Why My Pilgrimage To The Porsche Museum Was A Religious Experience
Story and photos by Alexander Sobran
People have always worshipped. Whether giving themselves over to God or pursuing scientific exploration, in the sanctity of churches or the Large Hadron Collider, discovering a guiding purpose in life can be a reward beyond anything material. But what if the sacred thing in question is material?
What if it’s a flat-twelve? Maybe Belinda Carlisle was right, maybe heaven is a place on earth—I’m not arguing—it’s quite possible that the coordinates fall on the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, Germany.
It would be an effort beyond any mortal to give the praise and documentation deserved by each of the cars showcased within, but I can at least try to relay a fraction of why this place inspires so much reverence. To start this stunted tour through history: the hand-formed aluminum 356 SL Coupe.
Porsche 356 SL
After returning from Gmünd, Austria to Germany (production of early 356s took place in the Austrian town due to intensive bombing in WWII-era Stuttgart), some of these early cars were converted into SL, or “Super Leicht” versions, which added aerodynamic considerations like the striking wheel covers and smoothed underbody sheathing, as well as further modifications for racing at Le Mans, including driving lights. The motor was essentially a Volkswagen flat-four, though with modified cylinder heads coupled with the ~1400 lbs weight, the car proved successful in pushing the brand’s racing efforts forward.
Porsche 904 GTS
Stepping up in time and power, directly across in the museum lies a 904 GTS. Also propelled by a flat-four originally, the similarities with the 356 SLs motor end there; it was a highly complex engine for the time, four camshafts, and an early usage of hemispherical combustion chambers made for one of the highest power-to-displacement motors of the time. The specific car here had an eight cylinder unit fitted, used in various racing series and helping the car find success everywhere from Le Mans to the Nurburgring. Fun fact: it was also the first fiberglass-bodied Porsche.
Moving on to arguably the most extreme era of the brand’s racing efforts, we come across the 917s. Holy shit. These cars started development as an assault on Le Mans, and after some aerodynamic wiggles early on (which gave birth to the iconic 917K, or the short-tail version made popular by the Gulf-liveried Wyer cars and of course the ultimate car racing movie, aptly titled, Le Mans), the car provided Porsche’s first overall victory in 1970, following up with another win the very next year and successes in the radical Can-Am series in America, which saw the warp-speed 917/30s like the infamous Sunoco Audi+Porsche car with upwards of 1,000 horsepower and what its drivers remember as something that spun the tires from the end of one apex to the start of another.
Though the 917 was a venerable champion of endurance racing (a 917 held the distance record for Le Mans until 2010), the most dominating design was the Porsche 956. This car and its 962 evolution would go on to utterly embarrass any challengers, taking seven overall victories at the French endurance race, winning it outright with privateers long after the factory had ended its works teams. To this day, a 956 holds the Nürburgring-Nordschleife lap record.
The collection of automotive deities occupying Porsche’s 2001-esque museum in Stuttgart, Germany, is enough to make anyone feel small. Not in a bad way, more like the appreciation felt after stumbling on one of those scale-of-the-universe infographics. We are specks among giants, but we’re still a part of it. It’s fitting, then, that you enter the building on the ground floor and then must literally rise up into German car heaven. The long escalator allows some time to consider what you’re climbing toward, but it really doesn’t prepare you.
As you step into the museum—it’s more like an armory, really—the visual stimulation sets your brain on fire. This is not like the full-on sensory overload you would experience at something like the Motorsports Reunion at Laguna Seca, the sights and smells and sounds crashing together and toward you screaming “This is what you need!” This is less than that, but in the same way the Cologne Cathedral can glue a nonbeliever to the floor and yank their head skyward, there is something almost more reverent about standing within the ranks of these motionless titans, with the solemn stillness allowing it to sink in more deeply than a flash of color and noise.
Sometimes you need to restore your faith by going to the beginning, and when it’s a history like this, hallelujah.