Catching Up With The Road-Legal 917 In Monaco
Seeing a 917 fire up anywhere is a special enough experience, but perhaps some places are better than others for appreciating just what a wonder this car is. Flat chat down the Mulsanne straight for example… or perhaps on the street, with the engine noise echoing off apartment blocks and cafes? Claudio Roddaro, the owner of this street legal 917, the last chassis number produced, gets to make that a reality.
Even as a seasoned feature hunter, I couldn’t help the cognitive dissonance of hearing the distinctive note of the flat-12 across the harbor a few minutes before I saw it. There was a flash of revs that quite possibly every person in the whole principality heard. It’s one thing to say that a 917 is road legal, but it’s another entirely to see it next to a Fiat Punto at the traffic lights. Claudio pulled it out of the workshop, cruised down the motorway, toll booth pass box in the window, to the harbor in Monaco. I don’t usually start an interview speechless, but words can be hard to come by while you’re watching someone line up a Le Mans legend for the right light against a backdrop of yachts and the hillsides of Monaco.
Claudio’s story with this stunning Porsche begins with a Ferrari. Back in 2000, he went to Venice to buy a Dino but by the time he got there it had been sold. Not too enthusiastic about the idea of traversing the width of Italy on public transport again, he asked the dealer what else he had available to buy then and there. The only car available was a 1973 Carrera RS lightweight. “I didn’t really care about Porsches back then, to be honest. I was just going to drive back in it and sell it to a friend, but on the 500km blast back I absolutely loved the feeling of the car. Ferraris have that ‘wow-factor’ in all of their cars, and Porsches are more understated in comparison. But it was so good to drive! That was many years ago now, but I will never forget driving home with the needle on 240km/h the whole way.”
Long before he arrived back in Monaco with that car, he decided to keep it. He ended up owning it for three years until ex-F1 driver Jean-Pierre Jarier, stopped him on the street one day wanting to buy it—whatever the cost. Claudio couldn’t say no, but the void of not having a Porsche in his life needed filling, so he bought a 1973 911T, which was a pleasure to drive but lacked a bit of bite and excitement. That spurred him to look for a model with a slightly better performance. That took the form of an ST, but there were other models to enjoy and experience as well, and in a few years he had almost everything in the classic 911 range: the ST, RS, SC, RSR—even an R—about thirty in all. He thought he’d completed the collection with an ex-Gérard Larrousse 908 LH. “I had that car for a couple of years and loved it… until one day I got overtaken by someone in a 917. And that got me thinking.”
917s are some of the most sought-after automobiles, let alone Porsches, but made in the early ’70s with a design remit for extreme weight saving and Mulsanne speeds, they were only intended to last a couple of races at most—even if some of those races were 24-hour slogs. This inherent fragility means that over the years most 917s have had their aluminum, or in the case of a few very rare cars, magnesium, chassis heavily repaired, if not entirely replaced. But Claudio was only interested in buying an original car, which reduced the number of suitable examples in existence down to just a handful… all he could do was register his interest with a few people, and wait.
Such cars don’t really appear on the open market very often, and the normal way to sell one is just to put the word out, which is why being in the “in crowd” is so important. And Claudio definitely is. On Christmas Eve in 2016, he got a call from none other than Jürgen Barth to tell him a suitable car was available. On Christmas Day, he bought chassis 037. He doesn’t want to say how much it cost, but suffice to say it was as expensive as you might be imagining. And then some. And then add another zero.
The chassis started out as a spare for the Rossi team to be used at the 1970 Le Mans in case anything happened to the other cars in the run-up to the race. It was never used in competition, but for a few years Porsche kept it as a demonstration of how cooling oil was piped from the radiators at the front to the engine in the back. (The 917 is regarded as air-cooled, but some 20% of the cooling came from oil and some chassis tubes were used as conduits.)
