13 October 2005

The Porsche Legacy

The view ahead is astonishing. The fascia is so simple that it seems to have transcended plainness to verge on the beautiful. During rare lapses of driving concentration, it’s easy to imagine a designer sketching its simple lines, sweeping his pencil across the paper in a long, perfect semi-circle that echoes the extreme curvature of the windscreen, then leaning forward in concentration to add the two neat instrument pods. History tells us that everything about this car was for function, but it just so happens that the form became a thing of aesthetic wonder.

Beyond the fascia, through the bubble screen – as rounded and bowl-like as a glider cockpit – there are brutal wheelarches cleaving their way through the air, marking the car’s high-speed passage along leafy lanes. The curves, radical on a race track, look almost cartoon-like on the road.

Seated like this, leaning back in a vestigial shell of a chair, feet stretched forward across the perfectly flat floor, Jo Siffert, Bob Bondurant and Rico Steinemann would have seen similar views of the Porsche 906’s unconventional mix of straight lines and strong curves, but ahead would have been a race track, road circuit or hillclimb. We’re talking Le Mans, Sebring and Daytona, the Targa Florio and Ollon-Villars – having briefly tried Formula One in the early 1960s, Porsche settled on GT class endurance racing and dominance in the European Hillclimb Championship as its motorsport disciplines of choice, and the 906 paved the way.

But today the view is of sleepy, rural Derbyshire. This 906, or Carrera 6 as it’s just as commonly known, is road-legal in a marginal kind of way. As it slices along the narrow lanes, its roof little higher than the occasional family hatchback that has the misfortune to encounter it, there’s a feeling of returning to the days when race cars were tested on newly-opened motorways and autobahns, carburetors jetted in quick blasts up the nearest quiet road and suspensions tweaked by nonchalant looking mechanics round roads just like these.

We’re not being reckless, just politically incorrect. We’re not breaking the law, just bending it. We’re not bored or distracted, we’re flying on a natural high.

There’s already been a fight for the first drive, with specialist dealers Lee Maxted-Page and James Baxter as keen as I am to be the first behind the wheel of this 906, a veteran of the 1000km of Monza , the Grand Prix of Hockenheim, the 12 Hours of Reims and the Grand Prix of Morocco (where it won). Then, as each driver gets his turn, there’s a little drop in bravado. We are, after all, driving the 917’s older (and slightly less brawny) brother on the road, adding to the handful of miles that it’s covered since a two-year, $200,000 Pebble Beach Concours restoration by Patrick Motorsports in Arizona.

Lee is first. He props open the flimsy gullwing door with its metal prop (basic but effective). Don’t think Mercedes 300SL Gullwing here, because where an SL’s hinges are beautifully crafted, the door perfectly counterbalanced by an enclosed spring, the 906 hinges are bent pieces of metal rod, the door catch little different from that on your garden gate. Simplicity and lightness rule.

You’d be a fool to try getting into a 906 without using the door prop until you’re well practiced. The sills are wide, the drop into the seat a long one and the size of the door aperture seems to shrink as you plant backside on sill, congratulating yourself on getting one leg in and wondering how the other will follow. A bit of practice makes all the difference, but the perfect condition of this car makes it harder to justify sliding across the painted sill than it would in a rough and tumble race car. Elegant, you won’t be.

Inside, the cockpit is tiny and the seating position more reclined than the look of the seats suggest. But that bubble of a screen eases the claustrophobia. The steering wheel feels just right (though I’d ditch the modern Momo in favour of something less comfortable, more period), the gearchange is rubbery while the floor-hinged pedals are easy to deal with. The switchgear is a mish-mash of switches, rubber knobs and basic warning lights. But then, so is an early 911s.

Time to turn the key. There’s nothing so theatrical as a starter button. The air-cooled flat-six engine turns slowly, then catches with a whirr and a bark that brings relief to all involved – this sounds pure 1960s 911 (albeit a potent one), complete with trademark collection of unusual noises. The whoosh of the fan, the faint resonance of the cooling fins, the cacophony of the mechanical to-ing and fro-ing uninsulated by a wet sump or a jacket of coolant, the roar of the six inlets (from the two triple-choke carburettors) and the rortiness of the street-spec exhaust. As the engine revs, the effects of each individual component jockey for aural dominance, with strange results. At idle, it’s touching on VW Beetle; further into the revs it burbles like a V8 before moving into a searing scream that would do justice to a Ferrari V-12.

The engine in this car is a 2.7-litre flat-six and originally it would have been a 2-litre, pushing out 210bhp. Not a great output, but you’d never know it from the driving seat...

With harness pulled tight and floor-hinged pedals mastered, the 906 pulls away easily, needing a few revs for a clean getaway but managing to escape the spluttering of many a highly-tuned motor. Immediately the cabin begins to reverberate with the combined assault of intake and exhaust noise from the engine just the other side of a thin bulkhead, while every grain of road grit seems to crash against the underside of the bare floor and inner arches. The gear change retains some rubberiness in feel but never misses a selection, and it’s not long before the engine seems to be begging for abuse, a willing victim of the heavy right foot.

The noises rise and sharpen, the hedgerows blur and the 906 is transformed from a daunting, difficult jumble of unmatched dynamics to a high-speed, fit-like-a-glove road weapon of great purpose. Quick is easy, fast is exhileratingly simple and very fast is just downright outrageous. This from around 200bhp? It’s only when you consider that a 906 weighs 675kg, against, say, a 911S’s 1100kg that it makes sense.

