Few vehicles invite anthropomorphism — the assignment of animalistic qualities to an inanimate object — more than Porsche’s 917 race car.
Low, fast and merciless to other automotive prey, the 917 helped make Porsche’s name in late-’60s and early-’70s endurance racing. Though it needed no help securing its legend, Zuffenhausen’s baby-blue-and-orange Gulf-liveried beast became a poster-plastered icon after it starred in Steve McQueen’s 1971 celluloid Porsche elegy, “Le Mans.”
Only a dozen true John Wyer Gulf Porsches were made, and most almost immediately underwent vast modifications. Catching a glimpse of one is rare. Buying one rarer still. But if you’ve got eight figures to spare, Scotts Valley, Calif.-based Porsche racer turned restoration guru Bruce Canepa wants you to give him a call.
“We have the first 917 to finish a full race and it’s been completely restored to what it would have been like entering that first race (the Nurburgring 1000 Kilometers in May of 1969),” says Canepa, whose normally staid demeanor vanishes when talking about this machine. “These cars are now valuable enough to not take any shortcuts. So we didn’t. It’s the most accurate 917 out there.”
All 917 racing cars came stuffed with a 5-liter flat-12 cylinder engine, whose 630-hp could take it to 220-mph due to the car’s comically light weight, 1,764 pounds.
After this car’s Nurburgring experience, where it finished eighth with drivers Frank Gardner and David Piper, the car received full 917K bodywork and was delivered to Wyer’s shop in anticipation of a March 1970 showing at Brands Hatch. The car didn’t finish and was returned to Porsche for repair, when it received chassis number 017.
n 1975, 004/017 was sold to an Australian importer, who later sold the car to a fellow racer. In 1989, the car found its way to its first driver, Piper, who put the dismantled machine back in order. In 2004, it traded hands again and was supposed to be vintage raced by famed driver Jurgen Barth. But his schedule didn’t allow that to pass, and a few years later it was in the collection of Portuguese vintage enthusiast Miguel Amaral.
In 2008, Amaral sent the car to the California headquarters of Porsche Motorsports North America for restoration under the eye of historian Kelly Morse. But setbacks to the project and an eventual conversation between Morse and Canepa saw the car head to Scotts Valley.
As for value, Canepa won’t say what the car is going for, but he adds it is in healthy excess “of what the last 917 Gulf car sold for, which was $20 million.” Canepa is referring to a 917 used in the filming of “Le Mans,” which was on the block at Gooding & Company’s Monterey auction this past August. Though it was rumored to fetch as much $20 million, the car was pulled from the catalog shortly before the auction without explanation.
Nevertheless, Canepa’s 917 is indeed a monument to obsession.
More than two years were spent going over every brace and bolt by Canepa’s team as well as engine builder Ed Pink of Los Angeles-based Ed Pink Racing Engines, body expert Kevin Jeannette of Gunnar Racing in West Palm Beach, Fla., and crankshaft experts Crosthwaite & Gardner in England, the country where the car first took racing shape under the watchful eye of Wyer in the London suburb of Slough.
“So far, I’ve restored five 917s, and Kevin has done 10, so collectively it’s safe to say we have more experience than anyone with these race cars,” says Canepa.
What allowed the team to place the authenticity bar particularly high was the discovery “of a set of photos of this car from the build stage through its racing era,” says Canepa. “With what we know now, you’d actually want to redo the restoration of any 917s done before.”
Specifically, he says new information was gleaned about the exact types and quantities of materials used in the body, including resin and cloth density. Photos revealed when balsa wood reinforcement was used, as well as the exact shape of the original race car’s nose and tail.
“Of the few 917s out there, none is a true original as so many were patched and painted and otherwise modified,” says Canepa.
The result of Canepa and Company’s efforts has strutted its stuff at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, the McCall’s Motorworks Revival and the Carmel-by-the-Sea Concours where it took best of show honors with a perfect score of 100 points. Adding to 004’s appeal was a race history
But that’s all about the innards; what about the 917’s soul? For anyone who has ever driven one of these Porsche demons, the experience almost defies description. But Canepa tries.
“It’s still one of the best race cars in the world,” says the racer, who has turned many a Porsche race car wheel in anger on the track, including 917s. “This is not a luxury sit-back-and-drive type car. Modern racers, the computer does this and that. These cars, you’ve got blisters when you’re through.”
He says “every element of a racer’s experience and talent is brought to bear on this car, because they don’t drive themselves. You’re putting them sideways, rotating them through corners. But it does everything right if you know what you’re doing.”
By way of proof, Canepa cites a recent Le Mans Prototype-class car posting a 1:19 time at Laguna Seca, a track Canepa covered in this 45-year-old racer in 1:30.
“I had no electronics, no aides, no ABS and no slicks, and its stock engine,” says Canepa with a chuckle. “That’s all you need to know.”