Porsche's range-topping sports cars have often been at home on both road and racetrack. But while today's, say, GT3 RS is a formidable track day weapon, it's still more of a road car setup for track use than the other way around. The RS is not too loud to be driven to the country club. It offers great visibility from the driver's seat. It is reliable and robust enough to be used daily.
That balance of everyday affability and potent potential is a recipe that Porsche has perfected over its sixty years of sports car manufacturing. The truly memorable Porsches, though, had that balance point shifted closer to the racing car extreme. For proof, look at the stunning Porsche 904. The 904 was sold as a road car to a few lucky drivers. Was it balanced? Impeccably so. With its front fuel tank full, the 904 distributed its featherweight mass wonderfully with only a slight (52%) rear weight bias. Was it useable? Sure. Two opening doors, four spinning wheels—what else could one really need in an automobile? Porsche made precious few other concessions to usability with this car.
Okay, so maybe the 904 wasn't the most balanced car for splitting time between track and street. But that's why the 904 is such a magical car. It was a dedicated racing machine with looks and sounds to match, and it didn't aspire to the ideal of all-around usability to which Porsche's latest supercars seem drawn. The 904 was a track car that, with hardened nerves, owners could drive to their racecourse of choice or to an antisocial night on the town. It was arguably the last real racing car built by Porsche that could legally (though not sensibly) be driven to work everyday. The 904 offered its owners the chance to experience the raw, visceral exhilaration of a sparse instrument of utter precision on their favorite back roads as well as on the track.
The story of how the 904 came to fruition is similar to that of how many of the other most exciting road cars came to be. It was produced to homologate a racing car. Porsche needed to supersede its successful 356-based racers, the Carrera Abarth and the Carrera 2, with an even more capable car to ward off looming competition from Simca, Alfa Romeo, and other tiny terrors—and the 904 was designed to do just that.
Three prototypes of the 904 were finished in 1963. The cars offered a first for Porsche: fiberglass bodies, designed by 'Butzi' Porsche, grandson of Ferdinand and designer of the iconic 911. The bodies were bonded to steel ladder chassis, creating a car that was both rigid and, at 1,433lbs, terrifically light. Those bodies were also spectacular to behold. The 904 is often, and justifiably, considered the best-looking Porsche of all time. Its uncluttered shape, with its sparing use of air intakes and lack of aerodynamic aids, was uncompromising and perfectly free of faddish gimmicks. It was pure functionality, a timeless triumph of science over decadence—and yet its low-slung proportions still announced an animalistic urgency that effortlessly seduced admirers anywhere it went. It had none of the Beetle-based flourishes of the 356 and even 911, and was a more evolved and purposeful shape. The 904 represented the visual distillation of Porsche's racing philosophy, and was the stylistic forbear of a long line of exciting mid-engined racers by Porsche.
To meet eligibility requirements for GT racing in the under-2-liter class, Porsche needed to produce 100 examples of its gorgeous 904 over the course of a year. Porsche would eventually produce 120 examples. The bulk of the production run was spoken for quickly, allowing Porsche to easily homologate the car. The road version was marketed as the Carrera GTS and not the 904, for the same legal reasons that prevented Porsche from naming the 911 the 901 as they had initially intended. Peugeot had copyrighted for its cars the use of all three-digit numbers with '0' in the middle (504, 505, 607, etc.), thus subtly changing the history of Porsche nomenclature.
A mid-mounted, air-cooled flat four with aluminum block and heads powered the 904. Behind it, a ZF 5-speed transaxle with integrated limited-slip differential sent power to the rear wheels. The 1,966cc engine produced 180bhp at 7,000rpm thanks in part to its twin Weber carburetors and four camshafts. Disc brakes, rack-and-pinion steering, and double-wishbone suspension did their parts to endow the 904 with the stopping power and handling needed to cope with its speed. A small handful of 904/6 models were produced with the new Porsche 6-cylinder engine.
Excellent drivers like Briggs Cunningham and Lake Underwood, who piloted a 904 to a first-place finish in the prototype class at Sebring in 1964, realized the potential of the car. An outright victory at the 1964 Targa Florio, a class win at Le Mans, and second place in the Monte Carlo rally were among the racing highlights. The 904 was not just a street-legal racing car—it was a successful street-legal racing car. The Porsche 904/Carrera GTS was a stunning competitor that enabled brave owners to experience the undiluted thrills of a racetrack winner on their own terms.Sources:
Melissen, Wouter. 'Porsche 904 GTS.' Ultimatecarpage.com 15 Nov 2004: n. pag. Web. 23 Dec 2010. http://www.ultimatecarpage.com/car/640/Porsche-904-GTS.html.
Schrager, Jim. '1963 Porsche 904 GTS Prototype.' Sports Car Market 31 Jan 2007: n. pag. Web. 23 Dec 2010. http://www.sportscarmarket.com/car-reviews/german/1986-1963-porsche-904-gts-prototype.By Evan Acuña