Encore Performance

  • Robert Ross

The 1971 film Le Mans, starring Steve McQueen and featuring several racing contemporaries, was a box-office flop in the United States, in part because 36 minutes elapse before McQueen speaks his first words of dialogue. But the movie, which includes footage from the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans, is now considered a classic, especially among motorsports fans, because of its realistic depiction of the fabled endurance race. 

The characters and storyline, which involves a fierce rivalry between the Porsche and Ferrari teams, are fictional, but the car that takes the checkered flag, the Gulf-liveried No. 22, is an actual racer: a 1969 Porsche 917K. It is believed to have been the first 917 to compete in a race, and that distinction combined with its connection to McQueen and the film may make it the most coveted car at Gooding and Company’s Pebble Beach Auction, which takes place August 16 and 17, during Monterey Car Week. David Gooding, president of Gooding and Company, calls serial number 917-024 “one of the most significant and recognizable racing cars ever to come to public auction.” 

Porsche developed the 917 specifically to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the effort proved successful: Examples of the 917 won the race in 1970 and 1971. (The latter victory came 10 days before the premiere of Le Mans.) Porsche initially produced 25 examples of the 917 to satisfy homologation requirements and eventually developed about a dozen variants during the car’s life span, which lasted from 1969 to 1973. 

The 917 evolved from Porsche’s successful 908 and was distinguished by its colossal flat-12 engine—Porsche’s first 12-cylinder power plant, a 4.5-liter design by the Porsche engineer Hans Mezger. Porsche employed the era’s highest technology in the car’s development, using magnesium, titanium, and aluminum for the engine components and other parts of the car. It pressurized the lightweight space-frame chassis with gas to detect cracks that would lead to its failure, and it enveloped the frame in a fiberglass body molded into the now classic 917 shape. Seeking to save weight wherever possible, Porsche equipped the 917 with a gearshift knob made of balsa wood instead of plastic or metal. As a nod to the 917, the 2004 Porsche Carrera GT featured this same detail.

Serial number 917-024 was originally built to factory Longtail specification, but it debuted as a Porsche works racer in K, or Kurz, form in 1969 at Spa Francorchamps. By 1970, the car had been enlisted by the J. W. Engineering–Gulf team and was liveried in its blue-and-orange paint scheme. In April of that year, with Brian Redman behind the wheel, it posted the fastest time at the Le Mans test. Shortly after that event, the Porsche factory driver Jo Siffert acquired 917-024, subsequently loaning it to the production company that made Le Mans. (Siffert is among the drivers who appear in the film.)

The following year, while driving a British Racing Motors team P160 in a race at the Brands Hatch track in England, Siffert was killed in a fiery crash. Some 50,000 people attended his funeral in Fribourg, Switzerland, and leading the hearse in the procession through the streets of his hometown was Porsche 917-024. 
After Siffert’s death, the car passed to a French collector and then spent the ensuing quarter century essentially hidden from public view before resurfacing in 2001 as a true barn find—it was discovered in a granary outside of Paris.

Now fully and accurately restored, 917-024 goes to auction with an estimated value “available upon request” from Gooding and Company. This important piece of Porsche history could top the $20 million mark if the competition in the auction room proves as fierce as Le Mans portrayed it to be on the track.   

Gooding and Company, www.goodingco.com