The late 1960s and early 1970s were a colorful time in the Western world, as these years gave rise to more liberal mainstream thinking, the Woodstock phenomenon, and the ‘flower power’ movement. Bold colors and wild designs played a role in pop culture during this time as well, even in the world of motorsport.
It was in 1969 that the Porsche 917 burst onto the motor racing scene and—following a rather turbulent beginning in life that required additional work and testing to get it to handle properly—it became dominant in the Group 5 class of the World Manufacturers’ Championship in 1970 and 1971.
While Porsche had contracted race team owner John Wyer to essentially run the factory team in the World Championship in ’70 and ’71, the company also supported the Porsche Salzburg team and the Martini team, all three being regarded as works teams. Martini was a loyal Porsche sponsor, and under the management of Porsche’s Hans-Dieter Dechent, one of the cars in this race team, 917/20-001, would take on a theme more akin to livestock farming.
What was 917/20-001?
The car on these pages was a one-off model produced as an experiment, a sort of cross between a long- and a short-tail 917. To complicate matters slightly, a potential rule change by the FIA governing body loomed, whereby the protected windshield height regulation might be dropped for 1971. Still, in 1970, this change had not been clarified. To make some progress on improving the 917 while awaiting that decision, Porsche considered its options.
At a meeting between French aerodynamics specialist SERA (Société d’Études et de Réalisations Automobiles, or Society of Automotive Studies and Achievements) and Porsche’s own design team on June 22nd, 1970 (just a week after Porsche had secured its first overall Le Mans victory), a project was initiated whereby the company’s design office and SERA would ‘compete’ to see who could come up with the best design. The new coupe design of the 917/20 was to offer lower air resistance than the existing 917 coupe body, but without any loss of downforce. The car was also to have a shorter nose length, closely resembling that of the lighter-weight 908/03 racer. An extremely tight schedule for the design of this new racer was produced at this meeting.
A car frame drawing was expected to be sent to SERA by July 6th, and Porsche was to have its body design shipped to SERA on July 15th, the same day the Stuttgart-based company’s designers were to begin work on a 3D model. Finally, 1/4-scale models were to be ready to go for wind tunnel testing by August 31st. Both Porsche and SERA were to produce one design or model each, a task that was made slightly easier when the FIA eventually confirmed that the protected windshield height would indeed be retained.
The route followed by SERA resulted in a design that was not only more rounded but also distinctly bulbous with laterally extended fenders. The idea was to reduce air turbulence around the wheel wells, but it gave the impression of the wheels being sunken deep within the body. On the other hand, the Porsche Design Studio produced a model of a 917 that looked futuristic, and which was also more recognizable as a 917.
In the end, it was the SERA design that was adopted, which was by no means the end of the work, as the car’s much wider but shorter body resulted in different driving dynamics. Although both design teams had taken quite divergent approaches to their bodies, it was later shown that both examples possessed relatively similar aerodynamic properties.
Le Mans Test Weekend: April 1971
Written on the inner bodywork of 917/20 was the name ‘Berta’ (Bertha), the name given to the car by the team at Porsche in Zuffenhausen. Even in the factory’s own time sheets and data records from Le Mans, this car is referred to as ‘Berta,’ while the media later rather unflatteringly christened it the ‘Pink Pig.’ As a result of the extremely tight design and development schedule, it arrived at the Le Mans test weekend entirely untested.
The first problem was getting the car to the Le Mans test weekend, as it was too wide (7.25 feet in some places!) to fit in the company’s standard race car transporter. Instead, the car had to be taken on the back of Porsche’s old, but rather substantial, Magirus military transporter.
After arriving at the circuit, the testing duties were handed to Willi Kauhsen, but the initial reports from the experienced German driver were not encouraging. In short, the car’s handling was likened to that of a pig, too, as Kauhsen found that the 917/20 did not run well in a straight line, it was unstable under braking, and it lacked downforce, a view that was shared by driver Jo Siffert.
Kauhsen completed a significant number of laps over the Le Mans test weekend, during which the stability was improved through multiple suspension changes, including stiffer rear springs to keep the tail from squatting at speed. Also, the brake bias was moved forward, as the rear bias was initially too strong. Finally, aerodynamic changes made included a full-width spoiler lip in front of the oil cooler intake and side spoiler plates on the tail separation edge. All these changes, however, only slightly improved 917/20.
New to the Le Mans spectacle was the introduction of a three-hour race on the test weekend. This mini-race was used by the ACO race organizing body to observe the performance of reserve entries, in case they needed to be called into play in the event of any late cancellations. In truth, the three-hour race was used as an extended practice session, also offering an opportunity for the fine-tuning of team pit procedures.
Further changes were made to 917/20 before the three-hour race that weekend, which included changing the kinematics of the front suspension, most notably the front left wheel, giving it slightly more toe-out. With each modification or change in setup, the car reportedly behaved better, but it was still short of its full potential. Following an engine change, the car performed well in the short race in the hands of Kauhsen and Gijs van Lennep, as they led until an electrical fault resulted in them not finishing.
