A version of this story also appears in the magazine GT Purely Porsche
The 917 is an astoundingly beautiful car in photos, but standing next to one to see for yourself just how low and wide it is is something rather special, especially when it’s at a race track. Especially when you’re there to drive it!
The first thing to say about this 917 is that of course it’s not an original; there’s not too many people rich or competent enough to have or handle one of the multi-million-euro museum pieces, and I fulfill none of those criteria. It’s made by has been producing race-ready replica Ford GT40s, Ferrari P4s and Lola T70s for 15 years now. While all good cars, it’s my opinion that nothing’s quite as emotive on a race track as a 917.
South Africa’s Zwartkops Passion for Speed Festival took place in the background, but I was too filled with nerves to pay much attention and so spent the time checking out every detail of the car. The most obvious difference is that in the wide opening behind the cockpit there is no fan for the cooling of the flat-12, and looking down it’s the sculptured cowling of a much more familiar 3.0 flat-six from a mid-‘70s Carrera. A purist might dismiss the whole car out of hand because of this, but there is just no feasible way to create a replica flat-12—if you want one, expect to pay upwards of 1.5 million euros! With the way the chassis is configured in this replica, a customer can choose pretty much any power plant he wants though.
Peter used to run with a very powerful twin-turbo 3.6 but didn’t like having to fix it and everything connected to it after every race, so instead he fitted the normally aspirated 3.0 which is perfectly reliable and makes this 917 a pleasure to drive. And with 280bhp powering a 920kg car, it’s still quite quick. Despite what I said earlier, Peter smiles when he tells me about the the plans his engineers have for making a flat-12. They are competent and experienced enough to build it, it’s just a question of finding enough people interested to make it financially viable.
The other big difference is the chassis. As insane as it sounds today, some of the original cars that helped win Le Mans back-to-back in 1970 and ’71 had chassis made of magnesium. The advantage was that it was lightweight, but it’s a much weaker metal than steel and the life expectancy was a grand total of one endurance race before the engineers had to go over every join looking for fatigue cracks to patch up. Oh, and magnesium is also highly flammable… another good reason for Peter to make his 917s with laser-cut carbon steel. At three times the structural strength of magnesium alloy, the extra 40kg is well worth the improvements in both safety and durability, and there are also a few modifications to the roll cage too, as driver safety wasn’t exactly paramount in the ‘70s; back then a full cage over the cockpit was deemed surplus to requirements! The braided pipes, Aeroquip fuel lines, big four-pot AP Racing calipers and 325x32mm ventilated disks are all welcome modern safety improvements that don’t detract from the classic impression of the car.
But I didn’t go all the way to South Africa just to look at the car! After the Passion for Speed action was over for the day the marshals agreed to stay at their posts a little longer so I could do a few leisurely laps. Frans is the race day mechanic and the engineer who built the car, and he spent a while explaining a few of the details such as the starting procedure (as the straight cut Hewland DG300 gearbox has no neutral) before we got to the biggest issue; getting me in it!
Opening the flimsy door that felt like a Tupperware box lid was like an escape room in reverse; I had no idea how I was going to fold my 6’4” frame inside. Feet first? Or sit down and try to drag my feet in after me? I clambered onto the wide sill and pushed my feet in wondering if anything they got caught on was important or just the chassis lattice, and then shuffled down to the end of the seat. Not too bad, apart from the fact that I was looking out over the top of the roof. Some more shuffling until my knees touched the underneath of the dash and on the right there was bolt head right where my kneecap wanted to be. But I was in. The door closed on top of me. Just. The metal bar of the roll cage was just a couple of inches from the right side of my face and I actually had to tilt my head to left to see properly out of the window. Vision was restricted even more when I put the helmet on. But we weren’t done yet; seat belts need to be fastened. Space inside is such a premium that the seat has been moulded to be a perfect fit for Peter and not for me.
I am at least four inches taller than Peter though, and so of course the belts didn’t fit. We pulled at the adjusters to get them to eventual fit over my shoulders, but the ones between my legs were far too short. Frans fiddled around, fed the belts through the loops… and pulled. It was the worst wedgie I’d ever had, but I was in. Then I fitted the steering wheel.
I hoped that the steering lock was going to be tight, as pressed against the inside of my legs I wasn’t going to be able to turn the wheel very much.
I would find out soon enough. With foot on the clutch—there is no neutral and with nothing but a thin strip of aluminum separating me from the engine—there is a noise following the ignition that sends a thrill through me. It’s the loudest bark of a flat-six that I’ve ever heard. Wooden gear knob pulled hard against my leg to where I think first is, and the car wants to go even with the clutch in… which is good because the chief marshal was waving impatiently for me to get on with it! But it was all panic inside the cockpit; I couldn’t see well enough, and I was in so low that the wheel arches were so high as to block my view.
