Cutting out the front subframe a few nights before the…
Perhaps no other race car claims the outright success that is boasted by Porsche’s 917/30, a purpose-built spyder that dominated its only season of competition and went on to set a still respectable closed-course speed record. Rooted in roughly four years of development of similar racing spyders, the 917/30’s beginnings initially arose from two goals.
With a new American retail relationship between Porsche and Audi forming in 1969, VW of America executive Josef Hoppen sought to publicise the development with a racing campaign. This suggestion nicely melded with Porsche’s plans for entry into the Can-Am Challenge Cup, the unlimited regulation Canadian-American series that featured racing’s most powerful cars. After fitting chassis number 917-027 with a spyder body that was almost identical to that of the 908/2, the aptly named 917PA was born, and the succeeding chassis, 917-028, was raced with great success by Jo Siffert. The upswept tail of the lightweight spyder’s bodywork proved to eliminate many of the 917 Coupé’s aerodynamic issues, prompting Porsche to explore the design for Can-Am development.
By 1971, Zuffenhausen was truly preparing the 917 Spyder’s powerplant for Can-Am competition, experimenting with a flat 16-cylinder engine before settling on a twin turbocharged version of the 917’s flat-12, which could eventually be boosted to develop as much as 1,100 horsepower, per the factory. Dubbed the 917/10, the new model was entrusted for the 1972 Can-Am season to Roger Penske’s team, with Mark Donohue taking on driving duties. After a crash injury ended Donohue’s season early, George Follmer replaced him and led the team to a runaway Can-Am Championship.
Donohue healed and served as the exclusive development driver during the off-season, and he soon realised that the 917/10’s bodywork emphasised downforce at the expense of top speed. When he suggested the addition of a 917-style long-tail, engineer Helmut Flegl embraced the solution, in addition to adding 200 millimetres to the wheelbase and a wind tunnel-developed nose crafted by SERA, Charles Deutsch’s firm in Paris. In total, the revised bodywork and wheelbase adjustment allowed the latest development of the 917 Spyder to eclipse 240 mph. Developed solely for Donohue’s use, the so-called 917/30, which eventually ended up a completely different car than the 917/10 from which it originated, performed nearly flawlessly, overcoming a sluggish season start to finish in dominating fashion and secure yet another Can-Am Championship for Porsche.
With new SCCA rules limiting fuel consumption, Porsche withdrew factory support from Can-Am racing after 1973, and Donohue retired from competition, essentially mothballing the faultless racing Spyder. In 1975, however, suspecting that the outrageously powerful car could still hold its own in closed-course speed trials, Donohue briefly emerged from retirement for a run at Talladega, in which the 917/30 set a new speed record for a closed course, including a straightaway time of 385 km/h (240.6 mph). The 917/30 was victorious in its Can-Am mandate, and it proved itself every bit as fast as more recent speed machines. It remains one of the most impressive race cars of any era, and it is legendary for its sheer power and overwhelming margin of victory. With just six examples built during its brief period of production, the model is also exceedingly rare, further bolstering its desirability.
Whilst the first three examples of the 917/30 were all fully functioning cars (the first having an adjustable wheelbase and driven in the Inter series and the following two cars being raced by Donohue for Penske), the final three cars were chassis that were built to be new cars for the 1974 season, two for Can-Am and one for the Inter series. Production stopped when the SCCA changed their rules and vastly limited fuel tank size. When Gerry Sutterfield, manager of a Porsche/Audi dealership in West Palm Beach, Florida, was strolling the Weissach facility with Helmut Flegl during a mid-1979 visit, the men happened upon the three chassis sitting outside, destined for storage. Mr Sutterfield, a renowned collector and enthusiast in his own right, knew exactly what the cars were. Flegl offered a chassis, and Mr Sutterfield inquired as to whether the assembly of one of the cars could be completed for him.
Appropriate 917/30 suspension parts had been used on the 936 Le Mans cars, and they were retrieved by the factory from the 936 parts stock. A proper flat-12 engine was eventually discovered, mislabelled in storage. In August 1979, the work began on chassis number 917/30-005 (originally destined for the Penske team) in earnest, with the frame initially cleaned and then refinished to show-level quality and slowly built upon to exacting detail. Included on file is a copy of the internal note, dated 9 July 1979, from Mr Flegal to the race department, ordering the construction of 917/30-005 and noting the installation of a five-litre engine. According to a feature article on the car in the July 1980 issue of Motor Trend, the builders were delighted to take their time and make the 917/30-005 as perfect as possible, relishing the unusual luxury of time afforded by the lack of a race deadline.
It is believed that this 917/30 was the most expensive Porsche ever sold directly to a customer by the factory at the time. Although the proud owner initially retained the beautiful racer for display only, in time he grew curious of its performance capabilities, as revealed by a March 1982 feature in Motor Trend that explored the car’s limits in a test drive on the Palm Beach International Raceway. The 917/30 was also prominently featured in an article, “Racing In an Era of Outer Limits”, which was written by Donohue’s former college roommate, Burge Hulett, and published in Volume 19, Number 4, of Automobile Quarterly.
Meanwhile, by 1981, the sensational race car had been sold to Leslie Barth. Then, in 1989, it was acquired by Hans Thulin, a collector based in Malmo, Sweden, who sought to assemble a personal museum of the finest automobiles and art. The 917/30 joined a 1931 Bugatti Royale, a 1962 Ferrari GTO, and a 1958 Maserati 450S Spyder, in addition to major art works by such painters as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Unfortunately, Mr Thulin’s ambitious tastes left him in financial straits by 1991, and his collection was pared, with the 917/30 and the Bugatti being sold to the Meitec Corporation in Japan. The Spyder was then purchased by an anonymous owner in 2005 and then acquired by the current owner in 2011.
In addition to claiming all of the superlative characteristics of the 917/30, including overwhelming power and low weight, 917/30-005 was never competitively raced, and it was built by the Weissach factory to even more exacting standards than a standard racing schedule could ever allow. Of the three 917/30 examples without period competition history, this car is surely the finest, and it can, in many respects, be considered the freshest example in existence, as the other two have experienced significant vintage racing campaigns. Importantly, it is also the only one of the three that was actually completed by the Porsche factory at Weissach.
This important 917/30, one of the most powerful race cars ever constructed, warrants serious consideration by any Porsche racing connoisseur or collector of Can-Am cars, and it would make a crowning addition to the finest assemblage of important speed machines.
- 1,100 bhp, 5,000 cc DOHC air-cooled flat 12-cylinder engine with Bosch mechanical fuel injection and twin KKK turbochargers
- Four-speed manual gearbox
- Four-wheel independent suspension with coil springs and shock absorbers
- Four-wheel ventilated disc brakes
- Wheelbase: 2,500 mm
Photo Credits: ©2014 Courtesy of RM Auctions