The Porsche company, now 30 years old in 1978, had moved from being the small-scale manufacturing company to being a significant player, albeit in a niche market. The front-engined transaxle 924 model, introduced in 1976, was now selling twice the number of units that the 911 was selling. This had eased the financial situation for the company and given them some money to go racing. In this feature, our third in the series where we look back on Porsche’s 70th anniversary year, we explore some of the company’s memorable milestones between 1978 and 1987.
Also introduced in 1976 was the 935 racing car, a 911-based racer aimed at the Group 5 class. This car had really set the class alight, and it quickly became the model to have if you wanted to win races. A new version though, was rolled out for the Silverstone 6 Hours on 14 May 1978. Nicknamed ‘Moby Dick’ because of its large tail and all-white factory finish, this was a works-only race car. The hugely powerful 935/78 racer qualified on pole in the hands of Jacky Ickx, two seconds ahead of the second-placed car which was also a 935. In the race, Jochen Mass and Jacky Ickx ran off into the sunset which ensured a victory on debut for Moby Dick, but this turned out to be its only victory in a rather short-lived racing career.
At the Le Mans 24-hour race, just a month later, Moby Dick was unfortunately not as successful as hoped for. In the hands of Manfred Schurti and Rolf Stommelen, the car qualified in third place, three seconds behind the works 936/78 on pole. Powered by a twin-turbocharged 3.2-litre engine, Moby Dick developed around 850bhp, giving the car a very high rate of fuel consumption. In addition to this, Moby Dick was plagued with a number of niggling issues during the race, and the car was unfortunately not able to realise its full potential. Moby Dick finished third in its class and in eighth place overall.
Only two of the 935/78 racers were produced, one of which never raced, while Moby Dick, despite the (perhaps) disappointingly short record of achievements, was rolled into the Porsche Museum…and into the hearts of many thousands of motorsport fans.
Another significant milestone in 1978 was the launch of the Porsche 928, a V8 front-engined ‘big brother’ to the 924. The 928 was actually designed before the 924, but the smaller-engined sibling was introduced first because it was believed that it would sell in greater numbers, which is what the company wanted. They were right, and the 928 came out two years later. The 928 was dubbed a ‘car for the 1980s’ and it targeted the young executive by offering a more comfortable, sophisticated, and handsome sports car that came with a handy bit of performance.
Two years further down the road, the 924 Carrera GT arrived, this model being used to homologate the Carrera GT Prototype which was to run at that year’s Le Mans race. Three cars were entered in the 1980 24-hour race, one for a German team, one for an American team and one for a British team. The three cars were to form a low-key entry in the event. At the last minute, one of the American drivers, Peter Gregg, was injured and could not race, and so the drivers were moved around between the cars, and Derek Bell ended up driving in the American team. All three cars finished, with the #4 car of Barth/Schurti coming home an impressive sixth overall. The other two cars finished in twelfth and thirteenth places overall.
Tensions had been rising within the corridors of power in Stuttgart, and CEO Ernst Fuhrmann left the company at the end of 1980, making way for Peter Schutz to take over in early 1981. Much to the delight of the Zuffenhausen staff, and 911-lovers around the world, Schutz gave the model a substantial boost, sending the sales charts into new territory in the mid-80s. For that year’s Le Mans race, the 924 was given some special treatment in the form of a turbocharged 2.5-litre engine. This car was the forerunner of the 944 Turbo road car, the model that replaced the 924. In the hands of Jürgen Barth and Walter Röhrl, the experimental 944 LM finished an incredible seventh overall. Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell won the Le Mans 24 Hour outright in their Porsche 936/81.
Out with the old and in with the new! In 1982, the new Group C class came into effect, starting a ten-year long period of possibly the most exciting, most technologically advanced and a period of heightened performance, not seen before. The Porsche 956 was at the forefront of this wave of new ground-effect racers, the Stuttgart car being powered by a twin-turbo 2.65-litre flat-six engine. The first three places at Le Mans in 1982 were filled by the three factory 956s, and they were followed home by two private 935s.
In 1983, Porsche recorded what must be their best performance at Le Mans to this day. Nine of the top ten places were taken by 956s, with a lone Sauber-BMW occupying ninth place. To say that the 956 dominated the early Group C years is an understatement, as the Porsche just kept on winning. Customer teams lined up to get their hands on one of the race cars, and Porsche soaked up the glory, helping the bottom line hugely in the process.
In 1984, Ferry Porsche celebrated his 75th birthday, his years at the helm of the company marking a truly remarkable period in the history of the wider motor and motorsport industries. Le Mans that year saw another Porsche whitewash, with 956s filling the first seven places as well as ninth place. The 962 C (Group C – WEC) and 962 (IMSA) were introduced in 1984, and if the new model was successful in Europe, then it was even more successful in America.
In 1986, Porsche recorded its greatest year of sales to date with 53,053 units across four different models – 911, 924, 928 and 944. There can be little doubt that motor racing not only improved the breed technically, but it bought valuable publicity to the company that simply would not have happened without all of those Group C victories.
Production of road cars 1978-1987:
On 31 December 1987, Peter Schutz left the company and his place was taken by Heinz Branitzki. When the stock market crashed in the USA, it made Porsches very expensive in the company’s largest export market, and someone with financial nous was needed, which is where Branitzki excelled. He was not a production or manufacturing man though, and he stayed in the post just two years (1988-1990).
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale, and Porsche Werkfoto