The 2021 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance played host to a special class of Porsche 917 race cars. That this gathering — 50 years after the 917’s overall win at Le Mans in 1971 — would occur there, rather than in the paddock of some storied racing circuit, is significant. We spoke with Revs Institute founder Miles Collier, whose own 1967 917K was among those gathered, about what it meant to see 13 of these iconic cars on the show field at such a prestigious event.

What was learned from seeing so many iconic Porsche 917s grouped side-by-side at Pebble Beach?

I think many spectators and exhibitors at Pebble Beach became exposed to the notion that vintage race cars are important and beautiful purpose-built artifacts of history. These cars are increasingly popular among young people, and collector interest is growing. The fact that these 917s were on the field at the most significant concours in the world tells us winds may be shifting.

The 917s and the Can-Am variants displayed at Pebble Beach represented the most important examples of these storied Porsche race cars, including the famously recognizable Gulf cars, Dr. Fred Simeone’s “Hippie Car” and Chris McAllister’s 917 016, the winningest 917 of all time. The 1971 longtail “Langheck” was the best aerodynamic iteration of the 917 — it was super fast on the straights and handled magnificently. This tail inspired the design that turned out to be used later on the 936, 956 and the 962.

Tell us about the whimsical (if not radical) paintwork on some of these 917s.

The livery schemes of 917s from this era each have their own story. The late 1960s was a time when design as a whole was radical and brave — if not lurid. During this era, the colors of psychedelic graphic designer Peter Max impacted Porsche road cars. It was not unusual back then to see a road-going 911 painted in Lilac or Lime. Often, these colors were considered a safety aid because they were so visible.

Tony Lapine, head of Porsche design, was influential in the livery of many of the vintage 917s displayed at Pebble this year. Perhaps the most infamous and notorious example of Lapine’s work is the “Pink Pig,” aka “Big Bertha” or “Truffle Jäger.” The next most well-known 917 is Dr. Fred Simeone’s “Hippie Car” that was displayed at Pebble. Lapine’s colorful designs also heavily influenced the Gulf team and Porsche Salzburg, which turned into the famed Martini team for 1971.

Why is the 917 so legendary? What is the backstory of these iconic race cars?

When the 917 came to the market in 1969, they were diabolical and dangerous. Porsche offered two versions of the car, both with a removable tail. Word spread quickly about the new 917. Renowned Porsche race driver Brian Redman received calls from the Porsche factory inviting him to drive the new 917. In a risky act of defiance to Porsche brass, he politely declined the offer. He later said the 917 was “incredibly dangerous, using all the road at high speed.”

Other notable drivers of the era echoed Redman’s concerns. Vic Elford described the car as “pretty unstable and really not very nice.” Jo Siffert was a little more direct in his description: “Unstable and bloody dangerous.” Hans Hermann commented after the test day at LeMans in 1969 that “the cars are a catastrophe.”

Because of the flawed aerodynamic design from the factory, team owners and Porsche itself quickly subjected the Porsche 917 to trial-and-error tail redesigns. As a result, the 917 swiftly evolved from diabolical to magnificent.

The 917’s flaws initially became apparent during the Championship of Makes race in Austria in 1969. Along with the 917K, Porsche was also getting its feet wet with its Can-Am PA car. After that fateful race, a 917 testing session was conducted at the same track. It turned out that the Porsche Can-Am PA cars were actually materially faster than the 917K.

John Wyer’s team and various Porsche Works mechanics made aerodynamic improvements to the 917 on the fly. Together they pounded out new aluminum sheets and used pop rivets, tape and clay to create what became the successful K tail that we know today. The design configuration of the Can-Am PA car inspired the design of the K tail. In short order, Wyer succeeded in sorting the whole mess out.

The original design of the 917 was predicated on Ferdinand Piëch’s dogmatic view that all Le Mans cars should have very low drag coefficients. His concept was they could whistle down the Mulsanne Straight and go slower in the turns. This approach would maintain higher average lap speeds than the competition, with lower risk of accidents in the turns. This strategy would also burn less fuel and require fewer pit stops. The 917 certainly had a low Cd, but it did not handle well and was undriveable. In the final analysis, Piëch’s theory was great, but the problem was the 917 didn’t work.

In the late 1960s, the knowledge and understanding of automotive aerodynamics were in their infancy. Aviation aerodynamics were sophisticated, but these wind-tunnel findings did not directly convert to the automotive world. In aerospace, you don’t get complicating factors from the interactions between the ground plane and the boundary layer — this automotive dynamic makes aero optimization way more complicated. The ongoing development of the 917 by teams, drivers and the manufacturer coincided with the “a-ha” moment of aerodynamics’ crucial role for racing cars performing at well over 200 mph.

The collective subsequent adjustments to the 917 tail ultimately made the drag coefficient higher, but it didn’t matter because the outcome was so positive. In 1971, Porsche came up with another slightly different tail design for the Martini team, which proved to be an even more sophisticated aerodynamic solution. This evolution of the 917 tail had low drag and maintained the same downforce as the “high tail” that Wyer had previously improved. My 917K Martini car has this 1971 flat tail with vertical rudders. This tail adjustment was so good that even Wyer adopted the Martini tail for the Gulf cars during the 1971 season.

In a concours environment, graced by the likes of Hispano-Suizas and Bugattis, what role do race cars play?

A concours d’elegance is about elegance. Vehicles like a Duesenberg, Bugatti or a coachbuilt Packard are indisputably — even quintessentially — elegant. In contrast, race cars are raw and minimalized for functionality and are generally anything but elegant.

On the other hand, what is more elegant than the law of nature? Race cars derive their aesthetics in a different way from road cars. Race cars solve for the very limits that nature permits, given constraints. Road cars are more analogous to sculpture, where line, form, curve and relationships determine the ultimate effect. Race cars pit the laws of nature against the various restrictions imposed by rule makers.

In the late 1960s, the rules did not keep up with the emerging engineering capability, and as a result, the cars were effectively unrestrained. In contrast, today we have strict design and comprehensive safety standards. Because modern rules significantly impact design, we will likely never again see the beauty of racing cars like the 917.

The race cars from this less-regulated era represent great things in the human mind and spirit. Each car is stunningly beautiful in its own way and, as such, these rare hand-built artifacts deserve their place on the lawn at Pebble Beach.

What does the future of collectible race cars hold?

In the future, historically significant race cars should continue to gain collectors’ respect, and they might someday be considered more exciting and compelling than road cars. Production road cars are fully industrialized and mostly mass-produced. In contrast, competition cars tend to have a huge amount of hand labor in them — they are truly hand–built automobiles. You can see this seductive hand-made quality in many of these absolutely gorgeous artifacts, including the Ferrari P3 or P4, which are stunning examples of this dynamic.

When forward-thinking collectors like Peter Sachs were buying used Ferrari race cars decades ago, nobody cared. They were cast off and outdated and had no financial value because there was nothing you could do with them. There was no place to run them. Yet they were — and remain — staggeringly beautiful cars. Today some of them are priceless legacy artifacts. As the years roll on, race cars like the 917 will only become more attractive to all stakeholders in the collector-car universe. ♦.

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