Sunday, May 31, 2009

driving the bailey-edwards 917

Track Test.
by Pierre Martins

ZSpa70_03When I was a teenager all my mates had posters of a white Lamborghini Countach on their bedroom walls. That Lambo was an icon for them. Me, I had a 917k in Gulf livery on the wall, car number 24 with Jo Siffert behind the wheel duking it out with Jacky Ickx in the Ferrari 512 at Spa 1971. Next to that I had a poster of the late great Steve McQueen from the movie Le Mans, sporting his famous quote:

“Racing is Life! Anything that happens before or after is just waiting”.

I’m sure “Porsche 917” is tattooed somewhere on the inside of my skull. It’s always been the ultimate sports prototype to me, not just because of its looks, but the whole saga surrounding this car, its place in motor-sport history and all the wild stories told by the drivers of the era.

Be that as it may, the problem with being a 917-nut is that the car remained out of reach of mere mortals like you and I for so many years. A visit to the David Piper pits when he came to town was the closest you could get to a 917 in recent years. Sitting in a 917, let alone driving one, was something I could only dream about, until I got a call asking whether I’d be prepared to test the Bailey-Edwards Replica 917 and write a story about it.

Is the Pope Catholic? Hell, I would sell my soul to get my ass into a 917!

I was a tad apprehensive though. They say you should never drive the car of your childhood dreams. It will probably just disappoint you. Technology moves on and when you’re finally old enough to fulfil that dream, the car will be old-school and antiquated by modern standards. That might be so with the now out-dated Countach, but how would the once mighty 917 shape up in today’s world?

And how would the Bailey-Edwards Replica 917 fare, is it really a true replica of the 917, or just another look-alike kit car?

You see, I’m a little pedantic about the difference between a kit car and a replica. A kit car is just a look-alike thing with parts borrowed from various cars, bolted together on a donor chassis. Other than poser value there is no point, really. A true replica, however, emulates the original car in form and function, with specially engineered parts and the only changes are subtle mechanical improvements where modern technology allows…

Can the Bailey-Edwards 917 live up to the real deal?

Zwartkops Test-drive 16-04-08 019Only one way to answer that question – Put it on a race track and give it stick.

That’s one of the first things Peter Bailey said when I met him at his factory in Jet Park a few weeks before this test. Now there’s a man who’s got his priorities right. He made it very clear right from the start that Bailey-Edwards cars are essentially race cars, not show cars, especially the 917, GT40, P4 and their latest creation, the Lola T70 replica.

Most petrol-heads can only dream about building and racing their own cars. Peter Bailey is actually living out that dream. Starting off by building a Cobra kit car as a hobby soon turned into a full-time business and together with son Greg, he established Bailey-Edwards Cars in 2003. The rest, as they say, is history.

What I like most about the man is his friendly, down to earth nature. I know guys who achieved far less, yet they act like know-it-all big deals. Not Peter Bailey, he doesn’t hide anything and will tell you all you want to know about his cars. Not that there were many, but mistakes in his line of work are inevitable. Peter is honest and open about that too. You can’t help but admire the guy.

Bailey Edwards Cars 17-03-08 040 The Bailey-Edwards 917 project started with the acquisition of an abandoned project by some guy in Cape Town who manufactured a perfect full-scale model of the 917k body. Peter wasted no time, bought the model, pulled moulds and started out fabricating a 917 replica. That project turned into the car I was about to test - The first 917 produced by Bailey-Edwards Cars, the car they used as a test mule for research and development before building of customer cars commenced. This particular car was painted blue, a reproduction of the Austrian Salzburg team colours, owned by Ferdinand Peich way back when he was just a young upstart. Peich has been at the helm of Porsche for many years and is now the boss man at Audi, but I guess you knew that eh?

Anyway, the blue car sure is pretty. The fibreglass work on the shell is outstanding, but when you look under the skin you see stuff that is not exactly up to scratch, like the chassis welding for instance. But don’t get me wrong, the welding aint all that bad, it’s just not up to world class standard. And keep in mind this was the first prototype chassis, welded up by Greg (Peter’s son) from blueprints he found on the internet.

