Another keen young recruitee to Zuffenhausen in the early 1950s, Valentin Schäffer, would become Porsche’s racing turbo specialist and engineer the induction systems that endowed Porsche sports racers with a dominance that lasted decades.
The compact figure of Valentin Schäffer trotted up the steps of the Porsche Museum with the zest of a man much younger than his eighty-two years, his broad smile suggesting someone who has lost none of his enthusiasm. We had come to Stuttgart to meet this spritely retired engineer, Porsche’s Turbo wizard whose career spans the pre-A to the introduction of water cooling.
Born in a German-speaking part of Hungary, Valentin Schäffer moved with his family to the Stuttgart area in 1943, and he began his education at the Gymnasium (high school) that same year. He joined Porsche in 1955, when at 24 he was already an experienced motor mechanic, and at a time when the Zuffenhausen firm was an engineering hothouse. What had started as an open car based on VW Beetle mechanicals only half a dozen years earlier, had become the renowned manufacturer of the fastest 4-cylinder coupé on the market. Porsche was also the source of 1500cc racers, class winners at Le Mans since 1953, and very prevalent on the flourishing European hill climb scene.
“I went straight into the racing department,” said Valentin Schäffer. “In my entire career, I practically only ever worked on racing engines.”
It was a busy time – long days followed by evenings at Stuttgart Technical Institute where over a period of years he obtained his engineer’s certificate.
“Once we got the 4-cam engine (largely developed by his engineering department colleague Ernst Fuhrmann) there was rush of racing customers,” recalled Schäffer. Within eighteen months, he became a racing team mechanic, accompanying Herbert Linge and Hans Herrmann to Florida in 1957. Thanks to importers like John von Neumann and the irrepressible Max Hoffman, the US was already Porsche’s largest market. A racing presence was deemed essential and works cars became regulars at Daytona and Sebring just as they were at Le Mans. It was the beginning of Schäffer’s travel career during which he reckons he must have attended “a thousand” races.
The flat-four, even with outputs approaching 180bhp, was rarely powerful enough to beat three- and four-litre opposition on fast circuits such as Monza. But Porsche’s famous dexterity enabled it to win outright at the 1956 Targa Florio, and on the Alpine hill climbs it became unbeatable, where it was driven by Edgar Barth to three championships in the early 1960s. This was the RSK 718, latterly fitted with a two-litre flat-eight, whose career stretched from 1959 to 1963 when it overlapped with the 904, was so long that it was known affectionately as die Grossmutter.
“I went to many races supporting that car,” said Schäffer not a little proudly, adding “that was in the days of Huschke von Hanstein. He was an organiser, a manager not an engineer. Huschke didn’t care what went on under the bonnet, but when Ferdinand Piëch took over, all that changed. Piëch had big ambitions. The two-litre 8-cylinder was a great engine, and the 3-litre of the 908 brought a lot more torque, but Piëch wanted more power. He asked me whether it was feasible to put a couple of flat sixes together to make an F12. I told him that if all the parts fitted, then yes, in principle. He gave the green light – when he’d enquired about this elsewhere, they’d told him it would take six months to get an answer!”
The Porsche racing department became a very exciting place under the hyperactive Ferdinand Piëch as he left no stone unturned, or exotic metal untested, in his quest to win the Le Mans 24 hours. Not everyone in Porsche appreciated his demanding approach, but in Valentin Schäffer he identified one engineer who was potentially vital to this endeavour. The latter says of Piëch, former chairman of the VW group: “He was a hard man, but he was always fair with me. People always say he was an engineer, but I think his real talent is in understanding engineering concepts and getting people to carry them out – a brilliant manager.”
By now a seasoned engineer himself, Schäffer had been involved in several significant projects including Porsche’s 1962 GP car, the 804: “Our department used to test all the rally engines too before they were sent to customers, and we also developed the Sportpaket for the 911S.”
