Dan Read19 March 2009

Four decades of cool

Le Mans legend immortilised by Steve McQueen turns 40 this year

Porsche 917

See more Porsche 917 pics

Time for a history lesson, boys and girls. So open your textbooks and let's begin.

It's 40 years since Porsche gave us the 917, one of the coolest, quickest racing cars ever made. If you're too young to remember it or not beardy enough to know, the 917 won Le Mans in 1970, and again in '71 - the same year it was immortalised in Steve McQueen's film about the race.
But the 917 didn't just win - lots of cars have done that. It was the way it did it. In 1971 it set a record 138mph lap, which no car has ever beaten since the organisers plonked a chicane on the Mulsanne straight. And talking of the Mulsanne, Vic Elford drove his 917 to 240mph along the 3.5-mile straight in 1970, in the rain, at night, which pretty much blew the opposition far into the French countryside.
So how did it all come about? Believe it or not, it's all thanks to the FIA. In 1969, it changed the rules to allow smaller engines into the World Sports Car Championship (up until then, cars like the Ford GT40 with its massive V8 were the kings) and attract new teams to the grid. But the cars also had to be homologated. In other words, they had to be built and sold to regular customers for road use, too. As long as a manufacturer built at least 25 cars for road use, they could take it racing.
So Porsche got to work. The 917 was given an unusual 4.5-litre, flat 12-cylinder engine, good for about 520bhp, 0-60 in around 2.5 seconds and a top speed approaching 250mph. Gulp. The engine was sunk into a chassis made from tubular aluminium (magnesium on later cars), and everything was wrapped up in lightweight glassfibre.
There were a few different body styles, designed to take on different circuits. Need something to demolish a tight and twisty track? Pick the short tail. Wanna nail Le Mans? Get yourself a long tail. But what made the 917 stick in the mind was its crazy array of paintjobs. You can't help but think of one in classic Gulf colours, which is how it looked best. But there were others, including a mad, psychedelic ‘hippie car' (designed by the guys at Martini Racing who were clearly on acid) and a fetching pink car, nicknamed the ‘pig'.
In a very short time, the cars dominated the world sports car scene. Aside from blitzing Le Mans, it was impressive at Daytona, on the Targa Florio and at the Österreichring (which is somewhere scary in Austria, apparently).
And then things got really wild. When the FIA gave up on its new regs at the end of '71, Porsche took the car Stateside and entered it into the CanAm championship - a mad, bad, utterly insane and liberally regulated series full of massively powerful machinery. Porsche modified the 917 to become the 917/10, which had about 1,000bhp and promptly obliterating the opposition. It won the championship, came back with a 1,500bhp(!) car the next season and won it again, before the FIA had to change the rules to give others a chance. Boo.
So there you have it: the Porsche 917, probably the greatest racing car ever. If you disagree, let us know why in the comments bit below...

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