The word unique is a much-overused word today, as it is applied, it seems, to just about anything that is produced in small numbers, or even just to enhance a claim about something unusual. In fact, the word unique should really only be applied to something when it is: the only one of its kind; unlike anything else; existing as the only one or as the sole example. So, when we describe the Porsche 718 W-RS Spyder as a unique racing car, it really is just that, one of a kind.
In 1961, a new design of racer was produced that would be able to accommodate Porsche’s new 8-cylinder that was undergoing testing. Two 718 Coupes and one Spyder were produced, the latter being built from the start with a 4-inch longer chassis to take the 8-cylinder engine. The 718 RS Spyder, being chassis #047, was given the prefix “W” as it was intended to run in the World Sports Car Championship. As it happened, the 8-cylinder engine had not completed its test program, and so when all three race cars were ready for action, they all received the proven 4-cylinder 4-cam Fuhrmann engine.
The 1961 racing season
The Porsche 718 debuted at the Le Mans test weekend on 8-9 April 1961, marking a decade since Porsche first raced in the French endurance classic. For the first time, the April test was extended to two days which made it worthwhile for many more teams to participate in the test sessions.
Following the Le Mans test weekend, Huschke von Hanstein took five Porsches to Sicily for the Targa Florio on 30 April, of which three were 718s. Once again, two were the coupe bodied cars while the #047 Spyder was driven by Dan Gurney and Jo Bonnier, the latter being credited with setting the quickest lap in practice. The results were encouraging with two of the 718s finishing second (chassis #047 driven by Gurney and Bonnier) and third (chassis #043 driven by Herrmann and Barth). The third 718 Coupe (chassis #044) driven by Stirling Moss and Graham Hill was well in the lead with five miles (8 km) to go when the crown wheel gave in, and it was forced to retire.
The next event was the 1000 km race at the Nürburgring on 28 May, just a month later. Here Gurney and Bonnier were once again in chassis #047, still powered by a 1679 cc Fuhrmann 4-cam engine. Despite being Germany’s premier racing event, Porsche was destined not to shine there this time. The Herrmann/Barth car managed just two laps before retiring with a badly misfiring engine, while the Moss/Hill car dropped out after 21 laps which was less than half distance. Also with a misbehaving engine that required a lengthy pit stop, Gurney and Bonnier managed to salvage tenth place overall.
Porsche arrived at Le Mans with three of their new 718 cars, each powered by a different size engine. The American pairing of Masten Gregory and Bob Holbert were entrusted with the #33 Porsche 718 W-RS Spyder (chassis #047), while Hans Herrmann and Edgar Barth were in the #32 Porsche 718 Coupe (chassis #045). The familiar pairing of Jo Bonnier and Dan Gurney were in the #30 Porsche 718 Coupe (chassis #046), but theirs was not to be a happy race.
The #33 Gregory/Holbert 718 W-RS Spyder (chassis #047) was fitted with a 1967 cc version of the 4-cam engine. The Herrmann/Barth #32 Porsche 718 Coupe (chassis #045) was powered by a 1606 cc version of the Fuhrmann engine while Bonnier/Gurney in the #30 Porsche 718 Coupe (chassis #046) had a 1679 cc version of this engine. All three 718s above were driven through a 4-speed ‘box and they were all fitted with drum brakes. Although disc brakes were available for these cars for this race, it was decided that the rate of wear of the pads was too high, and so they opted for drum brakes as their rate of wear was a known factor.
Realistically Porsche could not expect to win the Le Mans 24 Hours overall with the 718, but they were always in the hunt should things go unexpectedly wrong for the big names. However, as the race progressed, the #33 Gregory/Holbert 718 W-RS Spyder (chassis #047) moved up steadily through the field from a position in the high teens, until they crossed the finish line in fifth place overall and first in the Sports 2000 class. Herrmann/Barth in the #32 Porsche 718 Coupe (chassis #045) finished just two places further back in seventh place overall. Jo Bonnier and Dan Gurney in the #30 Porsche 718 Coupe (chassis #046) retired around noon on Sunday with a broken crankshaft.
The top-finishing Porsche of Gregory/Holbert shattered the distance record for its class, but this was to be the last Le Mans race for the factory using the trusty 4-cylinder, 4-cam engine. Although they would have wanted a better result, with three potent Ferraris and a Maserati ahead of the fifth-placed #33 Porsche, the team could hold its head high all the way home to Stuttgart.
The 1962 racing season
After the 1961 Le Mans race, chassis #047 did not race again until the Targa Florio of 1962. The factory used this time to prepare the car to receive the new 2-litre, 8-cylinder engine which was by now ready for competition. However, the first event did not get off to the start the factory had hoped for, when the W-RS Spyder of Bonnier/Gurney posted a DNF following heavy contact with a stone bridge. With Dan Gurney at the wheel, the car’s brakes locked up as he approached a sharp bend in the road, causing Gurney to slide backwards into the stone bridge.
