The 1964 Paris 1000km at Montlhéry, the legendary banked circuit south of Paris, has a special significance in Porsche history.
Late in the season for the international endurance race, a flat-six-powered Porsche lined up on a windy, wet October weekend with Herbert Linge and Gerhard Mitter as co-drivers.
To many, the car was just another 904, but under that distinctive sugar-scoop-style tail was a new Type 901 engine originally planned a year earlier for this sleek, glassfibre sensation.
In typically understated style, the motorsport lineage of six-cylinder Porsches began, a legacy that would stretch on through the 906, 910 and 907, not to mention the famous engine’s mighty dominance powering 911s.
The debut of the first 904/6 was disappointing. Although Linge turned in rapid laps, the car retired early with broken transaxle mountings, a common 904 weakness. That grim season finale is notable for the tragic death of five people, after Peter Lindner’s Jaguar E-type smashed into a stationary Abarth in the unprotected pitlane.
Not surprisingly, any enthusiasm for racing faded fast on that dark day, but the new 904/6 would join the works competition arsenal for the 1965 season with a string of impressive results, including a fourth overall at Le Mans in the hands of Linge and Peter Nöcker during the height of the Ford-Ferrari wars.
Porsche intended a long production run for the 904/6 and had even listed a new name – GTS6 – for the uprated model. But when the FIA announced revised regulations for 1966, requiring just 50 rather than 100 cars, the planned 904/6 series was cancelled after just 10 were built, the focus switching to an all-new racer.
The shortlived 904 development is a frustrating chapter in Porsche history.
With refinement, it could have been the first true Stuttgart supercar, a beautiful design to rival anything from across the Alps. Not for another two decades would the firm produce a similarly outrageous performance icon with the high-tech 959.
The red beauty featured here remains one of the best-preserved 904s, with just four keepers from new, but its long-term French owner, a passionate marque enthusiast, couldn’t resist sympathetically upgrading the car to the ultimate 2.7-litre specification for historic racing events, with spectacular results. On the Tour Auto Historique, the uprated six-cylinder 904 continued the design’s giant-killing reputation, both on hillclimbs and tracks.
As a lover of early-’60s sports-racers, the 904 is for me the best looking Porsche ever, a work of genius from the drawing board of ‘Butzi’ Porsche, Ferdinand’s grandson. Aged just 28 and with a background in product design after graduating from the Ulm Institute, Butzi brought a fresh aesthetic to the Zuffenhausen studio.
From Scooter Patrick hounding Ken Miles’ Cobra roadster around Riverside, to a sleek silver pack shadowing red exotica at Le Mans in 1963, the 904 always looked ahead of its time. It even pre-empted the glassfibre sports car revolution in rallying, one finishing a storming second on the ’65 Rallye Monte-Carlo – eight years ahead of the first Stratos win.
Appropriately, the location of my much-awaited test is in the heart of France’s Grand Est, a region most famous for champagne and the high-speed, five-mile GP course Reims-Gueux.
The Porsche 904 squad visited the track twice in 1964, first for the 12 Hours where Argentinians Andrea Vianni and Nasif Estéfano finished fifth in the 2-litre behind the Ferrari big guns; two other 904s were in the top seven. Two months later, the Stuttgart newcomers were back at Reims for the first stage of the Tour de France. They scored an impressive 3-4-5-6 overall placing behind the winning GTOs. Our red feature car competed in that 10-day epic, driven to sixth by Edmond Meert and Wim de Jonghe.
It would have been lovely to take the 904 back to the Reims-Gueux pits, but a local private track at the Circuit des Ecuyers was safer overall with this £1.5m GT treasure. Located near Beuvardes, this 3.5km facility offers a wealth of challenges throughout its dizzy 18 corners. The track suits the 904 so much better than the remains of the old Reims road course.