Bailey Edwards Cars 17-03-08 001 Nowadays all Bailey-Edwards cars are on CAD and all chassis members are carbon steel, 3-D laser-cut and TIG-welded in a jig.

I had a good look at one of the customer cars, Mike Nel’s 917 and I can tell you they put forward a pretty neat car with some good stuff in there. So rest assured, if you order a car from Bailey-Edwards you will get something that is really top notch, something that will turn heads anywhere in the world, even if top aficionados scrutinize the car.

On the original 917s Porsche laminated the bodywork to the aluminium chassis in an attempt to stiffen the chassis. The Bailey-Edwards 917 eliminates the need for that through the use of carbon steel, extra bracing and a welded roll-cage with much better protection around the foot well, something the original 917 didn’t have.

I guess “Ole Pipes” would approve of that, seeing that he lost his right foot in a crash at Le Mans when doing film sequences for Steve McQueen’s film ‘Le Mans’. Coming through White House corner a rear wheel deflated and his car was totalled. The car broke in half and all that kept the two halves together was his right foot trapped under the throttle.

But that’s another story. Oh by the way, David Piper had a good look at the Bailey-Edwards replicas when he was here earlier this year, and he approves. Big feather in the cap of local ingenuity, methinks.

Zwartkops Test-drive 16-04-08 072 Time to get suited up and wangle myself into the blue car. Getting into this thing is similar to getting into a single-seater, you stand in the seat and systematically work your way down.

A clip-off steering wheel leaves just enough room to get legs through and your feet to the very trick pedal box. The pedal box is an exact copy of the real thing mind you, manufactured in-house by Bailey-Edwards. The seat is very, very tight, similar to a Superkart seat. Once you’ve wedged yourself in the six-point harness almost becomes an optional extra.

You kinda get the feeling they designed the car first, and the driver was just a brain-fart the engineers had to accommodate afterwards…

The driving position is slightly off-centre, barely making it a right-hand drive car. You lay almost flat on your back in this thing. Clip the steering wheel back in place and it rests low in your lap. If you have a beer belly you will battle to drive this car. Mind you, if your gut is larger than average you won’t even see the steering wheel. Tall drivers will also suffer in this car. Anyone taller than 1.8m will be a tight squeeze and if you’re any taller than 1.9m you can forget about ever driving a 917 in traditional trim. They’d have to put a bubble on the roof for you.

As for ergonomics I can tell you there aint any cup-holders (duh), but it has an Alcantara leather dash, I shit you not! It’s functional though, preventing glare from the dash on the inside of the long sloping windscreen. Switches are Lucas push/pull type and gauges are authentic VDO units, specially manufactured with white needles to match the originals. Once you’re in and buckled up the wrap-around windscreen kinda feels like a second visor on your helmet. The “aircon” is a Kreepy Krauly pipe shoehorned into the cockpit to blow fresh air straight in your face.

Greg Bailey was on hand to help me strap in and give a quick run-down on what to expect from the car. Power in this car came from a 3.6 flat-six 964 Carrera motor with Go-Tech management, putting down about 315hp on massive 365mm wide Good Year slicks in the rear on sixteen inch diameter rims. Pointing the way up front were 225mm wide rubber on ten inch diameter rims. Porsche used magnesium rims, Bailey Edwards opted for 7075 billet aluminium split rims with centre nut fasteners.

Greg said the car would be very neutral and I’d have to press hard to get it outta shape, so basically I could expect an under-powered, over-tyred car. I had my reservations. With no stabilizer bars on this car I thought it best to build up speed with each lap and see how the thing reacts.

Fire it up and it’s loud!

Copy of Picture 007bThis thing is thunderous, just like a bespoke mid-engine serious sports-prototype should be. Out on track the first thing that struck me was how tall the front fenders were. - higher than eyelevel from the low-slung seat and with the two puny little side mirrors mounted on top they did a good job of obstructing my view when trying to look through tight corners like the hairpin at Zwartkops. But I got used to that quickly. Rear view was limited, but in a car like this you don’t care much about what’s happening behind you.