For the next race, the Nürburgring 1000 km on 27 May, the W-RS had lost its raised engine cover, this being replaced by two fairings with meshed screen inserts through which the carbs could breathe. Between these two raised fairings, a further meshed screen protected the aperture for the central fan which cooled the Type 771 2-litre 8-cylinder engine. This new arrangement gave the W-RS a smoother, sleeker look as the ‘hump back’ look had gone.
Graham Hill and Hans Herrmann drove a conservative and steady race in the new-look W-RS Spyder (chassis #047) to finish in a solid third place overall, and first in the Prototype 2000 class. But after this reassuring finish, the car was not prepared for Le Mans as many might have expected, as a new future lay ahead for the hard-working Spyder.
All change for the W-RS Spyder
The Nürburgring 1000 km would be #047’s final track outing in Europe for 1962, its future lying instead in the European Hill Climb Championship, and some races in far-off, exotic locations.
In June and July 1962, the W-RS Spyder competed in three hill climbs in the hands of privateer Heini Walter. On 17 June, Walter finished second in the Mont Ventoux event and then on 8 July, the same driver again finished second in the Trento Bondone Hill Climb in Italy. On 22 July, Walter scored his third consecutive second place in the Freiburg Hill Climb.
Following the three hill climb events, Huschke von Hanstein packed up the W-RS Spyder for the next chapter in the car’s very busy life. There followed several races in the USA in the hands of Jo Bonnier, as Porsche sought to earn some valuable exposure and success in this fast-growing market. In the first of these races, at Mosport in Canada on 22 September 1962, the team installed a second fuel tank to ensure they could run the whole race without a fuel stop. However, this proved problematic as fuel leaked onto the road just ahead of the rear tyres, negatively affecting the car’s grip. The best Bonnier could manage was sixth place.
The next race was just a week later, the Northwest Grand Prix in Washington State, where Bonnier gave a good account of himself in the two-heat race by finishing fourth overall. The car was then shipped south to Porsche dealer Vasek Polak, who prepped the car for the race at Riverside on 14 October. Unfortunately, a seized conrod put paid to Bonnier’s efforts there, and the car was packed up once again and sent off to Laguna Seca for the Pacific Grand Prix on 21 October. With Bonnier at the helm once again, he was forced to retire yet again, this time due to a broken axle shaft.
Not to be deterred, von Hanstein despatched the car to Puerto Rico where Dan Gurney was reunited with an old friend. Gurney scored a third-place finish with the W-RS Spyder on 11 November. Next on the Spyder’s busy schedule was the Nassau Speed Week in the first week of December, where Bob Holbert was to pilot the car. Holbert, who had last driven the W-RS Spyder back in ’61 at Le Mans, was quick to reacquaint himself with the car and notched up two second place finishes in the popular Speed Week races.
The 1963 racing season
After two very busy racing seasons, and having been pressed into action in a number of different races, the W-RS Spyder was once again prepared for a fresh start in Europe as a GT Prototype and a hill climb car.
This preparation would see some major modifications to the car, this time to the suspension. The move to a coil and wishbone setup would require changes to other equipment, such as the steering and fuel tanks. This suspension change was significant in that it would usher in a change for Porsche’s race cars in the future. New, too, was much of the car’s forward bodywork, which included a new nose section that formed one piece across the front between the headlights, and now also housed inlets for oil and brake cooling. Further developments included fibreglass doors and front and rear engine/bonnet lids, while the exterior door handles were removed in an effort to reduce weight. The W-RS was given a full-width roll bar just behind the driver’s head.
As was customary at Porsche, development work continued on the engine and power was increased to 225 bhp. However, reliability issues with the car’s gearbox and drive shafts persisted, but this would have required substantial investment to rectify.
On the occasion of the Spyder’s first outing in ‘63, the Targa Florio, the drivers Maglioli and Baghetti found that towards the end of the race, they had just one operational gear left in the gearbox, and a sterling effort by these two legendary drivers brought the W-RS home in seventh place. Edgar Barth and Herbert Linge retired from the Nürburgring 1000 km on 19 May 1963 when a broken half-shaft forced their retirement from the race after just five laps.
The next race for the W-RS Spyder was the big one, the Le Mans 24 Hours on 15-16 June. The 1963 French race will not be remembered for Porsche delivering another giant-killing result, in fact only one of the works cars finished the race. It must be said that a large slice of bad luck came their way, but then the same could be said of any other manufacturer on another day. In fact, of the 49 starters, only eleven cars were classified as finishers when the chequered flag fell.
