Gravity is a tyrant. Its incessant tug on physical matter is a force so inescapable, it seemed only natural Ferdinand Piëch would challenge nature by escalating Porsche’s efforts in hill-climb competition.
Ravenous for race wins and armed with engineering savvy, the imperious motorsport engineer helped the manufacturer win 20 of 24 trophy-eligible European Hill Climb Championship races during the decade leading up to 1968. But a new challenger loomed in the form of the Ferrari 212E Montagna, a flat-12-powered screamer that threatened to undermine the Zuffenhausen firm’s success.
Piëch’s salvo came in the form of the 909, Porsche’s most purebred hill-climb machine to date. His development team waged a battle on mass that left no extraneous hardware. Holes were drilled everywhere, from the bolts that were already constructed of featherweight titanium to seemingly inconsequential bits like mechanical fuel-injection linkages. The cramped cockpit was wrapped in a flimsy fiberglass skin that tipped the scales at 22 pounds, measuring less than 1mm thick in places; the material earned the 909 the nickname “Plastic Porsche.”
An intricate tubular aluminum frame, weighing just less than 62 pounds, was designed for better-balanced weight distribution, leaving the driver in the unenviable position of hanging his legs ahead of the front axle. Even less ideal in retrospect was the use of exotic beryllium brake pads, which reportedly ran $1,000 per corner. Due to exorbitant cost, those pads were only fitted to one of the two 909s built, a mixed blessing for the superior driver who earned the better brakes: like asbestos, beryllium dust is carcinogenic.
A 2.0-liter flat-eight nestled snugly behind the driver. Derived from a 1962 Formula 1 engine, the 275-horsepower engine eschewed every superfluous accessory in the interest of weight. Who needed a fuel pump when you could use a spherical 3.96-gallon “kugeltank,” a bladder encased in titanium that uses pressurized nitrogen to force fuel into the engine? Alternators were also for the weak: Porsche ditched the dead weight and used a small battery the crew members could recharge between runs. Although he reportedly mandated that no more than $30 be spent per pound of weight shed, Piëch is said to have monitored the 909’s progress by running a magnet over screws; if it stuck, they were to be replaced with titanium. In all, the 909’s ready-to-drive weight comes in at a mere 846 pounds, making it the lightest Porsche racer ever.
A half century after the 909 lashed out against its competition, I stand 6,263 feet above Southern France on the summit of Mont Ventoux, which translates to “Windy Mountain.” The peak, also known as the “Beast of Provence,” was one of the most famous hill-climb stops of its era, starting in the tiny village of Bédoin and running 13.4 miles to the summit, which made it the longest run in the series. But it has since earned notoriety for its pivotal role in the Tour de France, attracting scores of recreational cyclists to the famous pinnacle. Luckily for me, I’m here to sample the only 909 in existence, along with the 981 Cayman-based Bergspyder concept car that Porsche unveiled as a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the legendary machine. Even sweeter, Porsche has blocked off a section of the mountain to keep outside traffic at bay.
The 909 competed in an era when daredevil drivers regularly faced grisly ends, and thoughts of mortality quickly crystallize when climbing into the car. Especially when viewed from above, the single-seater looks like an enlarged Matchbox car. Why did Porsche oh so tactfully ask me my height and weight before it booked my flight to Marseilles? Turns out the 909’s bucket seat and cabin ergonomics are, well, completely inflexible.
The first time I shoehorn myself inside, I have a flashing concern my pretzeled limbs will stay folded. The process is delicate: Step onto the seat because the floor is nothing more than a thin sheet of fiberglass; rotate your feet forward while avoiding errant seatbelt buckles; slide down into the cabin, legs flexing forward, aware of the proximity of the Momo Prototipo steering wheel. One inevitable crash contemplation: the comically debatable endgame of the lap belt. On one hand, sure, it might cushion some of the blow (with a clear view of your feet getting destroyed by the pedal box). On the other, it could also keep you attached to the hulking and potentially crushing powerplant just aft of your spine. Oh, and wouldn’t that cute little globular fuel tank make a spectacular Molotov cocktail?
Despite the overt peril, there is also a palpable sense of control within the cockpit. Not only is everything precisely where it should be, at least for my middle-of-the-bell-curve, 5-foot-11, 180-pound frame, it just feels right. The seat’s mold cups my pelvis perfectly, and a small pillow brings me close enough to the controls; my arms outstretch to the wheel, but not so much that I have any trouble swinging it around; the shifter, an upside-down and backwards H-pattern four-speed that features custom ratios for each circuit, clicks into place with a gentle action; the tube chassis forms a metallic web of structure that reveals everything, including a front torsion bar that runs above my legs and a visible rubber oil tube running straight to the oil pressure gauge, a later add-on that sits next to the tachometer.
