This is not a real 917, yet when the flimsy door closes and I'm enclosed in the tiny bubble, I can see myself from the outside. And I hear that watch going ‘tick, tick, tick’. Hit start
Yes, it is a replica, but one that makes an awful lot of sense. Here I am screaming down the straight of the Albi track in the South of France, in what is probably the closest thing to a 917 that I will ever drive.
I don’t have to worry about the famously fragile flat-12 engine. In the end, this is a 917 for €200,000, which is peanuts compared to the real deal. And just as this car did today, you can arrive with it on a small trailer, press the start button and you’re off living your Steve McQueen dream… or Richard Attwood in this case.
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It is a poster car, especially in this number 23 Team Salzburg livery of the 917 that won the 1970 Le Mans 24 hours with Attwood and Hans Hermann driving. It was a high point for the 917, which up until then had been a bit of a troublesome kid in Weissach, requiring a lot of effort to get the car dynamically stable at high speeds and under braking.
But once this was sorted out, the 917K (for Kurz, or short-tail) took off like a steam train and blitzed the opposition for years to come… or at least until the ACO organising committee got tired of it and wrote a set of new rules effectively banning the 917 from Le Mans. As a movie, McQueen’s Le Mans is utter rubbish, but it helped in defining the 917 as an icon. Never before had race cars been shown so dramatically on the big screen. It feels as if the 917 waltzes over you.
The Porsche 917 is a poster car, and notoriously difficult to run these days. The value of the car is painfully easy to bring to mind once you are behind the wheel, and the flat-12 boxer is prone to break at any given moment. Scarce to find, fragile to run and best left alone if you don’t have the equivalent of Hungary’s healthcare budget in your bank account to keep it running.
That is precisely where this car comes in. If you are really rich, you could see this as the 917 you can run as you like while you preserve your real one in the garage. If you are really passionate about 917s, but don’t have the budget, it is attainable. Well, more attainable then a real 917 in any case. And anyway, do you really need the house?
Bailey Brothers 917 replica
This is not the only 917 replica, but it's a very interesting take nonetheless. Bailey Cars started in 2003 with South African brothers Peter and Greg Bailey creating a GT40 replica on a new chassis. Based on the original drawings from the 917, the chassis was adapted to form the basis for a 917 replica.
It uses a classic glassfibre body around a carbonfibre tub with steel tubing. This makes the Bailey Cars 917 50kg heavier then the real 917, a downside that is offset by better handling and a higher safety level according to the creators. The car is 10cm longer, has larger 16in wheels and gets modern Bilstein suspension.
'The idea was to have a much more driveable car, making the 917 more accessible to common enthusiasts,' says Olivier Bosio, the France-based European distributor for Bailey Cars through his Racing Legend Car society. 'We receive the finished cars without drivetrain – it is no longer possible to receive this car as a DIY kit, due to quality issues that have arisen in the past.'
Now for the really interesting part: instead of the insanely expensive and impossible to source 12-cylinder Porsche engine from the real 917, Bailey Cars have developed this replica for any old aircooled flat-six from the 911. You didn’t really expect 12 cylinders for €200,000 euro, now did you? The car you see in these pictures has the 3.6-litre six-cylinder from the 964-type 911. It has been bored out to 3.8 litres displacement, coming with 350bhp. Which in combination with the 850kg dry weight, still makes for a very interesting power to weight-ratio.
Eager to find out more, I drop myself into the tiny leather seat. The differences are clear, you have different tubing and different dials and buttons on the dashboard, and the steering wheel with the flattened top is no 917-copy. But you do get a wooden ball on the gearlever to your right. From the outside, the cabin looks tiny, but inside you don’t feel confined. It just feels like an extra helmet over your head. Anything else is just you and the car.
The connection is instant the moment you grab that gearlever and push it forwards. That is when the flashback to the movie hits you. You are there, ready to take off in your 917. This is really happening. I turn the kill switch on and hit the starter button. Just as with the real 917, a belt-driven cooling fan starts wheezing over the engine note. Tick-tick-tick…
This thing uses a standard 911 five-speed manual gearbox and clutch, so leaving the pits goes graciously. You find plenty of travel and the pedal gives good feel. The problem actually lies with the right two pedals. Due to the intrusion of the steering column, it is difficult to heel-and-toe correctly. Especially since the brake pedal goes quite deep before the bite comes, something Bosio and his crew are still sorting out.
