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Porsche’s 70th anniversary – we look back 40 years to 1978

Porsche 935-78 "Moby Dick" Coupé, photographed at the Porsche Warehouse in May 2017

The Porsche 928 was launched in 1978 – this is a 1980 model
The Porsche 928 was launched in 1978 – this is a 1980 model

The Porsche company, now 30 years old in 1978, had moved from being the small-scale manufacturing company to being a significant player, albeit in a niche market. The front-engined transaxle 924 model, introduced in 1976, was now selling twice the number of units that the 911 was selling. This had eased the financial situation for the company and given them some money to go racing. In this feature, our third in the series where we look back on Porsche’s 70th anniversary year, we explore some of the company’s memorable milestones between 1978 and 1987.

Porsche 935/78 ‘Moby Dick’ Coupé, photographed by the author at Porsche’s secret warehouse in May 2017
Porsche 935/78 ‘Moby Dick’ Coupé, photographed by the author at Porsche’s secret warehouse in May 2017

Also introduced in 1976 was the 935 racing car, a 911-based racer aimed at the Group 5 class. This car had really set the class alight, and it quickly became the model to have if you wanted to win races. A new version though, was rolled out for the Silverstone 6 Hours on 14 May 1978. Nicknamed ‘Moby Dick’ because of its large tail and all-white factory finish, this was a works-only race car. The hugely powerful 935/78 racer qualified on pole in the hands of Jacky Ickx, two seconds ahead of the second-placed car which was also a 935. In the race, Jochen Mass and Jacky Ickx ran off into the sunset which ensured a victory on debut for Moby Dick, but this turned out to be its only victory in a rather short-lived racing career.

Porsche 935/78 ‘Moby Dick’ Coupé, photographed by the author at Porsche’s secret warehouse in May 2017
Porsche 935/78 ‘Moby Dick’ Coupé, photographed by the author at Porsche’s secret warehouse in May 2017

At the Le Mans 24-hour race, just a month later, Moby Dick was unfortunately not as successful as hoped for. In the hands of Manfred Schurti and Rolf Stommelen, the car qualified in third place, three seconds behind the works 936/78 on pole. Powered by a twin-turbocharged 3.2-litre engine, Moby Dick developed around 850bhp, giving the car a very high rate of fuel consumption. In addition to this, Moby Dick was plagued with a number of niggling issues during the race, and the car was unfortunately not able to realise its full potential. Moby Dick finished third in its class and in eighth place overall.

Le Mans 24 Hour, 10/11 June 1978: The #43 Porsche 935/78 ‘Moby Dick’ was driven by Rolf Stommelen and Manfred Schurti, finishing eighth overall
Le Mans 24 Hour, 10/11 June 1978: The #43 Porsche 935/78 ‘Moby Dick’ was driven by Rolf Stommelen and Manfred Schurti, finishing eighth overall

Only two of the 935/78 racers were produced, one of which never raced, while Moby Dick, despite the (perhaps) disappointingly short record of achievements, was rolled into the Porsche Museum…and into the hearts of many thousands of motorsport fans.

Porsche 935/78 ‘Moby Dick’ Coupé, photographed by the author at Porsche’s secret warehouse in May 2017
Porsche 935/78 ‘Moby Dick’ Coupé, photographed by the author at Porsche’s secret warehouse in May 2017

#41 Kremer Racing Porsche 935 K3, driven by Klaus Ludwig and the brothers, Don and Bill Whittington
Le Mans 24 Hour, 9/10 June 1979: The #41 Kremer Racing Porsche 935 K3, driven by Klaus Ludwig and the Whittington Brothers, Don and Bill, was the first Porsche privateer team to achieve an overall win at Le Mans

Another significant milestone in 1978 was the launch of the Porsche 928, a V8 front-engined ‘big brother’ to the 924. The 928 was actually designed before the 924, but the smaller-engined sibling was introduced first because it was believed that it would sell in greater numbers, which is what the company wanted. They were right, and the 928 came out two years later. The 928 was dubbed a ‘car for the 1980s’ and it targeted the young executive by offering a more comfortable, sophisticated, and handsome sports car that came with a handy bit of performance.

The Porsche 928 was introduced as the ‘businessman’s express’ – this is a 1980 model
The Porsche 928 was introduced as the ‘businessman’s express’ – this is a 1980 model

Two years further down the road, the 924 Carrera GT arrived, this model being used to homologate the Carrera GT Prototype which was to run at that year’s Le Mans race. Three cars were entered in the 1980 24-hour race, one for a German team, one for an American team and one for a British team. The three cars were to form a low-key entry in the event. At the last minute, one of the American drivers, Peter Gregg, was injured and could not race, and so the drivers were moved around between the cars, and Derek Bell ended up driving in the American team. All three cars finished, with the #4 car of Barth/Schurti coming home an impressive sixth overall. The other two cars finished in twelfth and thirteenth places overall.

#4 Porsche 924 Carrera GTP finished a very fine sixth overall in the hands of Jürgen Barth and Manfred Schurti
Le Mans 24 Hour, 14/15 June 1980: The #4 Porsche 924 Carrera GTP finished a very fine sixth overall in the hands of Jürgen Barth and Manfred Schurti

Tensions had been rising within the corridors of power in Stuttgart, and CEO Ernst Fuhrmann left the company at the end of 1980, making way for Peter Schutz to take over in early 1981. Much to the delight of the Zuffenhausen staff, and 911-lovers around the world, Schutz gave the model a substantial boost, sending the sales charts into new territory in the mid-80s. For that year’s Le Mans race, the 924 was given some special treatment in the form of a turbocharged 2.5-litre engine. This car was the forerunner of the 944 Turbo road car, the model that replaced the 924. In the hands of Jürgen Barth and Walter Röhrl, the experimental 944 LM finished an incredible seventh overall. Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell won the Le Mans 24 Hour outright in their Porsche 936/81.

Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell brought the #11 Porsche 936/81 home first overall
Le Mans 24 Hour, 13/14 June 1981: Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell (driving here) brought the #11 Porsche 936/81 home in first place overall, also scoring a win in Class 6

1983 Porsche 911 SC Cabriolet 3.0-litre
1983 Porsche 911 SC Cabriolet 3.0-litre

Out with the old and in with the new! In 1982, the new Group C class came into effect, starting a ten-year long period of possibly the most exciting, most technologically advanced and a period of heightened performance, not seen before. The Porsche 956 was at the forefront of this wave of new ground-effect racers, the Stuttgart car being powered by a twin-turbo 2.65-litre flat-six engine. The first three places at Le Mans in 1982 were filled by the three factory 956s, and they were followed home by two private 935s.

Porsche 956 nos. 1, 2 and 3 at scrutineering in 1982
Le Mans 24 Hour, 19/20 June 1982: Lined up after scrutineering, are from the right – #1 Porsche 956 driven by Jacky Ickx/Derek Bell; #2 driven by Jochen Mass/Vern Schuppan; #3 driven by Hurley Haywood/Al Holbert/Jürgen Barth. The three cars finished in this exact order, 1-2-3!

In 1983, Porsche recorded what must be their best performance at Le Mans to this day. Nine of the top ten places were taken by 956s, with a lone Sauber-BMW occupying ninth place. To say that the 956 dominated the early Group C years is an understatement, as the Porsche just kept on winning. Customer teams lined up to get their hands on one of the race cars, and Porsche soaked up the glory, helping the bottom line hugely in the process.

#3 Porsche 956 driven by Vern Schuppan/Al Holbert/Jürgen Barth
Le Mans 24 Hour, 18/19 June 1983: Winner of the 24-hour race in 1983 was the #3 Porsche 956 driven by Vern Schuppan/Al Holbert/Jürgen Barth

Jacky Ickx/Derek Bell finished in second place in the #1 Porsche 956
Le Mans 24 Hour, 18/19 June 1983: Finishing in second place, on the same lap as the winning 956, was Jacky Ickx/Derek Bell in the #1 Porsche 956

In 1984, Ferry Porsche celebrated his 75th birthday, his years at the helm of the company marking a truly remarkable period in the history of the wider motor and motorsport industries. Le Mans that year saw another Porsche whitewash, with 956s filling the first seven places as well as ninth place. The 962 C (Group C – WEC) and 962 (IMSA) were introduced in 1984, and if the new model was successful in Europe, then it was even more successful in America.

Ferry Porsche stands with his four sons on the occasion of his 75th birthday in 1984
Ferry Porsche (centre) stands in the grounds of Hof der Villa Porsche, Stuttgart with his four sons on the occasion of his 75th birthday on 19 September 1984: (from L-R) Hans-Peter (born 1940), Gerhard (born 1938), Ferdinand Alexander (born 1935) and Wolfgang (born 1943)

In 1986, Porsche recorded its greatest year of sales to date with 53,053 units across four different models – 911, 924, 928 and 944. There can be little doubt that motor racing not only improved the breed technically, but it bought valuable publicity to the company that simply would not have happened without all of those Group C victories.

Porsche 944 Coupé, 1982 model
Porsche 944 Coupé, 1982 model

2.5-litre 190bhp Porsche 944 S Coupé, 1987 model
2.5-litre 190bhp Porsche 944 S Coupé, 1987 model

Production of road cars 1978-1987:

Year 911 924 928 944 Total
1978 10,684 21,517 3,830 36,031
1979 11,543 22,460 5,397 39,400
1980 9,874 17,860 4,278 32,012
1981 8,698 15,526 3,820 28,044
1982 10,735 11,719 4,660 3,884 30,998
1983 13,229 5,982 3,999 24,546 47,756
1984 13,669 4,690 5,095 26,484 49,938
1985 12,348 3,114 4,460 23,557 43,479
1986 17,074 3,499 4,792 27,688 53,053
1987 16,441 8,696 4,832 20,710 50,679
Total 124,295 115,063 45,163 126,869 411,390

#17 Porsche 962C Langheck driven by Hans-Joachim Stuck Jr./Derek Bell/Al Holbert
Le Mans 24 Hour, 13/14 June 1987: The #17 Porsche 962C Langheck scored an overall victory in the hands of Hans-Joachim Stuck Jr., Derek Bell, Al Holbert. This victory gave Bell his fifth Le Mans title

#17 Porsche 962C Langheck driven by Hans-Joachim Stuck Jr./Derek Bell/Al Holbert
This is the #17 Porsche 962C Langheck that was driven to victory in the 1987 Le Mans 24 Hour race by Hans-Joachim Stuck Jr., Derek Bell and Al Holbert – photographed by the author at Porsche’s secret warehouse in May 2017

On 31 December 1987, Peter Schutz left the company and his place was taken by Heinz Branitzki. When the stock market crashed in the USA, it made Porsches very expensive in the company’s largest export market, and someone with financial nous was needed, which is where Branitzki excelled. He was not a production or manufacturing man though, and he stayed in the post just two years (1988-1990).
Check out also our 1988 (30 years) and 1998 (20 years) features, as well as feature on the 962-006 above.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale, and Porsche Werkfoto

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