If you’re too embarrassed to ask for yet another explanation of which controls do what, discreet use of Google Translate would be in order. As a technician conducts some unseen hocus-pocus in the engine bay to ensure everything is configured as intended, pull the red slider (labeled “Hauptsch”) to arm on the electrical system. Then press the small metal “Anlasser” button just above it that triggers the starter, nourishing the air-cooled engine as it bursts to life. Judicious throttle pumps keep the motor alive until it comes up to temperature. With the men on walkies double-checking the road closure, Porsche’s team of mechanics and PR staff train their eyes on me, encased in my fiberglass, titanium, and magnesium sled, coccyx seemingly millimeters above the pavement, ears assaulted by the mechanical clatter of valves and pistons slapping and the massive engine fan whirring. I haven’t gotten the go-ahead yet, so I ponder: A) The curious instruction to slip the clutch at 4,000 rpm off the line, and B) How much of the minuscule gas tank’s contents will remain after all this revving, since the scant instrumentation conspicuously lacks a fuel gauge?
Thankfully I’m on level ground when I engage first by throwing the shifter left and down, because although the throttle is responsive and the car is light, I feel a bit of resistance as I slowly release the clutch. Keep the revs up while continuing the gradual clutch pull, and I’m soon overcoming inertia. But it’s not smooth sailing yet: If the clutch is not slipped properly, the engine bogs at around 3,000 rpm, hitting a wall that makes it feel like you started in third gear, not first. Remember that nonnegotiable gravitational pull? It’s about to make a fool out of me if you don’t jam the clutch and feed that beast of an engine again, instigating momentum. Once I do, it pushes forward instantly, wind rushing over the tiny windscreen and onto my naked face, escalating the revs with linear but breezy acceleration. On my first go, I make no assumptions about the torque curve of the engine (which turns out to be surprisingly progressive), or the efficacy of the period-correct Avon tires. Those large green spoilers, which are linked mechanically to the rear suspension, offer no promise of bacon-saving downforce, either.
Without any hydraulic assist, the steering wheel enacts immediate action on the tiny, 10-inch front wheels. The earthbound seating position and minimal shock damping deliver a direct connection between input and output. This makes the proceedings more intuitive than you might expect, with virtually no mass to damp the experience. But the eventualities are starkly binary: The mountain face to my right is unforgivingly solid, and the drop-off to the left is dizzying and, along most stretches, fully devoid of guardrails. Although the 909 was reportedly capable of launching to 60 mph in 2.2 seconds, it feels like it would take a measure of anger to pull off that number, more than I’m willing to dish out. Yet, there’s still nothing discreet about revving to a screaming 8,000 rpm and swapping gears carefully. Although engine braking is strong enough to maintain control of speed with the right pedal, pivoting your foot slightly and stabbing the stoppers triggers quick and progressive deceleration.
Moving into the 981-based Bergspyder is a bizarre time warp of an experience, a fashion-forward take on the 909’s unabashedly stark functionality. There’s a bit of concept car theater at play, from the milled valve covers visible through a mesh screen (the first ever in a Boxster) to the 918 Spyder-derived cockpit hardware, including instrumentation and seating. But coming out of the 909, there’s also a remarkable amount civility in this 21st century remix, as stripped down as it is. Although you sit low, your face still gets pelted with pebbles thanks to the nearly nonexistent windscreen. The 356 Speedster-inspired tarpaulin, constructed of carbon fiber and stretching over what would be the passenger seat, lends a strangely somber sense of purpose to the driver’s duties, which at least have the reassurance of modern suspension and tire technology. Although damping feels unnecessarily harsh over high-speed bumps, this is a far easier vehicle to drive fast thanks to decades of innovation and refinement.
The Cayman GT4-sourced 3.8-liter flat-six fires up every time without protest and produces thick power at virtually every engine rpm. The carcinogen-free brakes are stellar. With a final weight of 2,422 pounds, a full 648 fewer than the Boxster Spyder upon which it’s based, the Bergspyder came in just over then-CEO Matthias Müller’s sub-1,000-kg (2,204-pound) target. Modern homologation limitations, however, kept the concept from becoming a production reality: It couldn’t meet Germany’s requirements, relegating it to a one-off that usually resides in the Porsche Museum collection along with the 909 it pays homage to.
Despite its arduous development process, the 909 only competed in two races in 1968 before Porsche retired it, as Ferrari’s promised hill climber didn’t arrive until the following year. Although it was an abrupt end to an ambitious effort, the 909 conceded to an even more grandiose project: the 917, whose next-level engineering brought the manufacturer its first outright win at Le Mans in 1970, becoming one of the most storied race cars in history.
As for the former, gravity proved a constant, unceasing enemy; during its brief career, the 909 fought it ferociously. The tiny racer remains a striking artifact from a time when Porsche was on the cusp of a different era, one when the lessons learned from weight reduction would define the cornerstone of the brand’s identity, both on and off the track.
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