Luftgekühlt 5: Air-Cooled Overload And The Enduring Power Of Porsche
Photography by Thomas Lavin
Pick any random Sunday in Southern California for a morning drive and you’re bound to cross paths with some Porsches, but if you went out specifically hunting for air-cooled cars yesterday your best bet was a lumber yard in Torrance rather than the PCH. Preempted by parties and drives and a smattering of satellite shows to choose from now, Luftgekühlt has cemented itself as an international staple of the classic Porsche calendar, and it’s not surprising to hear conversations weighing the option against the Rennsport Reunion that follows in the fall. The fifth edition of the air-cooled Porsche gathering ended less than 24 hours ago, and as it’s grown from nascency to immense popularity in the last half-decade, co-founders Patrick Long and Howie Idelson have pulled off the difficult feat of increasing the quantity without sacrificing the quality. In fact here the two concepts seem to feed off of one another rather than repel, for only in such large numbers can we grasp the scope of both the brand and its enthusiast following—a handful of cars it is not, but the show is still very much hand-picked.
First, the brand itself. Porsche products are the reason Luftgekühlt exists after all, and this past Sunday saw one of the deepest collections assembled in one place outside of the factory museum, as you’d expect. The 911, and by association, Porsche, is often a target of unoriginal jokes with ironic punchlines about originality and not fixing things that ain’t broke, but it’s kind of hard to level such complaints when a twin-turbocharged 917/10 is being fired up behind you, forcing your attention away from an 804 Formula 1 car and making you skirt the crowd of people peering into the exposed guts of a 934 with its frunk propped up with an umbrella.
To give some more color on the variety, in the same warehouse sat a 911R prototype (R4, which we’ve written about in the past), a 908 short-tail driven by Vic Elford, a 964 Turbo S Flachtbau, Canepa’s latest 959 (the 800-horsepower SC, or “Sport Canepa”), a RUF CTR2, a 904 Carrera GTS, a Singer-modified 911 sporting a wonderfully groovy Mulholland Drive livery, and a baby blue 550 Spyder. Crossing from the shaded interior space to the yard proper at Ganahl Lumber, one was met with a Schuppan 962CR, an aluminum 356 from the company’s days in Gmünd, or the Fullmer/Donahue Sunoco RSR, depending on the chosen door. Point being: Porsche has always been more than just the 911.
The outdoor section of the show far outnumbered the cars arrayed in the warehouse, and to be frank it was a little daunting. For one, such a vast number surely spelled dilution for a show that was so memorable in the past because of its curation, and two, I felt a sense of pre-regret for all the special cars I’d surely miss among the masses. Of course these worries were unfounded and proven as such very quickly, and in the process I was reminded of just how many people still “get it” in an age when even the wildest builds only achieve fleeting fame. This is also where the venue really came into its own. The lighting and the temperature was far more conducive to photos and conversation indoors, but the parked arcs of Porsches on the perimeter and the neat columns arranged between the stacks of wood outdoors told their own stories thanks to careful segmentation of era and purpose, and their curves set against the rather geometric surroundings proved more than photogenic enough, despite the unimpeded noontime sun.
I’d like to think choice of a lumber yard was more than an aesthetic one though, and seeing as the Gmünd era was one of the featured “storylines” of the show this year, it offered a clear connection to the old Austrian sawmill where the first aluminum 356s were born in the late ‘40s. Wood is also symbolic in a more general sense. It was one of the first materials that humans took from the earth and bent to their will, and to see the contrast of this basic material in its raw form next to the infinitely more complex and exotic examples of our species’ engineering aptitude was to gain a different kind of perspective on what it means to call a car “old.”
And if the cars offered the full spectrum from ratty 901s to trailer-queen 914s, the people were equally diverse. There were the typical +1-types asking questions that you can’t help but laugh at with a head turn and a hand over the mouth, but it’s not out of mirth or condescension, and really, shouldn’t we be glad that our friends and family care enough to ask whether “this one has a V6 too?” On the flip, Porschelebrities like Jeff Zwart, Alois Ruf, Patrick Long, and Rod Emory were milling around all day chatting and posing for photos, and if you ever want to feel inadequate in your knowledge of early 911s, this was the place to go to air-cooled school.
All kinds of people were in the crowd, and rather than going through some trite list of skin colors and ages and all that, the cars do a much better job of getting at the things that really make people individuals—the things they choose, the way they express themselves. I mean, the person who crafts a copper and chrome steampunk-style 356 with engraved velocity stacks is surely not the same person with a garage-built turbocharged 901 track-rat. The person with a a set of Rossignol Stratos strapped to their chrome roof rack is not the same person that put a boot on their front wheel with a “Ball Buster 3000” sticker on it and a Seinfeld gas sleeve draped on the fender.
Modified R Gruppe hot rods to Reutter 356s with cracked original paint, little kids bobbing around their parents as they both take on the toy store mindset, Luftgekühlt 5 was more than just a celebration of air-cooled German engineering, more than just objects. It was about how far an idea can go, for what was once a guy designing tanks for the Nazis has manifested in sports cars with surfboards strapped to their roofs, and a story like that can never truly end. Here’s to the next show in 2019, and to all the cars that will be one year older when it rolls around.