Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

| 25 Mar 2024
Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

The Porsche 718 W-RS is an enigma.

Despite this car’s many remarkable triumphs, groundbreaking design, record-breaking longevity and a nomenclature that would (in part) later grace the best-selling Boxster and Cayman, it remains an under-represented gem in the annals of automotive history.

One plausible explanation for the relative obscurity of the W-RS, – alongside its hardtop sibling, the 718 GTR Coupé, of which only two were built and neither has survived – could be attributed to the turbulent backdrop against which it was developed.

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

Porsche’s 2-litre Type 771 proved reliable and was considered a better unit than the 1.5-litre Type 753 designed for Grand Prix duties

In the early 1960s, Porsche found itself at a crossroads in its motorsport ambitions.

On one front, the company was to devote considerable time and resources to commencing its maiden Formula One campaign – an undertaking that garnered only lukewarm enthusiasm from none other than Ferry Porsche himself, as revealed in his candid autobiography, We At Porsche.

On the other, the firm was determined to uphold its position as a leader in the fiercely contested realm of sports-car racing.

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

The Porsche 718 W-RS has a low windscreen that barely shelters its large, thin-rimmed steering wheel

Faced with this confluence of challenges, the Porsche factory team made a momentous decision during the winter months of 1960-’61, embarking upon groundbreaking versions of the Type 718 chassis: two GTR Coupés, and one Spyder (chassis number 718-047).

It was a combination designed to harness the full potential of the seasoned 2-litre, four-cylinder Type 587 engine developed by and named after Ernst Fuhrmann, as well as a cutting-edge, larger-bore incarnation of the 804’s flat-eight F1 motor, the Type 771.

Unsurprisingly, the decision to squeeze a modified Grand Prix engine into the 718 would push Porsche’s engineering abilities to the limit, but after a decade of asserting its dominance in the smaller-capacity classes with the Fuhrmann-powered 550 Spyder and 718 Spyder, the resolution to develop an eight-cylinder powerplant for endurance racing signalled the manufacturer’s ambition to vie for overall victories, rather than simply class wins, against the established giants of the industry, such as Ferrari and Maserati.

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

‘Rounded Spyder lines were replaced by modern details’

The project represented a notable shift in Porsche’s approach that extended beyond mere engineering; it also brought about a significant transformation in the styling department.

Fresh from designing an experimental Formula Two car, the 718/2, a young Ferdinand Alexander ‘Butzi’ Porsche, who was still a year away from ascending to the top of the company’s design studio, made his mark on the 718 by introducing a fresh aesthetic perspective to Zuffenhausen.

Gone were the characteristically rounded Spyder lines that had been established in 1957, replaced by more modern details such as a long, aerodynamic nose and teardrop-shaped headlight cowls on the W-RS, while the Coupé featured a tapered tail, a staggered roofline and air intakes mounted on the rear quarters.

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

The Porsche’s front fuel tank was moulded around the spare wheel

It’s no coincidence that these details would later reappear on Butzi’s masterpiece, the 904.

Styling is a purely subjective matter, of course, and therefore picking a favourite is difficult, but to my eyes the 718 Spyder’s proportions are more refined than those of the Coupé.

The distinction is partly due to the longer platform for the W-RS, which was designed from the ground up to accommodate the eight-cylinder engine; the Coupé would be modified at a later date.

But, as is so often the case in racing, the designers – Butzi included – overestimated what the engineers could achieve in such a short timeframe.

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

Graham Hill and Hans Herrmann piloted the Porsche 718 W-RS to a 2-litre class win at the 1962 Nürburgring 1000km

Hence, when the W-RS made its debut at the 1961 Targa Florio, it rolled up to the startline with the Type 587 four-cylinder positioned amidships – the Type 771 was still locked in a tumultuous development programme.

Not that a lack of firepower appeared to be a major handicap for Dan Gurney and Jo Bonnier on the tight and twisty Sicilian mountain course.

