While diplomats and cartographers may technically show the roads around Le Mans as French soil, Porsche has laid claim to the winding bit of pavement that comprises the race track and especially victory lane. Since 1951, when a silver Porsche 356 clocked up its very first class win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the German manufacturer has gone on to score more class and outright victories than any other manufacturer. While it was the famous red #23 Porsche 917 that claimed the coveted trophy for the first time for the Stuttgart manufacturer in 1970, it was the second-placed #3 Hippie Porsche that set the racing world alight with its psychedelic livery.
The iconic 12-cylinder Porsche 917 will always be known as the car that got the overall winning tradition started at Le Mans and played a major role in enhancing Porsche’s motorsports pedigree. Competition cars that were built four decades ago, remain some of the most popular bits of machinery ever to emerge from the Porsche workshops or grace the race tracks of the world.
The 1970 Porsche 917 long-tail prototype certainly carries that tradition. Chassis 043, a visually striking purple and green beauty, lives today at the Simeone Foundation Museum near the Philadelphia airport. Even among the Museum’s collection of historically significant and rare vintage hardware, the 917 stands out as a crowd favourite. Guest interest and evidence via the clicks that the car gets on its website and on its social media pages provides the proof.
The roofline cuts a low profile, offset by only modest ground clearance which makes it look glued to the concrete beneath. The curves of the front fenders embrace the headlights and complement the bubble of the drivers’ compartment. Two doors pivot up and forward like wings, and the spartan interior is only accessible by climbing over a wide side sill. The minimal red fabric driver’s seat sits among black tubing and basic gauges with the famous wooden knob gearshift that connects to the 5-speed transmission sitting to the driver’s right.
The long-tail provides another distinctive visual feature. An enormous rear deck drapes a single piece of fiberglass bodywork over the engine and rear wheels and supports the wide and flat wing across the very back of the car. The rear deck is so large that it requires two people to lift and position it to provide access to the engine and rear underpinnings.
The museum’s Porsche 917 chassis 043 finished second at the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans in the hands of Willi Kauhsen and Gérard Larrousse. The flat 12-cylinder engine produced over 600 horsepower, but the slippery long-tail body and green and purple swirl design is what made the car memorable. Power plus aerodynamics was sufficient to push the car to 240 mph in qualifying – with a Le Mans track configuration that did not make use of the two chicanes of the modern version which slow the cars on the long Mulsanne straight.
The livery prompted the French to call the car “Le Psychedelic” or “Hippie Car,” a name that has stuck. While the cultural context of the 1970s might be credited for the reference, the hips of the fenders as they curve around the flanks and guide air towards the long-tail at the rear, gives the nickname a double meaning.
The Porsche 917 raced in many different bodywork configurations. The most well-known is likely the 917K short-tail (“Kurzheck” in German) found on the Gulf liveried cars made famous in the movie “Le Mans.” Six cars, however, were built in long-tail configuration known as the 917L (“Langheck”) with aerodynamics designed specifically for the high speed Le Mans circuit. The art and science of aerodynamics was in its infancy, and knowledge in this area was developing in uneven chunks of understanding.
Qualifying just outside the top ten behind a field filled with Ferrari 512 and Porsche 917K models, Kauhsen and Larrousse played the steady turtle as other more powerful cars ran at the front. Another Porsche 917L qualified on pole position and was targeted for the win, but retired with engine problems. Kauhsen and Larrousse navigated through rain as the conditions and other misfortune took out or delayed other contenders. They ran in third place after seven hours before climbing to second after twenty hours. The duo finished in second behind a red and white Salzburg Porsche 917K, chassis 023. The win was the first overall for Porsche and the one-two finish was an emphatic exclamation point.
Porsche saw promise with the long-tail aerodynamic approach, and so they further developed the car. Legendary Porsche designer Norbert Singer coordinated testing and the long-tail design was further refined for the 1971 race. The refined 917L sometimes carries an unofficial “917LH” designation to indicate the additional development.
Taking over for the factory team, the John Wyer team took charge of a new and improved chassis 043 for the 1971 Le Mans 24 hours in Gulf blue and orange colours. Former race winner Jackie Oliver proved the car’s outright speed by taking pole with the fastest lap in history at Le Mans. A time of 3 minutes 13.9 seconds translated into an average in excess of 250 km/h and a top speed of 386 km/h. Despite the promise, a podium finish was not to be. After leading for eleven hours, oil pressure woes forced retirement at 05h00 – a cruel departure time after surviving the night and seeing dawn approach with the promise of a new day.
Six original Porsche 917 long-tail chassis were built between 1970 and 1971, spanning chassis 040 to 045. Three chassis (040, 041 and 044) were damaged in testing and scrapped. Chassis 042 remains in the Porsche Museum and chassis 045 is on long-term loan to the Le Mans museum.
917-043 currently resides at the Simeone Foundation Museum and is one of only six very special race cars built. It is one of only three to survive and the only one in private ownership. It is also the only one that lives in the United States.
The Hippie Porsche 917 is the anchor to the Simeone Museum’s line-up of Le Mans history. Against a backdrop that echoes the older pit boxes at Le Mans, the Porsche 917 is the pinnacle of a collection of several rare and significant cars with badges like Ferrari, Aston Martin, Alfa Romeo, Peugeot, MG, and Delahaye, all of which have Le Mans history in their DNA.
The Simeone Museum has a remarkable collection of very significant cars that represent key hallmarks of automotive racing history. 917-043 is the only Porsche currently on display and it distils everything that is compelling about Porsche and its racing heritage in one car. Despite never having won a race, the car played a major role in advancing the understanding of aerodynamics and helped to cement Porsche’s motorsport credentials.
Written by: Kevin Ehrlich
Images by: Kevin Ehrlich