“Racing is life. Everything before or after is just waiting.” That was the money line from the 1971 film Le Mans. When Steve McQueen spoke those words on camera, the car that Gooding & Company just consigned, Porsche 917 number 024, was probably sitting just a few yards away. The JW Racing, Gulf-liveried 1970 Porsche 917K, one of approximately 59 built, is now poised to be the most expensive Porsche ever sold at a public auction when it crosses the block next month in Pebble Beach. (The previous record-holder was a 956, also sold by Gooding in Pebble Beach, which went for more than $10 million in 2015.)
The 917’s story is well-documented. Its run in FIA endurance racing was relatively brief owing to its utter domination of the Group 5 Sports Car class (roughly the equivalent of today’s LMP1 class). At the end of the 1971 season, the Commission Sportive International (then the race-sanctioning arm of the FIA) mandated a 3.0-liter limit for the class, instantly rendering the 4.9-liter 917 obsolete. It was the equivalent of the NBA passing a rule that no player shall exceed the height of 6’2”. The 917’s average speed at Le Mans wouldn’t be eclipsed until the Porsche 956/962 era 14 years later.
As race cars go, 917-024 had a fairly unremarkable history on the track, being used primarily as a works test car by Brian Redman. Off the track, however, it was a different story. In 1971, there was little use for a soon-to-be useless race car. Unlike earlier competition Porsches, like the 550 Spyder and 904 Carrera GTS, which were street legal, there was no practical way for the 917 to be used as a road car (although one thoroughly crazy individual managed to register one in Alabama, of all places). So, Porsche sold 917-024 to favorite works driver Jo Siffert. But it was what Steve McQueen subsequently did with the car that cemented the Gulf 917 in the minds of thousands of enthusiasts, including those who weren’t even born when the cars originally raced.
The Swiss-born Siffert was an archetypal, dashing 1960s race driver with slicked-back hair and a pencil-thin moustache. Siffert used the 917 as a display in his dealership, and also leased the car to Steve McQueen’s Solar Productions. The car appeared on-screen in Le Mans and was also used as a camera car, responsible for some of the amazing car-to-car footage in the film.
After Siffert was killed in 1971, at Brands Hatch, driving in a fairly meaningless, non-championship open-wheel race (much like the circumstances under which Jim Clark died three years before), the 917 led Siffert’s procession in the racers equivalent of a Viking funeral. Happily, the car wasn’t set on fire and sent down a river; its magnesium parts would likely still be burning.
Siffert’s estate retained the car until 1978 when it was acquired by eccentric French collector/hoarder Claude Prieur, who did nothing to it other than store it badly in a rural garage. Prieur died in 2002, and the car was hauled out of the garage and hyped as the ultimate barn find. According to the Gooding description, “Generations of rodents had called the car home” during its storage, and the original flat-twelve had gone missing. A period-correct engine was sourced and the car was restored over a period of years by the current owner/consigner.
Porsche 917-024 was originally supposed to be auctioned by Gooding at Pebble Beach back in 2014, but it was pulled from the auction without discussion at the time. David Gooding, president and founder of Gooding & Company, offered this explanation:
“After being discovered in 2001, 917-024 underwent a restoration that focused on the car being prepared for vintage racing with an emphasis on driver safety. This fastidious and detailed work included the production and use of a replacement chassis. To prepare 917-024 for auction, Gooding & Company advised that the Porsche be re-restored with its original chassis for greater historic authenticity. Due to the extensive nature of this process, which included consultation from the Porsche Factory and leading 917 historian Walter Näher, the car was not ready in time for our 2014 Pebble Beach Auctions. Today, all of that extensive restoration work has been completed with every detail carefully documented, and 917-024 is now ready for its auction debut.”