Andrew Frankel has been racing cars for over 20 years and testing them for nearer to 30. He is senior contributing writer to both Autocar and MotorSport magazines, sits on the Car of the Year jury and was chief car tester for the Sunday Times for 15 years. He cites driving and writing as the only disciplines for which he has any talent and therefore considers himself vocationally employed. When he is not working he lives quietly in the Wye Valley with his family, a small and unimportant accumulation of cheap old cars and some sheep.
You are unlikely to have failed to notice that next year Porsche will not only produce new designs for both the Cayman and Boxster, but will change their names too. From now on, they will be the ‘718’ Cayman and Boxster. And I look forward to driving them very much.
But when I do I will hold the, if not unique then certainly pretty damn rare, distinction among motoring hacks of their not being the first Porsche 718 I’ve driven. And once I have briefly recalled the history of the original 718, you will wonder no more as to Porsche’s choice of name for its new car. For while the 718 may be rather less famous than a 917 or 962, it is surely no less extraordinary. Indeed in certain regards its career is unparalleled among all racing cars.
Life for the 718 began at Le Mans in 1957 as a replacement for the ageing 550A sports car where Umberto Maglioli lapped the little 1,500cc roadster at 113mph before tangling with an Aston and retiring. But the following year a 1.6-litre RSK came third overall, scoring Porsche’s first podium in the French classic, mixing it with 3-litre Ferrari and Aston opposition. So who would have bothered to focus on the other RSK than came fourth?
A fortnight later however, the racing world’s eyes were trained on that very car. In that time, Porsche had whipped it back to Stuttgart, rebuilt it with a central driving position and entered it into a Formula Two race at Reims. Back then F2 was serious stuff indeed and it faced works teams from Lotus, Ferrari and Cooper. Yet with Jean Behra at the wheel, this sports car trounced a field of purpose built open wheel Formula machinery. If a 718 designed to do Le Mans could do that, what if it were properly adapted for F2?
Porsche found out the following season when the 718/2 made its debut. It looked like a purpose built single seater, but in its wheelbase, track, engine, transmission and even much of its frame design, its RSK roots were still clearly visible. 1959 was treated as a training season and the car only made occasional outings before having a proper crack at F2 in 1960. And it would do so with one S Moss at its wood-rimmed, alloy spoked steering wheel.
At Syracuse he simply disappeared, setting fastest lap before breaking down, he won his first heat at Brussels and came second in the second only because the car jumped out of first gear on the start line and he had to crawl away in second. At Goodwood he was beaten by only Innes Ireland in the brand new Lotus 18, but at Aintree Moss, Jo Bonnier and Graham Hill took every place on the podium. They’d do it again at Zeltweg before the end of the season before Stirling took the car to South Africa for the Springbok series, drove it twice and won both times.
Moss could not be persuaded to stay for 1961, the year in which the 718/2 became Porsche’s first Formula 1 car, by dint of the fact the Formula now ran to F2 regs. Instead it fell to Dan Gurney to see what a machine designed as a sports car fully five years ago could do against a field of state-of-the-art F1 machines. And the answer is that, despite the might of the sharknose Ferraris and the talent of Moss in Rob Walker’s Lotus, Gurney got it up to second place three times in a season of only eight rounds. At Reims he led out of the last corner of the last lap only to have to sit helpless as Giancarlo Baghetti’s massively more powerful Ferrari outdragged him to the line. The 718/2 missed winning Porsche’s first Grand Prix by a single tenth of a second. By end of the season he was beaten in the championship only by the Ferraris of the late von Trips and Phil Hill. He tied with Stirling who’d actually won two races.
And even though 718/2 was finally retired in 1962 and its replacement, the 804, did finally win a Grand Prix, the 718/2 was a far more consistently competitive racing car. Porsche’s most successful single seater? By a mile.
The car I drove was the one used by Stirling to win in South Africa before Gurney drove it to second places in both the Italian and US Grands Prix. Stirling had warned me it could be a little tricky in the wet but I drove it at a dry Porsche test track in Weissach and then up a dry Goodwood Hill and it was wonderful. It may only have a little 1,500cc four cylinder motor, but its power to weight ratio is similar to that of a new 911 GT3 RS, so do not doubt the potential. There’s a six-speed gearbox to make the most of the narrow powerband and while its drums brakes were antediluvian even in 1961, I have to say they worked spectacularly well.
Needless to say, it was a blast to drive, actually more at Goodwood than in Stuttgart. Of all the cars I’ve been blessed to drive up the hill, there’s none that felt more suited to narrow course. With its compact dimensions, place it to the inch handling, easy gearbox, fine brakes and trusty engine it felt so at home it could have been built here.
I fear the 718 has not gained the recognition it deserved. While other Porsches have found a place among the most fabled racing cars of all times, the 718 seems almost forgotten. But if reputations were handed out on the basis of the car that did the most with the least and for longest, the 718 would now be regarded as an icon, and deservedly so.
Photography courtesy of Porsche/James Lipman