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718: Sixty Years of Porsche’s Targa Florio and F1 Flier
‘718’ doesn’t just refer to Porsche’s entry-level range of open-topped sports cars. It also calls up a dominant motorsport machine, which ultimately took the fight to F1
When it comes to all things Porsche, modern-day Zuffenhausen aficionados know the 718 as the latest incarnation of the crowd-pleasing Boxster and Cayman. In actual fact, the legacy of those three little numbers stretches back over six decades and has its origins on the racetrack. Yep, that’s right, the 1960s pioneering four-pot open top was a lithe and lightweight racer.
While the 718 wasn’t Porsche’s first specially-designed racer – that was the 550 of 1953 – it was one of the most notable motorsport machines from Stuttgart. The 356’s class win at the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1951 may have kicked off Porsche’s motorsport pedigree, built on by the 550A’s 1956 Targa Florio victory, but it was the 718 which would play a pivotal role in the company’s fortunes and take it into the higher plane of competition.
Developed from the 550A, the mid-engined 718 of 1957 featured bodywork and suspension improvements. Named the 718 ‘RSK’ due to its ‘RennSport’ build with a short (‘Kurz’) wheelbase, the 570kg flier married a spaceframe chassis with the 550A’s ‘Type 547’ 142bhp 1.5-litre four-cylinder, quad-cam air-cooled unit. Clothed with a curvaceous and flowing body, it was as beautiful as it was fast. Sadly, its debut at Le Mans in 1957 came to nothing, as an accident put paid to Umberto Maglioli’s and Edgar Barth’s chances.
Jean Behra and Hans Herrmann enjoyed better luck in 1958 with a third place result, and Behra also scored a 718 runner-up position at the Targa Florio. However, the best was yet to come. A year later, the 718 of Edgar Barth and Wolfgang Seidel was awarded the winning spoils, bolstered by consecutive triumphs in the European Hill Climb Championship during 1958 and 1959. Still the results came, with victory at the 12 Hours of Sebring and Targa Florio for 1960’s 160bhp RS60, while the at the 1961 Le Mans 24 Hours, the duo of Masten Gregory and Bob Holbert drove a 718/4 RS Spyder to a class win.
The two-litre 240bhp W-RS arrived the same year, and its four-cylinder engine doubled in size with the fitment of the flat-8 from Porsche’s 804 Formula One car. Continuing Zuffenhausen’s dominance in the European Hill Climb Championship, Barth crossed the line first in 1963, with another car claiming eighth place at Le Mans the same year. Seemingly unbeatable, an eight-cylinder 718 GTR Coupé Jo Bonnier and Carlo Maria Abate also notched up a third 718 victory at the Targa Florio.
The devoted central-seat Formula Two-spec 718 of 1958 had signalled the sign of things to come, though. The open-wheeled 718/2 debuted at the 1959 Monaco Grand Prix in the hands of Wolfgang von Trips, but an early crash halted success. A roll-call of F1 greats brought better results, and the likes of British GP icons Stirling Moss, Graham Hill, and John Surtees clinched individual wins as well as the 1960 constructors’ championship.
In 1961, Formula One rules allowed 1.5-litre-engined machines, and Porsche wanted some of the action. Three 165bhp 718 F1 cars were prepared for US driving legend Dan Gurney, as well as Hans Herrmann and Bonnier. While the results were perhaps not quite what Porsche was hoping for, US driver Gurney finished fourth in the drivers’ championship. But, by 1962, the 718’s career was over, replaced by the 804, with which Porsche scored its first and only F1 constructors’ championship title.
Just like the mid-engined, four-cylinder open-top road car which now bears its name, the original 718 forged new paths and new successes for Porsche. And while those new directions and dominance may have been on the track rather than the road, over six decades later, both cars share a single-minded and strong-willed spirit. Typically Porsche.
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