Porsche 917: Uber Alles

The Porsche 917 Endurance Racing Car of the Late 1960s and Early 1970s

The Porsche 917 is one of the most famous sports racing cars ever made. With its distinctive wedge-shaped body and powerful flat-12 engine, the 917 dominated endurance racing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans three years in a row from 1969 to 1971.

Let’s take a closer look at this legendary race car.

Porsche 917 car display

The Porsche 917 was the racing variant of the Porsche 917PA Coup√© first shown at the Geneva Motor Show in 1969. It was initially dubbed the 917K (for Kurzheck or “short tail”), with the 1970-71 models being the 917LH (Langheck or “long tail”).

Later variants included the 917/10 and 917/30 developed specifically for the Can-Am series.

Porsche 917 racing car

How Many Were Made:

Porsche built a total of 69 Porsche 917s between 1969-1975. Of these, 31 were the short-tail 917K models, 38 were the long-tail 917 LH versions, plus 4 development mules.

A few additional 917 variants were also constructed for the North American Can-Am series.

Porsche 917 made of titanium and magnesium

What Makes it Special:

The Porsche 917 is considered special for a number of reasons:

  • It used innovative materials like titanium and magnesium to keep weight low, even with the large 12-cylinder engine.
  • The flat-12 4.5L engine was capable of 580 hp in race trim – an immense figure at the time. It could reach speeds over 240 mph at Le Mans.
  • Equipped with Porsche’s advanced suspension design, the 917 handled incredibly well for such a powerful car. The long-tail models were praised for their high-speed stability.
  • The wedge-shaped body designed by Dr. Hans Mezger and Anatole Lapine featured a low drag coefficient and downforce-generating fins for high-speed circuits like Le Mans. The styling was instantly recognizable.
  • In the hands of drivers like Jo Siffert, Pedro Rodriguez, Steve McQueen, and others, the nimble and reliable 917 dominated endurance racing worldwide. Of its 1,214 entries, it scored over 150 wins.
side view of Porsche 917

Who Designed It:

The Porsche 917 was designed by a team at Porsche led by Dr. Hans Mezger and Anatole Lapine.

Dr. Hans Mezger joined Porsche in 1956 and designed the company’s Formula 1 racing engines. For the 917, he was responsible for the chassis, suspension, and drivetrain development.

front view of Porsche 917

Anatole Lapine was a French engineer who began working under Ferdinand Porsche in the late 1930s. At Porsche, he designed the body shape of the 917 along with the advanced suspension system.

Porsche 917 lightweight design

Together, Mezger and Lapine’s cutting-edge lightweight design and powerful flat-12 engine resulted in the dominating 917 race cars. Porsche specialists like Helmuth Bott also contributed extensively to testing and development.

Porsche 917 front view with headlamps

The Specifications:

Here are some key specifications for the 1971 Porsche 917K model:

  • Engine: 4.5L (4494 cc) air-cooled flat-12 cylinder
  • Maximum Power: 580 horsepower at 8400 rpm
  • Weight: 800 kg (1764 lbs) dry weight
  • Length/Width/Height: 4680 mm x 2000 mm x 906 mm
  • Wheelbase: 2400 mm
  • Top Speed: Over 240 miles per hour
  • Transmission: 5-speed manual
  • Body Construction: Aluminum and magnesium alloy panels
  • Suspension: Independent suspension with coil springs and anti-roll bars

The advanced flat-12 cylinder engine, responsive chassis, and slippery aerodynamic shape combined to make the 917 one of the fastest racing cars ever built at the time.

side and back view of Porsche 917

The Engine:

Porsche 917 engine

Porsche 917 was powered by a Type 912 flat-12 cylinder engine

The Porsche 917 was powered by a Type 912 flat-12 cylinder engine designed specifically for endurance racing. Some key details:

  • Displacement: The 917K models ran a 4.5L (270 cu inch) engine, increased to 5.0L in 1971.
  • Lubrication: Dry sump oiling system with dual oil tanks to ensure reliable lubrication under hard cornering.
  • Fuel System: Mechanical fuel injection provided by twin Bosch pumps.
  • Cylinder Heads: Aluminum heads with sodium-filled exhaust valves and 2 spark plugs per cylinder.
  • Pistons: Lightweight forged aluminum pistons and titanium connecting rods.
  • Power: Up to 580 hp at 8400 rpm in race trim. Huge output for the era.
  • Reliability: Stressed for 24-hour endurance races. Engine rebuilds every 1000 miles.

The wide, low-mounted flat-12 enabled a low center of gravity. It proved to be both immensely powerful yet relatively reliable even in 24-hour races, playing a central role in the 917’s dominance on the track.

white Porsche 917 model

The Interior:

The interior of the Porsche 917 was all business, optimized entirely for racing:

  • Minimalist fiberglass bucket seat to hold the driver securely in place. Racing harnesses are used rather than passenger seats.
  • Small, no-frills steering wheel. Leather covered on race models.
  • Sparse analog gauges – only vital info like tachometer, speedometer, and temperature provided to the driver.
  • Flat door panels and thin roof structure – just the bare essentials.
  • Low-cut front windshield and simple rear window for maximum visibility.
  • Central gated shifter for the 5-speed gearbox.
  • Basic pedal box, clutch, and throttle.

While spartan and stripped down, the purpose-built interior embodied the racer-first mission of Ferdinand “Ferry” Porsche, keeping distractions to a minimum and allowing the driver to focus solely on going fast.

interior of Porsche 917

Porsche 917 display

How Many Are Left?

Of the original 69 Porsche 917s constructed, it is estimated that around 47 examples survive today. Many were destroyed or damaged beyond repair during the car’s active racing career from 1969-1975. Of the survivors:

  • Around 16-20 are in museums or private collections in “as raced” condition.
  • An additional 12-15 have been restored to original specifications.
  • At least a dozen are existing chassis that have been rebuilt with non-original components or modifications.
  • Only 2-3 of the 1969 long-tail 917 LH models are known to still exist.

As the 917 becomes more collectible, additional chassis and parts have been slowly located and reconstructed into complete cars.

While exact numbers are hard to verify, fewer than 50 original 917s likely remain today – making any example extremely rare and valuable.

Porsche 917 side view

What’s it Worth Today?:

As perhaps the most dominant racing car of its era, the Porsche 917 is also one of the most valuable collectible race cars today:

  • In 2017, a 1970 Porsche 917K raced by Steve McQueen sold for $14 million – one of the highest prices ever paid for any Porsche.
  • In 2022, a 917K Gulf-liveried chassis was restored by Porsche itself auctioned for CHF 10.7 million (approx. $11.7 million USD).
  • Professionally restored 917s tend to sell in the $10-15 million range at auction depending on history and pedigree.
  • Models with significant race wins or driven by famous pilots like McQueen normally fetch the highest valuations.
  • Barn finds 917s or chassis requiring full restoration trade for $5-7 million.
  • More common 917 variants like 1971-onward models tend to trade for $3-6 million.
Porsche 917 written history

While always rare and valuable, the soaring prices reflect the Porsche 917’s growing status as a crown jewel of auto collecting. Along with the 250 GTO Ferrari, it is considered one of the most desirable 1960s racing cars.

Values will likely continue to climb as it cements its reputation as a motoring icon.

back view of Porsche 917