It was like being in a 200mph-capable bathtub! My phone is bigger than the mirrors, so I was really glad to be the only one on track as I’d have no way of being aware of other cars around me. Also, I wasn’t confident enough with the gear shift or even if I could turn the steering wheel properly… but the car juddered towards the slip road despite my nervousness. It was here that I really learned it’s not designed to go slow. Into second gear, out of the pit lane, I merge onto the circuit…
Zwartkops is a bit like Brands Hatch, but run the other way around and without so much gradient. And it’s very narrow. The steering wheel rubbing against the inside of my thigh was OK when my foot was on the accelerator, but when I moved it across to press on the tough brake pedal my leg muscle tensing actually stopped the wheel from turning. Apex of the hairpin not yet gone, I had to come off the brakes, which was counter intuitive, but the only way to get around. Two wheels on the white line before the sand-trap, I just about made it through and pointed the car up the main straight, laughing and dying of heart failure at the same time.
With a long stretch of tarmac in front I managed to find the courage to put my foot down. The car instantly woke up. So did I. From second to third, then to fourth feeling the power push me back into the seat, it was a force of acceleration I could sense in the muscles of my neck. Going fast in such a car as this is one of the most amazing experiences in the world. I was looking at the same view as greats like Pedro Rodriguez, Jo Siffert, Derek Bell and Willi Kauhsen as they powered down the Mulsanne at almost 400km/h nearly 50 years ago.
The next corner is apparently the fastest in South Africa. Perfect. I came off the power and went down a gear long before any driver of even the lowest class would, and eased it around tentatively, but was on the power early. On cold tires this meant the car drifted out to the edge a bit—a glorious feeling! But it was a heavy braking period soon after for the tight corner at the top of the little hill, and those two straps between my legs suddenly became less of a major discomfort and went straight to full on Spanish Inquisition. It was almost unbearable and I turned in too early… the inside wheel banged on the curb and my kneecap was driven into the bolt under the dash. It felt like the car was trying to kill me. And it was doing quite a good job of it!
I took it easy into the last corner so I didn’t have to brake too hard, but then there were a dozen people on the pit wall watching me. They must have wanted to see the glorious sight of a speeding 917, so I figured it would have been rude not to oblige them. But I am not a race car driver. Far from it. That’s why it only lasted one lap. Someone at the end of the pit wall was waving frantically. Was it Frans trying to tell me something? Was something wrong with the car? I turned in my cocoon to try to see as I sped past, but the split second I took my attention off the track was all it took for me to completely miss my braking point for the sweeping first turn.
In fact, I didn’t brake at all. There was no time. Just a bit of grass and then a tyre wall before a mound of earth, and then it would all be done. Instinctively I turned away from it in a last-ditch effort. But the 917 is like no other car I’ve ever had the pleasure to manhandle before. In my mind I was already in the wall, but the 917 hadn’t even lost grip! It just turned. The G-forces pushed me into the side of the seat, but soon I felt the back coming out: it was going to spin. Turning into the drift was a natural reaction, but I have no idea why I stomped on the gas. With the huge 15” rear tires pushing forwards, I thought I might just make it even though there still wasn’t enough tarmac for the drift to end in any way other than disaster. But in a stroke of fortune the back tire nudged against the outside curb, and that was enough to knock the light car down the straight again. I’d made it! A few moments later my heart started beating again.
The next hairpin was taken at Sunday afternoon shopping speed, and with my nerve completely gone I limped back to the pits pouring with sweat from both the shock and the heat sink from the engine a few inches behind my shoulder. “You OK?” Frans asked as he helped me with the web of seat belts, using the concerned tone that a paramedic deploys when he’s just arrived on scene to assess the situation.
Just one corner is what it took for me to learn just how far from being a racing driver I am, and also to realize that’s how master drivers such as Willi Kauhsen, the test driver of the 917/10, one of the most powerful race cars ever, took every single corner of every single lap of every single race… in cars with fragile chassis and engines that put out multiples more of the 280 I had behind me.
The first thing I needed after Frans helped me out was a beer. Walking with a pronounced limp and pretty sure I’d never be able to have children now, I raised a glass in honor of the legends who raced these cars in what was definitely a golden era of motorsport.
So yes, the Bailey 917 is a modern build with modern components and an engine out of a road car, and I was in great pain for a few days afterwards, but out of all the Porsches I’ve had the pleasure to drive, which includes Ickx’s ’84 Dakar 953, the original ’74 works Safari car, and an ex-Konrad/Waldergaard 914/6 GT, this is my absolute favorite. Not many people, especially none-racers, have ever drifted a 917… even if it is not exactly “real.” But at 100,000 euros instead of a few million, and in a package that’s ready to race at a mere fraction of the cost, it’s an unbelievable piece of engineering.
Also, maybe equally unbelievably, the Bailey 917 is a road legal car, although I think you’d find yourself stuck on the first speed bump you got to!