Porsche 917/20 “Pink Pig” at 50

By any name, one of our all-time favorites

If a car can define the notion of “crowd pleaser,” it must be the Porsche 917/20.  Had it remained painted in plain white, it might be a relatively obscure car in the Porsche Museum collection.  Instead, it received one of the most famous (or infamous) and popular liveries in the history of racing, at least in retrospect.

Although it has only appeared in public twice in the United States, the iconography of the butcher’s diagram seems to rival the blue and orange of Gulf and the red, white, and blue of Martini.  Shirts, hats, handbags, mugs, and, of course, piggy banks sport the famous pink.  For a car that only raced once in the livery, fifty years ago, the “Pink Pig” occupies an outsized space in the pantheon of Porsches.

1971 Le Mans Test Weekend, the 917/20 (right) with a 917LH at Mulsanne Corner.

The story begins almost immediately after the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans.  Although Porsche knew the 917 only had one year of eligibility left for the World Sportscar Championship, they continued with an aggressive development program for the 1971 season.  On June 22, 1970, there was a meeting between the top members of Porsche’s racing and styling departments with Messrs. Deutsch, Romani, and Choulet from the “Society for the Study of Automotive Achievement” (Société d’Etudes et de Réalisations Automobiles, or SERA).  The French designers at SERA had assisted Porsche with aerodynamics for the 917 including the long-tail form used at Le Mans in 1970.  Porsche was looking for a design that would combine the low-drag coefficient of the 917 LH with the stability and downforce of the short-tail 917K.  Porsche set up something of a competition between their internal styling department, under Anatole Lapine, and the designers at SERA.

The team of Lapine and Richard Soderberg produced a streamlined, futuristic design with fully enclosed wheels and split rear wing elements but the French design won out for production.  The reasons are not completely clear but it is possible that politics were a factor.  Because the 917 was a homologation “sports car,” there could have been a concern about getting a radically different body style through scrutineering at Le Mans (as an “evolution” of the 917).  It is clear that Charles Deutsch was serving as Le Mans race rirector and, in the end, the SERA design got through tech inspection.

1971 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 917/20 approaching the Dunlop Bridge.

SERA’s design for the 917/20 was much wider than a standard 917K, at 87 inches versus 78.  The width took the form of side overhangs to minimize air flow disruption from the wheel openings.  The nose was shorter, similar to a 908/03.  The tail was slightly shorter and more deeply concave than the standard “fin” tail used on 917Ks during 1971.  The rear of the chassis was adjusted with the required luggage boxes mounted lower behind the rear wheels.  The space-saver spare tire was moved to the left of the engine, pushing the oil tank forward in the chassis.  Like the 1971 long-tail 917s, the 917/20 received a rear-mounted transmission oil cooler.  The overall wider and stubbier appearance of the 917/20 made it look plainly fat to the Porsche people.

The 917/20 was completely untried when it arrived at Le Mans in April 1971 for the test weekend.  Frequent Porsche test driver Willi Kauhsen did most of the lapping.  Kauhsen and Jo Siffert were both unhappy with the handling.  It was gradually improved with stiffer rear springs, altered brake bias and spoiler adjustments.  To get some extra test miles, Porsche entered a three-hour race that concluded the weekend.  This event was used to practice the rolling start concept (with the new barrier between the pits and the front straight, there was no longer room for the traditional standing start).  In the three-hour race, Kauhsen and Gijs van Lennep led easily in the 917/20 until dropping out when the rev limiter stopped the engine completely.  Testing the 917/20 in the wind tunnel then revealed results similar to the 917K (with a fin tail) and higher drag than the 917 long-tail.  Further development at Porsche’s Weissach test track improved the lap time there by almost three seconds.

For the June 1971 Le Mans race Richard Soderberg designed the butcher’s diagram livery.  Soderberg had pushed the limits the previous year with his Hippie swirls on the Martini 917.  Was the pink merely a bit of whimsy or, perhaps, a bit of spite from Lapine and Soderberg after losing out to SERA in the design competition?  This seems likely, but not certain according to this writer’s research.

1971 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Pink Pig in action.

