They say that middle children always feel they don't get the attention or respect they want from their parents. Such was the case with Porsche's first World Championship of Makes title winner, the flat-eight-powered 908. Conceived for the 1968 season to meet the 3-liter displacement cap imposed by the Federation Internationale De L'Automobile, the 908 started its career on a mercurial note and ended some 12 years later as a reliable vehicle capable of embarrassing its newer, supposedly better performing opposition.
Siffert/Elford's #2 908 at the Nuerburgring, 1968.
In spite of its accomplishments and its longevity, the 908 has been overshadowed by the cars which both preceeded and followed it. People tend to remember the 904 and the 906. And they certainly recall the awesome 917. In between, things get a little hazy for most, with the 910, 907 and the 908 blending together as part of that energetic period during the latter part of the '60s, during which Porsche transformed itself from a supporting actor to the star of the sports car stage.
Type 908 LH, 1968
Furious is the only way to describe the pace of motorsport at Porsche under the regime of Ferry Porsche's ambitious nephew, Ferdinand Piech. Creating, developing and racing five different designs in a 40-month span between the beginning of 1966 and the spring of 1968 is overwhelming enough for historians. However, added to all of this are visual and mechanical similarities linking the various models, each retaining much of the design philosophy of its predecessors.
Type 908/01 Spyder, 1968-69
Evolution, not revolution, was the cornerstone for Porsche's success, wild flights of fancy being replaced by previously used building blocks. In the case of the 908, even though there was a great deal of technology from both the 906 and the 910, its heritage rested squarely on the 907, which first appeared at Le Mans in 1967. The 907 was in its own right a breakthrough car, in that while there had been some pretense in that the 906 and 910 might be driven on the street, the new Porsche was a "track-only" item.
1968/89 Porsche 908 Longtail Coupe
Among other things, the 907 was the first competition Porsche to display the teardrop body shape which Porsche went on to use in various guises for a number of years thereafter. It was also the first right-hand-drive racing vehicle built by Zuffenhausen, and it had the Type 771 2.2-liter flat eight that had come from Porsche's abortive Formula One incursion of 1962.
Surprisingly, it was giving away huge amounts of horsepower to the Fords and Ferraris, which had been expected to contend for the Makes crown that year--and it too wound up at the front of the pack, missing the title which went to the Italians by a single point. Just how good the 907 was became evident when three of the long-tail coupes swept first, second and third at the Daytona 24 Hour in 1968. Still, the 907's time was coming to an end.
Type 908 LH, 1969
Waiting in the wings was the 908, identical to the 907 in both short- and long-tail form with the exception of its engine--a 3-liter unit based in large measure on the Type 901 flat six used in the 911. In fact, the 3-liter flat eight was the crucial element in the 908 equation, which provided almost a fourth again more power than the Type 771 while being much easier to assemble and care for.
The design had come from the four-cam Type 916 six-cylinder and was envisaged as a potential upscale alternative to the "standard" unit found in the 911 range. The idea of enlarging and putting it into a 907 chassis came about through Porsche's longtime competition manager Huschke von Hanstein, who was connected to the political side of the sport. As debate over whether or not to put a 3-liter cap on what heretofore had been an unlimited prototype category raged, von Hanstein alerted the factory.
Type 908/02 LH Spyder, 1969
By the time the FIA had decided to rid themselves of the pesky Americans, Ford and the Chevy-supported Chaparrals, by outlawing large-displacement engines, Zuffenhausen was prepared. Although few at Porsche are willing to admit it, in large measure the evolutionary approach to racing was forced upon them by financial dictates.
With the 908, Ferry Porsche had laid out strict cost controls, especially since the 907 program had consumed a fat budget. Thus to Hans Mezger (who would soon find himself designing the 917's Type 912 12-cylinder) the solution was easy; tack on two more cylinders to the Type 916, which in the early summer of 1967 was just making its competition debut.
Siffert/Redman at Monza, 1970.
Compared to the engine's 230-bhp output, the 908, which featured a larger 84mm bore to go with the 911's 88mm crank, pushed 320 ponies towards the rear wheels. Moreover, because its heritage was rooted in the 911 philosophy, it too was viewed as a potential production powerplant. (Ironically, while it would never achieve that status, Porsche did install two 908/8s into a pair of 914s--one for Piech and the other for Ferry Porsche.) The eight-cylinder was initially connected to the 907's six-speed transaxle. However, from 1969 the factory used a newer, heftier five-speed instead.
Vic Elford won the 1000km at the Nuerburgring, 1970.
