914-6: Transformer

The anabolic race car

Photo: 914-6: Transformer 1
July 2, 2013

Franklin Wong’s 914-6 has been hibernating in a storage unit in the disused Kapalama Military Reservation in Honolulu for many years, but it still looks ready for track action. The racing numbers and decals, the huge flared fenders over wide Hoosier race tires and the aggressive aerodynamic bodywork speak clearly to the car’s racing history.

That history is certainly worth reviewing. When Porsche began delivering 914s to the U.S in 1970, the cars immediately caught the attention of the racing fraternity, as the 914 was a proper mid-engined car, with all the positive dynamic attributes typical of that layout.

Thus, no sooner had 914s begun arriving Stateside than six 914-6s were allocated for racing in SCCA C-production events; two for the Eastern tracks, two for the Midwest, and two for the West Coast. The West Coast cars were obtained by Porsche pioneer-dealer Johnny Von Neumann, and they joined the team of Richie Ginther, to be driven by Alan Johnson and Elliot Forbes-Robinson.

There’s a story that says Ginther was first sent for evaluation the car which debuted the 914-6 model at the New York Auto Show. After some preliminary setup work, Ginther drove the car at Willow Springs Raceway, where it took two seconds off the time set by his team’s 911 race car. When he came back into the pits, Ginther apparently remarked that it was the closest thing to a Formula 1 car he had ever sat in. (That particular car now seems to have disappeared in the mists of time.)

Photo: 914-6: Transformer 2

The Willow Springs shakedown was a very promising start to the season, and with too little time for thorough preparation, the two Ginther cars were entered at Holtville, near San Diego, where Johnson’s car suffered a holed piston after being unceremoniously punted off the course while leading the race. But things quickly improved when Johnson won at Riverside Raceway shortly thereafter, then again in Phoenix, Arizona. In a second car, EFR won at Utah, Sears Point, and Portland.

Porsche’s 914-6s appeared suited to the class in which they competed, and Johnson went on to acquit himself well throughout that debut season. In fact, the whole national Porsche team effort ended up doing extremely well during the year, the six cars accumulating 11 club victories among them, with a regional championship for Johnson.

But all concerned had become aware of the 914-6’s serious Achilles heel on the long tracks. The SCCA regulations held the car to its 2.0-liter displacement, and although considerable engine tweaking was performed, it did not close the horsepower gap between it and the fast Datsun 240Zs. This was borne out at the runoffs, which were held at a real horsepower track—Road Atlanta in Georgia—resulting in a fourth place for Forbes-Robinson and a fifth for Johnson.

According to some, the 914-6 was also hobbled by the fact that Porsche had quoted its weight to the SCCA complete with steel wheels and a radio among the standard accoutrements. The five-percent mass reduction allowed by the regulations was quickly reached when these non-essentials were ditched. And as it was, the cars raced without their heavy windshields, as did all the roadsters in the class.

Photo: 914-6: Transformer 3

In order to meet minimum weight requirements, it’s believed the teams added gravel to the car’s heater tubes to provide ballast at the preferred level, and this is supported by an account of stones pouring out of the car that was later to become Franklin Wong’s when it was mounted in a rotisserie rig and inverted.

The teams had also tried to suggest to the SCCA regulators that the Targa hoop would serve as a roll-protection device, but the officials would have none of it, and they were all forced to fit rollover-protection cages.

Perhaps it was the relative lack of power, or the fact the 914-6 sold in very small volumes compared to its four-cylinder sibling (a situation that had much to do with its price being higher than that of a contemporary 911 T), or perhaps it was just corporate politics, but in any event the cars did not return to SCCA C-Production racing in 1971.

At that point one might have expected these retired race cars to simply disappear in the manner of so many obsolete workhorses. But not this time. The number-one driver, Alan Johnson, was general manager at Bozzani’s Porsche dealership at the time, and the management decided to buy both West Coast cars and store them in the back room. There they stayed until Johnson set up his own Porsche dealership in San Diego and moved down there, taking his former race car with him. By then the car had been converted into a 914-6 GT, with greater wheel and tire space for possible classification in the evolving IMSA series.