In practice and qualifying, the Pig was pink with the dotted lines of the butcher’s chart, however, the decals naming the cuts were not yet applied.  Those decals appeared for the race on Saturday.  The font style for the cuts is known as Pretoria.  Appearing atop each front fender was a white pig-shaped naming decal announcing “Der Trüffel Jäger von Zuffenhausen.”  The assigned drivers were Willi Kauhsen and Reinhold Joest, who had been racing together in the ex-Solar Productions 917, Chassis 022, during the 1971 season.  Kauhsen’s seventh-place qualifying time at 3.21 was a little over 2 seconds slower than Dr. Helmut Marko in the magnesium-frame 917K that ultimately won the race.  Unlike the other two factory Porsches entered under the Martini team banner, the 917/20 carried no Martini decals.  The rumor was that Count Rossi refused to associate his brand with the Pink Pig.

The race started well for Kauhsen and Joest, who moved up steadily and into third place by the seventh hour.  At lap 105, the front brake pads were changed.  At the next stop, on lap 121, the mechanics changed the rear brake pads and cooling fan bolts as a precaution (fan bolt failure had knocked the 917 LH of Elford and Larrousse out of the race).  During Kauhsen’s third nighttime stint, he pitted with the engine off-song but an alert mechanic simply disconnected the troublesome rev limiter, problem solved.  On lap 179, just two laps into Joest’s next stint, the throttle cable broke right before the Ford Chicane as he was downshifting.  Joest was lucky to be able to glide into the pit lane for repair.  Running again in fifth spot on lap 184, Joest crashed at Arnage.  Braking for the slow right-hander, the car suddenly went sideways into the Armco barrier on the right.

Reinhold Joest was quoted in an interview with Motor Sport Magazine in 2011:  “It was like no other 917.  When I first saw it at the Le Mans test it was plain white, and in white it looked so much bigger than a 917 — shorter, stubbier, wider.  I thought ‘My goodness, this is a race car?’  But when I drove it the car was so much easier than what I’d driven before, very different, and on the straight it was better than I had experienced before.  It had less drag, the balance was perfect and there was plenty of downforce.  I have absolutely no idea why they painted it pink — maybe some joke from the design studio in Weissach — but it was fine by me, it was a special thing, and the effect was fantastic. I mean, you’re still asking me about it after forty years, and once I’m in the car I don’t care what color it is on the outside.  For me, the important thing was that it was fast, and so it looked just fine as far as I was concerned.  It was not pink inside, you know…”

Porsche Museum Workshop, the 917/20 with the Le Mans class-winning 2018 version of the 911 RSR.

“At 3:30 AM when I came to brake for Arnage, I touched the brakes and the car turned right into the wall.  There was no warning and it happened so fast there was nothing I could do.  I was a factory driver, and if I’d made a mistake then of course I would have told the team.”

After Le Mans, the Pig was given basic bodywork repair and stored in the early versions of the Porsche Museum.  In 1984, Porsche sent the 917/20 to Porsche dealer and collector Gerry Sutterfield in Florida for cosmetic restoration (decals supplied by Tony Lapine and the Porsche Styling Department).  Sutterfield had restored a long-tail 908 for Porsche and the Pink Pig restoration was then performed in partial exchange for an engine rebuild on Sutterfield’s 917, Chassis 016.  In the course of restoration work, Sutterfield examined the Pig’s right front suspension and found that the brake rotor was scorched purple-blue and there was no friction material on the brake pad.  Herr Joest was naturally happy to learn of the likely cause for his accident.

To the delight of Porsche Club members, Sutterfield showed the Pig at the 1985 Porsche Parade in Costa Mesa, California, before returning it to Germany.  The 917/20 made its second public appearance in the United States at Daytona in 2007 for Rennsport Reunion III where it was part of the largest gathering ever of 917s outside Germany.

The 917/20 certainly leads the league in nicknames.  “Bertha” or “Berta” predated the famous livery, a reference to the giant World War I German howitzer.  Berta evolved to “Berta Sau.”  In French, it was “Cochon Rosé.”  “Trüffle Jäger von Zuffenhausen” translated to “truffle hunter from Zuffenhausen.”  In English, the alliterative “Pink Pig” is sometimes shortened simply to “the Pig.”  Well, to borrow from E.B. White, that’s some pig.

Jay Gillotti has written for publications such as the Porsche Club’s Panorama, Vintage Motorsport, Forza Magazine and the International Motor Racing Research Center blog.  His book, Gulf 917, is a chassis-by-chassis history of the Porsche 917s raced by JW Automotive Engineering, available from Dalton Watson Fine Books.

Top Photo: Porsche Archive.