News & Stories

Luftgekühlt’s Magic Formula

May 24, 2019 In the News

By Johnny Miles

It is 7:45 on Saturday morning, and I’m trailing a brand-new Lizard Green Porsche 911 GT3 RS as we both merge onto the 101 Freeway. I feel like an ant joining the swarm – 911’s of every age are buzzing by en route to Southern California’s Universal City. It is the first indication that Luftgekühlt, a yearly gathering in L.A. of air-cooled Porsches, is no normal car show.

The parking lot for the show is a high-rise garage with hundreds of individually assigned parking spaces. (What self-respecting studio bigwig doesn’t have a named spot?) It is full of choice examples of Stuttgart’s finest. Even in the dark recesses of the unlit lot, enthusiastic Porsche conversations are already beginning…

A typical Manhattan grocery-getter. Photo: James Halfacre

A short bus ride later, we step out into New York City — except that most boutique Manhattan grocers don’t have a Carrera Panamericana-liveried 356 Speedster sitting out front. Universal Studios’ backlot, the venue for the show, is sprawling but efficient, as many of the corner-lot buildings have a two-faced façade – with, say, New York on one side, a generic European city on the other. The result is that each area of the backlot, from the Wild West, to old Mexico, to the town square from Back to the Future, is self-contained but immediately accessible from the others, which serves to create a multitude of Porsche mini-exhibits. It is like walking through different rooms in an art museum.

The photographer, commercial film director, and Pikes Peak champion Jeff Zwart carefully choregraphed the placement of each car in the show. By all accounts, he did a masterful job. From the dust-covered barn-find 356 peeking out of a dark alley, goading onlookers with the vicarious thrill of discovery, to the posse of jacked-up rally Porsches posturing in a Mexican plaza, to Paul Newman’s 935 racer in front of an old-fashioned cinema, no detail seemed out of place.

Rally Porsches take over the Mexican plaza. Photo: Johnny Miles

The show itself was a genuinely novel experience for even the most jaded L.A. enthusiasts, and the crowd seemed to buzz all day. Because Luftgekühlt changes venues every year, it really was an unrepeatable day. Many an article has been written about how millennials are hungry for differentiated experiences, and they were at Luftgekühlt in full force — whether pushing strollers or carefully composing photos on film cameras made before they were born. It was not your normal car show demographic.

And we haven’t even gotten to the cars yet! The criteria for the show is simple. Luftgekühlt means “air-cooled” in German, so any such Porsche qualifies — from the first split-window 356 Gmünd coupes, to the 993 generation of 911, which ended production 21 years ago. The show even featured a bright orange streamlined Porsche tractor once used in the coffee plantations of Brazil.

In orange, the 914/6 GT of “Scuderia Lufthansa” that finished second in class at the 1970 Nurburgring 1000KM race. Photo: Johnny Miles

This year the organizers had a special class for the much maligned (or underappreciated, depending on your point of view) Porsche 914. It was a perfect example of how democratic the Luftgekühlt formula is. Porsche-philes flocked to the three 914-6 GT racers, which would not have looked out of place at Goodwood, and yet equal billing was given to 914’s of every flavor, from wildly tuned 914 R’s (as imagined by enthusiasts — Porsche never developed one) to beautiful original and restored street cars. Every example was clearly treasured by its owner, even if the values varied by three zeroes. As curated as the show is, it has far more in common with your local cars-and-coffee than it does with a shiny concours. There are no ropes, no awards, and no pretensions.

Ultimately, the show is an exercise in alchemy. The event’s co-founders, Porsche racing driver Patrick Long and artist Howie Idelson, continue to up the ante with ever-more-fantastic locations (from a hip furniture factory in 2016 to a lumber yard in 2018, to the setting of Back to the Future this year); diverse and drool-worthy spreads of cars (including four 917’s, a “never seen one before” 916, and a row of Rod Emory designed Outlaw 356’s); and friendly crowds of young people, families, and other creative professionals who wouldn’t set foot near the fill-in-the-blank Concours d’Elegance.

Proof that future generations will still get excited about Porsche’s racing heritage. Photo: Johnny Miles

Counterintuitively, the show has gotten more cool, not less, as it continues to grow. There were 45-minute lines to buy T-shirts and posters before general admission even opened. Bands of Porsche owners rallied from San Francisco, Phoenix, and even the East Coast to attend. And the event’s success is even more impressive when you consider its name is basically unpronounceable unless you’ve heard it said elsewhere or you’ve taken Introductory German!

