In a blur of red and yellow and noise, the Gebhardt C-91 tears past me before droppinganchors to negotiate the right-left of the Variante Alta chicane at Imola. It belches a flash-bang of bright orange flames from its exhaust the high-strung V8 barking like a drill sergeant as the car scrabbles to put its power down on the wet track as it exits the corner and arcs over the crest before making the descent into Rivazza.
The driver is pushing it despite the iffy conditions, and an earlier mistake has forced him drive a little more “in-period” in order to catch the leaders. It is making for a superb spectacle, and despite being on a grid of Group C and sports car luminaries, this obscure German-built machine is commanding everyone’s attention.
Information about the Gebhardt is relatively difficult to find, quite possibly due to its fairly truncated and not exactly illustrious racing career. Gunther and Fritz Gebhardt got into Group C racing in the early ‘80s, and the brothers—whose backgrounds were in producing high-speed conveyer systems—managed top ten finishes at Le Mans ’83 and ’84. By ’87 though, the Gebhardt name had vanished from the grids until the arrival of the C-91 in the following decade.
In its original trim, the car ran an 2.1L turbocharged Audi engine along with the carbon fiber tub and body layout favored by the prototype machines of the era, and it competed in three rounds of IMSA. Backed by MOMO, spectators in the United States saw the car at Topeka, Watkins Glen, and Road America, where it managed its best result of 17th at Topeka with Giampiero Moretti (who founded MOMO) at the controls. Not exactly a record-breaking car back then. The C-91 was to undergo an overhaul though, as the Gebhardt brothers were keen on competing in the 1992 World Sportscar Championship in Europe under the new FIA rules that had come into full effect and turned the series into a formula championship, effectively killing off the Group C cars that Gebhardt first competed with back in the ‘80s.
The car was now mated to an F1-spec Ford Cosworth 3.5 L DFR, the same V8 that was in the Tom Walkinshaw-built Jaguar XJR-14, and the same spec in which the car can now be seen racing in the Peter Auto Group C Championship, against the aforementioned XJR and many other peers from the time. In the first period of its life though, race appearances were fleeting, although a fourth place was managed at the Monza 500km, driven by Almo Coppelli and Frank Kraemer. For the rest of the season, the car was let down by mechanical issues, although a finish was managed in the car’s last-ever appearance at the Nürburgring, but that was all she wrote. Gebhardt as a constructor also pretty much disappeared from the face of the planet after this, aside from entering one round of the World Sportscar Championship in 1998 and abandoning a test project in the following year.
So quietly did Gebhardt come and go that very little is written about the constructor brothers or their machines, although if you are into conveyance systems you will find plenty of reading material on that part of their lives. Thankfully though, provenance alone doesn’t decide the fate of racing cars in their retirement years, and these days one is able to see this obscure prototype mixing it with the best of them, still traveling quite rapidly around some of the world’s renowned circuits.
As much as it is great to see the winners of years past, the podium cars, it is perhaps even better to see teams running these lesser-known ones. The big guns will almost invariably look after themselves by way of competition history and records—their valuable heritage is secured—but the also-rans, the cars that were built and prepared by small teams with small budgets and lofty targets, they are the machines that signify the more pure desires to go racing. They are the ones that went out not to sell road cars through name recognition, but to test themselves against the might of the big manufacturers that did.
Thankfully this Gebhardt is enjoying an active retirement. Having made its way to England in 2005 for its restoration, it now competes regularly and continues to carry the Gebhardt name over curbs and down straightaways around Europe. It is a wonderfully turned out machine, absolutely immaculate and a delight to stare at and pick the bones out of in the paddock, never mind the thrill of seeing and hearing it on the track. Although a spare tub exists for the car and the team have the parts and moulds to maintain it, this is the only one of its kind you will see racing today, and that, regardless of a limited history, makes it special in a way that the cars that outran it twenty-some years ago just aren’t.