ART OF DESIGN
Régis Mathieu’s enviable collection of air-cooled Porsches includes the most original surviving 904…
The most original surviving 904.
With work hanging in the Louvre Museum in Paris, the Palace of Versailles and the Moscow Kremlin, Régis Mathieu has forged an enviable reputation as a world-leading designer and restorer of chandeliers, yet visit his open workshop in the Provence-alpes-côte d’azur region of southeastern France and it’s not just the beauty of his grand interior decoration that takes your breath away. A vintage car buff since childhood, he bought his first Volkswagen Beetle not long after his seventeenth birthday. Fastforward thirty years to the present, and Mathieu has amassed a personal collection of more than twenty rare Porsches, including a 718 RSK, a 914/6 and a 356 B 1600 GS Carrera GTL Abarth. As you’d expect, a selection of 911s, including an early S-badged press car, inhabit his personal playground, but for all their bells and whistles — 911s wearing RUF, RS and Speedster emblems feature heavily — there’s an altogether more desirable classic fighting the pack to be noticed.
Bridging the gap between form and function, the 904 is Mathieu’s favourite Porsche. The model debuted in readiness for the 1964 racing season, serving as a successor to the 718, which had been in use since 1957. The 904 (dubbed Carrera GTS after intellectual property rights conflicts with Peugeot forced Porsche to change its product names) was used to compete in the FIA’S GT class at international racing events, while a streetlegal version was produced to satisfy homologation
requirements, resulting in little more than 106 units built. The mid-engined machine, designed by Ferdinand Alexander ‘Butzi’ Porsche, was the first Porsche to make use of a ladder chassis and lightweight fibreglass body, the latter constructed by spraying chopped fibreglass into a mold. The process wasn’t an exact science, however, resulting in some finished 904s wearing more material than others, ultimately affecting overall weight. Even so, the 904 was hardly what you’d call a heavy race car, tipping scales at a scant 655kg in fighting trim, allowing the benchmark sprint to 60mph from a standing start in less than six seconds, topping out at 160mph.
Mathieu was adamant he wanted a 904 in his collection. Being able to afford a 904 is one thing, but finding one available for sale and in original condition? Quite another. Indeed, only a handful of surviving 904s can claim to be unrestored, though chassis no.063, the car you see on the pages before you, fulfils this requirement. Almost. With a mere 3,500km on the scoreboard, the stunning example Mathieu bought is claimed to have the lowest mileage of any surviving 904. “Everything about this car is special,” he smiles. “The aluminium bodies of the 904’s predecessors took a long time to produce, each beaten to shape by hand, allowing for only thirty-odd cars to be produced each year. Porsche assembled four or five 904s per day, making it something of a mass-produced prototype, which sounds like a contradiction in terms and is almost unique in the world of vehicle manufacturing.” He also reminisces about the car’s time on track. “1965 was pretty much
the last time you could watch the 24 Hours of Le Mans and, come Monday morning, head to a main dealer and buy one of the top-tier cars you saw blasting around Sarthe. Granted, 911s have always been accessible, but in terms of the general public being able to buy what we call a sports prototype, the 904 was in a league of its own. You can’t exactly go to a Porsche centre and buy a 919 Hybrid today. The 904 was the last proper Porsche racing machine that could be bought and used as a road car, and this is what makes it my favourite of all the manufacturer’s products, past or present.”
Chassis no.063 came to Mathieu courtesy of motorsport commentator and classic vehicle collector, Bill Stephens. Acquiring the car was tough, not least because Stephens didn’t want to let his treasured Porsche pass to unknown hands. After thorough vetting and seeing off the advances of a then active F1 pilot, however, Mathieu made a successful bid and soon learned of his new Porsche’s fascinating history.
Delivered to Parisian marque specialist, Sonauto, in 1964, chassis no.063’s first owner was Andre Lacourbe, who raced under the name, Roy von Vost. He entered a handful of competitions with his 904 and, in May 1965, used it to participate in the 500km of Spa. At that time, the event was held on the ‘long’ version of the track, known for being more demanding and more high-speed than it is today. Sadly, chassis no.063 became yet another casualty of Eau Rouge, the impact of accident so severe that Lacourbe nearly died and the car’s entire front end had to be replaced. After recovering from injury, he instructed Porsche to carry out the required remedial work, requesting upgraded brake cooling ducts, the repositioning of the fuel filler to the centre of the hood and newer three-quarter height doors, though the original glass was kept, which is why no.063 is the only 904 equipped with short doors and winding windows.
Lacourbe hit the track again a year later, competing in the Coupe de Vitesse at the Montlhérycircuit near Paris, where his revitalised ride wore door stickers displaying racing number fifteen. The same (albeit peeling) stickers are worn by the car today. He finished fifth overall, a career best. A decade later, with a new owner, this silver stunner made an appearance at the Monterey Historic, but that was its last known appearance on a race track.
