For two decades in the ’60s and ’70s Porsche ruled the European Hillclimb Championship: we emulate Wolfgang von Trips’ 1958 title victory in his 718 RS Spyder, blasting the latest 718 Cayman up the Gaisberg Hillclimb.
It’s 1958, and Wolfgang von Trips has clinched the European Hillclimb Championship title for Porsche, having stormed the 718 RSK up the 5-mile Gaisberg mountain road to win the Grosser Bergpreis von Österreich. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, the Hillclimb Championship was a significant series on the international motorsport calendar, and ranked highly on Porsche’s aspirational must-win list. In this, it succeeded for an incredible 22 years running, from 1958 to 1980. So, what better way to celebrate Taffy von Trips’ achievement from five decades ago than to reprise his run up Gaisberg – in the latest 718 Cayman.
Gaisberg is close to Salzburg, and the drive to Austria has the makings of decent road trip, so my snapping colleague and I rendezvous at Harwich to board Stena Line’s marvellous SS Hollandica for the overnight voyage to the Hook of Holland. It’s a trip we make annually, and the ship’s Metropolitan restaurant staff welcome us like long lost friends. Disembarked the following morning we motor the Cayman 718 blithely through the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France, hanging a left at Strasbourg into Germany to attend the Ruf trackday at Hockenheim, where we overnight before the six-hour push down to Salzburg. Rather than risk a citation my colleague stumps up for an Austrian carnet entitling us to use their roads, and Fraulein Satnav guides us by a precipitous single-track route winding up the backside of the Gaisberg mountain. It’s dark, but I am aware of unfenced drop-offs of unknown depths and we proceed gingerly. We emerge at a more established road, which we discover with some relief next morning to be halfway up the actual hillclimb route, rather than the backlane we ascended the night before.
There’s an annual revival of the Gaisberg hillclimb, as there often is at such venues, but today we’re in competition for space on the blacktop with cyclists, bikers, hikers and local pensioners. It’s warm and dry, even under the tree canopy, and it’s clear that, back in the day, this would have been one heck of a drive – 5.376 miles (8.652km) from bottom to top. We rediscover corners and crests which are evident in period photographs of the Hillclimb, and do our best to emulate them, me posing mid-road with appropriate mountain topography in the background, while a substantial palace of a building at the start of the climb provides a fine reference point as well – though it’s a shame it’s since lapsed into dereliction. The hubbub surrounding the assembled runners and riders appears in the photos to be much the same back then as it would be at a modern event. The European Hillclimb championship dates back to 1930, instituted as an FIA-sanctioned series in1957, when runs were staged at six different venues across Europe. The series carried on as such up to the present day, with 12 rounds now, of which at least two of the original runs survive (Trento-Bondone and St Ursanne-les-Rangiers) from the halcyon days of the early ’60s when works entries from Porsche, Ferrari, Abarth and Alfa Romeo vied for supremacy on the slopes. The Europa-Bergmeisterschaft was Porsche’s happy hunting ground; while outright victory for the marque was rare on the big-time international stageuntil the late ’60s, due to constraints of engine capacity as much as anything, the nimble sports-racing cars and GTs like the 718 RSK and 904 GTS had the measure of all-comers on the serpentine mountain climbs. Porsche drivers were the hillclimb specialists, and by 1965 the 904-based Kangaruh Spyder, the following year’s 910 Bergspyder and its successor the Type 909 from 1968 were as specialised as they came.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Porsche drivers Von Trips, Edgar Barth (Jürgen’s dad), Heini Walter, Herbie Müller and Gerhard Mitter wore the Sports Car category crown from 1958 all the way up to 1968, while in the Gran Turismo class, Huschke von Hanstein, Heinz Schiller, Hans Kuhnis, Eberhard Mahle, Anton Fischaber, Rudi Lins, Sepp Greger, Claude Haldi, Wilhelm Bartels, and brothers Jean-Marie and Jacques Alméras annexed the GT title literally every year from 1960 right up to 1980. An amazing success record by any standards.
So, to return to the season we’re celebrating, 1958, there were six rounds, held at Mount Parnassus (Athens), Mont Ventoux (France), Trento-Bondone (Italy), Freiburg-Schauinsland (Germany), Gaisberg (Austria), and Ollon-Villars (Switzerland). Von Trips won three of them – Athens, Trento and Gaisberg - with Barth, Bonnier and Behra winning the others. That year the 718 also won the ’58 Targa Florio outright in the hands of Barth and Wolfgang Seidel, and won its class at Le Mans - 3rd overall - with Jean Behra and Hans Herrmann at the wheel. Von Trips’ Gaisberg-winning 718 RSK was followed in the timing department by a pair of Borgward H1500 Spyders - helmed by Bonnier and Herrmann, no less - with Taffy’s Porsche teammates Barth, Behra and Walter next up in three more 718s.And here we are at the Gaisbergrennen, armed with a state-of-the-art Cayman 718. Could I beat Von Trips’ fifty-year old time of 9m 24.1s recorded on 15th August 1958? Who knows – you’d think so in a modern Porsche, but by how much is a moot point, the Cayman being heavier (if more powerful – 142bhp versus 296bhp) than an RSK.Tempting as it might have been to give it a go, in deference to other road users, I refrain from attempting a complete run at full chat. Besides, my colleague is frequently urging me to stop so he can capture a particular moment on camera.