It owes this remarkable lightness to one man, Ferdinand Piëch. In 1963, at just 26, he joined his uncle Ferry Porsche’s company and immediately began to ruffle feathers. He started in the test department, where the new six-cylinder engine for the forthcoming 901 model (which became the 911) was well into development. Piëch was troubled by the new engine’s complexity and, with engineer Hans Mezger, set about redesigning the unit, despite the imminent launch of the 901. Existing employees were outraged – but the more vocal of them were soon moved on.

Within two years, Piëch had revolutionized the Porsche test and development department and focused his attentions on the 904 race car – designed by Ferdinand Porsche (Ferry’s son). The GT-class 904 had been a big step for Porsche, which was surprisingly naive in its race car design, lagging behind not just the likes of Shelby and Ferrari, but much smaller companies like Lotus for innovation and execution.

Piëch was skeptical of the suck-it-and-see practices in the Porsche design department, and recognized that the 904 suffered from over-complex engines and a lack of torsional rigidity in its box-section steel chassis and bonded-on glassfibre body. He preached low weight, low drag and high power – and headed the development of a new, spaceframe chassis and a lightweight glassfibre body with a much lower nose than the 904, a cut-off Kamm tail and a plastic rear screen over the engine bay, wind tunnel tested for the first time ever for a Porsche race car.

To the delight of traditionalists within Porsche, the 906 turned out to be slightly less aerodynamic than the 904, which had been developed by instinct. But the 906 was seriously light (113kg lighter than the 904), with every trick that Piëch’s team could think of to reduce weight, and stiffer than its predecessor.

Some of the clever design features caused as many problems as they solved. The longitudinal chassis tubes were designed to carry oil between the mid-mounted engine and the front-mounted oil cooler. Oil-tight chassis welding tested skills and patience and, as demonstrated to uncomfortable effect on the way out of this 906, could cause the sills to heat to bum-burning levels.

The engine was based around the production 911’s flat-six. But the aluminum crankcase and iron cylinder sleeves were replaced with magnesium alloy and chrome-plated aluminum, respectively. Camshaft and cylinder head designs were changed, con-rods were swapped for forged titanium items and even the cylinder head bolts were produced in titanium – although they had to be coated in glassfibre in an attempt to reduce the different expansion rates of the bolts and the aluminum castings they held together.

On its twin-spark ignition and Weber IDA carburettors, the 906’s engine could produce an impressive 210bhp – that rose to 220 with the later addition of fuel injection.

The formula worked. The 906 had its first outing in the 1966 24 Hours of Daytona, driven by Herbert Linge and Hans Herrmann. It finished sixth, beaten only by a fleet of factory GT40s and a single Ferrari. Later at Sebring they finished 4th, 6th and 8th. At the Targa Florio the cars excelled finishing first, third, fourth and eighth. Continuing at Le Mans , the cars once again proved successful and finished in 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th places. It won the 2-litre class and, crucially, proved its reliability. This success was followed by a win at Sebring, an overall victory in the Targa Florio and fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh places in the 24 Hours of Le Mans .

Thus proven by the factory team, the 906 became a favourite among privateer racers and set the scene for further forays into endurance racing – the 917 was the most obvious result of the 906’s success, but you can trace its influence right through to the most recent Porsche endurance racers.

The car here, a 1966 model, spent the late 1960s in the hands of the André Wicky Racing Team of Lausanne, Switzerland and its later years with Dick Barbour Racing of San Diego, California. As such, it has been raced around the world but only in the late 1980s was it found to have suffered the typically 906 fate of a cracked crankcase.

Like most well-used 906s, the original magnesium crankcase was replaced with an aluminum equivalent but the engine’s special innards, such as the titanium rods, were left intact. Now, with the 2-litre rightly preserved, the car’s replacement 2.4 has been race-tuned – to great effect as we know.

What sets this wonderful machine apart, though, is its sheer quality. Most of the surviving 906s (just 65 were built, some with eight-cylinder engines) are still raced, or at least retain race trim and are ropey in their detailing. But this is perfect, its original panels prepared to standards way beyond factory.

Its lines are near-perfect, the paintwork inside and out flawless. It’s not been in the UK long, and was just hours out of the Gelscoe Motorsport workshops after a final tweaking and a trip to the local MoT station when we drove it. It’s now for sale for £325,000, a fraction of the cost of a 917.

Who will buy it? What will they do with it? It could be kept to concours in its current condition but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be raced – all the signs are that the 906 will become accepted in more racing series over the coming years, in which case its appeal and value can only increase. But whatever happens, nothing can beat seeing it on the road.

This Porsche 906 is for sale with Maxted-Page & Baxter (01787 477749, www.maxted-page.com). Thanks also to Gelscoe Motorsport.

SPECIFICATION

Porsche 906

Engine

1991cc air-cooled
180° six-cylinder,
twin triple-choke
Weber carburetors

Power

210bhp @ 8,000 rpm
Torque
148lb ft @ 6,400 rpm

Transmission

Five-speed
all-syncromesh transaxle gearbox,
ZF limited-slip diff

Suspension

Double wishbones
front and rear,
coil springs over
gas dampers,
rear radius arms,
anti-roll bars

Brakes

Discs front and rear
Performance
Top speed 168 mph

Value

£300,000 (approx.)

Octane Magazine
www.octane-magazine.com

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