Steve McQueen was “The Man” for a generation, and racing through the night in a blue 917 became the holy grail of many fevered imaginations

Over three tumultuous seasons of World Championship endurance racing, Porsche’s 4.5-liter—and later 4.9 and 5.0-liter—917s fought a no-holds-barred battle with Fiat-Ferrari and their 5-liter, V12 Ferrari 512s. The Porsches proved dominant, and their 917K coupes played a major role in securing for the Stuttgart marque a hat trick of World Championship titles during 1969-71. The Porsche 917 is plainly too well known and understood to require a detailed introduction here.  Suffice it to say that it is the iconic Porsche model which gave this legendary marque its first overall race victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The car’s performance, despite the 917 design’s age of over 40 years, will, as one past world champion said, “…still take the crease out of your trousers.” 

Broadly speaking, after the 1969 prototype cars had been developed to true competitive race worthiness, Porsche produced six variants of the 917. The first to shine with its cutback rear deck and short tail was the 917 Kurz (short)—popularly known as the 917K—on which guise the chassis now offered here first appeared at the 1970 Le Mans. At least two former endurance racing 917K coupes were cut down and fitted with ultra-lightweight Spyder bodywork and naturally aspirated engines. This particular car offered here—1970 chassis serial ‘026’—was one of these cars and is offered here in contemporary Interserie racing configuration.

The car was acquired by the Chandon family in France, from whom it was purchased by Michael Amalfitano in 1987. Mr. Amalfitano commissioned the team at Gunnar Racing to perform extensive body and chassis restoration during 2006-07. The chassis was crack-tested for safety, with the goal of returning 026/031 to the track. As offered here, we are advised that the car is equipped with a 5.4-liter version of the naturally aspirated, air-cooled, flat-12 cylinder engine, offering some 630 horsepower in a road-racing projectile weighing around 1,600 lbs. This mouth-watering example of one of the rarest of Porsche 917 series models has a well-understood and very respectable racing history in its Interserie Spyder form. It also offers a new owner the most attractive prospect of relatively easy restoration into its original Le Mans endurance racing coupe form, as campaigned by the dominant and most revered World Championship team of that extraordinary era. It represents, in essence, a high-water mark of motor racing history as one of the greatest racing cars of all time.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1972-73 Porsche 917 Interserie Spyder
Years Produced:1969-71
Number Produced:32 FIA coupes (24 still exist)
Original List Price:DM 160,000 (about $40,000)
SCM Valuation:$2m to $4m
Chassis Number Location:Tag on frame at right side engine compartment
Engine Number Location:On block near rear distributor
Club Info:917 Chassis Registry
Alternatives:1970 Ferrari 512S or 512M, 1968 Porsche 908, 1969 Ford GT40

This car, Lot 236, sold for $3,967,000 at the Bonhams & Butterfields Quail Lodge auction on August 12, 2010.

Throughout the heroic eras of motor racing, when it was still a blood sport with larger-than-life drivers and cars that could and did kill them, each distinct period had iconic images that captured everyone’s imagination: Tazio Nuvolari in the 1930 Mille Miglia with an 8C Alfa; Stirling Moss and “Jenks” in the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR at the 1955 Mille; and Phil Hill in a Ferrari Testa Rossa at the 1958 Le Mans are examples of every gearhead’s fantasy of what racing is really about.

Probably the most intense and widely shared of these fantasy images is Steve McQueen driving a blue-and-orange Gulf/Porsche 917 in the movie “Le Mans.” Raquel Welch and Farrah Fawcett may have sold more posters in those days, but Steve McQueen was “The Man” for a whole generation of aspiring adrenaline junkies, and racing through the night and rain in a blue 917 became the holy grail of our fevered imaginations. The 917 coupes were effectively obsolete by 1972, and McQueen left our world in 1980, but the image and its lingering impact seems to have only grown.

Dangerous early cars

The story of the Porsche 917 is too well known to spend much time on here, except to note an interesting sidelight. Though the 917 has become known as one of the greatest racing cars of all time, the original Porsche 917 as presented to the FIA and raced in 1969 was a truly terrible and dangerous racing car.

Porsche had designed the body to minimize drag, but in the process had created an aerodynamically unstable and lift-prone shape that was almost uncontrollable at high speed. Fingers were pointed at the aluminum tube chassis, the suspension, and the fact that it had stupid amounts of horsepower for its size as likely culprits, but no changes seemed to help much.

In the early days the factory drivers wouldn’t race them and Porsche had to hire outsiders in order to field the cars. At least one (John Woolfe at Le Mans in 1969) died in the process. For 1970, Porsche recruited the John Wyer/Gulf Oil organization as the official factory team, and engineer John Horsman decided to try sacrificing drag in favor of downforce by creating the high, flat tail section that now defines the 917K shape.

The revised aerodynamics immediately solved the instability problems, and the 917K became one of the most dominant endurance racing cars in history. Interestingly, with no other substantial changes, the 917K is now considered an absolute baby carriage to race. The car is easy, comfortable, and predictable in virtually all circumstances— despite what is still considered insane amounts of horsepower on tap.

Once just weapons

Though all 917s, and the coupes in particular, are now considered iconic treasures, at the time they were just weapons for a battle, and Porsche was notoriously unsentimental about them. In fact, Porsche burned up several old 917s to train fire teams.

When Chassis 026 was damaged on lap 50 of the 1970 Le Mans, it was shipped back to the factory, where it was set aside and replaced with Chassis 031. In the pre-European Union days, shipping cars around Europe was a major hassle requiring carnets (effectively a passport with a bond for value) for each car. It was easier to switch chassis numbers than deal with carnets, so Chassis #31 became #26 and vice versa.

Though this is a bit confusing, it was a common practice at the time and well documented. Chassis #26 (ex #31) continued on as a Gulf/Wyer car through the 1971 Le Mans, where it finished 2nd. The chassis that crashed in 1970 (now #31) sat at Porsche awaiting repair. As it turned out, both chassis got converted into Spyder configuration for the Interserie (Europe’s version of our Can Am series) in late 1971 and raced there with little distinction before being retired.

Chassis #26 was restored back to its 1971 Le Mans bodywork and livery, while the subject car remained a Spyder. Amalfitano recognized the value of having a coupe, and accumulated all the bits to convert it back, but he left 031 a Spyder because driving an open car was more fun. 

Gulf/Wyer cars

After remaining very stable through the 1990s, the value of 917s caught fire about five years ago, and coupes now run from about $3 million for a ‘bitsa’ to probably $7 million or more for an ultimate one—if you could find anyone who would sell.

In apparent tribute to McQueen and the iconography of the movie, the Gulf/Wyer cars are easily the most desirable—even over the Porsche Salzburg and Martini team cars with more wins on their resume.

I know of 917K owners who passed up good deals on those cars while waiting to get their hands on a “blue” car, and, except for history and color, they’re identical. Go figure.

I have it on good authority that the buyer of this car did so primarily because of the Gulf history at Le Mans. The buyer intends to convert it back into a blue-and-orange K coupe. Whether the buyer also bought the conversion package that was separately offered (Lot 209, $182,000) or will go it alone, the conversion will probably cost $400,000. That makes the true end cost close to $4.4 million.

It may be the only way to own a real Gulf/Wyer 917K that ran when they filmed the movie, though, and in today’s market the ghost of “The King of Cool” assigns a lot of value. I’d say fairly bought.

Comments are closed.