Piëch, and Bott, as his second in command evidently trusted Schäffer enough to allow him considerable autonomy: he was charged with building a turbocharged 911 and a 914/6. Officially an engineering exercise, this development was not entirely unconnected with the fact that a turbocharged BMW 2002 had the beating of the 911T in the German touring car championship.
“It was top secret project,” he recalls. “Piëch sent me to specialists Eberspächer to buy a couple of turbos. People didn’t just buy turbos over the counter then: I asked him what on earth I should tell Eberspächer – that they were for my motorbike? When I got there, they asked me how much horsepower I wanted. I had no idea, so I said a thousand!”
As it turned out, that was exactly the kind of output they would need. The real opposition was not BMW in Europe, but the McLaren Chevrolets of the Can-Am series. Although the naturally aspirated 917 was able to vacuum up prizes in Europe to such effect that the FIA would ban it, it was still not powerful enough for the ultimate sports racing car challenge which the Can-Am represented. Jo Siffert had campaigned a privately entered 917 in several Can-Am rounds in the 1971 season and his results confirmed that the 917 was left behind by the mighty 8-litre 800+bhp McLarens. Schäffer said that Piëch had Weissach construct a flat-16 of 7.2-litre capacity, but it still fell a hundred horsepower short. Then, Toyota revealed it had obtained promising results from its attempt to mount twin turbo chargers on its 5-litre Group 7 racers (a project ultimately aborted). This looked like the answer, and by mid-1971 Porsche was experimenting at Weissach with a blown 917. But Schäffer was discovering the complexities of balancing twin turbos, while reducing the crippling turbo lag which meant that the power would come in suddenly, at worst throwing the 917 right off its trajectory through corners.
The problems were still not resolved before the 1972 season began, and yet the company had contracted to supply a car to Roger Penske’s team and driver Mark Donohue. Porsche had appointed Helmut Flegl as managing engineer for the Can-Am project, and Valentin Schäffer continued in his role as turbo engineer. It became apparent that the fuel injection system, designed for natural aspiration, was not coping with the sudden rush of air as the turbo chargers reached their operating velocity. From dynamometer readings showing fuel flow throughout the rev range, Flegl and Schäffer devised a cam which metered fuel flow according to boost pressure; additionally, it operated a wastegate to evacuate the excess pressure, allowing the turbos to spin freely rather than die back in enclosed compressed air. This calibration of the fuel/air/boost combination was the breakthrough which would set the 917 on the road to the first of its two Can-Am championships. Subsequent turbocharging improvements would mostly relate to boost pressures and flow rates. The most radical advance had, in a sense, been made.
Attention now turned to a production application. Porsche’s new CEO, Ernst Fuhrmann, had recently been invited back to Zuffenhausen after a 15-year stint at engineering components maker Goetze, saw that the company urgently needed to revitalise its main product, the ageing 911. Turbocharging was by far the quickest route to get a new (and more lucrative) model on to the market. Porsche was also well aware of work being done on turbocharging by Swiss engineer Michael May at his Esslingen workshop in southern Stuttgart. If it was officially dismissive of May’s blown Ford Capris, it had not been above copying the twin turbo configuration he had devised for Toyota’s stillborn race car. Heads turned to Schäffer who would carry out initial development: “I had a turbocharged 2.7 running by April 1973. It didn’t take long.” He then handed the project on to Herbert Ampferer for development and turning the 911 Turbo into a manufacturing reality.
Valentin Schäffer is a cheerful, engaging and voluble fellow, his ready smile is disarming and you imagine he must have been a popular colleague. He recounts how Fuhrmann, a respected engineer in his own right, used to talk directly to him: “If he wanted to know something, he’d often come directly down and see me.” He chuckled, “Bott used to get cross about it – strictly Fuhrmann should have gone through him, but Bott was a chassis man, never an engine man, and he just used to get impatient with us – ‘why aren’t those verdammte engines ready yet?’”