After 10 laps and more than seven hours of racing, the pair hustled the light and nimble Spyder to a class win and a commendable second place overall behind Wolfgang von Trips in the V6-engined Ferrari Dino 246SP.

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

The Porsche 718 W-RS introduced the distinctive glassfibre cooling fan atop the engine

It was only when the team moved on to both the Nürburgring 1000km and the 24 Hours of Le Mans that it became painfully clear to Porsche that, despite the car’s pace in the corners, its four-cylinder engine lacked the potency required to run for supremacy at the front of the pack.

A fifth overall at Le Mans was an unmistakable signal that the time had come to embark on a bold journey with the cutting-edge Type 771 powerplant.

Over the following 10 months, the W-RS and GTR Coupé were modified to accommodate the flat-eight engine in preparation for the 1962 season.

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

The Porsche 718 W-RS pioneered a new aerodynamic aesthetic

According to Karl Ludvigsen’s indispensable Porsche: Excellence Was Expected, the Type 771 had been a source of frustration for the F1 engineers because development was moving faster on the big-bore endurance-spec 2-litre than it was on the more urgently needed Type 753 1.5-litre GP motor.

One senior engineer succinctly summarised the situation, stating: “It is simply true that the engine was better as a 2-litre.”

To compound the F1 team’s frustrations, the Type 771 beat its Type 753 Grand Prix counterpart into competition by two weeks, making its debut on 6 May 1962 in the Targa Florio, ahead of the Dutch Grand Prix on 20 May.

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

Flowing louvres in this classic Porsche’s slippery bodywork

In the warm Sicilian sun, tucked away in the makeshift paddock, the excitement surrounding the W-RS and GTR Coupé was palpable, with photographers from every major motorsport publication determined to get a picture of the new engine.

Who could blame them? The introduction of the Type 771 marked several significant milestones for the works endurance team.

The W-RS was not only the first Porsche sports car to feature an engine with more than four cylinders, ushering in a new era, but it was also pioneering the integration of a six-speed gearbox and introducing the concept of an engine-top-mounted glassfibre cooling fan – an innovation that predated its use in Grand Prix racing, and one that would later become a signature feature of the iconic 917.

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

The works Porsche 718 W-RS of Umberto Maglioli and Giancarlo Baghetti in the pits at the 1963 Targa Florio; the pair would bring the car home seventh

Both cars were also fitted, for the first time, with disc brakes all round.

These had been tested the previous year at the Le Mans trials, but a high wear rate forced Porsche to stick with drums – the axiom ‘to finish first, first you have to finish’ comes to mind.

But now, with the cars heavier than ever – at around 685kg, the W-RS weighed roughly 130kg more than an RS60 – the need for greater stopping power necessitated the move to discs.

Porsche had gone all-in with the new technology, but this didn’t translate into unwavering confidence.

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

The Porsche 718 W-RS sends a flat-eight snarl out of its single exhaust pipe

In fact, the opposite was true, prompting a strategic decision from the factory.

Instead of entering the Targa Florio under the Porsche works banner, the cars competed beneath the cover of Count Volpi’s Scuderia SSS Repubblica di Venezia satellite team.

The W-RS proudly bore the Scuderia’s emblem on its nose, and the Coupé (718-046) featured a red-primer finish, in a nod to driver Nino Vaccarella’s Sicilian roots.

This clever disguise could easily have led onlookers to believe it was an entirely Italian operation whereas, in reality, the engineers from Stuttgart were on the scene and determined to secure victory.

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

The Porsche 718 W-RS has teardrop-shaped headlight cowls, similar to the ones that were later seen on the 904

The two cars showed competitive pace both in practice and in the race itself, with the new eight-cylinder engine more than a match for the 2-litre V6 in the Ferrari Dino 196SP.

But after the first lap, with Gurney holding second ahead of the Ferrari, disaster struck.

On the following tour, Gurney collided with one of the many stone bridges in the mountains.

