Second coming

In a small Victorian town, a father and his sons are painstakingly resurrecting one of the most venerated cars in motorsport - the Porsche 917.

Second coming

Woodend is a serene, sleepy little hamlet of some 3500 souls, snuggling Mount Macedon. Just a lazy hour's drive from Melbourne, tray-top utes and small tractors trundle along its main street in harmony with MLs, X5s and Q7s. A sign on Woodend's outskirts proclaims it a 'pokie-free town' which, in Victoria, must have amounted to secession from the state's constitution.

Woodend is, then, among the last places you might expect to clap eyes on the instantly familiar forms of perhaps motor racing's fastest, brawniest and most brutally elegant creation: the 1970-'71 Porsche 917K.

These are not real 917Ks, although WerkzCars' 'LMK 917' claims to run the originals millimetrically close. But the similarities between real and replica do run a little deeper than their appearance. And Woodend 2009 may not look so different from Weissach, 1969.

Currently, no other replicar constructor is taking on such a dauntingly complicated design as the 917. And with chassis number 25 on the jig, the father and sons team of Andrew, Anthony and Tim Keiller will soon match the original production figure from Porsche's historic, 10-month homologation build.

Theirs is an extraordinary story of quiet achievement, of export success - their 22 completed rolling chassis (now quoted at US$127,000 each) have gone to buyers on four continents, none yet in Australia - and of an underground, mutant car culture that simmers in the backyards and barns of genteel, rural villages.

British-born Andrew Keiller, 67, took seven years to complete his first LMK 917 prototype, finishing it in 2003. While he's had plenty of experience in building kit cars, including what was probably Australia's first Cobra replica (an Arntz) in 1977, he came to the LMK 917 from his background as an aeronautical draftsman.

"I started out as an apprentice toolmaker, then went to jig and tool drafting," he says. "I ended up as a technical illustrator, doing cutaway drawings of things."

One of those 'things' happened to be Concorde, on which Keiller worked from 1969 until '71. "They were all perspective drawings ... I worked on the engine installation, the tail-cone and the tilt-nose section." On relocating to Australia, he spent 12 years doing technical illustration for Ansett then freelanced for Ford, Holden and International.

In the meantime, the garage hosted a range of trick and bizarre cars. "A Mk1 Jaguar saloon, then a '64 E-Type, then I bought a '67 Miura that needed restoration," he says. "The Miura was traded in on a [De Tomaso] Pantera, and I sold the Pantera to get the money to move into this."

Throughout, however, he's been a Porsche enthusiast who's never quite owned a Porsche. "Well, I owned one [a non-running 930], but it never got finished! And these things [the LMKs] don't count ... all the running gear is Porsche, we build them from Porsche drawings ... but they're replicas, reproductions."

Keiller insists he'd never set out to do this commercially. At first, all he'd wanted was to do a drawing.

"I'd started doing a big, cutaway perspective of a 917, just for my own interest," he shrugs. "[Son] Anthony was working in England at the time, and he said, 'Oh, there's one being restored, I'll see if I can go around and take some photos.' It was [veteran 917 racer] David Piper's car, and he let us take hundreds of photos.

"I got the drawing done, and I thought, shit, we've got enough information to build a car ... I built the body mock-up in foam and wood, covered it in plaster and then took the moulds off that."

Keiller got some generous and unexpected assistance from former Porsche importer Alan Hamilton, the only Australian to have owned a Porsche 917 (albeit, a 917/30 CanAm). "He turned out to be the nicest guy in the world," beams Keiller, recounting how Hamilton gave him pedals, seats and wheels, which Keiller copied.

In fact, he says Porsche people have continued to be at least accepting of the LMK 917. "Oh, [Porsche museum manager Klaus] Bischof is very nice, [engineer/racer] Jurgen Barth, everyone we've met has been really nice ... I've got the transcript of a speech that was given by one of the Porsche top brass, and they said they're not against replicas if they're done correctly. That's what they said. So they can hardly come after you and say, 'You're ripping us off'."

Interest in Keiller's project went through the roof when he sent a photo of the mock-up to US magazine Kit Car. "And I got all these letters - about 30 of them! I had to write back and tell them nothing would be happening for at least 18 months. So then I had to do something - scope out all the chassis, get the jig made, castings organised."

Eventually, footage of the prototype running at Essendon Airport bagged the first, firm order, from San Diego. By that time, in mid-2000, he'd already set up the Woodend workshop. "Literally, we were down to our last $600, and ready to close the place, even though we'd only been here a few months. And then we got a deposit."

