by John Lamm
Stroll through the extensive Porsche gallery at The Revs Institute in Naples, Florida, and you’ll find not one but three different Porsche 908s. There’s an excellent reason for that: While they all share the 908 type number and the 3-liter flat-8 air-cooled engine, each was created for different rules and realities.
Here’s a look at the story behind each one:
The 908 LH (1969): The 908 program was introduced in the middle of the 1968 season to build off the earlier success of the Porsche 907 (which won in 1968 at Daytona, Sebring and the Targa Florio). At first, it had teething problems, with few victories and many disappointing mechanical failures. But by 1969, the 908s were running with modified aluminum space frames, newly designed crankshafts and five-speed transaxles, and they were the preferred choice of drivers over the newly introduced but still green Type 917s. The 908 LH ‘Long Tail’ example in the museum, part of the Miles Collier Collections, scored a win at the ultrafast Spa circuit in Belgium, thanks in part to its extended aerodynamic tail that gave the car tremendous speed (along with uneasy handling).
The 908/2 (1969): Directly adjacent to the 908 LH is the 908/2 Flunder. A rule change for 1969 allowed Porsche to pare some 200 pounds from the 908 by trimming the roof off and creating an open spyder bodywork. One version (with some variations) had a more rounded “coke-bottle” body, while the other was flat sided and topped with a cut-off tail, earning it the nickname Flunder (German for “flounder”) which was fitting in that it looks like the flat fish. As the development of the complicated 917 moved along slowly, the 908/2s came into their own, with wins that helped bring Porsche the 1969 International Championship of Makes title.
The 908/3 (1971): Without a museum placard, a Porsche neophyte would be unlikely to conclude that the Miles Collier Collections’ 908/3 bore any relation to the more recognizable 908 Flunder and LH examples. With a menacing spyder body, almost cartoonishly small front wheels, and no headlights, the 908/3 — in the now-famous blue and orange Gulf livery — is a bruiser that was built for a very specific purpose.
By 1970, the 917s had been all sorted out and were ready to begin their all-conquering run. They won that year at Daytona, Brands Hatch, Monza, Spa, Le Mans, Watkins Glen, and Austria’s Österreichring. But two famed circuits are missing from the 917’s list of triumphs: the Targa Florio on Sicily and the Nürburgring. While the 917 had made the 908 redundant on the fast circuits of Europe, it was a bit large and unwieldy on tighter, twistier circuits. So Porsche fielded their 908/3 instead. Their aim was true, as 908/3s finished 1-2 in both races.
As of 1963, Ferdinand Piëch, grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, had taken command of Porsche racing. A brilliant engineer, he was responsible for lifting the automaker out of the small-engine classes and putting it on the front row with the likes of Ferrari and Ford.
Being Porsches, Piëch’s mid-mounted race engines had horizontally-opposed cylinders, a flat-8 in the case of the 908s, air-cooled and with 2997 ccs and 360 horsepower, down in oomph from the competition. Famed 908/3 race winner Vic Elford explains that although the cars were “not particularly powerful by then-modern standards, it didn’t matter very much, because one of the things Piëch was very good at was putting cars on a regime, on a slimming course. He was notorious for having really lightweight cars.”
Piëch’s team trimmed 100 pounds from the 908/2 to create the 908/3 thanks to a totally revised chassis, lighter bodywork and the increased use of titanium. The Revs’ 908/3 weighs in at just 1,200 pounds. Contributing to that is its aluminum space frame (a lithe 48 pounds) and the plastic and foam body (a svelte 26.5 pounds).
Elford describes what it was like to race it: “It was tiny. We were literally sitting between the front wheels. We had a completely different view. Normally, sitting in any reasonable car, when you turn the wheel, it’s the bit out there in front of you that starts turning. Whereas with the 908/3, it was like you were swiveling in an office chair. You were so much part of the car, and almost part of the steering.”
During a practice run at the Nürburgring, Elford says: “I came out of a corner still not going very quickly, tried to accelerate straight, and the car just went sideways. I brushed along the hedge with the front of the car in the hedgerow. When it stopped, all the front had gone, and I could look over the windshield and see my feet.”
Despite that, Elford says: “Those of us who knew Piëch well had total confidence in what he was doing. So the thought that the car might not be quite strong enough or powerful enough or safe enough as we might want it to be didn’t enter, didn’t occur to us, because we all had so much trust in Piëch.”
Porsche assembled 13 examples of the 908/3, and Revs has the last of these, No. 013. The last pair were the only 908/3s built in 1971, and by then the squarish bodies had a vertical fin on each rear fender.
