It is said to be his favorite car, the one car the late Ferdinand Alexander "Butzi" Porsche styled himself without interference. Officially it was called the Porsche Carrera GTS, but now, as then, it's known only by its internal code number: 904.
It happened that way because there was no time for the usual collegiate Porsche process of consultation to take place. After its ultimately and unfulfilling foray into the world of Formula 1, Porsche's decision to go sports car racing once more came too late for a design to be made, mulled over and modified. Perhaps that's why, above all else, the 1964 Porsche 904 looks so pure.
The 2012 Porsche Cayman R parked beside it is clearly one of Porsche's smaller cars, but next to the 904 it's a monster. Give or take a few inches, the 1964 Porsche 904 is nearly a foot shorter in length, width and extraordinarily, height. And the gap between their weights is even more pronounced. It is impossible to quote an accurate curb weight for the 904, but its official homologated weight was 1,411 pounds, or just a little less than half that of the 2,856-pound Cayman R.
The Same, but Different
Sitting alone on the Silverstone tarmac, the 904 is a remarkably hard car to ignore. It has a rare ability to suck all attention from everything around it, a quality found in very few other cars. Someone once observed that the moment Grace Kelly walked into a room, everything and everyone else in that room ceased to exist. It's the same with the 904.
This is no happy coincidence. The Porsche 904 was a racing car pure and simple, but Porsche knew very well it stood no chance of selling the 100 examples required for homologation purposes if all of them were to be used solely for competition. It would have to be made salable to the general public so some attention to the aesthetics would be required. It is hard to imagine a solution better than that arrived at by Butzi Porsche.
There were other problems. The production volume and time schedule meant that Porsche's preferred means of construction — using a complex tubular space frame — was out of the question. But whatever replaced it would need to be light and at least as structurally stiff as a space frame.
The solution was innovative and pragmatic in equal measure. Porsche designed two steel box sections to run longitudinally under the car, joined by crossmembers to form a basic structure that weighed just 119 pounds, yet was vastly stiffer than Porsche's 1962 F1 car. But the clever bit was to bond the fiberglass body to the chassis, increasing its rigidity still further.
Porsche didn't have the time, inclination or resources to make the bodies itself so the job was farmed out to Heinkel. As it was charged with producing bodywork no more than 2mm thick, there was, in the end, little consistency in the manufacturing processes. As a result there was a wild variation in the weight of production cars. Seven 904s entered Le Mans in 1964, the difference in curb weight between the lightest and heaviest an astonishing 146 pounds — a margin of error of more than 10 percent. Somewhat gratifyingly, the lightest of the lot that day is the car you see here.
The next problem was the engine. The Porsche 904 was developed through 1963 and the all-new flat-6 engine intended for both it and the new 901 (soon to become 911) was not coming along at the same pace. So Porsche was forced to employ its complex four-cam flat-4 engine instead, a motor that, in various sizes and guises had already been around for more than a decade.
Now stretched from its original 1.5 liters to 2.0 liters, it developed 180 horsepower in race configuration, and somewhat less in tamed and silenced road-going guise. It directed its power through the then-new dogleg five-speed 901 gearbox, which could be equipped with gearsets to suit all environments from hill climbs to Le Mans. In the end, the six-cylinder engine would arrive only in time for the very end of 904 production.
But if you want to see just how serious Porsche's intentions for this car were, you should look not at the body, engine or gearbox, but its suspension. Here there are unequal-length wishbones at every corner.
This car is 904/079, marking it as one of the later of the 111 904s originally built. Supplied new to the Swiss Scuderia Filipinetti outfit, it was raced most by the brilliant Herbie Muller, who would go on to win two Targas in Porsches (1966 and the final one in 1973) as well as partner with Richard Attwood to 2nd place at Le Mans in 1971 driving a JWA Porsche 917K. In 1964 he drove this car with Claude Sage to place 11th at Le Mans and 6th at the Nürburgring 1000km — not bad for a privately entered 2.0-liter car. Even on the flat-out ultra-fast Reims circuit to which it would have been entirely unsuited, it still came in 12th after 12 hours of racing.
But while this car still has its four-cam, four-cylinder engine, they live apart. Since 1967 the 2.0-liter flat-6 engine always intended for the 904 sits under the engine cover because it develops more power and can be rebuilt for a fraction of the cost of the four-cylinder.
How much power it has depends on how much money you spend and how long you want it to last. Outputs above 220 hp are possible, but only in a very narrow power band. This one has around 200 hp with reasonable flexibility and total reliability.
It's not much compared to the 330 hp of the direct-injected 3.4-liter flat-6 in the Cayman R, yet it's still got a higher specific output. But 200 hp is just not that much steam. Then again, 1,410 pounds is not much car.
So, unlikely as it seems, is the 2012 Porsche Cayman R really the spiritual successor to the 904? It is time to find out.
Get In, Drive
A few laps of the track reveal what an exciting, well-conceived and precisely executed car the Cayman R is. If you need one car to use every day and care at all about driving, then nothing else in this price bracket comes close. That Porsche has added more driving pleasure over the Cayman S and kept the price increase to less than 10 percent is a fact to be admired.