After twenty years at Porsche, Schäffer’s newly discovered turbo expertise suggested he would be at Weissach for life, particularly as Fuhrmann had also authorised a turbo 911, the 934, to race in Group 4. The 934 quickly led to the 935 which won Porsche the world championship of makes in ‘76 and ’77 and would notch up innumerable victories with private teams. All the indications were that the technology of forced induction was now crucial to the company’s development. But this was to reckon without Ferdinand Piëch, as Schäffer found that Porsche’s former technical director was trying to poach him. In company with other members of the ruling Porsche and Piëch families, he had been obliged to resign from Porsche in 1971. Now he was the key technical figure at the new VW subsidiary Audi-NSU at Ingolstadt and working on a turbocharged range for Audi, which would materialise as the startling and stunning Audi Quattro amongst others. Understandably he wanted the best people he knew on this project, and that included the extraordinarily useful Valentin Schäffer.
“He campaigned quite hard to get me, and offered me a much better paid job, a house, schooling for my kids, all very tempting. Bott objected strongly though and eventually I turned him down. In 2009, I saw Piëch, just after the VW takeover, and I asked whether he was still angry with me for not accepting his offer. ‘No, not at all’, he said, ‘just look at everything you’ve done for me at Porsche since then!’”
And indeed he did plenty: Porsche’s turbo dominance would go on for over a decade in Group 5 and sports racing cars, and furnish championship winning race engines to F1, though the TAG venture was the one occasion where he was not involved. But when Mark Donohue took the 917-30 to Talladega in 1975 for his brave and successful attempt (221.12mph) on the closed-circuit world record, Schäffer’s presence on that humid day was deemed essential.
After the exposure of the Can-Am, Porsche began looking for other avenues in the US, and alighted upon Indianapolis. But despite an immense amount of development work, Porsche’s specially prepared 2.7-litre engine was never raced, eliminated by American changes to the rule book. “I made a lot of trips to the US for this,” says Schäffer. “The real problem was control. With Roger Penske, Porsche provided the car and the support and it worked, but here we were supplying only the engine.”
The Indy experiment surfaced again in 1987 and lasted through several seasons’ racing, but the outcome was again a disappointment. Although the Porsche-engined March was starting to come good after two poor years, Porsche withdrew: “We had developed a chassis at Porsche, but instead, Al Holbert wanted to use a March chassis. If we could have tested it properly at Weissach, it would have been right, but relationships with March were difficult.”
At the end of the 1980s, Porsche was severely affected by the fall in the US dollar. There was a series of changes at the top culminating in the appointment of Wendelin Wiedeking. “Things were bad then. When I was sixty in 1991, Porsche said to me ‘you are the oldest guy in the racing department. You can take extended leave on full salary as we owe you all those weekends you worked.’ I was happy to accept. Porsche was changing: I said to Norbert Singer that the research department had become a coffee drinkers’ club because it now took a year to accomplish what we used to do in a week!”
He retired officially in 1993: “There was a wave of redundancies. They gave me the option and I took it. I did notice though that there were now five guys occupying the office where I used to work by myself!”
It is many years since he went to Le Mans, and despite his pleasure at Porsche’s return to LMP1 in 2014, he is not optimistic. “In my view, you can’t win without experience – that’s the entire story of this company at Le Mans, but we haven’t been there since 1998. The competition is too strong to beat first time out. I don’t see a Porsche finishing above fourth place.”
Once a keen tennis player, he has finally had to give that up but the lithe physique remains. Valentin Schäffer returns periodically to Porsche, usually to help with research projects in the Archive. He says he is always surprised at the number of employees who seem to know who he is despite the fact that they are too young to have been there when he was at Porsche. It is typical of the man, modest and unassuming and still evidently delighted, and not a little surprised that people take so much interest in his career.
Words by: Kieron Fennelly
Photos by: Porsche Archive