The name Porsche is synonymous with the world’s toughest endurance race, the 24-Hours of Le Mans, boasting an unbroken run of 65 years. During this time, they have amassed 18 victories. This is Part I of their story…
Le Mans – 1951 to 1963
Whether the year 1948 was a year of particular significance in terms of French vintage wines, thereby inspiring automotive designers is uncertain, but several iconic motor cars can trace their origins back to this year. Some examples include for instance, the Morris Minor, Citroen 2CV, Land Rover, Jaguar XK120, and of course the Porsche 356.
The first running of the Le Mans 24-Hour endurance race following the cessation of hostilities in Europe, took place in 1949, and where better to look for possible new participants than at the international motor shows. Motor manufacturers, keen to show off their new models to a market hungry for modern, sophisticated vehicles after years of suppressed development, were there displaying their wares for the world to see. Le Mans race organiser, Charles Faroux, was there too, eager to entice the manufacturers to test their products around the famous La Sarthe circuit.
Professor Ferdinand Porsche and his son, Ferry Porsche, attended the Paris Motor Show the following year in 1950. Their intention was to be present on their company stand, which had been arranged by the French Porsche importer Auguste Veuillet. It should be remembered that the Porsche manufacturing company had only been in existence for two short years, and so their attendance at the Paris Motor Show was important, as was the unifying presence of father and son Porsche.
Porsche recognised the importance that motorsport success could bring to the fledgling company, and together with Veuillet, a plan was hatched to enter the 24-hour race at Le Mans the following year. Veuillet wasted little time in securing the services of French driver, Edmond Mouche, to drive together with him in the race. For this purpose, Porsche set aside two of their as yet unsold aluminium-bodied Gmünd coupes left over after the introduction of the steel-bodied production 356. Under the guidance and expertise of Wilhelm Hild, the Gmünd coupes underwent extensive body modifications being suitably renamed 356 SL, which stood for ‘Super Leicht’. The Gmünd Porsches were better suited to motorsport than the steel-bodied cars not only because they were lighter, but also because they were aerodynamically superior possessing a narrower cabin structure. Hild fitted streamlining wheel covers, which still allowed full steering lock movement of the front wheels.
Motorsport was obviously a new activity for Porsche, and running a factory team at an event such as the Le Mans 24-Hours was certainly unchartered waters for the fledgling manufacturer, but it’s a challenge that the factory embraced. Success in such a prestigious event would bring not only international recognition, but it would also put their product to the test in the harshest test of endurance in the world of motor sport.
However, Porsche was to find out very soon, just how much of a commitment was required to compete at this level as one of their cars was completely written off in pre-race testing. A second was damaged beyond repair in the time available before the race, and so the third car was brought into service for Veuillet/Mouche to campaign. This car was fitted with a flat-four engine of reduced capacity, 1086cc as opposed to the standard 1131cc, in order to make this vehicle eligible for the 751-1100cc class. It featured a special Fuhrmann-designed cam, high compression heads and twin Solex carbs. Developing 44PS, this 640kg lightweight coupe boasted a top speed of around 100mph (160km/h).
In their first Le Mans race, the little Gmünd-bodied Porsche 356 SL finished in twentieth place overall, and first in class, setting in motion an unbroken run of 65 years of participation in this great race. Following this positive result, the Stuttgart manufacturer prepared a batch of three similar cars for the ’52 race which was almost a rerun of the first race, in that two of the three cars dropped out. The third, driven by the same pairing as in ’51, finishing eleventh overall, and again first in class.
Porsche was only too aware that they were competing in the most demanding endurance race with a roadgoing sports car, and while it had great potential, the 356’s performance was limited. Privateers like Walter Glöckler saw the potential in the Porsche and he set about building his own Porsche-powered creation by swinging the engine and gearbox around 180 degrees, so that the engine sat ahead of the gearbox, making his a mid-engined car. At this point Porsche had no such plans to create a dedicated race car, but in 1952 Ferry Porsche gave the thumbs up for the design and development of a more powerful engine and a purpose-built racing body. Thus was born the Type 547 twin-overhead camshaft engine, the work of Ernst Fuhrmann, while the design for a new racer, the Type 550, was given to Erwin Komenda.
Porsche’s third entry into the Le Mans race saw a pair of 356 SL stalwarts accompanied by a pair of the new 550 Coupés, the company’s first purpose-built race car. The two new racers, being chassis 550-01 and 550-02, were fitted with 1488cc single camshaft push-rod engines as the Fuhrmann twin-cam engines were not ready in time. Nevertheless, the 1488cc engines developed a healthy 98PS and could still propel the car to 125mph (200km/h). Ferry’s principle of ‘fast and lightweight’ worked well as the two 550s finished first and second in class (Sports 1500), and fifteenth and sixteenth overall. Unfortunately, the two 356s failed to finish the 1953 race, both retiring with engine trouble.
