David Thieme, Porsche & the Essex affair

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David Thieme was the enigmatic American owner of Essex Overseas Petroleum Corporation, an oil spot trading company that for a short time in the late 1970s was rumoured to be making profits of $70m per year.

Having originally run his own successful industrial design firm, Thieme was already a wealthy man by the time he ventured into oil trading in the mid 1970s. By 1977 he had secured additional funding from Credit Suisse enabling him to leverage some enormous deals from his trading room at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo.

For a while Thieme was spectacularly successful and to impress his big oil industry customers Essex began sponsoring top level motor racing in 1979.

With his trademark black fedora, square sunglasses and goatee beard Thieme was a real showman. He threw legendary launch parties with elaborate unveilings and spared no expense on his innovative circuit hospitality either.

The first season of Thieme’s largesse saw unmissable Essex logos plastered down the sidepods of that years Lotus F1 car and a title sponsorship agreement with Porsche for Le Mans.

Focused on developing an Indy car engine at the time, Porsche hadn’t actually planned to race at Le Mans in 1979 but when Thieme came knocking in April with a lucrative offer that was too good to turn down, 936/78 chassis 001 and 003 were dusted off for a two-car return to la Sarthe.

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The Essex-Porsche sportscar partnership was launched with a lavish presentation at the Ritz Hotel in Paris on May 3rd where just getting the car into the building required a herculean feat of engineering.

Repainted white, red and blue, the 936 was favourite to secure a third outright win at Le Mans after chief rivals Renault had defected to Formula 1.

Although there was no time for Porsche to engineer any new parts, as a shakedown for Le Mans one 936 (001, the 1976 and 1977 Le Mans winner and second place finisher in 1978) was taken to England where it would contest the Silverstone 6 Hour race on May 6th.

Considered an ideal proving ground for Le Mans due to its fast and flat nature, 001 was driven at Silvertsone by Jochen Mass and Brian Redman who qualified on pole by a clear five seconds. However, a problem with the tyres turning on the rims saw Mass crash spectacularly after the front end began to lift at over 170mph.

Hastily rebuilt for Le Mans (held over the 9th and 10th of June), 001 would be driven by Bob Wollek and Hurley Haywood who qualified on pole, the second 936 (chassis 003, used once at Le Mans 1978) being entered for Jacky Ickx and Brian Redman who started second.

Despite being the quickest cars in the race neither of the Essex-backed Porsches finished, Redman suffering the same problem that had affected Mass at Silverstone, a tyre failure at Dunlop Curve causing massive damage to the rear bodywork that took over an hour to repair. Trying to stage a famous comeback Ickx was then disqualified for outside assistance following a broken injection belt. Within two hours the Haywood / Wollek entry was also gone after suffering engine problems when lying third.

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Even though the Essex-backed Prototype entries had retired, Porsche still got a great result at Le Mans in 1979. Driving a factory-supported Kremer Racing 935 K3, Klaus Ludwig and Whittington brothers Don and Bill took outright victory followed by additional 935s in second and third and a GT class winning 934 in fourth.

After the dalliance with Porsche, Essex became title sponsor for the Lotus Formula 1 team in 1980 and the arrangement was expected to continue throughout 1981. Even Margaret Thatcher turned up at the Royal Albert Hall in February 1981 for the grand unveiling of Lotus latest F1 car but before the enormous bill for this remarkable event had been paid things began unravelling for Thieme.

In April 1981 he was arrested after his private plane landed at Kloten airport in Zurich. Accused by Credit Suisse of a $7.6m fraud, after two weeks incarceration he was released on $150,000 bail which was reputedly paid by either Mansour Ojjeh or his father Akram.

Thieme’s problems meant the Monaco Grand Prix at the end of May was the last time Lotus ran the full Essex livery. John Player Special took over the role three weeks later at the Spanish Grand Prix when Essex logos were relegated back to the sidepods and only sporadically seen thereafter.

Following his release from jail Thieme popped up at a few more races in 1981 but thereafter disappeared completely from view and is rumoured to now reside in Paris.

Text copyright: Supercar Nostalgia
Photo copyright: Porsche -
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