The year is 1970 and the prize is the Grand Prix of endurance races: Le Mans. 24 hours of grueling racing that punishes both the car and the driver. It's the oldest and most prestigious event in the racing calendar, and that year Porsche were desperate to win. Unlike most races, which run over a timed fixed distance, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is a relentless race that’s won by the car that covers the greatest distance.
It was the year that Hollywood descended on the French semi-permanent track with its number one global superstar, Steve McQueen. McQueen starred in the epic blockbuster movie Le Mans, a film that has him totaling a Porsche race-car, and blasting his way to victory in the climax.
The famous car that starred alongside him, a car which epitomizes everything Le Mans, was the Porsche 917. Porsche only made 25 of the ultra-slick racers to meet FIA requirements, cars that were purpose built for the brutal French race. And they took Le Mans by storm. The 917 annihilated its competition, taking wins in 1970 and 71, proving that it was number one on the track.
Today, originals can command eye-watering sums of money. The actual car that featured in the movie later fetched $14 million at auction. Of the original cars, there's probably just a handful left. So getting the chance to drive one is pretty impossible. But is it?
Two Guys, Ten Years, And One Car
A small garage in Essex, England, tells a different story. Hiding inside is the result of ten years' hard work for two friends and business partners, Dave Eaton and John Hartland. For the past decade they have been busy building one of these prize classic Le Mans racing cars.
The car that they’ve been toiling over is the same model as the one that featured in the movie, a 917K. And yes, you can drive it. Because this one is road-legal.
Jonny Smith from the Late Brake Show was lucky enough to see the car up close, and drive it. In his YouTube video he meets with Dave and John, surprisingly at one of their houses. The car is located in a regular household garage, amongst old household items and paint pots, standing beneath a gray sheet.
When they remove the cover we get to see the awesome white race car replica in all its glory. “So you’ve been living and breathing this for the last decade” says Jonny. “Yes, ten years of lunacy” comes the reply.
Their fascination for this car goes way back, to when Dave was 13. He attended a race at the Brands Hatch circuit, in April 1970, when a Porsche 917 stole the show. “Ever since then I knew I wanted one”, says Dave.
The catalyst for the project was an eBay listing which Dave saw, in 2011, for a set of 917 body panels. “I just had to have one,” says the skilled car design engineer. His partnership with John, a mechanical engineer, is the perfect coupling for the project. For the past ten years they’ve been hard at it, and the fruits of their labor is now clear to see.
How This 917 Replica Differs From The Original
The car that they've built is slightly different to an original. They were unable to source a flat-12 engine (rumored to cost almost $1 million), so they loaded it with a 3.6 liter flat-6 from a Porsche 964, which has 270 horsepower. “We need more power,” acknowledges Dave. “That’s the next phase, we're going to reverse engineer it to a flat-12 and bring it up to 600 horsepower.”
“It’s almost like you’ve proven the recipe, and now you're ready to double the power,” says Jonny.
Dave recreated the car’s complex spider-web chassis using CAD software. The original car has aluminum tubing, but for this car they chose steel. “It makes the car more rigid, which reduces roll. And it meets current track regulations,” says John.
In the sunlight the ultra-low racer looks fantastic, with its scissor doors raised. The original race-car weighed about 800 kilos, this one is 940. "We could shed some more weight, twenty kilos in road-legality and another ten or fifteen in the body shell," says John. "It'll then weigh pretty much the same as the original," he says smiling.
On The Road In The Classic Racer
“It's seriously snug in here. This posture will take a bit of getting used to,” says Jonny as he folds his six-foot three frame into the 37” high car. Inside the cockpit, “It's just got the bare minimum, it's all about the power-to-weight ratio with this car,” he says, as he drives off down the road.
Watching him blast along the country lanes, you can’t help but imagine what it would have been like for a racing driver at the Le Mans track fifty years ago. "Today, I'm gonna be the Steve McQueen of Essex," he says, smiling.
The Porsche 917 has a powerful, raw presence, much like the Ford GT40, that exudes speed. “This car had to be as fast an F1 car, but more reliable than a road-car, to drive it flat out for 24 hours,” says Jonny.
John and Dave have done an awesome job, their replica 917 drives great and sounds cool too. Jonny praises the Radical braking system and compliments the car's ultra-sensitive controls. You can see that he's enjoying the ride. "It's like a Go-Cart on Steroids" he beams.
After completing the arduous ten-year build, the guys now run their own company (Icon Engineering), which provides turn-key cars like this one, for around $330,000.
Jonny summed the car up really well in his closing statement “In a world where driving has become more sanitized, this analogue, raw, frisky driving experience is becoming more and more attractive, don’t you think?” We certainly do.