I got it sideways coming out of the hairpin a few times, but it’s always slippery there…

On a scale of one to ten I’d rate the handling of this car about eight in current trim, testimony to custom Bilsteins and very stiff spring rates, no doubt. This particular car weighs in at just over a ton with twenty litres of race fuel and an eighty kilogram driver on board. You’d think that spring rates of 280nm in the rear and 220nm in front would be way too hard for a relatively light car like this, but for some reason they work surprisingly well. The car points where you want it to go on turn-in and tracts beautifully through the apex, exiting exactly where you want it in tight corners as well as fast sweepers.

As for the claimed 315hp, I’m not so sure of that. The car felt a tad weaker than that in its current state of tune. One thing is for sure though, this car could easily handle an extra 150 ponies back in the engine bay with minimal suspension tweaks, but I dunno what it’ll be like when you stick some serious power into this thing like the proper 650hp 917Ks of old.

Bailey Edwards Cars 17-03-08 044 The brakes work exceptionally well, thanks to AP Racing callipers with AP pads and 325mm floating discs on bells.

I’m told this car did 1’07.7” around Zwartkops in the very capable hands of Rui Campos. Driving with reserve during testing I got to within 1:5 seconds of that whilst exploring brake markers. Brakes give excellent feedback and it’s easy to modulate input by alternating the force you apply on the pedal. The car featured an adjustable brake bias knob on the dash, but I never felt the need to experiment with it. The thing stops when you want it to, period.

Perhaps the only downfall of this car in current trim is the final drive. It runs a twin plate seven and a quarter inch Willwood clutch with Porsche’s brilliant G50 box coupled to a limited slip diff, but the ratios are way too tall. You only get to use three gears around Zwartkops and the car labours coming out of turn four no matter how fast you hurtle into that corner. The climb up to the table top just kills it. Peter Bailey is working on a solution and pretty soon this car will feature a Hewland crash-box with much shorter ratios. That will most certainly change this car for the better and bring down the lap times significantly. I would love to give it another go after the gearbox change, hint, hint…

And that was that, my drive in the car of my childhood dreams. When I first got into it I felt uncomfortable and I had my doubts, but I have to say it fulfilled all my expectations. Everything is snug and uncomfortably tight, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The cockpit, seating position and everything else about this car puts you in a racy frame of mind. You just wanna go fast. You just wanna stick it, and that’s exactly what I did.

Engine performance was nothing to write home about, but the whole package came together so nicely in this car, making it a pleasure to drive fast. Confidence inspiring, the thing is sharp and easy to drive. The more you give it stick, the more the car asks for.

You have moments when it’s kinda hard not to let your balls get the better of your ability in this car.

You get the feeling it’s almost fool-proof and you never forget you’re driving a true Le Mans legend. The car will not allow you to, even though this is a replica. An extremely good replica, and if I may say so, possibly better than the real thing.

A real Porsche 917 will set you back gazillions…

Zwartkops Test-drive 16-04-08 069At the time of writing this artice Bailey-Edwards 917 replicas were going for +/- ZAR700k for a rolling chassis without engine and gearbox, ZAR1mill with a 300+ horse power 964 motor with a G50 box and limited slip diff, but if you brought an extra ZAR100k to the party Peter will stick in a 550hp twin turbo flat six for you. And if you really wanna go crazy, take a look at the Pelican Parts website. They were auctioning some ex-Vasek Polak flat twelves a while ago…

I think I’ll just settle for one in Martini Rossi colours with the twin turbo engine. And I want it street legal so I can swank driving it to and from the track. Jokes aside, you can have a street legal Bailey-Edwards 917 just like the car Porsche donated to count Rossi for street use. All cars in the Bailey-Edwards line-up are replicas of racing cars as they were built in the late sixties and seventies. They have all necessary lights like turn signals, safety belts and window wipers etc.

There’s a tale in the tail lights too – Hella still manufactures them to this day, with correct part numbers and all. Anyway, if a customer purchases a Bailey-Edwards project and completes it, the car will be able to be registered as a ’home built car’ in South Africa.

So Mr Bailey, please be nice to me. For a small deposit and wrong address you may proceed with my 917 order, thank you.


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