Not so much ‘What’s in a name,’ more like, ‘what’s in a number,’ and it’s no coincidence that Porsche elected to endow the newest Boxster and Cayman models with the 718 numerals, mainly on account of the return to the flat-four engine configuration, albeit in turbocharged format. Our press car is the very latest Cayman 718, powered by the twin-turbo, 2.0-litre flat-four that yields 300bhp and rushes from 0 – to 62mph in 5.1s; we had a manual 6-speed, but the PDK does the dash in 4.9s. On the Autobahn my colleague managed 140mph on one derestricted section, thwarted not by traffic, which dutifully pulls over smartly to the inside lane, but by the omnipresent roadworks which bedevil much of the Autobahn network at the moment. However, between Munich and Salzburg, when he was asleep, I wound it up to 155mph, and it’s up at those sorts of speeds that Porsches come into their own and really feel invincible. The downside, of course, is the soaring fuel consumption at these velocities, though we do cover the clicks quicker. And when it comes to motorway service areas, the Germans have the French Autoroutes licked in terms of refreshment and snack quality.
This is not the ‘S’ model, but nevertheless the base 718 Cayman is a lovely cabin to inhabit. The largely nocturnal run we do from Salzburg to Vesoul in Haute-Saône, eastern France takes six hours, passing through Germany, Switzerland and blink-and-you-miss-it Lichtenstein, and we emerge at our hostelry none the worse for wear, sustained by an eclectic melange of ’80s pop by the likes of Beautiful South, Squeeze and Elvis Costello. The seats are half leather and the backrest bits incorporate leather here and there with rather coarse canvas-like inserts. There are three gilt inserts on the steering wheel arms which suggests something’s been left out, which of course isn’t the case, but they somehow don’t work aesthetically. So, it matches up on the comfort factor, and we got a week’s worth of gear on board plus all the snapper’s equipment including lights and so on. Even with some stuff stowed on the rear shelf in the corners behind the steeply-sloping C-pillars the rear view is not compromised.
Our only gripe is the Cayman exhaust noise. Perhaps unavoidable with a flat-four; ‘get over it,’ some might say; it is what it is, and it doubtless beats the flat-six on the emissions count. Nevertheless, we couldn’t help compare it to the noise of a big motorbike when accelerating hard: either a Ducati or perhaps a Subaru, a horizontally-opposed engine without enough cylinders. Yet, here we are, on the staggeringly gorgeous Gaisberg sub-alpine slopes, following the distant tyre tracks of the flat-fours that powered the original 718 RSKs. We have been accustomed to the sublime aural clarity of the flat-six for so long that a return to the harsher, guttural four-pot soundtrack seems somehow regressive. Want your 718 to sound like a six? Our friends at Cargraphic exhausts can make a diesel six sound like a petrol V8, so maybe there’s an answer there.
In terms of performance it pulls jolly well, and it’s certainly as fast as the six-cylinder car.It’s got plenty of go, and it does everything well except sound nice. As my colleague remarked, ‘if you were deaf it would be the perfect car.’ There is a lot of road noise from the tyres, and it reverberates inside the cabin in a way that Caymans have always done, though you don’t notice it until you realise how loud the radio is. But I’m splitting hairs: all told, this is a superb car. And I’m loving the colour, Graphite Blue Metallic, with black wheels. We get a lot of admiring looks too.
