From 1964 through to 1969, Porsche lifted its game from being a class winner to setting international lap speed and endurance records that were beyond the reach of other manufacturers, by quite some margin. In May 2017, I was afforded the opportunity of photographing eight race cars in detail at the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, and one of the cars on my list was the #21 Martini Porsche 917-042. She looked absolutely beautiful, resplendent in her stunning Martini colours in rich red, light/dark blue and silver stripery. The graceful lines of this race car are still perfect by today’s standards, and it is little wonder that these cars were so much faster than anything else on the grid in their time.
The Porsche 917 is what I would call a ‘watershed’ race car, because it was a revolutionary model in so many ways. Through the 1960s, Porsche’s race cars grew from the 1.6-litre 718 RS 60 Spyder that produced 160bhp at the start of that decade and claimed mostly class wins, to the 600bhp 4.9-litre 917 in 1970, which utterly dominated the sports car racing world. A decade is really a long time in motorsport, but finally Porsche had established itself as a world-beater at the top of the global sports car racing pyramid.
“I fell in love with the 917 when I went to the auto show at Geneva in March . It was up on the pedestal, it was big and gorgeous, a wonderful car, and I immediately fell in love with it. I then started lobbying Piëch to have one for Le Mans,” Elford told the author in an interview back in 2010. Eventually Elford got his 917 to drive in 1969, “Finally he [Piëch] and Bott gave in and said ‘you can have a 917 but it’s not going to last’. So, I got Richard Attwood to drive with me and we really treated it with kid gloves and it did last, and it went all the way through the night until we retired on Sunday afternoon after 21 hours, by which time we were actually leading by 70 miles, or about six laps. What it retired with was nothing at all like they originally thought, it was actually a split bell housing, which allowed the oil through and the clutch was slipping,” Elford added.
The early 917s had shown great promise but equally they had shown their darker side in that they were inherently unstable at high speed. But by the start of the 1970 season, the Porsche 917 had been turned into a formidable racer, once the car’s aerodynamic instability had been sorted out.
1970 Le Mans 24 Hours
Ferry Porsche’s sister, Louise, was married to Anton Piëch, and their son Ferdinand Piëch, was the driving force behind the 917. Porsche Salzburg, the Austrian Porsche operation run by Louise Piëch, entered two cars in the 1970 race, one Kurzheck and one Langheck, thereby increasing their chances of success by having the best of both worlds. The red #23 917 K (Kurzheck, chassis #023) driven by Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood, was joined by the #25 917 LH (Langheck, chassis #042), finished in white with red stripes for the race and piloted by Vic Elford and Kurt Ahrens. Whilst most of the other top drivers had given the 917 a wide birth because of its instability problems, Vic Elford’s enthusiasm for the 917 was by now reinforced with a good deal of experience behind the wheel of this formidable car from the 1969 race.
If Elford’s and Ahrens’ capability in the 917 needed any confirmation, a look at the timing sheets from the 1970 Le Mans race would quickly settle any uncertainties. In qualifying that year, Kurt Ahrens posted the quickest time of 3:19.8 minutes at a speed of 150.798mph, while Elford recorded the fastest race lap of 3:21.05 minutes for a lap speed of 149.860mph. This was the first time that the Le Mans lap record had breached the 150mph mark! The then all-white #25 Porsche 917-042 LH from Salzburg had broken into the record books, and left its mark for all time.
The 1970 Le Mans 24 Hour race was characterised by heavy rain, and although the 917-042 LH was significantly faster than the 917 K, it was the red #23 of Herrmann/Attwood that won the race. Gerard Larrousse and Willy Kauhsen were second in the #3 psychedelic 917 LH Martini car (chassis #043), finishing five laps down on the winners. Despite starting from pole position, the #25 Salzburg 917 LH of Elford/Ahrens (chassis #042) bowed out after 225 laps when the engine swallowed an inlet valve, resulting in a disappointing DNF.
Chassis #917-042 was returned to the factory where it was repaired, and put to work as a test and research racer for the remainder of the 1970 season.
1971 Le Mans 24 Hours
At the start of the new season, chassis #917-042 was rebuilt, once again as a Langheck version, and entered for the 1971 Le Mans test weekend as well as the 24-hour race itself on 12/13 June. This time, Vic Elford would be partnered by the Frenchman, Gerard Larrousse.
Powered by a 4.9-litre engine, chassis #917-042 was decked out in smart Martini livery and looked every bit the Le Mans winner. The #21 Porsche, with Elford behind the wheel, was clocked down the Mulsanne Straight at 241.25mph (386km/h), but despite this phenomenal turn of speed, the #21 Porsche was only second on the grid alongside the #18 Gulf Porsche 917 LH of Pedro Rodriguez. This year was the first time a rolling start was used at Le Mans, and when the flag dropped, a trio of 917s disappeared into the distance with Pedro Rodriguez, the pole sitter in the #18 Gulf Porsche leading Vic Elford in the #21 Martini Porsche, followed by Jo Siffert in the #17 Gulf Porsche.
The #18 Rodriguez/Oliver Porsche ran strongly leading at the six-hour mark, while the other two 917s yo-yoed in second and third places. Unfortunately, towards the end of the first third of the race, a drive-pin in the fan of the #21 Martini Porsche 917-042 broke, and the engine literally lost its cool as the fan lifted heavenwards and the engine overheated. This was sadly not repairable, forcing Elford and Larrousse to retire.
In 1971, there just wasn’t another car that could compete with the Porsche 917, and although they ran in the same class, the Ferrari 512M of Adamowicz/Hobbs which finished in third place, was 30 laps down on the top two Porsches at the final flag. Although the 1971 Le Mans 24 Hours was won by a 917, it was the Kurzheck version driven by Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep that took the chequered flag. The 917 LH was apparently more difficult to drive, as Vic Elford explains, “The car was absolutely gorgeous, it was wonderful to drive but it was a little bit more difficult because it didn’t take kindly to being hustled around. But as long as you were absolutely precise with it, it was comparatively easy and it was just beautiful. You know, it was 25mph quicker than everything else, including the  short tails.”
Chassis #917-042 has always been owned by Porsche. Since 1971, Martini Porsche 917-042 has led a life of leisure, much like a thoroughbred stallion put out to stud in its later years. From 1971 until 1984 its location alternated between the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart and Weissach. In 1984, the restoration of the car was discussed by management (and fortunately carried out) and once the restoration project was complete, it was loaned out to the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Since then, the car has alternated between being a Museum display piece, to running and being displayed at selected international historic motorsport events.
I would like to take this opportunity of thanking the Porsche Museum staff for making this magnificent vehicle available for me to photograph, and for assisting with the photo shoot on that day.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale and Porsche Werkfoto