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Porsche’s fabulous 904/8 – chassis #008

Porsche 904/8 (chassis #008)
Porsche 904/8 (chassis #008) photographed in the Porsche Museum, September 2020

F.A. ‘Butzi’ Porsche, the eldest son of Ferry and Dorothea Porsche, joined the family business in 1958 having shown great interest in the field of industrial design. Working under the direction of Erwin Komenda, F.A. Porsche set about learning the business from the inside, and was soon given the task of ‘working’ on the new shape of the 718 racer for the ’61 season. Showing an aptitude for the work at hand, and having the benefit of a privileged family position, he was thrust into the role of Head of the Styling Department in 1963 at the young age of just 28 years.

Porsche 904/8 (chassis #008)
Porsche 904/8 (chassis #008) photographed in the Porsche Museum, September 2020

Porsche had set its sight on a two-pronged attack on the motorsport world, the two arms of this campaign being Grand Prix single-seater racing and the 2-litre class of the GT Championship. These two sectors of the sport, while quite distinct from each other, served to divide resources within the company which resulted in two disadvantageous outcomes. Firstly, development of its Formula 1 single-seater race cars consumed vast amounts of financial resources and manpower, effectively leaving too little in the pot for the development of its GT racers.

Porsche 904/8 (chassis #008)
Porsche 904/8 (chassis #008) photographed in the Porsche Museum, September 2020

Porsche’s opposition in the GT ranks was growing, and the Stuttgart manufacturer found itself unable to respond as and when it needed to, in order to counter this worrying development. Porsche had for quite some time made the 2-litre class in GT racing its own, with its lightweight and powerful DOHC Carrera-engined cars. But, this is where the second problem surfaced, as it was becoming increasingly difficult to further develop its GT race cars due to the demanding nature of its Formula 1 cars explained above. A decision was thus taken to cease its Formula 1 activities, as this form of racing drained the company’s coffers alarmingly, without putting anything back. On the other hand, GT race cars could be developed and sold to customer teams and the money generated by the sales of these race cars and spares, could be used to fund the development of those cars in the future.
Facing stiff opposition from the likes of Abarth and Alfa Romeo, both producers of lightweight and increasingly powerful GT racing cars, Porsche was forced to meet this competition head on. Carlo Abarth secured the 1.0-litre class of the 1962 GT Championship, and he had indicated that he would be moving up to the 2-litre class the following year, which is where Porsche had enjoyed dominance. Alfa Romeo too, had just introduced its Alfa Giulia TZ, a 1600 cc lightweight and very fast competitor that was also quite capable of unsettling Porsche in this class.

Porsche 904/8 (chassis #008)
Porsche 904/8 (chassis #008) photographed in the Porsche Museum, September 2020

And so these developments forced Porsche to focus sharply on what models were going to follow in the footsteps of the 718 GTR Coupé (1962/63), and the 356 B 2000 GS-GT Coupé (1963) or ‘Dreikantschaber’ as it became known. The problem with these two models was that, with their aluminium space frame construction, they were both expensive and time consuming to make. Porsche needed a Grand Touring model that could be sold both as a GT racer and a road legal sports car, in order to be sure of selling the 100 units required for homologation purposes.

Overhead view of the 1963 Porsche 356 B Carrera GS/GT ‘Dreikantschaber’
Overhead view of the 1963 Porsche 356 B Carrera GS/GT ‘Dreikantschaber’ (chassis #122991) in the Porsche Museum, Zuffenhausen – 29 January 2014

Porsche has a history of drawing on their existing race cars as inspiration for future models, and looking at the 718 GTR Coupé and the ‘Dreikantschaber’, it is not difficult to see where influence for the frontal treatment of the 904 originated. According to Karl Ludvigsen’s Excellence Was Expected, Butzi Porsche was given an unusually short time in which to design the 904, and one of the telling aspects of this was that there was no time for changes to be made. This meant that Butzi and his team could start with a clean sheet of paper, encouraging them to think outside of the box, and to consider alternative construction methods. The design process ensured that they could work without interference from others, and this speeded up his work significantly.

Porsche 904/8 (chassis #008)
Porsche 904/8 (chassis #008) photographed in the Porsche Museum, September 2020

The resultant Type 904, or Carrera GTS, was without doubt one of the finest race car designs in the world at the time, and it inspired a whole family of sleek, glass reinforced plastic (GRP) bodied racers that would culminate in Porsche’s first overall victory at Le Mans. But we are getting slightly ahead of the story, and it would be useful instead to backtrack a little, and to examine the 904 in more detail.

The body and chassis

The tried and tested method of forming aluminium panels over a hand-welded tubular steel spaceframe had served Porsche well in the past, in the construction of their limited production run Spyder race cars. But, in this instance, speed of production was important in building the required number of 100 cars necessary to homologate the 904 as a GT class contender, and the quicker they were produced, the quicker Porsche would earn back those much needed finances.

Porsche 904/8 (chassis #008)
Porsche 904/8 (chassis #008) – the recessed rear windscreen created a low pressure area that helped the air to ‘tumble’ down off the low roof, and into the air intakes on the rear engine lid to cool the engine

As mentioned briefly, the frontal section of the 904 was an evolution of the 718 GTR Coupé and the ‘Dreikantschaber’, but that is where the similarities ended. From the B-pillar rearwards, the rear deck incorporated a recessed, small vertical window behind the driver that created a downdraught for cool air to be drawn into the engine compartment. Air was funnelled off the roof towards the vents on the rear deck by means of two elegant buttresses that followed the roof line to meet the rear deck roughly above the tops of the rear wheels. The rear body, which hinged rearwards in one large piece allowing excellent access to the engine compartment, ended in a chopped-off Kamm tail style. This treatment was quite unlike any other Porsche styling at that time, but it would become a hallmark of the company’s race cars for many years to come.

Porsche 904/8 (chassis #008)
Porsche 904/8 (chassis #008) – showing the Kamm tail with neat rear lip to aid downforce

Other design cues imported from the 718 GTR Coupé included the windscreen, which was almost identical in shape, and the single parallelogram-action windscreen wiper. Another was the door cut line which extended into the roof, allowing easier access to and exit from the cockpit in the heat of the battle.

Porsche 904/8 (chassis #008)
Porsche 904/8 (chassis #008) showing the single parallelogram-action windscreen wiper

The body panels were fabricated by the aircraft manufacturing company, Heinkel (located at Speyer, not far from Hockenheim), and comprised GRP laid-up by hand to a thickness of 2 mm. Heinkel produced two bodies per day while Porsche would produce chassis at the rate of just one per day. The box-section ladder frame chassis (weighing around 110 lbs/50 kg) were then transported to the aircraft company’s premises where the body would be bonded to the chassis, being bolted at key points for added strength. Porsche had no experience in such body/chassis construction, and so it was thought that it would be best for Heinkel to carry out this part of the construction process. This resulted in a far more rigid body and chassis combination than the earlier spaceframe structure. The design and full-size model was completed in February 1963, and sent to Heinkel from which the moulds would be taken for the production of body panels.

Porsche 904/8 (chassis #008)
Porsche 904/8 (chassis #008) photographed in the Porsche Museum, September 2020

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