Porsche 904 Carrera GTS. Possibly Porsche’s most beautiful ever. Not least at full speed on the “Rubbish bin” in the forests of Värmland. Text: Gunnar Dackevall. Photography: Peter Gunnars.
The roar fills the whole valley in an almost frightening way. We are standing alongside the legendary rally world championship stage “The Rubbish bin”, north of Gräsmark in Värmland, waiting for a little red sports car with a two-litre engine to appear in the photographer’s lens.
But judging by the background noise, a thunderstorm is about to erupt from the north, out of a seemingly clear blue summer sky.
Suddenly a dust cloud appears, the little red sports car with its unmistakeable 1960’s contours fills the full width of the curve and, as it exits both the exhaust trumpets aim straight at us, the tone of the roar is transformed into a sharp, almost painful howl.
After a few seconds it has gone from our field of vision, leaving behind only the thunder bouncing away off the hills.
There are primarily three men to thank for this wonderful feast for the dulled senses of a car freak: Ernst Fuhrmann, the designer of Porsche’s first own engine. It was to power everything the factory raced with for a ten year period from 1955, including early versions of the F1 car and the highly successful 718 Spyder, and it can still liven up a whole Värmland parish with its song.
We also thank the man who is responsible for the design, Ferdinand Alexander “Butzi” Porsche. He created the body shape thought by many today to be Porche’s most beautiful.
And, of course, the man who ensures that this Porsche 904, with chassis number 037, still drives in the attacking style it was once built for: Lasse Jönsson, car connoisseur and well-known Porsche trader from Karlstad, who still masters the art of driving a Porsche quickly.
Although the Porsche 904 was designed in a few months, built in even less time and killed by Porsche’s then new technical manager Ferdinand Piëch, it has established itself as one of the real icons of the car world.
The fact that considerably more than a million euros are paid when a car changes hands is living proof of the appreciation for it. That’s an awful lot of money for a car of which almost 120 examples were built, including prototypes and cars put together by components that later got a chassis number from the factory.
The story och the car which had found its way to Värmland’s gravel Eldorado on this fine June day, got a kick-start in 1963 when the International Automobile Federation decided to stop the development of prohibitively expensive specials in GT racing and require manufacturers to build a series of 100 registrable cars during a twelve month period.
Porsche was well into the final development stages of the 901, the 365 replacement that came to be named 911 when it was presented, and didn’t really have the resources to manufacture so many special cars in the short time available. The solution was found at aircraft manufacturers Heinkel in Speyer, who had great experience of fibreglass use and lightweight constructions, and most importantly: surplus production capacity.
In 1962 Ferry Porsche, in conjunction with Porsche pulling out of F1 racing, had decided to only race with cars closely tied to their sports car production. So when the regulations became clear, they could just press a button and start developing the new car that during the project stage got the name 904 (and later Carrera GTS). When reading the story of how the car was built, in the magnificent “Porsche 904 – die komplette Dokumentation” by Jürgen Barth, it is striking how quickly and efficiently the team behind the car worked. And the extent to which its customers were actively involved in the development work.
The car was designed in spring 1963 and, to save both weight and costs in production, it was decided to make a fibreglass body resting on a powerful frame of steel beams (not unlike GM’s way of making the Chevrolet Corvette).
“Butzi’s” body was a radical departure from the rear-engine 911 that he had just built, but it’s only when standing next to a 911 that you realise how small the 904 really is. The frontal area is extremely compact, just 1.06 x 1.54 metres in height and width.
When it came to the engine, there were a number to choose from: the proven twin-cam four-cylinder, the totally unproven flat-six in the 911 and the extreme boxer eight developed for the F1 car and used with great success in the 718 Spyder. All the engines were two-litre, which fitted well with the idea that the car could dominate the two-litre class and also have a good chance of holding its own overall.
As they wouldn’t have time to develop the flat-six for competitive use, and the eight-cylinder was too expensive to manufacture, it was decided to use the engine from the 356 Carrera, 400 examples of which had already been built and proven to be reliable. But at the same time, room would be needed for the six and the eight-cylinder in order to further develop the car.
It was a tough timetable. The first prototype was to be tested at the end of August 1963, production was to start in November and the entire series of 100 cars were to be built by March of the following year so that the team could get started before the season.
Any manufacturer today would shake their head at the breakneck development pace of a car that was to both function in normal traffic and be a killer on the track. Not even the competent gang at Porsche could do magic – updating the car actually took all of the 1964 season, with constant changes and improvements to the already built cars.
To get sales moving a press viewing was held at the Solitude track in Stuttgart at the end of November 1963, before the development team had even tested the car on the road! But by inviting journalists with a racing background, they could get them to overlook some of the “comfort elements” that were still missing (heating, tank gauge, lack of engine compartment insulation, etc.) and instead concentrate their attention on the car’s performance. The speed was extremely impressive for the time.
Thanks to 180 hp (with the sports exhaust system the test car had), a minimal air resistance (Cd was 0.34) and a dry weight of 640 kg, the 904 Carrera GTS was really quick. Top speed was over 250 km/h (depending on the gear ratio chosen, four were available to choose from: Nürburgring, Mountain, Airport or Le Mans) which few if any sports car designed for street use could match in 1964.
All the journalists present agreed that the car was a winner as well as being easy to drive, which was a good rating for the autumn’s test work that had mainly focused on making an initially fairly hard to drive chassis reliable and predictable.
The suspension had mostly been borrowed from the Formula 1 chassis and geometrically adapted to work with the longer suspension travel and higher weight. The front was conventional with double wishbones and the rear was in fact an earlier variety of contemporary rear-end multi-link suspension, which caused very small geometrical changes.
