As the 1950s drew to a close, Porsche was in a state of flux. On the production side, the company began planning the transition from its stalwart 356, which dated back to 1948, to the legendary 901/911. Their racing side, a core value to Porsche vehicles, flirted with Formula 1 and Formula 2.
In 1957, the 718 racecar made its debut at the 24 Hours of LeMans. Behind the driver, but ahead of the rear axle, sat a quad-cam 1.5L four-cylinder Type 547 engine developed from the 550A powerplant.
While it did not finish that initial outing due to an accident, the 718 returned the next year, finishing third overall and first in class. Through seating adjustments (one- or two-passenger), engine changes (1.6L, 2.0L, and eight-cylinder versions included), and new bodies, the 718 successfully competed in the Targa Florio, Sebring, hill climb, Formula 1, and Formula 2 events before being retired in 1964.
The lessons learned from the 718 transferred to the next generation of racecar. Designed by Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, the newly appointed head of Porsche's design studio and son of company founder Ferry Porsche, the new car would be a major step ahead for the company.
Developed as a sports car, the new 904 featured the same mid-engine configuration as the 718 but based on a new ladder chassis. Instead of front trailing arms and rear swing axles, the car used coil springs with A-arms up front and trailing arms in the back. Porsche wrapped this package up in long and low fiberglass clothes, generating a coefficient of drag of only 0.34.
Moving away from the 356's Volkswagen-derived motor, the 904 beat with the heart of the all-new Type 587/3 engine.
Still a flat-four, the long-stroke 1,966cc engine sported four overhead camshafts (two per bank), hemispherical heads, and two 48mm Weber carbs. With a compression ratio of 9.8:1, the little two-liter produced an astounding 198 horsepower.
Mated to a fully synchronized five-speed transmission, the ¾-ton 904 was able to shoot to 100 kilometers per hour in about six seconds. Four-wheel disc brakes and ZF rack-and-pinion steering--a first for Porsche--completed the vehicle.
Simple and utilitarian, the fiberglass dashboard groups the three gauges right in front of the driver--with the tachometer mounted front and center, naturally. The rest of the wide black panel is barren, save for a few black knobs and the ignition switch.
Buyers had a choice of seating, but the interior was otherwise sparse. It's stripped in order to go directly from showroom floor to the track, which is what many of these cars did.
Because of the regulations from various racing bodies, street-going versions of the 904 had to be built. Homologation required that 100 road-ready versions be offered to the public. In total, Porsche built about 106 of these cars (including six works cars).
Like the 718 before it, the 904's debut race, at Sebring in 1964, ended early for the Porsche. Clutch trouble was to blame. With the bugs worked out, the 904 returned for the Targa Florio race, where it took the overall win. Significant finishes followed at the Nürburgring (third place), LeMans (12th overall), Spa, and Watkins Glen, among many others.
The 1965 season also brought numerous wins, including the class win at the Monte Carlo Rally--at which fewer than 10 percent of all starters even finished. SCCA titles for C-Production (1964), E-Production (1965), and back-to-back (1964-'65) E-Sports Racing also lined the 904's trophy case.
Variations of the 904 included the 911-powered 904/6 and the 804 F1-powered 904/8 with its eight-cylinder engine. Featured at Gooding & Company's Scottsdale auction on 21 January 2011 will be Don Wester's 1964 904.
Wester was a Monterey Porsche dealer and an accomplished racecar driver. During successful careers in the West Coast SCCA and USRRC, he campaigned various cars during the 1960s, including a Porsche Carrera Abarth, a Porsche 718 RSK, a Porsche 718 RS61, a Porsche Super 90, a Genie-Ford, and a Porsche 906.
He and his 904 made their debut at the 1964 Vaca Valley race. The highlight of their time together may have been when they won the race at Candlestick Park in 1965, beating Phil Hill with his 427 Cobra.
Only produced for two years, the 904's life was short. F. A. Porsche was ready for the next step, the rear-engined 911. Introduced at the same time as the 904, the 911 was ready to take over as the company's focal product when the 356 was finally laid to rest in 1965. With the 356 went the last ties to Volkswagen-based origins of the company's products.
Racing development progressed to the six-cylinder 906. Lessons learned from the 904 went into the lighter and more powerful 906, with its unstressed fiberglass body and tubular space frame.
Yet when compared to the relatively brutish 906, the 904 is more beautiful in its clean lines and low profile. David Brynan of Gooding & Company says that Wester's example has a "high level of originality" and an undeniable racing history.
These are among the reasons for the car's expected selling price of $1.2-$1.6 million. While not the least expensive way to do it, this vehicle would make the perfect vintage racer--especially considering this little car took on the giants of its time and came away a champion.
Our thanks to Gooding & Company for providing the photographs of this historically interesting Porsche. The car is one of the highlights of its Automobiles of Arizona event on 21-22 January 2011.