One day not so long ago, Richard Attwood strolled across the garage at Sonoma Raceway and lowered himself into a 1970 Porsche 917 as if it were an old Barcalounger. No fanfare, just a practiced drop. Back in the summer of 1970, at the age of 30, sharing another 917 with the German driver Hans Herrmann, Attwood won the 24 Hours of Le Mans overall.
This story originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Road & Track.
No Porsche had then accomplished that feat. In the half-century since, the company has won Le Mans overall 18 more times. Attwood says he is not much different, just older. His hair was thicker back in 1970, he says. And so he tootled around the track at Sonoma without fuss, just the occasional burst of audible wheelspin, even though it was raining, even though the car was worth double-digit millions, even though there was so much standing water you couldn’t step into an apex puddle without soaking your shoes. In truth, it probably wasn’t much of an event at all, because really, when you have caned a similar machine at more than 200 mph in the middle of the night on a closed-off European two-lane, a little road course in California, even in weather thick enough to drown a cat, is less of a deal than you might think.
We went to Sonoma to drive that same car. For reasons you may have already guessed, that did not happen.
Of all of the absurdly valuable sports-racing prototypes currently owned by the Porsche factory museum, 917K-015/035, the car at Sonoma, is the only naturally aspirated 917 now running. In Gulf blue and orange, 015/035 won the 1971 1000 Kilometers of Spa. A car very much like it starred in Steve McQueen’s Le Mans, a landmark film. The 917 is a landmark of a similar sort, the emotional core of the European sports-racer as a type and the poster child for an entire golden era. And if you don’t know why, you probably don’t care much about road racing or Porsche or all-conquering, 600-plus-hp Swabian engineering that goes 200 mph and has a yowl that pierces the peaceful French countryside.
Last winter, Porsche invited us to Sonoma, just north of San Francisco, for several hours of lapping in 015/035. When it began to rain, the car’s minders began quiet discussions. There would be no driving at speed, we were finally told, unless the track dried. Slow parade laps would be possible. Attwood, present as a guest, would also drive, to check both car and course.
This was reasonable and generous. But the track never dried, and since Sonoma was largely swamped, we politely declined the parade laps. The minders seemed to understand.
Instead, we took a moment to consider why many iconic 20th-century race cars—though none so much as the 917—have recently grown so valuable that their mere operation as automobiles has come into question. Those machines live in the odd netherworld between relic and performance art. Their historic importance and value often stands in the way of conscientious use, but the power of their stories dims if the machines aren’t allowed to demonstrate their talents for new eyes.
All of which got us asking questions. Some answers were obvious, others less so: Why, exactly, did we want to test a 917 in the first place? What role do race cars play in art and history? Should you risk millions for the sake of sharing a compelling story from the past? And finally, at what point do you simply call time, acknowledge that the world has moved on, and park it?
WHY WE CARE
“Until the 917 arrived, probably none of us had ever been over 200 mph. Suddenly this monster was doing more than 230… believe me, 20 seconds at that speed is a long, long way, with guardrails on both sides, and then a lot of trees …” —Vic Elford
To know the 917 story is to know that the car won a lot. It is also to know that it was, like most prototypes of its era, immensely capable of hurt. In 1970, British racing driver David Piper lost a leg to a 917 crash while filming McQueen’s movie. (“I was sitting in half a car,” he said, “surrounded by smoke and dust, and I thought, Good lord, that’s my shoe over there, and my foot is still in it.”) John Woolfe, the first privateer to drive a 917 at Le Mans, in 1969, died in an accident on the first lap. Factory driver Brian Redman loved driving 917s and found much success in them, but he also once told an interviewer that it made him perpetually nervous; he was always thinking, he said, about how crashes tended to break the frame in half.
To judge the car or its maker for any of this would be unfair. In 1960s and 1970s motorsport, before the advent of safety-first circuit and car design, death in cars was habitual. But even so, you cannot meet the car without marveling at the contrast of its silhouette—at just 37 inches tall, more than 11 inches shorter than a Porsche 914—and power. So you fold yourself down into the seat and immediately see the thin aluminum frame tubing. A 917 has about as much in common with a modern racing car as a rain fly does with an arctic parka. The millimeter-thick fiberglass body is bonded to the frame and thin enough to flex with a finger. The dashboard warning lights carry hand-painted lettering, daubed directly on the lenses by a thick brush. Your feet rest ahead of the front wheels, protected by little more than fiberglass and air. You wear the car like a helmet, and when someone reaches down to close that thin door, it’s only slightly more claustrophobic.
After I had sat in the car for a few minutes, a German museum employee came and opened the door. I asked about the passenger seat, inches away.
“For taxi rides!” he said, in accented English. “But not really. It is there for the rules. If you sat in it, boom! You go through the floor. Only fiberglass there.”
