F.A. ‘Butzi’ Porsche, the eldest son of Ferry and Dorothea Porsche, joined the family business in 1958 having shown great interest in the field of industrial design. Working under the direction of Erwin Komenda, F.A. Porsche set about learning the business from the inside, and was soon given the task of ‘working’ on the new shape of the 718 racer for the ’61 season. Showing an aptitude for the work at hand, and having the benefit of a privileged family position, he was thrust into the role of Head of the Styling Department in 1963 at the young age of just 28 years.
Porsche had set its sight on a two-pronged attack on the motorsport world, the two arms of this campaign being Grand Prix single-seater racing and the 2-litre class of the GT Championship. These two sectors of the sport, while quite distinct from each other, served to divide resources within the company which resulted in two disadvantageous outcomes. Firstly, development of its Formula 1 single-seater race cars consumed vast amounts of financial resources and manpower, effectively leaving too little in the pot for the development of its GT racers.
Porsche’s opposition in the GT ranks was growing, and the Stuttgart manufacturer found itself unable to respond as and when it needed to, in order to counter this worrying development. Porsche had for quite some time made the 2-litre class in GT racing its own, with its lightweight and powerful DOHC Carrera-engined cars. But, this is where the second problem surfaced, as it was becoming increasingly difficult to further develop its GT race cars due to the demanding nature of its Formula 1 cars explained above. A decision was thus taken to cease its Formula 1 activities, as this form of racing drained the company’s coffers alarmingly, without putting anything back. On the other hand, GT race cars could be developed and sold to customer teams and the money generated by the sales of these race cars and spares, could be used to fund the development of those cars in the future.
Facing stiff opposition from the likes of Abarth and Alfa Romeo, both producers of lightweight and increasingly powerful GT racing cars, Porsche was forced to meet this competition head on. Carlo Abarth secured the 1.0-litre class of the 1962 GT Championship, and he had indicated that he would be moving up to the 2-litre class the following year, which is where Porsche had enjoyed dominance. Alfa Romeo too, had just introduced its Alfa Giulia TZ, a 1600 cc lightweight and very fast competitor that was also quite capable of unsettling Porsche in this class.
And so these developments forced Porsche to focus sharply on what models were going to follow in the footsteps of the 718 GTR Coupé (1962/63), and the 356 B 2000 GS-GT Coupé (1963) or ‘Dreikantschaber’ as it became known. The problem with these two models was that, with their aluminium space frame construction, they were both expensive and time consuming to make. Porsche needed a Grand Touring model that could be sold both as a GT racer and a road legal sports car, in order to be sure of selling the 100 units required for homologation purposes.
Porsche has a history of drawing on their existing race cars as inspiration for future models, and looking at the 718 GTR Coupé and the ‘Dreikantschaber’, it is not difficult to see where influence for the frontal treatment of the 904 originated. According to Karl Ludvigsen’s Excellence Was Expected, Butzi Porsche was given an unusually short time in which to design the 904, and one of the telling aspects of this was that there was no time for changes to be made. This meant that Butzi and his team could start with a clean sheet of paper, encouraging them to think outside of the box, and to consider alternative construction methods. The design process ensured that they could work without interference from others, and this speeded up his work significantly.
The resultant Type 904, or Carrera GTS, was without doubt one of the finest race car designs in the world at the time, and it inspired a whole family of sleek, glass reinforced plastic (GRP) bodied racers that would culminate in Porsche’s first overall victory at Le Mans. But we are getting slightly ahead of the story, and it would be useful instead to backtrack a little, and to examine the 904 in more detail.
The body and chassis
The tried and tested method of forming aluminium panels over a hand-welded tubular steel spaceframe had served Porsche well in the past, in the construction of their limited production run Spyder race cars. But, in this instance, speed of production was important in building the required number of 100 cars necessary to homologate the 904 as a GT class contender, and the quicker they were produced, the quicker Porsche would earn back those much needed finances.
As mentioned briefly, the frontal section of the 904 was an evolution of the 718 GTR Coupé and the ‘Dreikantschaber’, but that is where the similarities ended. From the B-pillar rearwards, the rear deck incorporated a recessed, small vertical window behind the driver that created a downdraught for cool air to be drawn into the engine compartment. Air was funnelled off the roof towards the vents on the rear deck by means of two elegant buttresses that followed the roof line to meet the rear deck roughly above the tops of the rear wheels. The rear body, which hinged rearwards in one large piece allowing excellent access to the engine compartment, ended in a chopped-off Kamm tail style. This treatment was quite unlike any other Porsche styling at that time, but it would become a hallmark of the company’s race cars for many years to come.
Other design cues imported from the 718 GTR Coupé included the windscreen, which was almost identical in shape, and the single parallelogram-action windscreen wiper. Another was the door cut line which extended into the roof, allowing easier access to and exit from the cockpit in the heat of the battle.