To bystanders, it appeared as if Gurney had pushed the car to its limits and spun.

But, back in the pits, it became evident that the Porsche’s new disc brakes had overheated and seized.

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

The filler cap for the Porsche’s front fuel tank

To compound matters, by the midpoint of the race the Coupé had worked its way up from fourth place to second, but it developed brake issues, too.

For the following 270 or so miles, having taken over from Vaccarella, Jo Bonnier used a combination of engine braking and four-wheel drifting to slow the little car on corner entry.

It was a driving style more akin to rallying than endurance racing, but one that proved effective, with the Coupé eventually crossing the line third overall – behind the two Ferraris, but first in the prototype 2-litre class.

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

Porsche’s Type 771 engine was a step change from the four-cylinder units the marque was known for

As salvage jobs go, it doesn’t get much better. At the cars’ next outing, the Nürburgring 1000km, it was finally time for the W-RS to shine.

With Graham Hill and Hans Herrmann at the wheel, and the brakes now working as expected, the W-RS performed flawlessly, winning its prototype 2-litre class and finishing third overall in front of a crowd of more than 300,000 spectators.

Disappointingly, Bonnier and Gurney, this time in the Coupé, were also set to be on the podium, but were hamstrung by transmission failure.

Ironically, the eight-cylinder engine was turning out to be the least troublesome part of the package.

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

‘The interior of the W-RS is Minimalist, but surprisingly comfortable’

With Porsche not taking its prototypes to Le Mans in 1962 due to the organising Automobile Club de l’Ouest being a law unto itself and only accepting GT cars, not prototypes, the Coupé wouldn’t race again until 1963, but the W-RS had a more intense off-season, competing in selected rounds of the European Mountain Hillclimb Championship, plus a six-race campaign in North America.

This yielded valuable feedback, not all of it positive, and compelled Porsche to make numerous design changes for 1963, including new doors and decklids made of glassfibre (an innovation that supercharged the development of the forthcoming 904), as well as a move to coil spring and wishbone suspension – something that would mark a historic, and permanent, move away from parallel trailing arms.

And what did all of this effort net the W-RS? Well, if the record books are to be believed, a lowly seventh place at the 1963 Targa Florio after transmission failure left the car with just one gear for the final lap.

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

The Porsche’s three-spoke Bakelite steering wheel provides plenty of feedback

However, this doesn’t quite tell the whole story.

Because, once again, the Coupé, benefiting from the upgrades that came out of the W-RS international testing programme, took up the Porsche mantle and ran ahead with it, as Bonnier brought the car home first overall, earning the Type 718 what was arguably its greatest-ever victory.

In subsequent years, the Spyder continued to make appearances on the international stage, where it acted as the ultimate team player but seldom basked in the limelight.

Not that this was seen as a great tragedy by the engineers at Porsche.

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

Porsche 356 rear lights on this 718 W-RS racer

The development of the 904 was already under way and the W-RS had, in effect, served its purpose, demonstrating the worth of disc brakes, glassfibre panels, a rear wing to counter drag (implemented at Le Mans) and the eight-cylinder Type 771 engine – a unit that would go on to feature in everything from the 906 to the 909 Bergspyder.

So it is perhaps unusual, then, that it was during this period, away from the international stage, that the W-RS became something of a legend (at least in the halls of Zuffenhausen) in the hands of Edgar Barth.

No stranger to the Type 718, having won the 1959 Targa Florio behind the wheel of a 718 RSK, Barth was entrusted with wresting the European Hill Climb Championship from the grasp of Ferrari and its nimble Dino 196SP.

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

The Porsche’s slim, glassfibre doors are opened by pull-handles on the inside

It would have been easy to dismiss the tall, balding 46-year-old Barth, especially when the chiselled, dark-haired reigning champion Ludovico Scarfiotti was just 29.

But Barth was a natural at hillclimbing, having won the championship in 1959.