The inaugural appearance of the 908 came in spectacular fashion at the 1968 Nuerburgring 1000km, where Jo Siffert and Vic Elford put their short-tail coupe into the winner's circle. Backing them up were Hans Hermann and Rolf Stommelen in the second 908. Siffert would win again, with Hermann and Kurt Aherns finishing second in Austria. However, by this time shortcomings had become evident in the flat eight, whose crankshaft-induced torsional vibrations led to the failure of the number of the engine's accessories, including the alternator.
A Porsche 908 getting air, 1970.
While Mezger and Porsche worked hard to keep things together, the 908 languished in the shadows waiting to be noticed. Indeed, at the 1968 Le Mans 24 Hours (which, because of political strife had been moved from June to September) the 908 played second fiddle to the 907, the older car finishing in the runner-up slot, while the 908, after engine compartment woes, was forced to settle for third.
For 1969 the crank woes were fixed, the engine acquiring a slightly different firing order. Moreover, for the first time since Piech's takeover of racing, there would be a spyder in the factory's fleet. This was the 908/2, a sensuous car featuring a short, cut-away tail section. Later, Tony Lapine, Porsche's then head designer, would flatten the car's topside to create the 908/2 "Flounder," a car that was the basis for the 917 Can-Am and 917K endurance models.
Type 908/03 Spyder, 1970-71
Retained in largely unchanged form were the long-tail coupes, whose modifications included the revised engines and new five-speed gearboxes. With nearly a year's worth of experience, one might well have suspected this was the time when the 908 would flower. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case, at least in the beginning: The 908 lost at Daytona because of an improperly treated engine layshaft and at Sebring, where the spyder made its debut because of a series of chassis failures. By that time the 908 was old news, the 917 having been unveiled at the Geneva Auto Show.
1000km Nuerburgring, 1971.
Hidden among all of this was the fact the 908 was truly a good racing car, which became evident at Brands Hatch where Siffert and newcomer Brian Redman led a one-through-three 908 spyder sweep. Monza saw Siffert and Redman garner another first in their long-tail coupe, with Hermann and Ahrens taking second in their similar 908.
The rest of the season was even better with Porsche managing a one-through-four sweep at the Targa Florio, and several other victories later to give Porsche its initial FIA World Manufacturers Crown.
Unfortunately for Porsche, but more particularly for the 908, the season was better characterized by the prizes lost rather than the honors gained. That unfulfilled quest was an outright triumph at Le Mans. Perhaps even that failure might have been forgotten except for the way it happened. After Elford's new 917 retired with clutch woes at the 22-hour mark, the weight of saving Porsche's honor came down to the Hermann-Gerard Larrousse 908, which found itself locked in an all-out struggle with John Wyer's Ford GT 40 driven by Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver.
Hermann and Ickx drew the last stints in the memorable classic, swapping the lead lap after lap and sometimes during the lap itself. In the end, Ickx beat Hermann by less than 70 yards in the closest non-staged finish in the history of the event. Porsche would avenge that loss the following year when Dick Attwood and Hermann would come home ahead of the field in the 917. Almost unnoticed in the celebrations was the fact that Martini's Helmut Marko and Herbert Lins were third overall and first in the 3-liter division (the 917 being classified as a 5-liter "production sports car" because Porsche had built 25 of them).
Ironically, this was the same race as a factory entry by Siffert and Redman at Le Mans the previous year, the pair leading early until their gearbox took an unwanted vacation. Recycled factory Porsche competition cars seemingly were everywhere. However, the one most recognized was the 908/2 "Flounder" raced by actor Steve McQueen and Peter Revson at the '70 Sebring 12 Hour.
With the front-running 917s and their Ferrari 512 counterparts experiencing problems, the McQueen/Revson duo was ahead of Sebring's field with less than an hour to go. Mario Andretti, who had held the number-one position in his Ferrari until it broke with about an hour and a half remaining, was slapped into the highest place. The 512 was left with problems and sent on its way.
With only 30 minutes remaining, Andretti was once again in front. However, his stay there was brief as he ducked into the pits for fuel, thus putting McQueen and Revson in front. Using all of his considerable talents, and every bit of performance he could squeeze from his machine, Andretti passed the Porsche for the win, literally in sight of the checkered flag. The next time the McQueen spyder appeared was at the Sarthe 24 Hour, where it served as a camera car for McQueen's movie, "Le Mans." Interestingly, in spite of the privateers the 908's career wasn't quite over. During the latter part of the 1960s, Porsche pushed hard to maintain a dominance in the FIA Hill Climb championship--a series which put more of a premium on agility than horsepower. The final Porsche hill climber was the 909, which moved the driver as far forward in the vehicle as was humanly possible. Although run only twice, the 909 was the basis for the next-generation 908, the 908/3. This model retained the drivetrain and suspension components from its predecessors and featured a new 909-derived frame, which placed the driver's feet ahead of the front axle, within inches of the front of car.
