1968: Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission to space; 2001: A Space Odyssey debuts; Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated; Jim Clark dies; LL Cool J is born; Pierre Trudeau becomes the Canadian Prime Minister; Intel is founded; Led Zeppelin debuts; Nixon is elected; and the "Mother of all demos"—a precursor to modern graphical computing—takes place.
It was a year of immense change—both politically and technologically—and German sports racing car manufacturer Porsche had their own history-making vehicle to reveal: the 909 Bergspyder—or "mountain" spider.
Porsche had always competed in hill climb events, seeing them as ideal proving grounds for their cars. The twisting, high-altitude roads helped engineers learn how to prioritize handling and experiment with lightweight materials.
They were dominant. Really dominant. In the 24 trophy-eligible European Hillclimb Championship classes from 1958-1968, Porsche won 20 of them outright.
In 1967 and 1968, Porsche's lightweight 910 Bergspyder were the championship-winning machines. With between 200 and 270 horsepower and weight around 420 kg (925 lbs.), they were extremely nimble and well-suited to mountain roads.
Responding to a threat of a new hillclimb special from Ferrari, brilliant then-Porsche motorsport engineer Ferdinand Piëch (who was later responsible for the Porsche 917, Audi Quattro, Volkswagen New Beetle, Bugatti Veyron, among others) ordered the creation of the 909 Bergspyder—a super lightweight race car that would push the boundaries of material science.
How light? Here's a little list:
- 2014 Smart fortwo: 765 kg (1686 lbs)
- 2014 Formula 1 car minimum weight: 642 kg (1415 lbs)
- 2014 Caterham Seven 160: 490 kg (1080 lbs)
- Ariel Atom: 455 kg (1005 lbs)
- 2014 Honda Gold Wing motorcycle: 423 kg (933 lbs)
- Light Car Company Rocket: 400 kg (882 lbs)
- 1968 Porsche 909 Bergspyder: 375 kg (826 lbs)
That's right: the 909 was nearly half the weight of a modern F1 car, lighter than some motorcycles, and 1/5 the weight of a Bugatti Veyron.
Legend has it that Piëch judged progress with a magnet—if it stuck to any part of the car, engineers were ordered to find a lighter material to replace steel parts.
It had an all-aluminum chassis, titanium suspension, loom silver wiring in place of copper, and balsa wood ballast resistors for the ignition system. It had a nitrogen-pressurized titanium/rubber fuel tank. Even the carcinogenic material Beryllium was used for its brake disks—Porsche was only able to make five disks, so they were fitted to the faster of the two cars.
Powered by a 275 horsepower Formula 1-derieved flat-8 engine, it's said to have hit 100 km/h (62 mph) in 2.4 seconds, faster than the modern McLaren P1 hyper car.
Porsche built two 909s, campaigning them in 1968 and earning two podium finishes: a 2nd and 3rd. Star hillclimb driver Rolf Stommelen drove the car in both events, probably suffering from a broken arm earned earlier in the year—there's no doubt the car had the raw speed to win a race outright.
The 909 would be the company's last dedicated hillclimb machine, as the company ended their factory European Hillclimb Championship involvement at the end of that year.
As far as machines go, however, the 909 wasn't the most extreme idea to grace hillclimb competition.
But that's a story for another day.