With the W-RS by then producing 240bhp, he proved unstoppable, winning six of the seven climbs in 1963 and five out of seven in ’64, which crowned him king of the mountains two years on the trot.

Tragically, Barth passed away from cancer the following year, prompting the decision to retire the car from motorsport out of respect.

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

‘Porsche went all-in with new technology’

This marked the end of four years of intense competition and a total of 32 event entries, a longevity record that earned the W-RS the affectionate nickname of Grossmutter, or Grandmother, among the Porsche mechanics.

While this car may not share the same level of fame as its predecessors, the 550 Spyder and 718 RSK, nor its successor, the 904, perhaps we can take solace in the fact that it is respected by those who truly matter: its custodians.

Images: John Bradshaw/Porsche

Porsche 718 W-RS: driving Grossmutter at Goodwood

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

The Porsche 718 W-RS quickly inspires confidence on Goodwood’s wet and slippery hillclimb course

Roy Salvadori famously said: “Give me Goodwood on a summer’s day, and you can keep the rest,” but I suspect today’s relentless deluge would dampen even his enthusiasm.

It’s Friday at the 2023 Goodwood Festival of Speed, the day before a severe wind warning will call the event off for the first time in its 30-year history, and we’re huddled in the drivers’ sign-on tent.

Just climbing into the W-RS is an experience. You instinctively reach for a doorhandle, as you would on any other 718, before remembering that they were removed, ahead of the 1963 season, to save weight.

Instead, reach over the glassfibre door and open it from an internal latch, then throw your right leg over the broad sill and stand on the seat before sliding in.

The interior of the W-RS is Minimalist, but surprisingly comfortable.

The thin, three-spoke Bakelite steering wheel comes out to meet you, the empty door recesses give loads of elbow room and the impossibly low windscreen affords unimpeded vision.

Or at least it would if it weren’t raining so heavily.

As we depart the assembly area and head towards the startline, the rain intensifies and I spend the next minute or so fiddling with my visor to stop my glasses steaming up – a useful distraction from the fact that I’m about to guide the one and only W-RS in existence up a narrow, soaked piece of Tarmac.

In my head, I know the optimum way to get the car off the line is to give it a bootful of revs, sidestep the clutch and let the rear wheels spin.

But I can’t quite get the weight of its history off my shoulders, so decide to gently dribble away from the line.

And instantly regret that decision: the engine bogs and, no matter how much gas I give it, our speed slows to a crawl.

Classic & Sports Car – Porsche 718 W-RS: Stuttgart’s forgotten hero

Although its GTR Coupé siblings are no more, the 718 Spyder is still used by Porsche

Trying not to panic, it’s time to revert to a more robust approach: dial up plenty of revs and then drop the clutch.

The engine picks up and fires the car towards turn one with gusto, as if to say: “I won two hillclimb championships – man up and get on with it!”

Grip is limited and the steering slow, but the feedback is quite unlike anything I’ve experienced.

You can immediately feel how much adhesion there is to play with through the thin-rimmed steering wheel, and you can sense the car moving around underneath you.

Confidence goes from rock bottom to through the roof within around 300m, with the 718 encouraging you to get hard on the throttle out of turn two and down the closest thing the course has to a straight.

The brakes require a lot of pressure into the infamous Molecomb corner, but from there it’s a short squirt up to the flint wall and then down from fifth to third gear.

The six-speed gearbox was confusing to newcomers in period, but it’s a joy to use, with a light and precise lever, and pedals positioned just about close enough for heel-and-toeing.

Two more corners to go.

These are notoriously greasy bends due to the overhanging trees, but the W-RS dances through the right-hander and feels stable through the more gentle left.

With one final burst of power to bring us across the line at the top of turn six, I try to take in my surroundings and enjoy the guttural wail of the 2-litre flat-eight sitting just behind me.

What an experience. What an honour. And what a way to discover that the Grossmutter remains one of the most underappreciated Porsches of all time.

No wonder they couldn’t retire it.

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