Born to compete especially in the European Hill Climb Championship, it distinguished itself in many other races, winning for example the Targa Florio and the 1000 km of Monza, demonstrating how versatile it was. Its list of achievements is without doubt very extensive and it would be quicker to say which competitions it did not win or in which it did not participate. The car’s versatility in competitions can be explained for two fundamental reasons:
- It was offered with three different engines: the four-cylinder type 587 (Fuhrmann engine), the six-cylinder type 901, and the eight-cylinder type 771. With power ranging from 180 HP to 315 HP and a dry weight of 640 kg (varying according to engine type), the 904 was able to compete in hill climb, road and track races.
- Its lightweight aeronautical-derived fibreglass bodywork was one of the first applications of its kind in the automotive field.
What is immediately striking about the 904 are its aesthetic qualities. At first glance, its lines are reminiscent of an Italian school design, especially at the rear. Yet the car is the brainchild of Ferdinand Alexander “Butzi” Porsche, son of Ferry, grandson of Ferdinand Porsche. One could argue that Butzi Porsche was Austrian, but that’s not really the point. The Porsche 904 is a feminine car, of rare beauty and it was also at the beginning of a new way of thinking about racing cars thanks to its fibreglass bodywork In this regard, it must be said that in the early 1960s there was no way to compete with Italian coachbuilders, who were the undisputed masters with ultra-light metal alloys. Pininfarina, Bertone and Zagato were essentially working for Italian brands at a competitive level. It was therefore necessary to find a solution that would allow Porsche to make lightweight racing cars with a particularly efficient aerodynamic penetration coefficient, as competitive as rivals such as Ferrari or Alfa Romeo. For this purpose it had, for example, a particularly low front end. As has often happened throughout history, necessity led to the development of a technical innovation that was not only futuristic but would from then on become the benchmark for the development of some of the most successful prototypes in motorsport history. The opportunity came from Heinkel, or rather from its involvement in a racing car project. Heinkel was essentially an aircraft manufacturer. One may recall the HE 111 medium bombers that were sadly involved in the Battle of Britain in 1940 and numerous bombings of London. However, at the end of the Second World War, Germany not only had to pay war damages to the Allies, they were also forced to cease all industrial activity that could feed the German war machine again. In the case of Heinkel, the impact on its core business was significant. A considerable amount of knowledge remained very limited, and it was here that Porsche came up with the idea of exploiting Heinkel’s aeronautical expertise and putting it to a different use: turning the concept of lift on its head and making downforce applications for motorsport. Unlike aeroplanes, which have a low stall speed as an essential quality for maintaining stability in flight, basically as a function of the lift of the wing surfaces, the car must instead increase the effect of ground pressure to reach high speeds and remain agile and balanced in sudden changes of direction. In 1964, the rules for racing certification imposed a minimum production of 100 units and Porsche complied. With 110 units built, in addition to those with chassis numbers beginning with 906 (essentially for the standard specification with the 6-cylinder engine of the 911), it was essentially the last Porsche designed for road use, for racing in the GT class and as a Prototype on the World Sportscar Championship circuits. It was only in the second half of the 1960s that racing certification rules became less restrictive in terms of minimum production numbers, paving the way for the much rarer and much smaller number of pure prototypes. The Porsche 904 ushered in a new period of innovation that started with the fibreglass bodywork, and then moved on to plastic applications such as polyester. It represented a watershed between two eras of the Stuttgart company. It was followed by a young Ferdinand Piech at the helm of Porsche Engineering System starting with the 906, which already had only the characteristics of a prototype, in a journey marked by continuous developments and ambitions culminating in overall victory at the 1970 Le Mans 24 Hours, repeated in 1971 by the 917 and also winning the World Sportscar Championship for the first time. The historical value of the 904 is therefore well illustrated by the technical content of this particular solution and the evolution of the Fuhrmann engine in the 2.0-litre version and the use of the other engines already mentioned. To this we should add that this solution was also reflected in a styling concept of the highest order, to which we could perhaps even dare to apply an attribute coined for the Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale- “The necessary beauty” – especially if one notices the design of the wheel arches, the truncated tail and the lights. In effect, the whole rear block was raised in its entirety, to ensure easy access to the engine, just as on the Alfa 33 Stradale. A solution that is often found in racing car designs with a rear mid-engine. What is more interesting, however, is that while the Alfa 33 Stradale probably saw the light in 1967, the Porsche 904 Carrera GTS dates back to 1964. The provocation, therefore, is rather clear: is it possible that the great master of design Franco Scaglione was inspired by Butzi Porsche’s design to create his masterpiece? The provocation takes on even more captivating overtones in view of the notorious, long-standing sporting rivalry between Italy and Germany. All in all, this is an absolutely circumstantial interpretation with no pretensions whatsoever, but with a romantic and fascinating side that doesn’t shy away from some food for thought.