In 1978, when such technology was replaced by somewhat safer methods, the chassis was given to Baur, the famous German karosserie, where it was stored until 2003. As the only original chassis was never used in a race environment, it happily went to a person worthy of such a Porsche treasure Carl Thompson. He’d already taken on Vasek Polak’s inventory, which included pretty much all of the 917 spares that the factory had when the project was shut down. He’d bought them all as scrap value when they were worth little to Porsche, but thirty years later they were more than enough to build a full car from. It was also put together by a special team. Kevin Jeannette of Gunnar Racing is one of the most respected classic Porsche specialists and is regarded as one of the world’s leading 917 experts. So much so, that he even managed to make special lightweight body panels for the project.
Fittingly, the first place the car saw the light of day, 36 years after the chassis was made, was at Le Mans, for the 2006 Le Mans Classic. Driven by former winner of the real-deal, Stéphane Ortelli, it was finished in plain white with the number 37 on the side.
It was sold on soon afterwards, and American Porsche enthusiast Greg Galdi owned it for ten years, but the events he took it to were more of the festival and demonstration type than real competition, so it was never raced in anger and the chassis was still in great condition. It was Galdi who had the 1971 Daytona 24 Hours Martini livery put on the car, and he also had the Vic Elford and Gijs Van Lennep added as the driver decals, but this was the only thing Claudio has changed. “It’s only a tribute color scheme, not an original one, so there was no issue for me in changing it slightly,” he says. First entered to race for real in the 2017 FIA Masters Historic Sportscar Championship, Claudio is justifiably proud to be able to say that his is the only name ever to grace the car in actual competition.
The Masters Championship is perhaps not the most media-attended series when compared with contemporary series, but seeing the 917 go head to head against a Ferrari 512 is a very rare and glorious sight. And their drivers weren’t holding back, swapping the lead constantly during the Monza race back in 2017. “The 917 handles amazingly well, but the Ferrari was better on the straights, but only because of the gearing,” Claudio explains. “I had a short ratio ‘box in it all year, but for 2018 I ran a proper Le Mans ratio.” A longer fifth will add an extra 40km/h at full stretch to take the top speed up to incredible 380km/h. “After four hour-long races in 2017, all the car ever needed was a cleaning, but Jürgen Barth told me that the car was only designed to race for 24 hours. I told him that means I have 20 races left!”
I normally like to do a test drive as part of my stories, and being in the passenger seat is fine if I;m not lucky enough to get a few moments behind the wheel. In an eight-figure car though, there’s not even a remote possibility to drive it, and despite it being technically a two-seater, there was no way I was going to be a passenger either. There was just about enough space for Claudio’s briefcase and jacket on the tiny slip of fiberglass called a seat, so I had to appreciate it from a safe distance. For a car such as this however, that’s nothing to complain about. If you’ve ever had the privilege to be standing next to one on start up, you’ll know what I mean—the girl out jogging who almost threw herself in the sea in shock also knows.
The most incredible thing though is that this car is road legal. I couldn’t think of anything else so loud, or lacking in driver protections, or emissions standards… or more likely to cause an accident purely from people gawking at it. I know the story of how hard it was for Count Rossi to get his example road legal in the ’70s (which paved the way for this car to earn its plates), but Claudio didn’t have to make any material changes to the car. Apparently, the Rossi car’s paperwork set the precedent for 917s to be road-registered… but only in Monaco, or perhaps some county in Florida. A friend of Claudio’s has even managed to get an F1 car from the ’90s road-legal, so the 917 is only the second most outrageous car to see trundle past a Monegasquen bus stop.
Carrying a spare wheel is a legal requirement, but that’s no problem as the Le Mans cars needed to carry one as well, as per the regulations, so there is a place designed in the chassis to hold one. The service van goes everywhere the car does though, and it carries the jack. The only thing Claudio needed to do was add a number plate and a few turn signals. X917 would be a better number of course, but an owner of a Citroën DS has that one, and he isn’t interested in selling it.