The question I heard over and over was, “How can they possibly top this year’s show?” But for me, the better question is: How can other show organizers channel some of the Luftgekühlt formula to inject their events with the same magical energy and enthusiasm? It might have a niche focus, but Luftgekühlt is truly a bellwether for the future of car enthusiasm.

The 1967 911 R, chassis #1, brought to the show by Porsche restoration and race shop Callas Rennsport. This car famously set 16 endurance speed records at Monza in 1967, including an unbelievable four-day (96 hours) test in which the car average 130.77 mph and travelled 12,505.38 miles. Photo: Johnny Miles

The flat-6 engine in the 911 R, which was very similar to the engine in Porsche’s 906 race car. Photo: James Halfacre

LuftAuto #001 & #002. These 911s are result of a creative collaboration between Joey Seely, Patrick Long, Rod Emery, and Jeff Zwart, as well as a number of other Porsche customizers. The cars represent the team’s interpretation of a “rally-style” 911 and are very much the product of Southern California’s close connection to desert racing in the Baja peninsula. The white car, #001, was auctioned for charity at Luftgekühlt 3. Photo: James Halfacre

The Porsche 935 fielded by ASA Cachia in the 1977 24 Hours of Le Mans. Photo: Johnny Miles

Two 356s face off. The car on the right is a genuine 1956 Carrera GS Coupe that was modified by Weldon Scrogram for Jerry Seinfeld with a four-cam RSK motor and a 5-speed WEVO 356 transmission, as well as numerous other upgrades. Photo: Johnny Miles

The 1969 Porsche 917 PA, so named because the car was sponsored by the Porsche & Audi Division of Volkswagen of America as a way to promote new Porsche & Audi joint dealerships. It placed fourth overall in the 1969 Can-Am season and paved the way for Porsche’s total domination of the race series with its later 917/30s. Photo: James Halfacre

Three Ruf Porsches on the very street in which Marty McFly hit 88 mph in his Delorean in the first Back to the Future movie. Photo: Johnny Miles

A group of Singer modified Porsche 911s attracted significant attention all day. This green Targa example was particularly stunning. Photo: Johnny Miles

Revs Institute’s Porsche 914-6 GT looks out over the Hill Valley town square used extensively in the filming of the Back to the Future trilogy. Photo: James Halfacre

The 1954 Porsche P-312 Coffee Train tractor, built for use in Brazilian coffee plantations with streamlined bodywork to avoid damaging the coffee plants. Photo: James Halfacre

Paul Newman’s Porsche 935 that placed second overall in the 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans. Today it is owned by comedian and car enthusiast Adam Carolla. Photo: James Halfacre

The 1971 914-6 GT Factory “Werks” rally car that was driven by Gérard Larrousse in the 1971 Monte Carlo Rally. Photo: James Halfacre

The Porsche 917K of Bruce Canepa drew major attention all day. Photo: Johnny Miles

Something you’d only see at Luftgekühlt: a stock 911 next to a 1992 964 Carrera C2 customized by Japanese Porsche specialist Rauh-Welt Begriff (RWB).

A Mint Green 1973 Porsche 911 Carrera RS 2.7 in front of a European façade on the Universal Studios backlot. Photo: James Halfacre

Old Mexico in the backlot was home to a group of 911 rally cars, including this 1979 911 that raced in-period in Italian rallies and hill-climb events. Photo: James Halfacre

Originally intended to be a competitor to the Ferrari 246 Dino, this is one of only 11 prototype Porsche 916s ever built. The car was slated to be the most expensive car in Porsche’s regular lineup before it was cancelled. Photo: Johnny Miles

The badging on the Porsche 916. Photo: Johnny Miles

Porsche conversations in full swing at Luftgekühlt. Photo: Johnny Miles

Porsche Classic took over the Hill Valley gas station and turned it into a perfectly outfitted Porsche repair shop. Photo: Johnny Miles

Jerry Seinfeld’s beastly 1976 Porsche 934 Turbo RSR racecar, one of only 31 built. Photo: Johnny Miles

Giant movie murals adorn a studio wall in the backlot. Naturally they look even better with some original and modified Porsches parked in front. Photo: Johnny Miles

One of the many surreal scenes at Luftgekühlt this year, as Porsches took over New York Street on the Universal Studios backlot. Photo: Johnny Miles

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Johnny Miles is a lifelong car enthusiast. He taught 8th grade 20th Century History at St. Albans School in Washington, DC for seven years and recently graduated from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. He was introduced to classic cars at a young age when his grandfather unearthed an old stack of car brochures, including one from Johnny’s now favorite marque, the Czechoslovakian manufacturer Tatra. He and his wife Lauren both enjoy the hobby together.

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