As for the original 718 RSK, it’s a rare car, with just 32 made. It superseded the 550 Spyder in 1958, and was built on an aluminium-panelled spaceframe chassis rather than a backbone chassis like the 550’s. The 718 weighed a skimpy 530kg (1,146lb), and was powered by the 1,498cc four-cam “Carrera” flat-four, developing 142bhp at 7,500rpm, deployed via transaxle and five-speed gearbox that had synchromesh on 2nd through 5th gears. That recipe explains why it was so effective on a twisty circuit or hillclimb. It evolved into the RS60 in 1960 when rule changes called for a taller windscreen and, in essence, the RSK gave birth to the better-known Porsche sports-racing cars such as the 904, 906, 910, 907, 908 and 917: in just over ten years they went from the 718 RSK to the 917. On the international stage the 718 RSK Spyder’s record was impressive, frequently scoring high places through reliability and fewer pit stops, and also when the big Jags, Astons, Ferraris and Masers faltered. Unleashed in 1957, the 718 RSK came into its own in ’58, placing 3rd in the hands of Harry Schell and Wolfgang Seidel at the Sebring 12-Hours. Behra and Scarlatti were 2nd in the Targa Florio, and 718 RSKs claimed 3rd and 4th positions overall at Le Mans that year with Behra/Herrmann and Barth/Frére heading the action, which was Porsche's best-ever result at La Sarthe up till then. Behra and Barth rounded off the season with 4th in the Tourist Trophy at Goodwood. Sometimes fitted with a pair of tail fins, the RSK also appeared in single-seater guise as an F2 car when central-seat all-enveloping bodywork was permitted, and also as the open-wheeled 718/2. Thirty-two 718 RSKs were produced in total, and in 1959 the works cars carried on where they left off, taking 3rd, 4th an 5th at Sebring, a win for Barth/Seidel at the Targa Florio, 4th 6th and 7th at the Nürburgring 1,000kms, and 2nd for the dream team of Von Trips and Bonnier, beating works Astons, D-type Jags and Testa Rossas at the Tourist Trophy. For 1960 the 718 RSK was superseded by the RS60, and by 1961 it was also built as a coupe, while the 718 chassis numbering continued into 1963. After that, Porsche’s front-line competition car was the 904. As for Wolfgangvon Trips – the man with seven Christian names and an aristocrat to boot - he was an ad-hoc member of the Ferrari race team from 1956 till 1960 and ’61, winning the Dutch and British GPs – at Zandvoort and Aintree. Von Trips drove the 718 RSK for Porsche in 1958 and ’59, handling the 718 F2 car as well, but reverted to the Scuderia Ferrari for ’60 and ’61. He was killed at Monza in ’61 and was posthumously ranked 2nd in the World Championship as runner up to team-mate Phil Hill (rather like Ronnie Peterson, also killed at Monza and placed 2nd to Mario Andretti in the 1978 F1 title race).
Now for our own runs up the Gaisberg course. We’ve spent the night the Zistelalm Hotel, Gaisberg, right beside the road in one of a couple of hamlets that flank the route. It’s a substantial old building of the creaking floorboards and lederhosen persuasion, open log fire in the lobby, and must have been extremely popular on race days. The scenery is absolutely stunning, beautiful alpine pastures above and below, and pinnacled mountain ranges folding mistily into one another. We wash the Cayman and ease out onto the hillclimb, where the panoramas are absolutely staggering: beautiful wooded slopes with a jagged backdrop receding into the distance. Cows and goats dot the meadows, autumnal yellows and oranges vie with deeper pine green, while dwellings have typical chalet-style roofs. As well as sweeping corners, there are fairly long straights to get up a bit of velocity before coming to a hairpin, full-locking and powering round the turn and firing the 718 up yet another gradient, another incline.
To get the best time, clearly, I’m clipping all the apexes where possible, which we can’t necessarily do on every corner because it’s two-way traffic, but that’s what the guys back in the day would have been aiming to do, hugging the cliffs on the inside and avoiding the verges on the other. I wouldn’t say there’s anything particularly demanding about the Gaisberg run; it’s fast, and there are indeed some tricky bends that demand full concentration and technique, but the sobering thought is the drop-offs into the forest as well as the void, all the way up, because where there’s no meadow it’s dense woods, and if you go off that’s where you’re going. I log 30 corners on the way up, not counting innumerable squiggles, and including the two really serious hairpins. Once the road finally sweeps right into the circular summit plateau it’s an opportunity to ease back and contemplate what’s here. There’s parking for maybe 50 vehicles, so it would have made a handy assembly area for competing cars that had done the climb. Surprisingly, there is no monumental reference to the eponymous Hillclimb, just to an aeroplane flyer from the mid-1930s. The inaugural hillclimb was in 1929, so even back then it was used regularly as a motorsport venue, with the likes of Rudi Caracciola, Manfred von Brauchitsch and Hans Stuck Snr in action, but the only other stone is the trig point that says it’s 1,288 metres above sea level. The café-bar grabs our attention, where my colleague observes that, ‘it may be worth pointing out to the reader that he should ignore all the historical interest for a while and get out of the car and just admire the magnificent view!’
We turn tail and glide down to the bottom of the hill for the n’th time. We’ve a couple of appointments on our return schedule, both in the general direction of the Hook of Holland for the return crossing aboard the SS Stena Britannica, but that’s three days on the road, nevertheless, mostly comprising Autobahn and Autoroute. A jetwash and a pause to snap the car on quay, and soon enough we’re snug on board the leviathan for the night on the North Sea. There’s the remains of hurricane Irma a-blowing, and now it’s the waves that are mountainous, though mercifully the Cayman is not obliged to tackle these and the ship sails blithely on through the tempest. From one extreme to another, we’ve travelled through nine European countries and clocked 2,000 miles. We’ll be dreaming of those glorious Alpine passes for a long time yet, though.