Porsche 917 on track
The final drive-ratio suits this Albi club circuit well, nearly always dropping the next cog in the region of 3000 rpm and pushing the car instantly along. Since this is one of the first times the car has been out on track, we stick to a self-imposed 5000rpm limit. The confidence in the car comes quickly.
Because the Bailey Car comes with 16in wheels instead of the original 15in choice, the Avon tyres don’t have the slightest problem. It also makes for better braking. Rear visibility is near non-existent. The big rear mirror on the inside only gives you a view of the Gurney flaps at the rear, and the left rear-view mirror turns out to be of limited use as well.
Albi poses only a limited challenge to the 917, with low kerbs making it easy to straightline the corners as much as possible. You quickly find yourself opening up quite early in the corners. One part of the track is tricky; it consists of two right-handers with a dip in the road where the airport runway cuts across the track. Yes, that is right, the runway cuts across the track. Best not to think about that too much.
The difficulty is the second of these corners, which has a faster exit than the first and leads to the big straight. Crucial to get it right then. As we build up speed in the 917, you feel you can really attack the second corner, with the dip slightly unsettling the car. At which moment this 917 displays its best characteristic: utter predictability.
You can feel the slide coming from miles away, and have all the time in the world to calculate your options: kill it by correcting, or keep your foot buried and enjoy the most glorious of powerslides. This car has the ability to make you look like a 917 hero.
There are some considerations of course. Even though the braking capacity is impressive, the pedal still needs to be sorted out, along with the steering column issue. The gearbox needs some time to warm the oil in order to have smooth changes. First and second gears are located really close to your leg, making them less easy to find. But overall, this car stands out as a very reliable track toy, not a widowmaker.
Porsche 917 on the road?
So, does it bring more possibilities then just track day-appearances? 'Of course we get a lot of questions from people asking if it could be street-legal. But let’s be realistic for a moment here, it might not be impossible, but it is going to be one very thorough process,' says Bosio.
In racing, there are more opportunities. 'In France, we got it currently accepted in the Sport Proto Cup in the Historic Tour, with a maximum displacement of 3-litres and 320bhp max. This is also very interesting in the way we present it: if you really want one, it is best to come to us with your plans and then we can define the best engine-configuration for it. You should count €200,000 before taxes for a project with engine. You can buy the car with engine with us, or have your own shop install the engine.'
Supply however will be limited. 'Bailey Cars have said they will make only six 917s per year, since they only have limited capacity and other models to produce as well. All liveries are possible, with most demands for a Gulf-themed car of course.'
What if you ask a really quick driver?
Eric Hélary (51) won the 1993 Le Mans 24 Hours in his first attempt. The Frenchman shared driving duties with countryman Christophe Bouchut and Geoff Brabham in the legendary Peugeot 905 Evo 1B. The podium at that year’s Le Mans was ‘Peugeot only’.
'The 905 was such an amazing car,' remembers Hélary. 'During testing in Magny Cours, we put in exactly the same lap times as the Formula 1 cars. A stunning car.'
Today, Hélary is at hand to put the Bailey 917 through its paces. He knows Albi well from his racing days. 'The triple right-hander which is now cut short by a chicane was quite the corner. It started flat-out, it was less so near the end of the corner. One day in Formula 3 I lost it on the exit in just that corner. No room for error, the car was a mess. Next lap, my teammate Laurent Aiello does exactly the same thing at the same spot. There were not many happy faces in our pit.'
Hélary runs his own classic racing shop these days, and was asked to help out with this car as well. 'There are still some issues with the engine-mapping that need sorting out, but first impressions are very good. You really get the feeling as a driver in the cockpit that you are flying down the straight of Les Hunaudières in a 917. The handling is great too, I think it actually handles better then a real 917 would have done in its days.
'The manual shift is fast, the engine has enough power for the car. OK, it’s not a flat-12, but just imagine the costs involved in running one of those. For this money, this is a really good offer. If you are a 917-enthusiast without the money, this will bring your dream within reach. And even if you have the money for a real 917, try finding one… and then running one.'
Porsche 917 vs Bailey Cars 917
Length 4140mm (short tail)
Weight 800kg (empty)
Engine 4.9 litre flat-12
Price Millions (of anything)
Bailey Cars 917
Engine 3.8 litre flat-6
Price €200.000 (before tax)
Photography by Dirk de Jager