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31 Mar 2020

Living legend – driving the Porsche 908

As the extraordinary 908/3 celebrates its 50th anniversary, a Goodwood test drive by Nick Trott reveals it’s as fast and furious as in its race-winning heyday

Christmas 1969. There’s a party raging at the racing department in Zuffenhausen. It had been a good year for Ferdinand Piëch’s band of young drivers and engineers; Porsche had taken the sports car manufacturers’ title, triumphed at the Targa Florio and won the Monte Carlo rally. Furthermore, the troublesome new 917 sports car had taken its first win at the final race of the year. Yes, it must have been one hell of a party.

Brian Redman was a popular figure at the event. Having co-driven with Jo Siffert for Porsche in a 908, he was celebrating winning five of the 10 World Sportscar Championship races in 1969. Still, Redman was distracted by something he’d just seen. During the party, an engineer had taken him to a darkened corner and removed the cover from a new racing car. When Redman climbed in, he was amazed to find that his feet were ahead of the front axle.
The 908/3 was designed for optimum weight distribution around a short-wheelbase chassis to take advantage of two specific events at the World Sportscar Championship: the Targa Florio and the Nürburgring 1000km. Piëch had recognised that the 917 would struggle to deploy its considerable power in the Sicilian hills and the Eifel mountains. A short, agile and responsive car was required – one that was inspired by the featherweight 909 Bergspyder hillclimber rather than the 908s that preceded the Mark 3. A car that would take advantage of Porsche’s compact and torquey flat-eight engine, and one which was ruthlessly engineered for the tasks at hand.
How ruthlessly engineered? It’s true that the driver’s backside was just a short distance behind the front suspension. The differential was moved to the rear of the gearbox and hence the gearbox and engine moved closer to the centre of the car.

But it wasn’t just front-to-rear axle load that was optimised (45:55): weight distribution across the car was too. The designers went as far as favouring the predominantly clockwise circuits of the period by placing the driver, the fuel tank and the battery on the right of the car.
Unlike the Bergspyder, it would be necessary for the 908/3 to withstand up to 600 miles of racing – rather than the short sprints of a hillclimb – therefore the chassis was strengthened and weight added.
However, lightweighting remained second nature to this design team and a fastidious (perhaps even obsessive) approach, plus use of titanium and magnesium, meant the 908/3 eventually weighed 545kg – 50kg lighter than the 908/2. Even the screws from the rear lights were removed and the lenses glued in place instead.
When the drivers tried it, they were ecstatic. Not only was the car fast, its grip, stability and adjustability created an incredibly driveable car – not the short, twitchy monster that its looks would suggest.

I’m scared I’ll break something as I climb in. The sliver of a seat, or the spindles of chassis that I brace myself against. Down by my feet I notice a fragile-looking intersection of polished chassis tubes that spear off into eight branches – and a puddle of welds holding it all together.
And the driving position? It is every bit as intimidating as the drivers said it was. You’re in no doubt that your feet are the first line of defence should you meet a solid object.
The engine starts and you’re shuffled down the opposite direction of the hill, turn the car, and line up ready for a run. However, that little sprint down to the start line has confirmed something the drivers always loved about the 908/3. You genuinely feel like you’re wearing the car.
The Porsche Museum engineers tell me that the 908/3 is a tough little car and that I should explore all the revs. It’s a lovely thing to hear, but sometimes you’d rather they told you to “Take it easy” and “Don’t crash.” But I have to say, the weather is gorgeous, the track is dry and the 908/3’s control weights are so linear that I think, “OK, I’ll give it a burst.”

Warming the engine, you hear multiple layers of sound. A howl from the exhaust, a rumble from the intake, a shriek from the fan (which is upright behind your back) and a wail from the chain drive. Above it all there’s a tatatatatat as the slide throttles spit and pop – a sound not unlike popcorn cooking in a pan.
Then you’re off. Lots of revs, some wheelspin, but the tyres hook up quicker than I expected. Into second, then third - just like that. Whoah – this thing just wants to go. The 908/3 doesn’t overreact into the first couple of corners on the hillclimb – with such a short wheelbase I was expecting hyperactive responses. Instead, it matches precisely the instructions from your wrists and gives you a car that could not be easier to place on the road. Already, after two corners, I’m in absolutely no doubt as to why this car was so extraordinarily successful.
Past the house, the 908/3 flies. If I’m honest, things are moving at a pace beyond that which my talent is capable of governing. With Molecomb (where everybody crashes) and the Flint Wall (where you don’t want to crash) approaching I relax a little, then give the car another hard run to the top of the hill. Here I have the most fleeting glimpse of what the 908/3 would be like on the quick stretches of the Nürburgring or the Florio – carving across the road, shaving the Sicilian scrub on apexes, skimming stone walls and howling between buildings. It feels simultaneously indomitable and wonderful.

For a car built for two specific races over two years (it won 75 per cent of them), the 908/3 enjoyed a remarkably long career. Porsche built 13 cars, some of which ended up in private hands. In 1973, Reinhold Joest took a 908/3 to victory at the Kyalami 9 Hours and turbocharged versions raced until 1983. What a remarkable little car.

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