With the 917, Porsche for the first time entered the league of immensely powerful, large-capacity racing cars. The 580 hp from the twelve-cylinder 4.5-litre engine of the 917 set new standards, to the extent that even decades later, independent experts rate this Porsche as one of the most impressive sports cars of the century.
Changes in the regulations motivated Porsche to build the 917. Prototypes were allowed a maximum engine size of three-litres, and for sports cars five-litres were allowed. However, a series of at least 25 had to be built. The 1969 race season allowed the 917 to become fully race-proven, with the result that the car entered 1970 with its reliability assured and finely-honed aerodynamics which further improved its track behavior.
At that time, the factory did not enter the cars directly, but via its close partners, John Wyer Automotive and Porsche Salzburg; nevertheless, the World Championship for long distance sports car racing proved to be a triumph for Porsche. Despite fierce competition from Ferrari, the blue and orange, and red and white 917s won almost every race.
The Le Mans 24 Hours race was particularly important, as Porsche had not been able to score an overall
victory so far. In 1970, seventeen 917s participated and, after 24 hours of racing in rain and fog, two completed the race – in first and second places. Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood were behind the wheel of the winning number 23 distinctive red and white liveried car entered by Porsche Salzburg. Since Porsche secured its first victory in the French endurance event, the German manufacturer has achieved a record total of 16 overall Le Mans victories to date.
Immortalized by Steve McQueen in the movie classic, Le Mans, the speed and success of the 917 resulted in it becoming a popular choice for private entrants racing in the sports car World Championship. A total of 59 examples of the 917 were built, 41 as short or long-tail coupes, and 18 as Can-Am or Interseries Spyder versions with 1,400 hp turbocharged engines.
At the 2013 Goodwood Festival of Speed, Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood were reunited behind the wheel of the legendary Porsche 917K, still with its Le Mans starting number 23.