect the sponsorship from Martini. In 1972, after the separation from John Wyer, two trucks appeared in grey Martini livery. In 1976, with the advent of the new Group 5 and 6 world championship series, they were repainted in white Martini colours.
For the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1979, and the appearance of the 936 sponsored by the Essex oil company, the transporters appeared briefly in that company’s colours, after which came the Porsche Motorsport period, before adopting the Rothmans Motorsport livery. It was under those colours that the Mercedes finished their career at Porsche, sometime around 1983, going into well-earned retirement.
The three trucks carried the registrations SM 2187, SC 9003 and S-YZ 32. Two of these were sold by a certain Jürgen Barth, who remembers driving one to a race in Italy. Unfortunately, the Brenner Tunnel was closed: ‘I had to take the old road,’ he recalls, ‘where the tunnels were very narrow and low. It was very difficult to assess the height; I was driving in the middle of the road, but I still scraped the roof, damaging part of the rear. That angered Herbert Linge when I returned to Stuttgart, but at least I had fulfilled my mission!’
SM 2187 was restored by Gerry Sutterfield and sold to the Brumos team in the USA, where it still carries the famous red livery. Gerry recalls picking it up from Weissach where it was still wearing its Rothmans colours. ‘There were lots of parts in it, including elements of an F1 engine – I asked if I could have them, to add to my collection, but I was told no! In fact, the two other trucks also served as storage for parts.
‘What was complicating matters was how I was going to bring it back to the USA. I tried to get it started with the help of the local Mercedes dealer, but he refused to help as he said it was too rusty. So I used a truck to pull it to the train station, sent it by train to the port and then across the Atlantic, after which a truck towed it to my home in Florida!
‘Out of curiosity, I tried to start it after fitting a new battery and, to my surprise, it started straight up. I got scared because I hadn't even checked the oil level, so I cut the ignition, but the engine kept running. I didn't know the procedure for stopping these diesel engines, using a cut-off under the dashboard, and said to myself that I’d have to engage a gear and stall it. The problem is, we’d disconnected the rear axle when we towed it home!
‘By the time I’d reconnected the axle, 20 minutes had passed during which time the engine ran perfectly, with good oil pressure. I think if the scene had been filmed, it would have made a great comedy!’
The second truck, S-Y 32, was sold to Kerry Morse who had always dreamed of owning one. ‘Race car transporters have fascinated me since childhood,’ he says. ‘I had them in my toy collection, and they continued to fascinate me as an adult – when you see them in films like “Grand Prix” and “Le Mans”, they make you dream. I saw Porsche’s Mercedes for the first time at Le Mans in 1978, when they wore the white Martini livery. I never imagined I would own one!
‘I used to go to the factory a lot and when I saw them abandoned and used to store parts, it made me sad. I couldn't help but think of their history, the fact they had transported all the racing Porsches from the 910 to the 962, via the 917 and 936. One day I was hanging around and Jürgen Barth came to me and asked if I wanted to buy them. I couldn’t believe it, especially since I knew my friend Gerry Sutterfield was very interested, too!
‘The problem, as you can imagine, was how I was going to take it back to California! I was quoted a colossal sum to do it, and Jürgen was putting pressure on me to quickly come and pick up the truck. It was snowing, in the middle of winter, but a mechanic managed to get it started, at which
“I COULDN’T HELP BUT THINK OF THEIR HISTORY…”
point it was like it was coming back to life. One side of the suspension, which had been sagging, immediately straightened up. I couldn’t believe it!
‘In the end I managed to get it back to California, but after 18 years, having driven it several times and carried out general maintenance, I realised that restoring it was too complex a job – I had to face the facts. After a while, I managed to convince Kevin Jeanette of Gunnar Racing to have it. It stayed in his park for a long time – you could see it from the highway. It was Kevin who finally restored it.
‘The funny thing is, it ended up going back to England, being repainted in Gulf colours, to form part of the ROFGO collection. I realise now that it was madness to buy it, but I tell myself that had I not had that touch of madness, it might not exist today!’
The case of S-C 9003 is more complex. The last known photographs date from the white Martini era. It was probably sold before the other two, but not too early as Werner Hillburger could still remember it. Jürgen Barth cannot recall what happened to the transporter, which probably no longer exists. Maybe somebody reading this might know of its fate?
The seven different versions of these race transporters have been reproduced by Premium Classixxs in 1/43rd scale, with just one licence plate error (reading SC 9000 instead of SC 9003). The red and Gulf versions have also been reproduced in 1/18th scale.
“I REALISE NOW IT WAS MADNESS TO BUY IT! ”