The body panels were fabricated by the aircraft manufacturing company, Heinkel (located at Speyer, not far from Hockenheim), and comprised GRP laid-up by hand to a thickness of 2 mm. Heinkel produced two bodies per day while Porsche would produce chassis at the rate of just one per day. The box-section ladder frame chassis (weighing around 110 lbs/50 kg) were then transported to the aircraft company’s premises where the body would be bonded to the chassis, being bolted at key points for added strength. Porsche had no experience in such body/chassis construction, and so it was thought that it would be best for Heinkel to carry out this part of the construction process. This resulted in a far more rigid body and chassis combination than the earlier spaceframe structure. The design and full-size model was completed in February 1963, and sent to Heinkel from which the moulds would be taken for the production of body panels.
904 technical description
The 904’s overall height of 42 inches (1065 mm) was determined by the passenger space and tyre size required by the car. This extremely low roof line of course gave the 904 an advantage, making it aerodynamically extremely efficient, but it is interesting to compare this height with that of the Ford GT40 a few years later, being just 40 inches high.
The race car’s wheelbase was set at 2300 mm, a wheelbase that would be carried through on all of Porsche’s prototypes for the next decade, with the exception of the 936 and the 917 Can-Am cars. This wheelbase was slightly shorter than the 718 GTR Coupé, but 200 mm longer than the ‘Dreikantschaber’. The brake discs and callipers on the 904 were the same size as on the 356C, and the new racer was fitted with a ZF rack-and-pinion steering system which featured two universal joints for added safety.
As has been its tradition, all of Porsche’s sports racing cars comprised a mid-engine layout, and even though the 904 represented a complete break from its spaceframe chassis with its new steel ladder chassis and GRP bodywork, the engine placement was no different. With the launch of its 911 road car, 1964 was a very busy time for the Zuffenhausen manufacturer. It was hoped that the new Type 901 6-cylinder engine would be ready for the 904, but this was not to be, and so the uprated Fuhrmann 4-cam 4-cylinder engine (Type 587/3) was pressed into service. Tuned to give 180 hp at 7200 rpm in endurance race trim, the older engine proved extremely reliable.
From the beginning it was intended to use it [the Type 901 6-cylinder engine] which had more horsepower of course, and it was simpler than the old Carrera 4-cam 4-cylinder. Then it was decided to use the Carrera 4, that is another name for the 4-cam engine, but everybody knew that there were some things that we had to improve on that engine. So I was asked to improve the engine output, at least in the beginning to 180 hp.
There were three things to improve [on that engine] – I was asked to improve the durability of the engine. It was a good engine for sure, it was a legendary engine I know, but for 24 hours, this had different requirements. Because we had to build 100 cars, we also used people from the production department to assemble these ‘not so simple’ engines, and I had to improve the assembly process for these people. And, the third thing I also had to do was to improve, as far as possible, the production of the engine. I think all three items were successful because I remember that we had five 904s at Le Mans in 1964 and all five finished the race, which was a very good result in the beginning. [Ed – the five 904s finished in seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth places overall. Only the two 8-cylinder 904s retired with clutch problems]
Only three 904/8s were built, these being fitted with the Type 771 8-cylinder engine developing 240 hp, these being derived from Porsche’s recently cancelled Formula 1 campaign. In the interests of reliability, in race trim, this engine was detuned to give a more conservative 225 hp.
This was a long-distance version of the Formula One engine. The Formula One engine was a 1.5-litre unit, but Ferry Porsche was more interested in long-distance racing than in Formula One. He said these very famous words, “We spend a lot of money in motorsport to build the best sports car for the road.” And so we were told at that time, right from the beginning, that the Formula One engine shouldn’t just be for Formula One, but also a version for long-distance racing. And that was how we started, first with 2-litre and then with 2.2-litre. I think it was just the bore that we changed which was very easy to do on the air-cooled engines. We didn’t change the engine, we just ordered different cylinder liners from Mahle, so it was not a very big change.
The interior featured two thinly padded seats, as required by the regulations for GT class racing. The seats were bolted to the body and immovable, but the steering column and pedal cluster longitudinally adjustable for each driver.
The 904 launch
Porsche launched the 904 Carrera GTS – Gran Turismo Sport – at the Solitude circuit just outside of Stuttgart, on 26 November 1963. The price for the road-legal GT sports car was set at DM29,700 (approx. US $7425) ex-works. On duty to drive the press and prospective customers around the circuit were factory racing driver Edgar Barth and test/racing driver Herbert Linge – two more qualified drivers you would be hard pressed to find.
The first ten chassis were retained by the factory for its own use which left 90 cars for sale to customer racing teams or for road use. All but 21 of those available for sale had found homes within the first two weeks of the car’s launch! The demand for the Carrera GTS was so strong that preparations for an additional production run of 100 units was planned to commence in the summer of ’64, but ultimately this plan did not materialise.
In total, 106 units of the 4-cylinder powered 904s were produced. In addition, four factory cars were built fitted with the 6-cylinder engine delivering 210 hp, as well as the three 8-cylinder 904s.
Chassis 904-008 in competition
The 904s first outing was at the Sebring 12 Hours in March ’64, and here a 4-cylinder 904 finished ninth overall and first in the Prototype GT class in the hands of two well-known American drivers, Lake Underwood and Briggs Cunningham.
