By John Lamm
Sun-soaked Sicily, April 26, 1964: the setting for the Targa Florio, a classic sports car race held over a 45-mile circuit that used the rugged, twisty public roads near Palermo. On the grid for the 10-lap race were six V-12 Ferrari 250 GTOs (now worth $50 million each) and five of Carroll Shelby’s mighty 289 V-8 Cobras driven by the likes of Dan Gurney and Phil Hill.
Somewhere among these powerful entries was a sure winner, right? Wrong.
Coming home first and second that day were two of Porsche’s newest: the 904 Carrera GTS, with its diminutive two-liter flat-four engine. The winning drivers, Colin Davis and Antonio Pucci, were in a car designed to be at home on the track or on the street. And for proof that Porsche succeeded on both counts, look no further than the two examples that are now a part of the Revs Institute’s Collier Collection — one of which is entered in the Porsche Carrera Class at this year’s Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.
That car, painted red, is chassis 904 046: a perfect choice for Amelia Island’s Carrera Class, since it illustrates the duality of the car’s original purpose. It competed in both the Targa Florio and the Nürburgring 1,000 kilometers — but true to the 904’s original intent, also spent time as a road car. (The other 904 in the Collier Collection, chassis 904 018, is still in silver with the number 37, looking just as it did when Briggs Cunningham and Lake Underwood drove it to a victory in the two-liter prototype class in the 1964 Sebring 12 Hours.)
In styling and construction, the 904 GTS was a complete break from Porsche’s sports-car history up to that point — and the impetus for it (as with a lot of clean breaks) could be found in a disappointment.
Porsche’s initial foray into Formula 1 had not gone well. Dan Gurney was the hero with three second-place finishes in 1961, and his French Grand Prix win in 1962 was the program’s highlight. But the benefits weren’t worth the costs. So Porsche got back into sports car racing, but this time it broke from the past, with a new design for the 1964 season.
Porsche aimed for the Grand Touring category with a new coupe called the 904, or GTS. Although meant for racing, the 904 was also designed to be driven on the street, since it had to be made in large numbers — at least 100 — to qualify for the GT class. That helps explain why it was developed on the Nürburgring, but also had a heater. Not a bad idea, as wins by the 904 covered everything from that shirtsleeve Targa Florio to a class victory in the snowy 1965 Monte Carlo Rally.
The most obvious break from the past was the body, which looks nothing like any other Porsche, before or since. That body was the work of the Porsche design department, headed by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche’s grandson, Butzi. It was 42 inches high at the roofline, and featured flying-buttress ”architecture” for the rear window that was said to have inspired the design of Ferrari’s Dino GT and Bill Mitchell’s Corvette. Some consider it the most beautiful road-going car Porsche ever built.
What that fiberglass body was bonded to also broke from Porsche’s past. In place of the typical Porsche chassis at that time — made up of steel tubes — was a box frame of pressed steel. To be sure it was as stiff as the more traditional designs, the central structure had a rear bulkhead. But because the seats were attached in a fixed position, the pedals had to be moveable to accommodate different-size drivers.
The original plan was to power the 904 with a version of the flat-6 designed for the upcoming 911, which went on sale in 1963. But a lag in its development meant that the aging-but-reliable Carrera flat-4 was mounted behind the driver in the 1,435-lb 904. Previously used in the famous Abarth Carrera, the twin-cam engine was air-cooled and rated at 180 horsepower at 7,000 rpm. Aft of that was a 5-speed gearbox.
The production run for the 904 just cleared the required 100-car minimum. Out the door at $7,245, it was a popular competition car around the world (not least because it was a lot cheaper than the Ferrari GTO, which cost $18,000 back then). You’ll need to pay considerably more if you want a 904 now — on Feb. 10, 2018, 904 chassis number 104 sold for $2,295,160 at auction in Paris.
The 904 GTS started racing in February 1964 and peppered starting grids through 1968, at sites as varied as Le Mans; the airport course in Santa Barbara, Calif.; the Tour de France; the temporary circuit in the parking lot at Candlestick Park in San Francisco — and, of course, the Nürburgring.
With the 904 sweeping the top five positions in the two-liter class in many races (along with that impressive first and second at the 1964 Targa Florio), Porsche won the GT championship in that category in 1964 and 1965.
The 904 was the beginning of Porsche’s evolution in sports car racing from a giant-killer to Goliath at Le Mans. Ferdinand Porsche’s grandson, Ferdinand Piëch, was now running the racing department, and his ambitions went well beyond two-liter engines — leading, eventually, to the 12-cylinder Porsche 917, an example of which can also be seen in the Collier Collection.