The entrance to a 904 through the front-hinged door with its distinctive roof cutaway is always challenging, but it needs Houdini-style contortions with a four-point roll-cage. Once you’ve dropped down into the deeply moulded bucket seat, it feels as snug and purposeful as a fighter jet. The seat is fixed but the pedals can be adjusted, with three leg-length options. The slightly offset pedals are perfect for heel-and-toeing.
Like many racing Porsches, it’s a functional affair with coarse and exposed glass-fibre matting, textured vinyl wrapping the dash, and a clear, triple-VDO instrument cluster. The centre rev counter is redlined at 6500rpm while the speed is marked out to 280kph (173mph).
Period road test figures achieved 160mph with the 2-litre, four-cam motor, but with Type 901 six-cylinder punch this car would have no trouble reaching that thanks to longer Le Mans gearing. The 904’s aerodynamics were sound but, even so, later examples were fitted with a lip on the tail for better high-speed stability.
The original broad, wood-rimmed, three-spoke steering wheel has gone, replaced by a chunky leather-trimmed item. The view all round is clear and panoramic, but split by the tall pantograph windscreen wiper mounted in the centre. Between the seats, the upright black gearlever works a five-speed gate with dogleg first.
Once the triple-choke Webers have primed the flat-six, the engine roars into life with a deep-chested growl and, after a lengthy warm-up, the challenge of the gearchange begins.
Porsche ’boxes demand a firm hand, and this one really baulks until the oil is hot and revs increase. Thankfully, the meaty low-down torque and instant throttle response make it easier to learn the new circuit. With the wider Avon radials (6in front, 7in rear), the super-sharp steering also initially feels heavy and dead.
After a couple of laps, though, I start to get in the groove with the 904. Its performance is sensational. Out of the corners, the engine punches hard and, matched to the close-ratio transmission, it devours the straights with aggressive pace.
Around the multitude of tighter sections, the Porsche begs to go quicker and quicker, its impressive balance and firm set-up encouraging greater commitment. Thanks to the uprated vented discs, the brakes are also mighty. The faster you charge, the sweeter all the controls become, with ever lighter steering and more positive gearbox action.
Undoubtedly the fastest car I’ve tested over the past 12 months, this 904/6 really flatters its driver, and I feel a mischievous streak build in me for more laps. Too soon, however, it’s time to return this demon Porsche to its trusting French owner.
Period hotshoes praised the 904’s balance and high-speed stability. “I could do anything with that car,” recalled Milt Minter to 904 historian Jerry Pantis; I couldn’t agree more.
The experience brings back memories of witnessing the much missed Jim Diffey storming around the old Nordschleife in Irvine Laidlaw’s maroon 904/6 ‘012’. As he flashed by our Ford Falcon, his commitment and cornering speed chasing the front-runners was staggering. Later, in the pits, Diffey reported that the 904 was one of the best-handling cars that he’d ever driven.
‘Our’ exquisite example, chassis 104, was among the last of a second batch of 904s built in 1964 to complete the homologation type approval for the FIA GT championship. That May it was delivered to D’Ieteren, the Belgian Porsche importer, which sold it to Eddy Meert, a successful privateer who had previously competed with a hot T6B 356 Carrera 2 GT, a lightweight coupé fitted with a 2-litre four-cam.
Meert entered his 904 on the Tour de France, where it finished an impressive sixth overall. Later, the Belgian looked a favourite for victory on the 1965 Rallye des Deux Catalognes against a strong field of Alpine-Renault A110s, Alfa Zagatos and a Ferrari 250GTO, but having set fastest times a mystery problem forced retirement. His mechanic discovered afterwards that sugar had been poured into the fuel tank!
Meert kept this car until late 1966, when he sold it to French amateur racer Robert Dutoit. The 904 was successful in major French events including five outright wins and numerous class victories. After an accident at the Coupes du Salon at Montlhéry, Dutoit sold the (by then silver) 904 to Bernard Consten, respected French rally champion, Le Mans regular and multiple Tour de France class winner.
