What exactly is “The Porsche Effect?” That question is being explored at the Petersen Automotive Museum, which celebrates German automaker Porsche’s 70th anniversary with its new exhibit of that name.
“Part of the Porsche effect is that a lot of people on the side of the road identify that silhouette even if they don't know that it's a Porsche — that's the silhouette of a sports car,” says Brittanie Kinch, co-curator of the exhibition.
Unlike other retrospective exhibits, this show does not organize the cars and artifacts in chronological order. Visitors entering are, however, greeted by one of the older cars on display, a 1939 Porsche Type 64. It is widely recognized as the car that marks the beginning of the brand’s DNA.
The curatorial team identified themes and topics that examine and illustrate the singular standing this small but mighty German car had and still has on various aspects of culture.
“What it does is it travels through all these elements of Porsche history to really develop and discuss the identity of Porsche,” Kinch says.
The affinity between the German marque and Hollywood is visible in Steve McQueen's 1971 film Le Mans. It featured two cars from the Porsche family. McQueen's character drives a 911S for fun and a 917 race car for work.
Porsche's widespread appeal brought it the largest car-club following of any brand. In the United States alone, 120,000 fans are members of the Porsche Club of America. Many of them drive their convertibles in the western part of the country.
“If you think about Southern California, it's the perfect climate for a Porsche, which is what some people might qualify as the perfect sports car,” Kinch says.
Other Porsche fans include Janis Joplin and James Dean, as well as Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres and Jerry Seinfeld. Porsche also penetrated highbrow culture: Poet Charles Bukowski immortalized it with the poem “The Red Porsche.”
Curators were able to accumulate 48 cars — spread across the museum’s lobby, the Mullin Grand Salon and the vault — that represent the brand and its 70-year history.
Dave Engelman, Porsche Cars North America spokesman for motorsport and brand heritage, is especially proud that only one car is a loaner from Germany. All the other vehicles are from North America.
Co-curator Kinch likes to use the term “intellectual car” when describing what distinguishes Porsche from other (read: American models from the '70s) cars.
“It's very well engineered, not over-engineered; it's a car that is thoughtfully composed with general buyers in mind,” Kinch says.
Among the automotive highlights at the Petersen are race cars that won the infamous and prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans race, such as a Porsche 938 K3 from 1979.
Other cars on display include a 1964 Porsche 901, which debuted at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 1963 and was soon thereafter renamed 911; a 1979 Porsche 911 Turbo in bright red; and a 1987 Porsche 928 H50 Study, Porsche’s first attempt at conquering the family car market, long before the Panamera appeared on the scene.
The exhibition also has something for those who know and appreciate Porsche-designed luggage or wristwatches. The Petersen Museum partnered with other organizations to bring to L.A. a bicycle, a skibob, a gravity racer, the odd coffee maker and Porsche furniture.
Perhaps as a result of the exhibit's nonchronological concept, references to Porsche's controversial history before and during World War II are limited.
Kinch would have loved to bring a Lohner Porsche to L.A. Developed from 1900 to 1903, it was one of the earliest cars to cruise on European roads — and one of the earliest developed by Porsche.
“This car would have demonstrated that this phenomenon that is Porsche started much earlier than people typically understand,” Kinch says. But a car that is almost 120 years old doesn’t like to travel anymore. Especially not inside an airplane.
“The Porsche Effect” runs through the end of January 2019 at the Petersen Automotive Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd., Mid-City; petersen.org.