The terms Porsche and racing have now become virtually synonymous. In no small part, this is due to the German manufacturer’s stunning 19 overall victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans—more than any other manufacturer. However, the keen enthusiast will know that it took Porsche almost 20 years to notch that very first overall victory in 1970. For many, it would be easy to assume that 1970—and the mighty 917 that brought that victory—was the key turning point in Porsche’s endurance racing fortunes. But in reality, a pivotal event, in 1963, would pave the way for all of Porsche’s racing success that would follow.
Cane and Abel
After retiring their Formula One program in 1962, Porsche refocused its efforts back to sports car racing. In 1963, work began on a new, dual-purpose road and racing sports car, the 904. In some respects an evolution of the RSK 718, the new 904 saw Porsche’s 2-liter, 4-cam, 4-cylinder engine mounted amidships in a ladder-style frame (a first for Porsche), with a bonded fiberglass body. Overall design of the new 904 fell to a young Ferdinand Alexander “Butzi” Porsche who, fresh out of school, worked on both the 904 and Porsche’s new roadcar, the 911.
It is at his juncture, in 1963, where we see that pivotal change occur at Porsche that would forever reshape the arc of the company and its racing prospects. Not long after Butzi Porsche joined the family business his cousin Ferdinand Piëch also joined Porsche. In order to understand the significance of this addition, one must first understand the Porsche family lineage. The company’s founder Ferdinand Porsche had two children, a son Ferdinand “Ferry” Porsche and a daughter Louise. Ferry Porsche would go on to have a son, unimaginatively also named Ferdinand (aka Butzi), while Louise would marry a wealthy Austrian attorney named Anton Piëch and—not wanting to be left out of the family naming convention—would also name their son, Ferdinand. As one might imagine considering the family history, the two young cousins spent a lot of their youth in and around the Porsche factory in Stuttgart. So, perhaps not surprisingly, by April of 1963, both of the “Cousins Ferdinand” where fresh out of school and working at Porsche—Butzi more on the design/styling side and Piëch on the engineering side. To say they were competitive is as much an understatement as saying Porsche built some racecars.
One of the areas where Porsche was focusing its sports car racing attention was European Hill Climbing. The European Hill Climb Championship was prestigious and afforded Porsche a great venue to showcase its engineering prowess. Porsche had dominated the Hill Climb Championship for many years until 1962, when Ferrari and Ludovico Scarfiotti snatched away the sports car title with Ferrari’s 2-liter, V6-powered 196 SP.
Over the subsequent two years, the new 904 did well to uphold Porsche’s mountain honors, but Ferrari was increasing its pressure on the Germans with its new V6-powered Dino sports racers. By 1965, it was clear Porsche was going to need something more, if it was going to retain its crown. At first the team at Porsche attempted to put an 8-cylinder engine—ostensibly sourced from the Formula One project—into a lighter weight, open-top “Berg Spyder” that utilized the existing 904 ladder-style chassis. However, the handling was poor and Ferrari’s Dino 206 SP regularly out ran it.