But it was on 26 April 1964, that the Porsche 904 Carrera GTS announced its intentions to the world in the most convincing way possible, by winning the notoriously difficult Targa Florio. In fact, two 904s occupied the two top steps of the podium, but these were both 4-cylinder 1966 cc 4-cam engined 904s. Our feature car, the #186 Porsche 904/8 (chassis #008), driven by Edgar Barth and Umberto Maglioli. Initially Barth showed the field what lay in store for them by leading in the 904/8 after the first lap, but a loose shock absorber mount resulted in a worrying spin. With repairs completed, the car went out again but it had too much ground to make up, and the promising pair of Barth/Maglioli would come home in sixth place overall.
A month later, Edgar Barth was running in the brakes in preparation for the Nürburgring 1000 Km on 31 May, when he lost his brakes completely and the car (chassis #008) ended up on its roof. The car was comprehensively damaged and could not be repaired at the track, but Barth was fortunately unhurt. Starting the race from sixth place on the grid in the test car, a 904 4-cylinder car (chassis #005), Edgar Barth/Colin Davies retired on the tenth lap after an accident. The sister car, the 904/8 chassis #009, managed to finish in fifth place overall in the hands of Jo Bonnier/Richie Ginther, also scooping first place in the Prototype GT 2000 class.
At the annual Le Mans 24 Hour race on 20-21 June, Porsche entered both of its 904/8s in the Prototype GT 3000 class. In the #29 car (chassis #009) was Edgar Barth/Herbert Linge while Gerhard Mitter/Colin Davis were in the #30 car (chassis #008). The Barth/Linge car was credited with setting the tenth fastest lap time, when the car was clocked at 175 mph down the Mulsanne Straight, setting a record as the quickest 2-litre race car ever around the French circuit. Both cars showed great promise, as at midnight the #30 Porsche was lying consistently in sixth place overall, the sister car having risen as high as fifth at one point. Sadly both cars fell victim to a failed clutch, the #29 car retiring at 02h30 on Sunday morning after 139 laps, while the #30 Porsche retired at 11h30 on Sunday morning after 244 laps.
Chassis #008 was not raced again during the 1964 season, but its sister car, chassis #009, finished third overall and second in the Prototype GT 2000 class in the Paris 1000 Km in the hands of Edgar Barth/Colin Davis in October 1964.
The 904 Carrera GTS helped Porsche to a commanding win in the Division II (2000 cc) of the 1964 GT Manufacturers Championship where the Stuttgart manufacturer amassed 160 points, Alfa Romeo finishing in second place with 33 points.
At the start of the next season, Gerhard Mitter/Herbert Linge (#008) finished ninth overall in the Sebring 12 Hours on 27 March 1965, scooping first place in Prototype 2000 class in the process. Gerhard Mitter and Colin Davis finished in ninth place overall in the Nürburgring 1000 Km on 23 May in chassis #008, however, Mitter and Davis only lasted 20 laps in the Le Mans 24 Hours on 19-20 June. Their 904/8 (#008) suffered another clutch failure, just as it had done the year before.
In summary, Porsche once again made Division II (2000 cc) of the 1965 GT Manufacturers Championship its own by scoring 134 points, with Alfa Romeo once again in second place with 50 points.
The 1965 Le Mans 24 Hour race was the last entry by the factory in an endurance race for a works 904. Ferdinand Piëch had entered the family business on 1 April 1963 as an employee in the engine testing department, and by 1966 he had become head of the testing department. In 1968, Piëch was appointed Head of Development, before he assumed responsibility for the technology and external development areas in the Executive Board of Porsche KG in 1971.
In that brief eight year period, Porsche had gone from collecting class wins to dominating the world sports car racing scene. It was thanks to the brilliant engineering mind of Ferdinand Piëch that the world got to witness some of the most glorious racing as he would follow each year’s accomplishments with yet another breakthrough racing car.
It is a widely held view that the Porsche 904 is still today one of the most functional, and yet also aerodynamic race car designs ever to hit the race tracks of the world. Chassis 904-008 played an important role in that heritage.
Porsche 904/8 technical specifications
|Engine||Type 771 8-cylinder boxer|
|Bore x stroke||76 x 54.6 mm|
|Power output||240 bhp (178 kW) at 8700 rpm|
|Body||Glass reinforced plastic (GRP)|
|Chassis||Steel sheet box-section ladder frame|
|Front suspension||Double wishbones, coil springs over dampers, anti-roll bar|
|Rear suspension||Reversed double wishbones, twin trailing arms, coil springs over dampers, anti-roll bar|
|Track – front/rear||1314/1312 mm|
|L x W x H||4090 x 1540 x 1065 mm|
|Top speed||165 mph (263 km/h)|
|Acceleration||0-62 mph (0-100 km/h) – 5.0 seconds|
|The Porsche Book||Jürgen Barth & Gustav Büsing||David Bull Publishing||2009|
|Excellence was Expected||Karl Ludvigsen||Bentley Publishers||2019|
|Le Mans: The Official History of the World’s Greatest Motor Race 1960–69||Quentin Spurring||EVRO Publishing||2015|
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale and Porsche Archives