Maybe Consten had plans to rally the mid-engined beauty, but in the end he simply restored it, returning it to its original ‘Rubinrot’ colour scheme. Consten clearly had a thing for 904s; at one point there were two in his collection.
Porsche fanatic Jean-Claude Miloé was a good friend of Consten and long coveted the 904. After many years and offers, Consten finally agreed to sell, and Miloé became only the fourth owner. The car was prepared for the ’96 Tour Auto Historique with Miloé senior initially running in the regularity, but from ’99 the father-and-son duo switched to the competition class, the 904 lining up with Daytonas, Cobras and Alpines for the centenary event.
The Miloé team was competitive, winning special stages and finishing in the top five with a second overall in 2008 to Ludovic Caron’s Cobra. Miloé’s son Jérôme is a highly experienced driver, with the 2003 GT3 Championship among his achievements, but in recent years he’s preferred historic racing, especially at Spa and Val de Vienne, near Le Vigeant.
But, for events, few match the Tour Auto, which he’s entered 15 times, many with his father as co-driver.
“The early years were fantastic, with an amazing range of machinery and a wonderfully authentic route,” enthuses Jérôme. "The 904 is the best car for the event, the perfect all-rounder for the races and the hillclimbs. With a bigger motor and 650kg weight, the torquey performance is fantastic on the special stages. In 2008 we won all the hillclimbs. With the mid-engined b layout, the handling has great balance with minimal weight transfer. The Porsche has given us enormous pleasure over the years.”
Porsche 904 tales
■ The last six-cylinder 904 made was regularly driven between Florida and Los Angeles in the late ’60s by Captain Vern Covert, a Californian Porsche specialist. Covert bought the ex-works car, chassis 906-12, from Brumos Porsche and immediately converted it to road use. Modifications included a sunroof, Volkswagen heater, homemade padded seats, new mahogany dash, radio and a luggage rack. Covert also reduced the fuel tank size from 30 to 17 gallons to allow for some luggage space. He and his wife entered ‘slalom’ driving tests, and they regularly took the red-painted GTS on long road trips with their Doberman Pinscher snug in the passenger footwell.
■ The shortest life of a 904/6 was chassis 005, which was dramatically tested by the factory to determine the body’s strength in a front-end crash. The beautiful car was hauled by chain up a tall pole and unceremoniously dropped – nose first. The Porsche ended up 10in shorter after the unforgiving impact with the ground.
■ Famous owners of 904s included film director George Lucas, who acquired chassis 094 in June 1966 through his company Advanced Production Service in Bakersfield, California. How much the future Star Wars producer drove the blue Porsche isn’t known because he sold it after four months. In later years the car was used regularly on the road, its four-cam motor replaced by 911 power.
■ American abstract painters have a tradition of driving fast, none more so than Larry Poons. In 1966, Poons bought the ex-Daytona/Sebring race car 904-067 from a Yale student, the artist turning up with a huge wad of cash to buy it. After a few refinements, including silencers, the 904 was regularly street parked around Greenwich Village, and was used for commutes from New York to Vermont where Poons taught. After clocking up some 10,000 miles, the artist spun off the road in 1970 and hit a telegraph pole. The Porsche was repaired but Poons never recovered his 904… due to a prison sentence for marijuana possession!
■ One of the most original 904s is chassis 018, which was sold to Briggs Cunningham in early 1964. Original buyer Herb Wetanson had returned the car to Porsche of America because he felt it was too heavy to be competitive. After several seasons raced by Cunningham, John Fitch, Scooter Patrick and Dave Jordan, the 904 became part of the wealthy sportsman’s famous museum in Costa Mesa. Today it is displayed pretty much as it last competed, as a star of the Collier Collection.
Photography: James Mann
Thanks to Jean-Claude and Jérôme Miloé. The 904 was auctioned by Artcurial at Rétromobile on 9 February and fetched €1,873,600 (£1.65m)