The Camera Car

Porsche 908/2 chassis 022 lived quite a life after Steve McQueen sold it.

Photo: The Camera Car 1
December 10, 2020

Some Porsches are famous, some are successful, and some are unique. But Porsche 908/2 chassis #022 is all three of those things. Owned and raced by movie star Steve McQueen, who drove it to second-place overall at Sebring in 1969 and used it as the camera car at the 1970 Le Mans 24 Hours for his film Le Mans, the car was subsequently kept as spares for many years with its owner having no idea of its provenance. We met the man who has owned the car for nearly 50 years to get the full and wonderful story.

Welcoming, always smiling, and a maker of racing Porsches, August Deutsch is like the grandfather every boy wishes they had. His little workshop on Munich’s outskirts is full of Porsche engine parts and old fashioned milling machines, the running of which is now in the capable hands of his son, Markus. Making it a true family enterprise, wife Renata runs the office. It’s with an air of reverence that August opens one of the many folders of archives on the shelves. Inside, the bill of sale from Porsche AG to Steve McQueen and the letter confirming its authenticity from Jürgen Barth is a source of particular pride. But for many years, Deutsch had no idea just how special his car was.

Porsche 908/2 #022 began life as a factory Langheck (Long Tail) bodied car and was finished just in time for the 1969 Daytona 24 Hours to be driven by Rolf Stommelen and Kurt Ahrens Jr. The race wasn’t exactly one of Porsche’s finest moments, though, as all three of the works cars entered retired; 022 being done in by an intermediate drive failure. After that race, the car was sent back to Germany. With the Group 6 rules changed to allow open-top cars, the bodywork was converted to the much lighter Flunder version, which had aerodynamic advantages over even the Spyder variant. (Flunder is the German word for sole, a very flat fish.)

In this new configuration it was acquired by Steve McQueen, who in his time was not only a movie legend but also a skilled and accomplished racing driver. Wanting to get behind the wheel again after racing Porsche Speedsters competitively years earlier, the 908—still competitive but not as hard to drive or anywhere remotely as expensive as one of the new 917s—was the perfect car for him. Flown out to California at the beginning of 1970, McQueen took #022 to a couple of SCCA National races, which he promptly won.

Photo: The Camera Car 2

The Camera Car (chassis 908/2-022) as it appeared when filming footage for Le Mans.

Wanting a more serious challenge, at the end of March, McQueen entered his 908 in the Sebring 12 Hours with Peter Revson as his teammate. With the full might of the Porsche and Ferrari works teams entering three cars each and McQueen driving with a broken foot still in a cast from a motorbike crash, the star’s Solar racing team was hoping for a good finish in the P3.0 class.

In the early hours, after surviving a spin, McQueen and Revson were leading their class. But Sebring, known as a circuit with a high attrition rate, was rough on the favorites. Porsche’s 917s suffered front hub and engine failures, and several top Ferraris didn’t fare much better after nightfall. McQueen’s team moved into an incredible and wholly unexpected third-place overall. Then, the race leading Ferrari also retired. Suddenly they were in second. Then, Joe Stiffert’s 917 needed a lengthy pit stop due to another hub failure, and McQueen and Revson found themselves in the overall lead!

Ferrari decided to put its fastest driver, Mario Andretti, in their only surviving 512 S. That works car (with an extra 2,000cc of engine capacity over the 908) relentlessly cut down Revson’s lead until, with just a few minutes to go, overtook him. But then Andretti had to pit for a splash of fuel and, once again, Revson was back in the lead. But with superior power and speed, the Ferrari reeled in the 908 and took victory by just a few seconds.

That result alone would be enough to grand the 908 legendary status. But there is a lot more to the story.

Photo: The Camera Car 3

Sebring was the highlight of both McQueen’s and this particular 908’s racing careers, but this car was soon to enjoy another exalted place in motorsport history. For his movie Le Mans, McQueen chose it to be the movie’s on-track camera car during the 1970 race. In the days before easy data transmission or GoPros, fitting massive movie reel cameras to a car was a significant engineering challenge, as well as an obvious safety one, especially as the car was actually to be entered in the race. The front-mounted camera alone weighed a hefty 66 pounds and was large enough that there was no way it could be made to sit flush under the bodywork, which is why a large, visibility obstructing cowling had to be made.

Two more cameras were mounted at the rear, which was slightly easier to find space for, although the rear crossmember needed to be modified to accommodate them. Another cowling was needed to cover the film reels. That this set-up worked at all is a testament to the engineering skills of Solar Productions, McQueen’s production company. That it could withstand the rigors of the La Sarthe circuit from all the vibrations of blasting down the Mulsanne straight at nearly 200 miles per hour was impressive.

A switch box near the shifter allowed the driver to select “Record” so he could film faster cars coming up behind him and pulling away in front. Despite all the extra weight and the additional pit stops needed to install new film reels, the car actually took part in the race and finished ninth overall. Almost. Since the 908 had to stop so frequently, it didn’t cover enough distance to be classified among the finishers.

The camera car’s primary driver was Herbert Linge, who, after racing with a large movie camera above his shins obscuring his view, would go on to be a pioneer of motor racing safety by instigating the 914-6 GT R-Car, the forerunner of all circuit safety vehicles. His co-driver was Jonathan Williams. McQueen himself is also rumored to have slipped behind the wheel for a stint or two at night—secretly though, as his insurance company forbade it.

Photo: The Camera Car 4

After filming, 908/2 #022 became surplus to requirements, and McQueen sold it on to Team Auto Usdau, whose main driver, Hans-Dieter Weigel, competed in European World Sportscar races in 1971 with unremarkable results. Chassis 022’s last race was in July with the car in red and yellow. A single and equally unsuccessful outing at the 1972 Le Mans ended with a retirement due to an accident.

