Best Porsche cars ever: Porsche 917

The Porsche 917 was a Le Mans winner back in 1970, but what's it like to drive today?

Key specs
Engine12cyl boxer
Capacity4.5 litres
Power580bhp
Top speed240mph-plus

I squeeze into the 917’s tight seat, lying more than sitting, my neck canted over to the left as the door is shut with an insubstantial click and the top of my helmet brushes the thin door skin. I’m alone among 50,000 people congregated at Goodwood, elated and utterly terrified in equal measure. I wonder how someone who, 27 years previously, first came to see cars such as this at the Festival of Speed, is now faced with actually driving one of them up the hill. 

There’s silence before the flat-12 engine fires up, surprisingly via a key. That key feels suitably light, with a multitude of drilled holes removing any unnecessary weight. I push the heavy clutch, grasp the famous wooden gearknob with its exposed linkage to my right, select first and pull away. 

The 917 accelerates with serious urgency, its 4.5-litre motor boasting 580bhp in race trim, which is around what the turbocharged flat-six in a current 911 Turbo has. Yet even the current, four-wheel-drive, PDK-transmission 911 Turbo would have to try very hard to match this acceleration, and it’d never get close to the 240mph-plus top speed of this now-53-year-old racing car. Not that the 917 gets the chance to achieve such dizzying speeds here, but even driving it gingerly, I can feel its huge potential. 

It really is difficult to comprehend that back in the seventies these cars would, in hands way more skilful than mine, run down the 3.6-mile Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans at speeds that shortened those miles to a minute, the drivers pushing these tubular-framed, lightweight machines for hours on end at brain-scrambling speeds, regardless of enormous risk.

Incredibly, the car that won the 1970 running of Le Mans outright for Porsche proves relatively easy to drive, which is kind of the point if you’re going to have to push it hard for 24 hours. While the firm was no stranger to endurance racing prior to the 917, this would be the car that brought its first outright Le Mans win and subsequently went on to dominate sports car racing throughout the early seventies. 

Other makers look to F1 as the pinnacle of motorsport, but Porsche has focused on endurance racing. As such it’s the discipline that arguably defines the brand, and what greater demonstration of engineering prowess than racing cars that are fast and reliable enough to win over 24 hours.

The 917 would dominate around the world, winning at Daytona and Spa as well as Le Mans. Indeed, such was its superiority over its competition that in 1970 it would triumph in nine out of the season’s 10 races. It would, of course, be developed to maintain its winning ways, including in 1973 as the 917/30 Can-Am racer, competing in the hugely competitive North American series with a now-turbocharged 5.4-litre motor producing 1,000bhp-plus.

After it dominated the ’73 championship, its driver Mark Donoghue said: “At this time, there is nothing in the world any quicker, any better handling, any more advanced technically and any more fun to drive. It is to me the perfect racing car.”

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