Over the years, chassis no.063 was kept in France, Germany, Japan and, eventually, made its way into the custody of Stephens. From the time of Lacourbe’s ownership to that of Mathieu, however, the car hardly turned a wheel, with almost half the indicated mileage being credited to Mathieu. “The first thing I did,” he tells
us, “was send the car to Paris, back to the same Sonauto workshop it had passed through nearly half a century before.” The achingly rare Porsche was given a thorough check over, including a process involving the insertion of a tiny camera into all the internal crevices no human eye could ever peer, allowing for detection of any agerelated deterioration. Thankfully, the results signalled a near perfect car completely free of rust. In fact, only two things needed changing: the tyres, which wasn’t exactly surprising considering they were the same set fitted in 1964, and the need to replace tired polyurethane bushes inside the dampers. Mathieu invested in new Dunlop SP black circles and had the shock absorbers sent to Koni, whose engineers stripped each unit and replaced the aged parts. The firm’s technicians were given strict instructions not to clean the outside of the shocks, ensuring half-century-old battle-won patina remained.
Mathieu had heard his 904’s engine running, but as far as he knew, nobody had driven the car for many, many years. “I was so nervous,” he recalls. “The night before I took the car out for the first time, I just couldn’t sleep.” It’s an understandable reaction at the promise of being able to get behind the wheel of your dream drive. Indeed, though assured by the many miles Mathieu has covered in chassis no.063 since acquiring it, we were thoroughly excited to enjoy a passenger ride on the public highway following his generous invitation.
IT FLICKS EFFORTLESSLY AROUND HAIRPINS, INCLUDING SWITCHBACKS USED FOR RALLYE MONTE-CARLO
The 904 was lauded as a road car as much as it was racer, but climbing in is no easy task. The sill is made from the thinnest sliver of fibreglass, so no standing on that. The door is far too flimsy to support any amount of body weight. This isn’t the most convenient Porsche to use if popping to the shops! As if to prove the point, echoing off Mathieu’s garage walls, the two-litre flat-four seems reluctant to start, conking out every time the revs drop. But, after a few minutes, when warmed up, the boxer settles with a satisfying rumble, indicating this amazing Porsche is ready to be taken out into the bright light of a pleasingly sunny day in Provence.
On the main road, we’re held up by normal traffic. The 904 copes better than we do at such frustration, but out on twisting mountain roads, foot down, the sound of the race-spec engine is wild. No, it’s more than that — it’s absolutely exhilarating. As is fitting for a car of such provenance, Mathieu didn’t want his 904 pushed too hard, but even driven cautiously, it flicks effortlessly around the hairpins, including switchbacks used for stages of Rallye Monte-carlo. This is a surprisingly easy Porsche to drive, providing you keep your wits about you and don’t forget you’re dealing with vintage braking equipment — you don’t want to have a prang in one of the most valuable Porsches in existence! Put it this way, chassis no.061, a flat-six driven 904 previously owned by Raymond Touroul and Alain Salat, fetched €1,917,500 when it went under the hammer at the RM Sotheby’s Paris Sale in February 2020. Mathieu remains unfazed. “I can’t imagine a 917 or 908 is anywhere near as accommodating,” he says, when we point out how brave he is to use his 904 on the public highway. “This car is totally accessible to a regular driver like me. It’s no exaggeration to say my experience in charge of this Porsche has significantly increased my love of the 904, which, previously, was almost entirely based on its timeless aesthetic and quality of engineering. To be able to enjoy the drive in such an utterly absorbing way completes my ownership and enthusiast experience.”
As a Porsche brand ambassador, Mathieu is invited to events allowing him to sample new Porsche products in sumptuous surroundings. In other words, he has plenty of experience with the very latest products from the Stuttgart stable, but despite the power and handling capabilities of modern Porsches, his favourite ride is always the one he comes home to. “Perhaps as a consequence of the job I do, I see much more in the 904 than just a well thought out and brilliantly put together sports car. I don’t care about the horsepower or the torque band of the engine, any of that stuff. What I care about in a car is the timelessness of its design,” he says, with the same smile he’s had on his face since first gear was selected in his garage.
“At the end of the day, I’m a designer of artwork and I know how hard it is to make something with truly everlasting quality. The 904 has this in spades. The model’s lines, for example, lived on long after production ended. Ferrari took heavy influence from them, first with the Dino, then the 308 and on with the 328. It’s clear to see Butzi’s influence in all of these cars,” he shrugs. “I look at the 904 from certain angles and, sometimes, I can see the lines he must have drawn on the first 904 design board. It’s such a simple-looking car, yet it’s completely perfect. Butzi was an artist who truly understood the art of design.” And with one of the world’s greatest collections of air-cooled Porsches, it’s fair to say you do too, Régis!