Returning to Zuffenhausen, 917/20-001 was tested in the Stuttgart wind tunnel, and it was found that the car was no better aerodynamically than either the 917K (for Kurzheck, or short-tail) or the 917L (for Langheck, or long-tail) versions. When the team returned to Le Mans for the 24-hour race, Kauhsen posted a lap time in Thursday’s practice of 3:20.8 minutes. Although it was a good time, it was still 6.0 seconds a lap slower than the Pedro Rodriguez/Jackie Oliver duo in the Gulf 917L.
Le Mans 24 Hours: June 1971
Up to this point, this 917/20 had carried the #20 on a plain white body, devoid of any other colorful embellishments. For the race, though, the car was given the #23, perhaps hoping to repeat the #23’s victory of the previous year. The idea of coloring the car pink and painting the butcher’s pork cuts in German all over it is credited to Porsche designer Richard Söderberg.
Despite the car being sponsored by Martini & Rossi, the sponsor’s branding was not to be found anywhere on the car. This is in itself an unusual situation because a sponsor would typically expect their sponsorship investment to be visible on the race car, this being the main purpose in paying handsomely for the privilege. But the absence of any corporate branding was the sponsor’s own decision, as they considered it too ugly as a race car. It is even more strange that Porsche’s management did not intervene and disallow this controversial livery, insisting on their main sponsor receiving good value for their investment.
Kauhsen’s driving partner in the 24-hour race was Reinhold Joest, a Porsche stalwart and, like Kauhsen, a factory driver. It was Kauhsen who qualified the car in seventh with a lap of 3:21.0 minutes, 2.3 seconds down on the eventual 917K race winner (#22), and a full 7.1 seconds down on the #18 Wyer Gulf 917L of Pedro Rodriguez with a pole time of 3:13.9 minutes.
A rolling start was used at the 1971 Le Mans 24 Hour race for the first time in the race’s history. The old Le Mans start, in which drivers started the race by running across the track to their cars, was abolished in part due to a fatal accident at Le Mans in 1969 when privateer 917 driver John Woolfe was killed in a crash on the first lap due to an unsecured seat belt. Willi Kauhsen took up the start in 917/20, and the entire field completed a full lap behind the pace car before they were released to begin the 24-hour race. The #23 Porsche ran like clockwork right from the start, and the car spent a minimum of time in the pit garage, stopping just for fuel, tires, and brake pads.
Kauhsen completed 28 trouble-free laps and then handed the car over to Joest, who did the same as what his co-driver had just done. The car was then given back to Kauhsen, who returned the car to Joest in good order, and everything looked to be going swimmingly well for both the car and team. Regular and standard pit stops ensued during which brake pads were changed, and the engine cooling fan was given a new set of securing bolts with 121 laps completed, just as a precaution. After six hours, the car was running in fifth place overall.
Kauhsen took the wheel for his three-hour stint during the night, which comprised three stints of 15 to 16 laps each. The first two stints went off without a hitch, but early on in his third stint, Kauhsen came back into the pits complaining of a poorly performing engine. The problem was quickly resolved, and Kauhsen went back out again. It was then the turn of Reinhold Joest to climb aboard with 177 laps completed. Joest was back in the pits two laps later with a torn throttle cable. Once again, a clever fix was made with a duplicate cable, and the car was sent off to continue its battle.
It was the eleventh hour when Reinhold Joest left the pits, and 917/20 was lying sixth with 184 laps on the board when he crashed into the barrier as he approached the tight right-hander at Arnage. He was not injured in the incident. Unfortunately, the Pink Pig was beyond repair. Willi Kauhsen completed three sessions behind the wheel, each one comprising double or triple stints. Joest was not far off, completing his third turn behind the wheel when the accident occurred.
Porsche 917/20 was the subject of numerous unflattering nicknames and jokes in its time—Berta, Big Bertha, Die Sau, Pink Pig, Trufflehunter. Still, once its aerodynamic and handling woes had been sorted, it was able to show its performance potential. True, it didn’t have the outright speed of the 917L versions, but it did have reliability on its side, and it proved to be a strong runner. We will never know what its true potential really was, as 917/20 only ever raced at the Le Mans test and in the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1971.
Following its unfortunate ending in the race, the car was ‘patched up’ and displayed in the original Porsche Museum in Korntal, near Zuffenhausen. That was because Porsche did not consider 917/20 to be the success they had hoped. Also, 1971 was the last year any 917 could realistically compete in the Championship before it was regulated out of being able to compete. As such, Porsche focused its attention on developing the 917/10 and 917/30 for Can-Am and Interserie racing.
The Pink Pig languished in a semi-patched state for the next decade, until it was sent to Gerry Sutterfield in the U.S. in January 1983 for a full restoration. Sutterfield took around three years to restore the race car, and, in December 1985, he notified Porsche that the car had just been delivered to Port Everglades in Florida for shipment back to Stuttgart, where it arrived in January 1986.
Although 917/20 is a non-runner today, it is still one of the visitors’ favorite exhibits at the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen. It is a sad fact that this peculiar race car was not given another chance to prove itself back in period, but it stands as a testament to the creative design and skills of the engineers back in the day when the 917s ruled endurance racing.