That seat is a bellwether for the car’s construction. From the 4.9-liter, flat-fan flat-twelve to the aft luggage compartments (!) and 800-kilogram minimum weight, everything was designed around Le Mans regulations. The car was an evolution of a decade’s worth of Porsche’s visits to the French classic, but it also marked a transition from family-backed underdog into a corporate overdog. It is a totem for gladiatorial drivers in gladiatorial acts, in a more romantic and dangerous age. It’s also one of the final examples of a racing world nearly free of aerodynamic downforce, that industry-altering phenomenon that has since caused most racing cars to resemble each other and everyone in racing to focus far too much on successes that no ordinary fan can see or understand.
The draw of a machine embodying that idea while ripping through a corner at full honk can’t be described; you just have to see and feel it.
Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to visit Laguna Seca during a factory-backed gathering for the Porsche faithful. The weekend was capped by races for vintage prototypes, and those sessions were dominated by four individuals—former pros Redman and Gijs van Lennep, plus privateer Bruce Canepa and a vintage racer named Chris MacAllister. They drove three 917s and a similar car, a Porsche 908/3. Those men were inches from each other, in millions upon millions of dollars of irreplaceable history, the cars honest-to-God up on plane and moving. They jinked and linked corners in the fluid, impressionist way that suggests a racing car has no reason to exist except the moment you are seeing, right now, as your skin flares with goosebumps and your ears melt into your head.
I think about that scene every few months, when I’m stuck at my desk at 3:00 on a Wednesday afternoon or paying taxes or whatever. The noise, and the notion that humanity is at its most compelling when we shoot for the moon.
Porsche was a small carmaker in the 1960s, with no easy financial justification for chasing Le Mans. The company’s leaders simply decided that a seeming impossibility didn’t sound so impossible. If we or our descendants are blessed with a vivid way to share that parable—carrying that lesson for future generations—and we choose to pass, valuable car or not … well, it makes you wonder: What the hell are we doing with our time that’s more important?
There are two legal ways to exercise an old race car: You can take it out on a private track day, surrounded by almost nobody. Or you can take it vintage racing, at speed in front of spectators, and share the thing with the world.
Some deride vintage racing as a kind of cosplay, with the cars as the costumes. On a certain level, this is accurate; the sport is expensive, and so it tends to draw older drivers in machinery they appreciated while young. For not unrelated reasons, it is also generally less cutthroat and competitive than modern club racing. If you love racing but have no particular appreciation for the past, the whole business can resemble a strange tribute to a fun party long over. That angle likely doesn’t jibe for anyone who enjoys driving quickly or the uniquely visceral behavior of historic race cars. (Short version: Purposeful slides, flawed chassis, and work.) The interesting bit lies in how vintage racing grids feed off modern motorsport, and in how new racing cars shift from contemporary object to vintage one. Some win championships and become pieces of historic importance immediately after their first season, while others are thrown away after long and uninspiring careers, too expensive to race for fun and too historically irrelevant to preserve.
If the machinery in question is relatively common and affordable—say, an MG Midget—there’s little question whether someone should race the thing and enjoy it. The answers grow trickier with an object of immense significance and value, like a 917.
What do you do with a machine like that, designed for a use, when using it risks or consumes the very history you want to celebrate? The Shroud of Turin is a piece of clothing, but you wouldn’t ask the pope to wear it for Mass. But by the same token, don’t future generations deserve to see a once-living object snarling and breathing on its own? Especially if the risk was part and parcel of the object’s glory in period? Or should such objects simply be hidden away in museums, kept safe like any other sculpture?
Paul Galloway is a collection specialist for the Department of Architecture & Design at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. He is also a car person. “You can think of a car as a useful object,” he says, “and that the reason for that thing existing is to fulfill that purpose. An art museum will put a chair on a pedestal, and now that chair can no longer fulfill its purpose. But even when it is, it’s a static object. Cars engage every sense. And that’s one of the reasons why we’re so enamored of them. So to show [one] as just a sculpture is, I think, necessarily to limit the experience.”
The other way to consider vintage racing is as a form of theater crossed with a sort of bloodless amateur warfare. The form’s fullest extension can be found in England’s Goodwood Revival, an annual event held at a road course in West Sussex, where professional drivers and talented amateurs drive six- and seven-figure cars in the most hard-fought vintage races on earth. The track opened to the public in 1948, and to aid the illusion, its grounds wear mid-century advertisements and the paddock entrance requires vintage clothes.
The Revival weekend regularly draws a sellout crowd, largely because the competition is real, and the story of an idyllic past is told so effectively. Save the risk. The track’s safety measures are only marginally better than they were in period, and the circuit wasn’t a padded room to begin with. F1 light Bruce McLaren died at Goodwood while testing in 1970, and no less a legend than Stirling Moss nearly died in an accident there in 1962. If the Revival resembles a Civil War reenactment—a way to witness something like history as it happened—then the catch is that war reenactments generally don’t require participants to flirt with injury, or inflict potential damage on (or just repair from use) historic artifacts.
No one who loves motorsport wants the Revival to go away, but you can’t watch the event without being reminded of this stuff. Or the fact that, when the cars were new and similarly risked, they were worth far less, both emotionally and literally.
And yet entombing a race car in a museum can seem like punishment.