The car was next seen in action the following year in the hands of Ecuadorian driver Guillermo Ortega. With the nose painted in the bright colors of the Ecuadorian flag and the body a pale blue, along with fellow countryman Fausto Merello, they finished a very creditable seventh overall, giving the car its highest result at Le Mans. The 1974 event didn’t go as well, though, as the car was crashed into retirement. After the race, Ortega sold it as it was, damaged and minus the engine and gearbox.

What was left was bought as a spares supply by a small German race preparation team called Deutsch Brothers Racing. August Deutsch was running another 908 (908/2 #018) in local sports car events that was powered by a Rover V8 mated to a Hewland gearbox. Seeing as he didn’t need any expensive Porsche engine and transmission parts, the rolling shell was perfect for his needs. Fortunately, all of the local drivers that Deutsch ran in the car were reliable and never had an accident. Hence, chassis #022 stayed safe in the workshop and never needed to be cannibalized.

The Rover-powered 908 was sold in the late 1970s, so August bought another one a couple of years later. When he sold that car, he decided to prepare the dust-covered #022 chassis for the European Interseries, a championship very similar to CanAm in that it had very open rules about what could race. A 911 block was fitted and given a significant bump in power with the addition of a pair of Kühnle, Kopp & Kausch K27 turbos.

Photo: The Camera Car 5

A gearbox from a 935 was re-engineered to work upside down, as the rear engine was now turned around and installed where the mid-mounted flat-eight used to be. Deutsch experimented with the best positions for the turbos. They were first installed at the back, 935 style, but he found that the best place for them was at the sides.

When Porsche sold off all its surplus parts from the 908 years, August snapped up some body panel molds. Since the mounting points for newer 908 body panels are in the same place as older models, the new bodywork Deutsch made fit easily, making #022 look like the newer CanAm and Interseries cars of the day.

Against the ubiquitous Lolas and similarly modified McLaren M8s, chassis 022 was fast. Deutsch won his class many times in what he thought was just an ordinary 908. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s when, at a test day, an observer looked at the chassis stamp and said that he should contact Porsche to find out more about the car’s history. Deutsch duly wrote Porsche a couple of times. Still, in the days before the internet, information gathering was a laborious task. It was a year before Jürgen Barth replied with confirmation from Le Mans, Sebring, and Porsche’s own files that Deutsch actually had McQueen’s car.

“It was cool,” Deutsch shrugs. “But Porsche history wasn’t anywhere as important back then as it is now, so to me, it was still just a good and fast race car.”

Photo: The Camera Car 6

August Deutsch. There really couldn’t be a nicer man to accidentally discover that he owns Steve McQueen’s iconic 908/2 camera car.

By the late ’80s, there was no other place for the car to race in its rather Frankensteined state, so once again, it was draped in dust covers. This time it stayed in storage for 12 years. It wasn’t until a surprise visit to the workshop from the organizer of the Nürburgring Oldtimer Festival who came to ask Deutsch to participate in the 2000 event. That was in 1998. Although two years to get a car ready might seem a long enough time, it was still quite a challenge with just evenings and weekends to spare.

From running the first 908s in the 1970s, Deutsch still had an original Porsche flat-eight engine, so that was stripped down and rebuilt. When the rest of the car was gone through the original fuel cell was taken out and Deutsch found the words, “Made for Steve McQueen” printed on it, so that was kept safe. Since the late 1960s, safety rules had changed dramatically. The 908 is considered a two-seater so, to fulfill modern FIA safety requirements, its roll hoop needed to be extended, and an onboard fire extinguisher had to be fitted, which went where the front movie camera once sat.

Deutsch managed to get the car ready in time for the race, and with the famous McQueen Sebring livery not being seen for over 30 years, it was a very popular car. He enjoyed the experience so much that he began regularly taking part with the 908 in the Classic Group 4 series, the precursor today’s Masters Historic Sportscar Championship. To date, he has amassed trophies from over 100 races at tracks as prestigious as Spa and the Nürburgring. Despite some race organizers warning the field to be careful of the white car, as it was worth more than the rest of the grid put together, once Deutsch was behind the wheel, it was just another race car and was driven hard, just like any other.

In 2010, Patrick Peter, the organizer of many world-class classic events, such as the Tour Auto, invited Deutsch to that year’s Le Mans Classic and asked if he would like to put the car into the blue camera car livery it raced with in 1970. Deutsch was happy to display the provenance of the car, and getting its front hood wrapped in blue was a simple enough task. Making the cowlings for the camera covers wasn’t quite so easy, though. Son Markus, now a highly regarded race engine tuner himself helped and made them from scratch.

To drive the car at Le Sarthe, an old conversation with GT racing legend David Piper was recalled. The octogenarian driver, who is a part of the Le Mans film after losing a leg in a crash during filming, was only too happy to oblige. As soon as he got in, though, he demonstrated just what Helmut Linge and Jonathan Williamson had to deal with in the 1970 event, as Piper had to have the movie camera box taken off because he couldn’t see the track.

Another modification they had to make for Piper was a specially adapted steering wheel with a throttle control. The original 908 steering column that runs right between the accelerator and brake pedal also had to be modified with two U-joints so that he could drive it safely with his prosthetic leg.

In the last few years, interest in all things Porsche related has exploded. The car is now displayed more than it is raced. And it’s also a little too cumbersome to drive with the camera cowling on the front. But Deutsch keeps it in white with the No. 48 on it, remembering what he considers is 908/2-022’s finest hour. Still, he would likely be more than happy to drive it in anger again when needed.

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