The first of the Fuhrmann twin-cam engines was tested by Hans Herrmann in late 1953, and for the 24-Hour race the following year, the factory entered four 550 Spyders. For 1954, the 550 had lost its roof as drivers had previously complained about the extremely loud engine noise and cramped conditions in the closed car. Power was increased to 110PS and the top speed was now up to 137mph (220km/h), although the car’s weight remained the same as the closed version from 1953. The four-car team for ’54 consisted of three 550-1500 RS Spyders fitted with the Fuhrmann twin-cam 1498cc engine and a single, but similar bodied, 1098cc Spyder. Although two of the cars did not finish the race, the #12 car (1498cc) of Claes/Stasse finished twelfth overall, with the #47 car of Arkus-Duntov/Olivier in the smaller engined car finished fourteenth overall. Both were winners in their respective classes.
1955 was for Porsche a year of great advancement as well as consolidation in the world of motorsport. A mere seven years earlier, the fledgling motor company had been fabricating a small number of hand-built sports cars in a wooden shed in the Austrian mountains. But this year saw an increase in Porsche entries at Le Mans which included four 1500 RS Spyders, and two 1100cc Spyders. Remarkably, no less than three 1500cc 550 Spyders finished just outside a podium place, occupying places 4-5-6 overall, while also taking the top three positions in class. The two 1100cc Spyders came home in thirteenth and eighteenth, and again occupied the top two class positions. The ‘giant killers,’ as they became known, had truly arrived.
Towards the end of 1955, and in response to increased competition, Porsche was spurred into boosting the performance of the 550 with the introduction of the 550A-1500 RS Spyder. This model boasted a lighter but stiffer chassis, and the engine now developed 135PS with a top speed of over 156mph (250km/h), thanks to a higher compression ratio, a switch from Solex to Weber carbs, and an improved multi-link rear suspension. Despite its great promise, only two of the six Porsche entries finished the 1956 race, with a 550 finishing in fifth again and a 356A in thirteenth place.
The following year, 1957, witnessed one of Porsche’s more disappointing outings in the French race, with just one finisher from six starters. However, they had been experimenting elsewhere with a much more potent 1678cc engine in the new 718 RSK, which produced 170PS. This paid dividends though in 1958, when two 718 RSKs finished third and fourth at Le Mans, with a 550A-1500 RS Spyder coming home in fifth. This was Porsche’s first podium finish and of course greater things were expected going forward, but disappointingly in the 1959 race, all six of the Porsche entrants were non-finishers.
But of course this is the way in motorsport, up one year and down the next, and so with much ground to regain in 1960, Porsche rolled out two new weapons, the 356B 1600 GS Carrera GTL Abarth Coupé (to give it its full name!), and the 718 RS60. The appearance of the lightweight Carrera Abarth had much to do with countering the encroachment by Lotus and Alfa Romeo in the Sports 1600 class. That year Herbert Linge and Heini Walter finished tenth at Le Mans and first in class, while the 718 RS60 of Barth/Seidel finished one place further back.
The following year, and with the appearance of the 718 RS61 (still with its 1600cc engine!), Porsche showed signs of moving its game up a notch, as a fine fifth place finish by Bob Holbert/Masten Gregory saw them cross the line ahead of a couple of Ferraris, a Maserati and an Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato. A second 718 RS61 finished in seventh place with the Carrera Abarth of Linge/Pon in tenth place again, just as they had done the year before.
For the 1962 season the FIA began to shift its class focus more towards production-based GT cars, a move that didn’t particularly suit Porsche at the time as it meant their World Sports Car ambitions would be sidelined for now. That year just three Carrera Abarths were rolled out for Le Mans, two of which finished in seventh and twelfth places, the other failed to finish.
1963 witnessed what was the last year of Porsche’s old style aluminium-bodied space frame race car. Where the 718 RSK had been a remarkable model, the 718 W-RS (‘W’ stood for World Championship) was one of the company’s most used racers, this individual racer being fitted with various engines ranging from 4- to 8-cylinders, during its hard life. As a result, this car became affectionately known as the ‘Großmutter’ or Grandmother. It finished eighth overall and third in the Prototype GT 3000 class, being the only Porsche to finish the race that year. In the 718 series could be seen the design cues that would usher in a whole new generation of Porsche race cars.
Part II of this series will explore this new generation of racers, the ‘plastic’ Porsches, and how these cars helped to shape the company’s future in the sport.
Words by: Glen Smale
Photos by: Porsche Archive