Photo: 914-6: Transformer 4

Enter race driver John Thomas, Jr. (“JT” to his friends), who was Bozzani Porsche’s parts manager at the time. He bought the 914-6 we understand to be the car that had been driven by Eliot Forbes-Robinson, intending to weld the windshield back on and drive it on the street.

Somehow he never got around to doing that. Instead, he decided to convert the car to an IMSA GTU-spec racer. Having occasionally shared IMSA 914-6 rides in 1974 (the same year he bought the ex-SCCA car), JT may have thought about racing his own 914-6. What followed turned into an epic reconstruction project.

First, JT stripped the car to the bone and took it to a place called The Strippers, where it was immersed in a bath of acid for four days to remove every vestige of paint. Then the shiny clean body was given four coats of red-oxide primer to completely seal the surface. After that, it was off to fabricator extraordinaire Danny McLoughlin at American International Racing in Burbank for extensive structural reinforcement and modification.

Although the late Dan McLoughlin was a consummate fiberglass artist, much of the new bodywork was rendered in steel. Danny then made molds of the new pieces, probably so they could be replaced with much lighter laminates later on. But that somehow never came to pass on JT’s ex-Forbes-Robinson car, which still wears the steel pieces to this day. And then, much later, when the 914-6 was in Franklin Wong’s possession, Wong discouraged replica production in order to maintain the originality of his own car.

Photo: 914-6: Transformer 5

JT recalls how he would exhort McLoughlin to go wider and wider on the fender wells during the fabrication process, resulting in a space now sufficient for 11-in.-wide tires in front and fully 15-in.-wide rubber on the rear. The hugely flared fenders feature slots and louvers and are bridged by ground-effects sills that help complete the racy profile.

McLoughlin also fabricated a custom front airdam and decklid for the car, both from fiberglass. The rear-wing-support towers are also in fiberglass, though the wing itself is formed from metal. The results, as one can see, have turned the generally rectilinear 914 shape into something much more muscular.

After this convincing transmogrification from the tablet-shaped original 914 form, it was only fitting that the underpinnings be made to match the promise of the aggressive appearance. So the car was then taken to Troutman and Barnes for chassis modifications. JT recalls the work done there in great detail. He describes the process like this: “Dick Troutman made a jig for the car and turned it upside down, and we put about 150 hours on it and re-welded every suspension pick-up point and made it very, very strong.

“We made a special roll bar out of the best chromoly steel tubing, which bolts into the car and allows the top to go on with the roll bar in place. Then we added one of those Porsche factory kits to strengthen the suspension pick-up points, and we Rosetta-welded every piece on so that it is absolutely perfect.

Photo: 914-6: Transformer 6

“Then I got Harry Kotrell to make some special bearing covers to go over the rear wheel bearings for the rear arms. That was quite a feat in itself. We had to find a 20-in. lathe to swing the arms, and we made these collars for them and then put in those double ball bearings. Then we heated up the collars to go over them.

“The wheel bearings in the trailing arms will probably last forever, and it was kind of a neat trick. Then we gusseted each rear trailing arm and boxed them all up and made them really strong so that there is no flex in the parts there.”

A careful look around the car reveals the extent to which JT and Troutman went. There are gussets, extra welds and strut-tower support rods aplenty. The cost of the fabrication work is mind boggling to contemplate, and it clearly adds considerable value to the vehicle as a whole. Such was the attention to detail during the chassis modifications that JT had Dick Troutman cut a trap door into the rear luggage compartment to provide easy access to the timing marks on the engine below.

But the project did not stop there. Indeed, part of the emphasis on beefing up the chassis was to allow the installation of a strong engine, and a full-blooded assault on the car’s drivetrain was the next stage of this conversion.

Photo: 914-6: Transformer 7

An Andial-prepared 2.8-liter 911 RSR engine is what went into the 914-6, complete with Carillo rods, race rocker arms and shafts (the lighter kind with adjustable caps), twin-plug heads with a twin-lead Marelli distributor, and new 46mm Weber carburetors. JT recalls the engine was essentially all new, and the only used part was a red engine cover from a 911 S that he used because the color matched. Later, Randall Aase also played a role in the motor.

It’s believed the engine is good for about 300 hp, so JT decided to hook it to a 915 “sprayed” transmission (hollow shafts and a sprinkler system for extra lubrication and cooling), but then elected not to hook up the trans oil pump.

