Even though Steve McQueen didn’t know it at the time, his Solar Productions film company proved to be aptly named. That’s because anything connected to McQueen or Solar’s two most important car films, Bullitt and Le Mans, is currently as hot as the sun.
So when Gooding & Company put one of the shapely, iconic Gulf-liveried Porsche 917Ks used in Le Mans on the block at Pebble Beach, the final gavel price was expected to be appropriately stratospheric. At $14,080,000, the final sale price did not disappoint. But given the car’s place in Porsche lore, it may have been a steal, falling well short of the high end of the forecasted range of $16 million.
Any one of the 60 or so Porsche 917s built over four years, starting in 1969, is a 12-point trophy buck for a serious car collector. The 917 represents the high-water mark that sports-prototype racing achieved both in terms of speed and mortal danger before the onset of safety rules in the 1970s that were intended to reduce the carnage. But chassis number 917-024 has a unique provenance that, depending on how much you need your 917 to have actually raced, would make it especially desirable. First, it’s a 917K, or kurz (meaning short), which for many is the most ballsy and attractive version of Porsche’s flat-12 monster of the Mulsanne. Also, this particular car served as a factory test unit in early 1970 to help sharpen the 917’s chassis and aerodynamics for competition, being piloted by Brian Redman and Mike “The Bike” Hailwood in test sessions at Le Mans and the Nurburgring.
Porsche retired 917-024 and in June 1970 sold it to Swiss Grand Prix and sports-car driver Jo Siffert, who then leased it to McQueen’s Solar Productions for several months. The car served as both a behind-the-scenes camera car and also as one of the on-screen team cars during the tumultuous, disaster-plagued filming of Le Mans, which, when finished, was basically a 106-minute open-throttle, nearly wordless commercial for the Porsche 917K.
Siffert, who once drove the car on public roads to his own birthday party, died in a racing accident in 1971. The engine, on loan from Porsche, went back to the factory and the car eventually went to a collector in France, where it spent 23 years hiding in a warehouse outside of Paris. It resurfaced in 2001, still minus an engine but otherwise almost perfectly preserved from its filming days. It carried the original space-saver spare tire, and a yellowed handwritten tag, believed to have been penned by Porsche factory driver Herbert Linge, was hanging from the dash with instructions, in German, on how to set the fuel injection pump for the Le Mans configuration.
The new owner planned to race the car at the Le Mans Classic, and thus acquired an engine and commissioned a useable replica of the original magnesium tube frame, by then too corroded and cracked for track use. When the car was subsequently sold a few years later, the original frame was restored and reinstalled in Switzerland under the guidance of ex-Porsche 917 factory engineer Walter Naher. Naher died last March, meaning it’s unlikely that any 917 will ever be restored with such direct involvement from one of its original creators.
Sure, two 917s that would definitely be more valuable than this one are chassis 917-023, which brought Porsche its first-ever Le Mans victory in 1970, and 917-053, which won Le Mans in 1971. The former is now in a private collection in Europe, and the latter belongs to Porsche. These cars don’t come up for sale too often, and given its history and the hands that have restored it, this 917K test mule/film star may have been one of the weekend’s best bargains.