The engine, with the internal number 587/3, perhaps looks a little lost down in its cradle in front of the gearbox, but it’s a real technical delight. To avoid long cam chains and rows of gears, Ernst Fuhrmann used a very special design. Mid axles and bevel gears drive the exhaust cams, which in their turn drive the intake cam axles via short axles. According to owner Jönsson, the construction requires a lot of patience and skill to be set up correctly, but if the job is done properly the engine is absolutely perfect.
Each cylinder is equipped with two sparkplugs and two ignition coils, and the short stroke and large bore give good space for big valves.
Together, all this gives the engine an explosive character, that reinforces the sound from the exhaust trumpets. You can just about see a relationship to the old Beetle engine that has the same configuration and is air-cooled, but the similarities are totally superficial. Where the valves in an overhead-valve Beetle loose their momentum somewhere around 5,000 revs, Fuhrmann’s engine carries on and screams out at 7,500 (or 10,000 in F1 engines).
When the 904 could be appreciated on the covers of car magazines around the world the orders began to come in and, by Christmas 1963, project manager Hans Tomala could breathe out a little as the last cars were ordered. Each customer had to pay a deposit of 10,000 D-Marks and the remaining 20,000 on delivery, which was not an outrageous price considering the 911 (at 130 hp) was launched with a price of 21,900 D-Marks.
One of the cars was ordered by the Swedish importer Scania-Vabis, it had chassis number 053 and was to be driven by Hasse Radefalk in the Targa Floria 1964, but it crashed in practice and didn’t take part. This car was later sold to the USA.
At least six of the over one hundred 904s built have a partly Swedish history, but none have as much as Lasse Jönsson’s car. It was purchased by the oil company Swedish BP before the 1965 season on behalf of Gunnar “Persbergarn” Carlsson. He raced the car (but was regularly beaten by Picko Troberg and Sten Axelsson in identical cars) for the greater part of the 1965 season. Chassis number 037 was sold – without its engine – after the season to Gustaf Dieden, who fitted a 911 flat-six and drove some races with it before it got to serve as a road vehicle for fast rides on the Swedish roads, that still had no speed limits at the time.
Lasse bought the car in 1979, restored it and managed to build a new engine from spare parts and get it marked by the factory with the original number – the original engine had been scrapped.
037 has not had much respite since then, as the active Jönsson has been eagerly racing it in historic events around Europe.
As well as circuit racing, it has also done a few rallies, which are not unknown terrain for the 904 that in 1967 achieved an overall second place in the Monte Carlo Rally.
And Lasse has still not succumbed to over-renovating, the car has the correct race patina but is in top condition engine-wise.
It doesn’t take many hundred metres behind the wheel to understand why the 904 is the model Lasse ranks highest of all the Porsches throughout the years.
I have never before experienced a Porsche as light, as well-balanced and as charismatic. Or as beautiful, either.
THE MAN BEHIND THE DESIGN FERDINAND ALEXANDER
Until his death in 2012, the man who held the pen – Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, or “Butzi” as he was always called in Porsche circles – owned the very first prototype of the 904 with the chassis number 001.
Considering the time pressure the car was produced under, the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche himself managed to create a real classic. The form was produced in a hurry and wasn’t even wind-tunnel tested before the shaping of the fibreglass body began to be made, which says a lot about his feeling for form and function.
Butzi came to his father Ferry’s company at the end of the 1950s after graduating as an industrial designer, and in 1962 took over the role of design manager. His first work was the iconic 911, which was soon followed by the radically different but still brand typical 904.
When in 1972 it was decided that no member of the Porsche/Piëch family could any longer hold a leading position at the company, Butzi had to leave. Butzi then started F.A. Porsche Design and later moved to Zell am See in Austria, where he established a very successful design business with its own products, but where perhaps consultancy was the primary interest. The watches were an immediate success, and they are also known for their Porsche- branded glasses, golf clubs and pipes.
Ferdinand Alexander’s old employers, Porsche AG, purchased the business from him a number of years ago and the name confusion became no more than a memory as everything was now under the same roof.
But Butzi took a ride in his original 904 every now and then. The most beautiful car he had designed.
“THE MOST BEAUTIFUL CAR I EVER DESIGNED.”
TECHNICAL DATA FACTS / PORSCHE 904 CARRERA GTS 1964
Engine: 4-cylinder air-cooled boxer, Bore/Stroke 92/74 mm, 1,966 cm3, 2 valves/cyl, dual overhead camshafts, double ignition, Wet sump, Dual two port Weber or Solex carburettor, 180 hp at 7,000 rpm, 205 Nm at 5,000 rpm, specific power 91,3 hp/litre.
Transmission: Rear-wheel drive, 5-speed manual gearbox.
Chassis and dimensions: double wishbones and suspension struts front, upper wishbone and longitudinal and diagonal arms rear. dry weight 640 kg.
Wheelbase 230 cm. L/W/H 409/154/106 cm.
Brakes: Solid discs front and rear, double piston callipers.
Performance: 0–1,000 metres 25.5 s, top speed over 250 km/h.
Price: (New in Germany 1964) 29,700 D-Marks
THE FACTORY COMPETED WITH SIXES AND EIGHTS – ALL CUSTOMER CARS HAD FOUR CYLINDERS.
ITS FRONTAL AREA IS SMALL, AND THE INTERIOR EVEN SMALLER.
THE SOUND THAT THE SMALL ENGINE FILLS THE VALLEY WITH IS INCREDIBLY BRUTAL
For many years the chassis number 904037 served as a street car for Gustaf Dieden, who needed to be reminded of its importance. The 904 is the most used car in Lasse Jönsson’s dream collection of sports and racing cars. And how he drives it…