JT explains why: “This gearbox can take up to about 350 lb-ft of torque and 450 horsepower without any modifications, and the sprinkler system would make it even stronger than that. The engine I had could only produce about 300 horsepower, and there is no sense in getting carried away!”

Still, anyone wanting to run the oil pump can do so. The gears are there and the ’box is set up for it. Inside the casing, the gear ratios are a standard 11/35 first gear, a trick 15/30 second gear, a 21/30 third gear, a 25/27 fourth gear, and a 28/24 fifth gear. With the tranny staged like that, JT estimated a top speed (at about 8000 rpm) of 150 mph. Plenty for the street, he figured, and also great for strong acceleration on short tracks.

Photo: 914-6: Transformer 8

An 80-percent limited-slip differential was added, along with a short-shift linkage made up by Bobby Graham (a fabricator who worked near Danny McLoughlin’s shop), and special axles with what JT terms “big velocity joints.” That pretty much took care of the driveline; now all that was left was to find suspension that could handle the massively expanded potential of this newly super-endowed 914.

With mechanical commonality on his side, JT could look for available Porsche suspension and brake pieces, so that’s what he did. Discarding the front torsion bar springs of the original 914s, he opted for coil-over struts from the 3.0-liter 911 RSR in front, and double-adjustable Koni coilovers in the rear—essentially a copy of the setup he’d raced with at Sebring in what he describes as a “914-6 home-made”.

To slow all this race-derived action down, JT chose 917/30 brakes up front with Porsche ventilated cross drilled and rotationally vented rotors. On the back went vented and cross-drilled 911 rear rotors and Hurst Airheart calipers with a smaller piston to keep brake force in balance.

He explains: “I did a lot of work with Porsche with this particular part of the car so that I was sure the brakes worked right. I didn’t care what brake I used so long as we did not run a proportioning valve on the brakes like the original 914-6 did. I thought that I could do a lot better by using a bigger front brake and a smaller rear brake.

“What I was looking for was basically 70/30 front-to-rear brake force. So, I went with a caliper that provided the same amount of piston area that I wanted. And this is the combination I came up with. In front I used a 917/30 setup that is basically the same as the one on a Porsche 935.”

The hubs JT chose have 72mm quick-change studs in them for fast wheel changes, a decision that involves turning down the studs for fast acceptance of wheel-gun driven wheel nuts. As JT notes, “All the trick stuff took tons of time.”

For wheels JT turned to Centerline, acquiring 11×15-in. fronts and 15×15-in. rears, but admits he also likes Gotti wheels because he had once raced a 935 with them. The car’s current owner, Franklin Wong, will continue to run with the wheels he has fitted now.

In fact, Wong bought the car from JT before the project was ever completed, planning to finish the assembly project in short order. After setting the car up as a runner, fate interjected in the form of Wong’s first child, which, as he freely admits, changed his priorities. Playing with cars and risking injury or worse during motorsport activities suddenly seemed inappropriate. And so the 914-6 was put into storage, and any ongoing restoration took a back seat.

A great deal ot time was spent authenticating the chain of custody of the car and the Ginther Sponsor DNA…but one thing we were not able to clarify until lately was the #34. In the end, we were told by an insider that this was simply “Richie’s number.” And yet there’s an amusing contradiction in the car’s present form. The car never actually raced in IMSA or any other events in its current iteration, and it is now no longer in its race-winning SCCA configuration.

So we can probably expect the purists to argue that the car’s real historical significance has been obscured by its remarkable new ultra-high performance identity—a form in which the car accomplished nothing more than a metamorphosis, a radical mutation of what we expect to see in a 914-6.

Is it better now? Unquestionably. Does it turn heads in its new supercar incarnation? You bet it does. And finally, will the serious Porschephiles care? That, friends, is entirely up to you.

Also from Issue 212

  • Would you believe 416 hp and 53 mpg?
  • The WEC contender begins its quest
  • Carbon fiber and 3.6 liters of power
  • A unique take on the Outlaw Porsche
  • A showcase of Porsche's dual personality
  • Updating done the right way
  • Not powerful, but well balanced
  • Built for the rough stuff by Tuthill
  • Courage, defined
  • The ears have it: Yes, it's worth it.
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