Edgar Barth and Herbert Linge were assigned the #28 W-RS Spyder. At the car’s extreme rear was a neat, full-width lip, a discreet rear wing that aided stability by improving the car’s aerodynamics. This was installed on the car in time for the 1963 Le Mans 24 Hours. However, the Spyder lost around an hour on Sunday morning when it sheared a drive shaft (again) with Barth driving. He brought the car under control, and managed to get the car back to the pits, but a couple of hundred yards short of the pits, the wheel parted company with the car. No trouble for the committed Barth, he hopped out and holding the right rear bodywork off the ground, he pushed the car the final few hundred yards to the pit garage. Around an hour was spent repairing the car after which it went back out into the race, eventually finishing in eighth place.
Following the disappointing Le Mans result, Edgar Barth was set loose on the European Hill Climb Championship a week later with chassis #047. The W-RS Spyder was further uprated and prepared for the hill climb season, with power now increased to 240 bhp. The first event, the Mont Ventoux Hill Climb near Avignon in south-east France, had a long and proud competition history dating back to 1902. While Porsche had been successful at this hill climb in the past, disappointingly Barth would retire from this event with a puncture.
Three weeks later the championship moved to the Italian Trento Bondone Hill Climb. This event too, has an illustrious history with the first event being held back in 1925. Here, Edgar Barth scored his first victory in the 1963 European Hill Climb Championship driving the W-RS Spyder, a feat he went on to repeat in the next four events. His victories in the Cesana-Sestriere event (Italy), Freiburg–Schauinsland Hillclimb (Germany), Ollon-Villars (Switzerland) and Gaisberg (Salzburg, Austria) secured Barth the 1963 European Hill Climb Championship.
By now the 718 W-RS Spyder had become part of furniture back at the factory, so to speak. It was after such an impressive and hard-working career over the previous three years, that the mechanics gave the much-liked race car the name Grossmutter, or Grandmother.
The 1964 racing season
But far from resting on its laurels, the W-RS Spyder was pressed into service once again, this time the Sebring 12 Hours was its destination. This was the year that the Porsche 904 broke cover, and there were no less than five of the new cars at the Sebring race. Having started from 14th place on the grid, Barth and Linge rose as high as sixth place with the W-RS Spyder in the race, before a clutch replacement pushed them back down the field. The car would finish twentieth overall and third in the Prototype GT class.
Next on the schedule was the Targa Florio on 26 April 1964. The W-RS Spyder was called up to do duty in the Sicilian road race for the fourth time, to be driven by Jo Bonnier and Graham Hill. Bonnier promptly set the fastest practice time in the car, showing that the Grossmutter still had what it took to compete with the best. But the car managed just one lap of the gruelling (almost) 45-mile course before a drive shaft gave in, yet again, causing a premature retirement.
In the first hill climb event of the ’64 season at Rossfeld, the young Swiss hot shoe, Herbert Müller, was given the Grossmutter to drive. Edgar Barth won the event in an Elva Porsche, but the young Müller finished second in the Grossmutter. Barth did not like the Elva Porsche, and chose the W-RS Spyder for the next event at Mont Ventoux, which he promptly won. In fact, Barth won the following four hill climbs at Gaisberg, Trento Bondone, Cesana-Sestriere and Freiburg. Such a record of wins was sufficient to secure Barth his second consecutive European Hill Climb Championship title.
Post-competition life for Grossmutter
In May 1965, Edgar Barth passed away after a short illness with stomach cancer. It was time too, for the 718 W-RS Spyder Grossmutter to be withdrawn from active service. After a very hard racing career, and with many changes and upgrades to its engine, underpinnings and bodywork, the Grossmutter was gracefully retired, to be retained by the factory. For anyone at the factory today, and those Porsche enthusiasts around the world, they continue to refer to this car first and foremost as the Grossmutter, and not as the car’s actual model designation. It is humbling to know that the driver who brought the car into the winner’s circle more than any other, was also the last one to drive the car competitively.
It was a fitting tribute to have both the 904 and the Grossmutter on the grid at the 1964 Sebring 12 Hours, at the beginning of the older car’s final year of competition. It was a kind of handing over of the torch by the older generation to the younger, a showing of the way to the newcomer. In a final act of giving, the Grossmutter gifted her front-end styling to the newcomer, the Porsche 904.
If there was a moment in which to get sentimental about a race car, the end of the 1964 racing season would have been it. The Grossmutter contributed greatly to Porsche’s future, not just technically, but also by showing the mechanics and engineers who joined the company later, just how much could be achieved with so little. If you visit the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, stop by the Grossmutter and say a few kind words to her – those around you will understand.
|Time and Two Seats||János Wimpffen||Motorsport Research Group||1999|
|The Porsche Book||Jürgen Barth & Gustav Büsing||David Bull Publishing||2009|
|Excellence was Expected||Karl Ludvigsen||Bentley Publishers||2019|
|Le Mans 24 Hours 1960-69||Quentin Spurring||EVRO Publishing||2015|
Links to the books listed above in our Bibliography will take to you to our review of those books…
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale and Porsche Werkfoto