In quick succession came three more orders. Who were these people? "Well, a lot of them wanted to be Steve McQueen," Keiller says, referring to the Gulf #20 colours of McQueen's movie car (chassis 022, now owned by Jerry Seinfeld). All but three of the 22 cars completed so far have been Gulf-liveried.

Beautiful and bucolic Woodend may be, but the Werkz works ain't exactly the works. Following Keiller's directions - "it's the shittiest building in the shittiest street" - I pull up outside a white breeze-block building. The only external clue to what occurs inside is the racing-roundel street number, and a dodgy silhouette drawing of a 917K.

It's honest and effective inside, however. Keiller is delighted when I compare it with the original Elfin factory in Adelaide. A handful of chassis on jigs share space with a couple of 906 replicas (see sidebar p69), a Group C Lola chassis and a Giocattolo, being restored for its owner. Genuine Porsche 908 racing bodywork, a gift from one of Keiller's many US contacts, sits atop the roof of the office area.

Genuine Porsche bodywork also sits atop Keiller's personal toy: a 917/10 CanAm replica. Alongside is a 3.8-litre 964 RSR engine waiting to go into it. Where'd he find that? "Oh, the guy who builds our gearboxes down in Ferntree Gully had it with a glass table-top on it."

Keiller, Anthony, 44, and Tim, 34 - the latter of whom recently joined from Ford's technical illustration department - seem to potter from one task to the next, welding something here, milling something there. Occasionally, one will pore over the extensive library of 917 books, before strolling over to paint some interior detail. "It's not only women who can multi-task," dad smiles.

The 917K was the very embodiment of obsessive and uncompromising German engineering. Its chassis was a precise tangle of spindly, round aluminium tube, the whole weighing just 42kg. The air-cooled 'Type 912' flat-12 engine (4.5 litres/403kW, and later 5.0 litres/470kW) made extensive use of magnesium and titanium, as did the rest of the car's suspension and braking.

Anthony Keiller has an aeronautical appreciation of the 917. "When you get into these old cars, you're sort-of getting inside [the engineers'] brains," he says. "They're just really shit-hot [at their jobs], that's all it comes down to. All the bolts on a 917 were titanium. And they were drilled down the middle. And the heads were machined to get them thinner."

But Keiller hasn't tried to replicate all of that. Although, oddly enough, early in the project he befriended a backyard boffin from Bendigo who has made his own 12-cylinder Porsche engine, using two 911 engines back-to-back.

The LMK's chassis is steel, in square-section tube where it can't be seen and round tube where it can. With no Porsche blueprints around, Keiller's cars have been scaled up from copies of a Porsche drawing that shows the general arrangement and key dimensions of the 917LH. "You can go to a website in Argentina and get this stuff," he chirps.

Hamilton's gift of an original, cast magnesium 917 wheel enabled Keiller to have correct-looking reproductions made in aluminium (by Dragway, in rural Kinglake).

As for the gorgeous-looking suspension castings, Keiller fabricated patterns in wood, has them cast locally and machines them himself. The LMK 917 bristles with things like this, down to details like the door hinges and the centre-lock wheel hubs.

"Oh, [the 917 is] quite difficult, if you want to do them nice," Keiller says. "You've got to get a pattern for the windscreen, because it's a laminated screen. You've got to have the correct wheels, and the centre-lock hubs ... And all these things have to be engineered, they've got to look right."

The LMK is designed to be fitted with any air-cooled six-cylinder Porsche engine. It hooks up to either the early Type 915 gearbox or the late-1980s G50; both must be strengthened and modified to run in reverse direction.

"Most guys have been putting a [993] 3.6 in them, because I've made a fuel-injection set-up that bolts straight onto the plastic manifold," Keiller says. "We don't install any engines here; there's no point because they can get the engines in Europe and the US much cheaper."

A completed car, with six-cylinder drivetrain installed, weighs in at around 830kg. So they're not a slow thing. Although, that didn't stop a South African owner from installing a Le Mans 956 drivetrain he had lying around. With no space in the bodywork for radiators, let alone intercoolers, it proved an expensive exercise.

"Most people want them as authentic as possible," Keiller says. "They don't seem to care if they've got 400 horsepower or 700 horsepower, because they're still blindingly fast anyway.

"They tend to be guys who've got big collections of cars, and they can't get a real 917. Unless they've got US$3.5m like Jerry Seinfeld, this is the only way they're gonna get one."

And how about Keiller himself? What would he splurge on?

"I'd build myself a Martini long-tail," he says, without needing to pause. "I wouldn't buy anything. I've been through all that, I don't wanna have lots of money tied up in cars. I haven't got it anyway, but I'm not gonna go and drop $200K on a car. I'd sooner make my own."


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