Porsche dominated the 1971 makes season again with the 917, though a trio of 908/3s finished 1-2-3 at the Nürburgring. Then the German automaker backed out, as the rules changed once again, leaving the grids to Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Matra-Simca. Customers continued to race 908s, with a third at Le Mans in 1972 and a fourth in 1975 as just two examples of the cars’ results. Come 1976, Porsche would be back in first place at Le Mans with the new 936.
Porsche sold No. 013 to Spaniard Juan Fernandez for his team, Ecurie Montjuich, which raced it until 1974 with no major results. You’d think at this point, the 908/3s would be a bit long in the tooth, ready for retirement.
Not so. Led by Reinhold Joest, 908/3 owners convinced Porsche late in 1974 to let them transplant the 2.1-liter turbo flat-6 meant for the Turbo Carrera RSR into their 908/3s. With modified bodywork, they were dubbed 908/4s. One was driven to four wins in the 1975 Interseries (the Euro equivalent of Can-Am) by the highly regarded Swiss driver Herbert Müller.
One car converted to 908/4 specs was No. 013, which Müller raced with tragic results. On lap 17 of the 1981 Nürburgring 1,000, Müller had to swing wide to avoid one car and struck a fully fueled Porsche 935 that was retired and parked. Müller, who had talked of retiring from the sport, died in the fiery accident.
The nearly destroyed Porsche was later restored to its 1971 Nürburgring form and is now displayed at the Revs Institute.
For those in the Detroit area, the 908/3 will be on display at the Concours d’Elegance of America in Plymouth, Michigan, on Sunday, July 29, as part of the concours’ celebration of Porsche’s 70th anniversary.
You can take hot laps of Laguna Seca in Revs’ 908/3 with Gunnar Jeannette at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eee2d9oknyM Or ride with Brian Redman as he chases a Porsche 917: https://www.roadandtrack.com/car-culture/videos/a17828/porsche-9083-in-car-at-laguna-seca/
Turn up the volume.
Sidebar: Vic Elford on Racing in the Targa Florio
Speaking of the villages in Sicily, along the route of the Targa Florio, the Englishman Elford said: “I had an advantage there because I had come from being a rally driver. In international rallies, the cars were always on the limit the whole way. The road conditions are usually pretty bad. It’s either dusty or it’s raining, or it’s snow and ice. So rarely is a rally car going straight. I was so used to being sideways under any conditions. That gave me a terrific advantage in the Targa Florio, because the Targa Florio is 45 miles round, most of it just nice, smooth, conventional asphalt roads, and then you come into the three little towns, Cerda, Collesano and Campofelice.
“One of the things about Sicily that probably not too many people know is that a lot of high-class marble comes from Sicily. When marble is mined out of the hillsides, there is left behind a dust that is probably finer than flour. That means that in these three little towns in Sicily, the roads over centuries have become sort of dusted and impregnated with marble dust, which is as slippery as ice.
“Once you came into the towns, there was no grip. So if you drive like a racing driver in those towns, you turn the steering wheel and nothing happens because the road tires literally have no grip.
“I had a big advantage because the moment I’d drive into the town, I was putting car sideways. I would drive all the way through town using the rear end to steer the car, and the front just to keep it balanced. Then, as soon as I came out of the town, I’d go back to being a race driver and steer with the front wheels.”
Elford recalled driving a 908/3 in the 1970 Targa Florio when, on the first lap, a driver in front of him hit a rock that was now in the road. Given the 908/3’s minimal ground clearance, Elford says: “I missed the rock but I hit the curb. And I broke the steering arm, about as thick as my finger. With help from the spectators, we dragged the car back up a little track off the road. I spent the entire race up there being entertained royally, and enjoyed a nice lunch and a glass of wine with the Italian fans.
“At the end of the race, in typical Italian fashion, they said, ‘Leave the car, we’ll look after it for you.’” Elford smiled at that, and continued the story: “So I stayed with the car until two or three mechanics arrived, and they changed the steering arm so they could drive the car back to the hotel.
“One of them took me back in one of their service cars, and I got back to the hotel around eight o’clock in the evening. The entire team had just finished dinner. They had a long, long table in the restaurant. Sitting right at the far end was Piëch. I walked in, still dirty and scruffy in my overalls, and I had my two bits of steering arm. I walked all the way down the length of the table, round to Piëch, and I put the two bits of steering arm in front of him. “He just looked up at me, and said, ‘Vic, is that all that’s broken, or all that’s left?’”