We still talk about the Carrera Panamericana 60 years on, the great race that blasted through Mexico just five times between 1950 and 1954. Too many fatalities called its end, but even in that short time, La Carrera earned its place in the motorsport hall of fame.
The race first ran from the US border, but then you finished in the jungles of Central America on the Guatemalan border in the middle of nowhere. So to finish somewhere, from then on the race started down south and ended up north in Juarez. It was a 3,000km mad dash over mountains and through deserts, many of the miles unpaved, even if the race was initially organized to celebrate the building of the Mexican portion of the Pan-American highway.
The week-long event stunned the Europeans. This was too extreme even for those veterans of Le Mans, Mille Miglia and Targa Florio, all significantly shorter in length than the Carrera. In Mexico you had wildlife and farm animals to contend with most everywhere, and in the country, far flung locals completely oblivious to the dizzyingly advancing world of the automobile. Used to no more than a hare’s sullen pace, here came these machines tearing from around the corner with 300 horsepower and drivers flat out. A spirit of adventure was the least of what the Europeans had to pack. Italian Grand Prix star Piero Taruffi came over for the inaugural Carrera, and could only bring his straight-six Alfa Romeo to the finish line in fourth place, some half an hour behind the winner, American Hershel McGriff.
Yanks pretty much swept the top 10. The podium was buried under hulking Detroit iron, an Oldsmobile in first, followed by two full-size Cadillac Sixty-Twos.
You needed brawn in Mexico. The following year, Taruffi returned with twice as many cylinders, and Prancing Horses painted on the blood-red flanks. He held off Mercurys, Packards, Chryslers, and Hudsons… and won, and from then on the pioneering Americans never got a look in. It was Karl Kling’s Mercedes 300 SL in ’52, Juan-Manuel Fangio’s Lancia D24 in 1953, and then Umberto Maglioli’s Ferrari 375 in the final competitive Carrera Panamericana.
Today, the race carries on as a historic regularity rally celebrating the spirit of the original, but winners get merely bragging rights. There’s now a highlighted “No cash prize” clause in the entry form.
In 1950 they raced for a fortune — McGriff took home 150,000 pesos, which was something like $17,000 back then or about a third of the Indy 500 winners’ purse. Johnnie Parsons drank the milk that year and left Indianapolis $57K richer. But third-placed Mauri Rose only made $15,000. La Carrera Panamericana was indeed one of the biggest races in the world.
And for a company that never won the Carrera Panamericana outright, Porsche places a huge amount of importance on that epoch in the Stuttgarters’ history. The Spanish word for race, Carrera is now synonymous with the Zuffenhausen factory and twin-cam cars first bearing the name rolled out in 1954 honouring the great Mexican endurance odyssey. In 2009 Porsche finally paid tribute to the second part of the name, with the four-door Panamera now in its second generation and powered by a 550-horsepower twin-turbo V8 that shoots 1,955kg on to 100kph from rest in 3.6 seconds, a tenth off the previous 911 GT3. Which brings me to Mexico in the first place, to drive one of those up a closed Carrera stage.
Sixty-odd years later, outside the tiny village of Sultepec, Porsche returned with a bunch of 2017 Panamera Turbos...
Why would Porsche go through all the trouble just for that though, for 9km of mountain road on the other side of the world… Porsche’s infatuation with the Mexican road race started in 1952 with two private entries in a couple of brand new 356s. The factory’s racing boss Huschke von Hanstein sniffed out an opportunity and the following year when the Carrera became a round of the World Championship, he sent two works mid-engined 550 Spyders
on their long voyage.
The cars arrived in New York, but the tour almost ended prematurely at immigration. One of Porsche’s appointed drivers was Kling who had previously won in the 300 SL, but he was on the Americans’ wanted list of Nazis and spent the first week over the Atlantic in prison on Ellis Island.
Once freed and the team reunited south of the border, the two 550s took on Mexico with 1.5-litre push-rod four-cylinder engines, worth perhaps 80 horsepower, against a kerb weight of just 550kg thanks to lightweight aluminium construction. Opposition was fierce with a full ensemble of works Lancias and Ferraris, and a cohort of Yank V8s. Anyway, in the end it was Mexico that took them both out, one with steering damage and the other with a broken rear axle.
Von Hanstein learned his lessons and Porsche returned in 1954 to find roads damaged by flooding and landslides, but armed with stronger rear ends. The 550s also premiered the much more powerful ‘Carrera’ twin-cam engines, and Porsche took class wins in the last real Carrera Panamericana run. More incredibly these 1.5-litre Spyders finished third and fourth overall, following a pair of 4.5-litre V12 Ferraris. And that was it, the Mexican adventure ended and for 1955 the racers never returned, but Porsche was swayed enough.
Sixty-odd years later, outside the tiny village of Sultepec, Porsche returned with a bunch of 2017 Panamera Turbos, and the help of some Federales who are closing a 9km stretch of pedigree tarmac for the purpose of cooking some very big brakes. This used to be an actual stage of the Carrera, two-and-a-half hours south-west of Mexico City where the road signs are just exclamation points. Everything is a hazard and the corners keep jumping at you, and two tonnes of Porsche here really makes its presence felt.
The Panamera fills its lane and needs room to move, with braking merely being the limiting factor. On a mountain pass with all-wheel drive and rear-axle steer, the Turbo gulps straights and always seems to arrive at a corner a touch too fast — it’s a limousine with leather and wood all around and a quiet cabin and whirring turbo engine somewhere over there, so your sense of speed is dulled some.
Turn the wheel and the mass is disguised with a small steering rim (electric system) and a light effort needed. What’s lost in road feel and communication you get back, I guess, with instant front-end response, and when you think you’ve overcooked it, even more steering is available. That’s the rear axle tucking you in, and with the electronics on in S+ Mode, the Panamera leaves the steering to you and the throttle to the gizmos and the tyres — there’s too much footprint and grip to worry about sliding out into the Armco somewhere.
It’s all about managing these dimensions in an environment that was deemed too deadly for Grand Prix stars back in an era when ‘safety’ was just a 12-point Scrabble word.
Today, it’s all a bit easy in a Panamera Turbo. Every single journalist present forgot all about the regulation rally bit during the briefing, and arrived at the finish line with smoke pouring from between the 20in wheel spokes. Then the Panameras just turned around and cruised softly back to the huge capital again. Either Mexico is getting soft or these cars are getting too good.