While the 908/3 powerplant was rated at only about 350 hp, the car was so light that its power-to-weight ratio matched those of the 956/962 prototypes from the 1980s. This car, very squat and square except for its rounded nose, was intended only for the Targa and the Nuerburgring, winning both in 1970. Hauled out again in 1971, the 908/3 posted yet another Nuerburgring triumph, giving it a record of three wins in four races.
That might have been the end of the 908's frontline career, but it wasn't--an old long-tail coupe took third at Le Mans in 1972. The 908/2s and 908/3s also continued to do well. Gradually, the 908/2s faded into a historical sunset; ironically, the 908/3s got a new lease on life. This was the result of an engine transplant, which saw the 3-liter brigade give up their eight cylinders for turbocharged flat sixes of the kind which motivated the 934 and 935 production-based coupes, as well as the 936 spyders.
The first to make good use of this rejuvenated prototype was Martini driver Herbert Muller, who won the 1975 German Interserie title with his turbo 908. As the 1980s emerged, the little cars were still contenders, Stommelen and Jurgen Barth winning at the Nuerburgring with a Reinhold Joest-owned example in 1980. That was almost the end, but not quite, of the 908 saga.
The reason for that was the final 908 built "burst" upon the scene earlier in the year. Called a 908/80, this was actually the fourth 936 chassis produced. Because of political worries, especially among its customers, Porsche utilized the 908 moniker when the car was sold to Joest. Not until quite some time later did it receive its correct designation, in fact, placing second at Le Mans in 1980 as a 908.
For a car sandwiched in the middle of a series of headline racers, whose overseers viewed it as an interim step, the 908 surprised everyone with its competitiveness and its longevity, and that is the stuff from which legends are made.
Brian Redman Remembers Britisher Brian Redman well remembers the 908. It was the first car he ever drove for Porsche and his favorite race car--at least in its 908/3 clothing. "The thing about the 908 was the fact that it wasn't one car but several cars. The 908 long-tail was a hand-full, always feeling that it wanted to bend in the middle, a problem caused by a lack of downforce, especially at the rear.
"While the 908/2 spyders were good cars, the best was the 908/3 which, at first, because they had moved the driver so far forward, was a bit scary. I remember thinking not only did the front anti-roll bar run over my lap, but my feet were within inches of the tip of the nose. Still, it was a wonderful car to drive, very agile and with more than enough power for its weight."
How wonderful became clear when Redman and Jo Siffert took their Gulf-backed 908/3 to victory in the 1970 Targa Florio. Still, the joy was tempered by the highly charged political atmosphere, which thoroughly embraced Porsche's universe at the time. In 1969 Ferry Porsche decided to farm out the actual racing. Therefore the running expenses of his cars went to a privately backed team. He chose John Wyer's Gulf-sponsored operation as that instrument.
The opinionated Wyer did not sit well with Porsche's nephew Ferdinand Piech, then the overseer of Porsche's racing fortunes. Quickly, Piech's mother Louise (Ferry's sister) entered the fray with her Porsche Salzburg team--a group which often received even more attention from the factory than did Wyer. Redman learned this the hard way at the Nuerburgring event, which followed the Targa Florio.
"We had just gotten into the lead with our 908/3 when I noticed the oil pressure light beginning to flicker on and off. Quickly after that we lost oil pressure, which ended our day, leaving Vic Elford to win. Years later I found out, from one of the men at Porsche, it was known there were oil problems and therefore bigger dry sump tanks were installed on the Salzburg cars (but not on ours) as an attempt to cure the problem. Previously it worked, but it was frustrating for us."
Porsche wasn't the only source of that emotion, though. Another was Siffert. "When I came to Porsche in 1969, they asked me who I wanted to drive with, and I said Jo because he was the fastest on the team. I never regretted that choice, but on occasion it could be a little rough, like at Le Mans in 1970." There, Siffert missed a shift passing some slower traffic in the middle of the night with a four-lap lead and blew the engine. "That really didn't do much for my mood," recalled Redman. "However, Jo never drove any other way than flat out. His style simply came with the territory."
Indeed, both men with their widely differing temperaments complemented each other, the duo being largely responsible for Porsche's first World Championship of Makes Crown in 1969. For Redman, who went on to earn victories at both Daytona and Sebring in Porsches, and three Formula 5000 crowns with Jim Hall's Chaparral Lola-Chevrolet, the years of 1969 and '70 remain highlights of a wonderful career.
"They accomplished so much, so quickly, it was great to be a part of that. I'll never ever regret it."