But it's no 904, and no one could expect this civilized, comfortable, well-equipped, quiet and safe road car to be such a thing.
Climbing aboard the 1964 Porsche 904 is difficult even if you're short, but once inside it's worth a look around. It's more familiar and less intimidating than you might think. Your backside seems to be on the tarmac but the instruments are in period Porsche style and the visibility forward, to the side and particularly behind, is far better than you'd think. It's yet another advantage of the flat engine layout.
The starting procedure is the same as you'll find in a 917, 962 or, indeed, a Cayman R. You just turn the key. One of the cornerstones of Porsche's racing philosophy is that the most unreliable component is always the one behind the steering wheel. So life is made easy for you: It starts on the key, the ventilation is good and the gearbox has synchromesh.
This particular flat-6 has been silenced. Slightly. But even at idle it's still loud enough to make you marvel at the fact that it's just 2.0 liters of engine making that racket. Pull the gearlever back and feel it drop into the ill-defined slot where 1st resides. The clutch is sharp by road car standards but progressive for a racer and, in any event, manageable.
The steering is light as you'd expect from a car with less than 550 pounds on the nose on a low fuel load, but more precise than a track day road racer of today. It seems slow, too, with more than two turns from lock to lock, but the turning circle is lousy.
On the Gas
Everything else is straightforward in this preliminary stage, and after a few laps the controls become manageable. The brake pedal is full of feel and the engine nicely progressive from around 3,000 rpm. On the track the car feels soft, easy to place and even quite comfortable. But the gearbox is nothing less than horrid, presenting a lumpy stew through which you must stir in search of the space where the next ratio lies. Fourth is hard to find, but harder still is going back to 3rd without inadvertently hooking 1st. But after a while even this becomes manageable, if hardly natural.
So you pluck up your courage, try to forget its value, feel your heart jump into your throat and open the throttles on the twin triple-choke carbs. It's all quite entertaining until 5,500 rpm, where the engine note changes from loud but recognizable old 911 into something out of a Steve McQueen movie. At the same time, this old racing car starts gathering ground like no Cayman R could imagine. Do the math and you'll find it has the same power-to-weight ratio as a new Porsche 911 GT3.
The engine is safe to 8,200 rpm but if you use "only" 7,700 rpm it's still immensely urgent. Speeds rise, gears come and go and even in 5th it doesn't seem to want to quit. Although it was the 1966 906 that was the first Porsche to have been extensively wind-tunnel developed, Butzi had a good eye for aerodynamics. The way the 904 cleaves the air above 100 mph proves how slippery it is. This one is geared to do 161 mph — a speed even four-cylinder 904s would pull within the confines of the Mulsanne Straight.
But the magic of the 904 comes not in a straight line, but around corners. The limiting factor is the quaint old Dunlop L-section rubber on which it must run. Compared to modern racing tires, they offer all the grip of wet soap and are so hard they'll run six hours or more at race speed. Try that on your Carrera Cup, slick.
So low and so light is the 904 that it turns in at a rate few modern road cars can approach. At once the steering is flooded with messages, all of them good. As you squeeze on the power, the nose wants to push ever so gently away from apex, but if you ease off the smallest discernible fraction, it's back on line in an instant. No Porsche road car ever felt like this. Even though it's half a century old, this is a precision instrument of the rarest quality.
Driving a 1964 Porsche 904 — whether it's done well or not — produces a feeling of invincibility in the cockpit. Anything can be done with this car — it can be placed anywhere and at any angle. Forget that it's a midengine car from an era before the first midengine road car had even been built. Turn into a quick corner using trailing throttle and the weight transfer will make you wish you hadn't. It's not a savage beast, but it certainly doesn't provide the liberties of a modern racing car.
As with most Porsches, the stabilizing influence of power is all that's required to put a smile back on your face. In this regard it is not unlike an early 911, a car that gained a nasty reputation not by being inherently unstable, but by being driven by people who didn't know how to drive it. Learn the technique and keep your foot on the gas and, like a properly set up short-wheelbase 911, the 904 can be driven with substantial amounts of slip.
Brothers at Heart?
And the 2012 Porsche Cayman R? Well there is some common ground after all, beyond the fact that both are midengine Porsche coupes. They inhabit different worlds at different times and were born for different purposes, yet their focus on maximizing driving pleasure through light weight and exquisite engineering is the same. Is it a worthy successor to the 904? Of course not: The 904's true descendant is the ultra-successful and recently retired RS Spyder LMP2 racing car. But the Cayman R is as far ahead of its road-going opposition now as the 904 was compared to its race-bred rivals then.
As for the 904, it is simply sublime. Better to drive even than those looks suggest, it was the first step on the road to the 917, the car that suggested to Porsche that it could do more than compete for mere class victories in sports car racing: It could shoot for the very top. It was dominant on the track and usable on the road. The fact that it is also the prettiest Porsche ever built is simply the icing on the cake. Butzi said it was his favorite Porsche.
It is not hard to see why.