“Museums are necessarily limiting spaces,” Galloway says. “In order to protect [certain artifacts and] keep them viable, they have to lose some of their function. In some cases very little function is lost, in some cases a huge amount. When we’re talking about race cars, they weren’t even intended to live that long. They’d often make it one race or half a race or one lap, and yet there are so many examples of things like that, that persist. The Eiffel Tower was not intended to be a permanent structure. It was supposed to be there for that fair and then come down. But it stayed up.
“What does it mean for an object that was never intended to be permanent, to change? Our understanding of that item is changed if we aren’t using it for its intended use. It gets into all kinds of thorny questions about what is cultural property, our heritage as cultures. And the kind of intended context for these things. A Porsche 917 was made for a specific purpose at a specific time; does it change the meaning to drive it now? We’re not the same viewers that we were.”
Even if you were there. Attwood himself once owned a 917K; he bought it from Brian Redman. For a man who met the machine as a tool of the trade, the Porsche seems to remain just a car, if a special one. He kept his 917 for decades, storing it in a barn. “Always fired right up,” he said, proudly, over lunch at Sonoma. “No one knew they would go up more than 20 times since I bought it.” There was the slightest hint of wonder in his voice.
And nothing but enthusiasm in Kevin Jeannette’s. Jeannette runs Gunnar Racing, in West Palm Beach, Florida. He specializes in early Porsche prototypes, as well as latter-day icons like the 962. He opened our chat with a chuckle and the words, “You’re talking about driving a 917 and value, right? Does the name David Piper mean anything to you?”
It did. In 2009, Piper loaned his personal 917 to a British journalist named Mark Hales, for a magazine story. When the car’s flat-twelve blew during testing, Hales was thrust into a protracted and landmark legal battle for the substantial cost of an engine rebuild. No one who wrote about cars for a living heard that and didn’t raise an eyebrow.
Regardless, Jeannette is one of the good guys. His customers, he says, resemble most of those in the space. They have extreme marque enthusiasm, and they want to drive their cars. The sentiment was echoed by multiple wealthy vintage-racing drivers I contacted for this story, most of whom requested anonymity. Most agreed that the cars deserved to be shared, which meant exercise—but some simply saw them as tools for weekend fun. They wanted to drive something neat and loud and fun and fast, and they loved the history.
Which isn’t necessarily wrong. The nearest analogue, Galloway says, is historic architecture.
“You can landmark a building and restrict the ability of an owner to alter the building too much, but that doesn’t stop the owner from smoking in his bed and burning the whole thing to the ground. There’s always this kind of risk that’s inherent if you’re going to continue to use a building.”
“Within reason,” Colin Comer says, “I think it’s acceptable to use them, and warranted.” Comer is a noted vintage-car authority, author, and collector from Wisconsin, and he’s also a competitive, fast vintage racer and restorer who believes cars should be exercised regularly.
“It’s good when these things get used as intended, in the public eye. There’s a reason why these cars are important—they did things that people liked seeing, and they were good at it. Did you take out a 917 when it’s raining? No. Would you do it in period when you could go out and win a race? Yes. But no one who owns or drives it now is going to add to that history. You can only subtract from it. There’s a balance. You have to be respectful.”
Jeannette is similarly practical. The enthusiasts, he insists, or at least people like his customers, will never stop driving the cars they love, no matter how expensive. And in that Sonoma garage, Attwood nodded. “Prices will fluctuate,” he said, “as things do in the world market. Although the best works of art do always sell well.” Then he recalled a time when 917s were simply obsolete, relatively inexpensive and unwanted old racing cars. He would have kept his, he says, but he needed the money.
“The question was, do I sell my house or do I sell this car? And the car was easier to move around.”
The logic of not driving a car for financial exposure is difficult to fault, and you can’t argue with market forces. On a long enough timeline, certain hyper-expensive cars—your $50 million Ferrari GTOs, your $20 million 917s, and so on—are likely destined for lives as non-running mummies and museum queens. Their time as functional machines may simply pass, in the same way that you cannot still see the original Wright Flyer flown at Kitty Hawk or ride across the country in a passenger train behind a 1930s steam locomotive.
Maybe every internal-combustion vehicle is destined for a similar end. No one living will likely be around to find out, but the discussion encourages us to pay attention. To how the passage of time changes the human condition and our perception of that state. To why we are drawn to certain moments in history. And to how we share the stories of those moments, trying to figure out what it all means.
When Attwood finished his laps, the car went quiet. A small team of Germans pushed it into the garage like an airplane, engine off. The bodywork creaked over bumps. The rain thickened, turned from light drizzle to minor downpour and back again. A man took a small rag and began wiping water off blue and orange.
The way these stories work, you occasionally get just one shot. This was ours. It was disappointing, but even the consolation prize felt like a gift. Who gets to spend an entire day thinking at a 917?
Yet it wasn’t important, at least to the car. Its main time in the light, that primary moment in a long and grand arc, had already come and gone. In a certain sense, there was nothing more to be learned by waking a machine like that, for any reason. And in another, entirely different sense, there was everything.
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