Collector Car Appreciation Day
Friday July 14, 2017
“The 904 is a car that should not only be viewed from the front and back, but also from above. It is this line, beginning at the headlights, which tops the doors and continues over and through the back . . . It is so important to create such products with all perspectives in mind.” – Ferinand Alexander Porsche III –
The 904 Carrera GTS has been called Butzi Porsche’s “signature” car, this in deference to the model for which he is best remembered, the 911. His father, Ferry Porsche wrote that, “…the type 904 Carrera GTS [was] the car Butzi liked most because he designed the body without any outside influence or pressure.” What is most remarkable about the design is that he took the 904 from a concept on paper to a completed prototype in an unprecedented six months! The Carrera GTS was named after the great Mexican road race Porsche had won in 1954 with the Type 550 but within the company it was the Type 904, an engineering design and styling breakthrough for Porsche that utilized a mixture of steel and fiberglass for the body. As unique as that combination might have been for the early 1960s, the 904’s styling and design intent were even more so.
Butzi (a childhood nickname that stuck), had found his calling in the design studio rather than in the engineering department like his father, Ferry Porsche, and grandfather, Ferdinand Porsche. He learned the art of styling at the side of his grandfather’s chief designer, Erwin Komenda, who had created the Volkswagen and the 356 Porsche bodies. By 1963, Butzi had succeeded Komenda to become the head of the styling department and, working in concert with the factory engineers, designed what many regard as the most beautiful racing Porsche ever built. At the same time Butzi was heading up the 904’s design he was also working on the 901, later to become the almost immortal Porsche 911.
The very first 904 Carrera entered in competition appeared at Daytona in February 1964, driven by Augie Pabst and Chuck Cassell, and though it did not finish the race it left a lasting impression on the other drivers and spectators who had never seen a racecar that looked like the 904. More than 40 years later the Carrera GTS still looks contemporary to the latest Ferraris, Maseratis, and Lamborghinis. Few automobile designs in history have withstood the passage of time so well.
The basis of the 904’s design was a pressed steel chassis on to which a lightweight glass fiber (fiberglass) body was bonded. Butzi recalled that the first use of plastics was to mold racecar seats to fit individual drivers. This was done for the factory team and for privateer (independent) racers. Previously, seats had been pounded out of sheet metal. Fiberglass was easier. “When the customers accepted this, we thought, ‘We’ll make more out of plastic! Why don’t we make a whole car?’” As it turned out, they made half a car, from the beltline up.
Using fiberglass was nothing new. Chevrolet had used it to build the Corvette since 1953; Bill Devin had used plastic for his sports cars as had Dutch Darrin in the 1950s, but Porsche’s application of glass fiber was unique because no one had ever combined it with a steel body. The overlap of the plastic upper to the steel underbody became a styling cue, a “run through” that defined the shape of the car by wrapping around the rear to form an integral spoiler. If you see more than a passing resemblance to the later Ferrari (Fiat) Dino, it is no coincidence. The Carrera GTS would influence a number of sports car designs throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
Mounted in the rear of the 904 was Porsche’s venerable four-cam, four-cylinder engine dispensing 180 brake horsepower at 7200rpm and 145 pound-feet of torque at 5000rpm, through a 5-speed gearbox and ZF limited-slip differential. The Carrera engines were designated as the Type 587/3. The cars were to be homologated into the Group 3 Grand Touring class, meaning that 100 examples had to be built. Once the 904 was unveiled, however, selling 100 presented little problem for Porsche. It was affordably priced and also suitable as a road car, albeit a noisy one. One of the first deliveries was to Stirling Moss. Another was purchased by legendary American sportsman Briggs Cunningham and raced by him at Le Mans in 1964, winning the under 3-liter prototype class (as the cars had not yet been homologated) and finishing 9th overall with co-driver Lake Underwood. Another pair was delivered to Los Angeles auto importer and race team owner Otto Zipper.
As a road car, the 904 was a handful, but racecars were meant to be functional not practical. Interior noise was deafening, the insulation from engine heat bearable, but “comfortable” would not be an apt description of the 904. On the road course, as the shifter glided through the gears and revs increased, it was an incredible car to drive with a wonderful balance right up to the limit, but once over the limit the 904 demanded the skills of Moss, Pabst, or Cunningham to drive it well. Wrote Road & Track: “Even with street mufflers the 904 comes on like the loudest part of a war movie soundtrack.” Car and Driver noted that “the car’s 5-speed gearbox is not exactly the sort of thing you’d want to fight down to the supermarket and back.” Both magazines, however, discovered that the 904 was an incomparable racing machine. As a road car it was better suited for the racetrack unless one had a passion for speed and the discomforts of a purebred racer.
Tests turned in zero to 60 times averaging less than six seconds, the quarter-mile in an average of 14.3 seconds, and a top speed just shy of 160 mph. Exhilarating figures for 1964, but at a cost. Wrote Car and Driver, “…when you lose it, you lose it faster than the reflexes can follow. Not that it can’t be done; the corrections must be quick, sure, and metered out in exact amounts at the right time.”
The design of the Carrera GTS allowed Porsche to utilize a variety of engines for competition: the four-cam four-cylinder delivering 155 horsepower for non-racing road cars and 180 horsepower at 7,200 rpm for competition (the difference being the addition of a road going exhaust system); the new horizontally opposed six-cylinder designed for the 911; and an eight-cylinder racing engine. The four-cam, four-cylinder version was the most popular.
In 1964 the Porsche 904s were victorious in the Targa Florio, in 1965 they won the Spanish Rally, Hellbronner, Rossfiel, Nürburgring, and Gaisberg races and a year later, American Sam Posey won the Watkins Glen 500 driving a Carrera GTS.
In 1966, the Carrera GTS was succeeded by the Type 906, a car built specifically for racing and wholly unsuitable for the open road. The 904 Carrera GTS was the last true road and racecar of its era. Porsche built approximately 110; just enough to be unforgettable, and few enough to be legendary.
By Dennis Adler
© Car Collector Magazine, LLC.
(Click for more Car Collector Magazine articles)
Originally appeared in the March 2008 Issue
Archival Photos Courtesy of Porsche AG
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