At the altar of Porsche
For the car maker's many devotees, and auto aficionados in general, this museum is a dream come true
This kind of reverence is usually reserved for holy places: basilicas and mosques and temples. But this, too, is a kind of cathedral, a place where the devoted come to renew and affirm their faith in a brand. This is the Porsche Museum, at 1 Porscheplatz, in Stuttgart.
A kid outside warms his hands over the still-hot engine of a new 911 Targa. Visitors look up at the mirrored awning above the entrance and see themselves reflected, standing next to a Porsche.
For Porschephiles, this is a place they dream about, a place worthy of pilgrimage.
Inside are the most venerable vehicles: every type and colour of 911, Le Mans-winning race cars, a hybrid motor built in 1900 by Ferdinand Porsche, an "Amazon Green" 964 Turbo, a rare and lovely 2.7 RS, a collectible 959, prototypes and limited editions galore. And there's the first Porsche ever sold. It was bought by a Swiss woman, Jolanda Tschudi, in 1948.
"Every car has a story," says Iris Oster, head tour guide. She floats through the museum, radiating knowledge.
"I want you to smell this," she says, opening the door to the 2.7 RS, a lightweight 911 worth millions that the rest of us dare not touch. Its cabin reeks of gasoline. Making it light was such a high priority, Oster says, they left the gas tank uncovered.
She knows all the stories, for all 600 cars in the museum's collection. Only 80 are on display at any given time. Others are sent to shows or classic-car races such as the Carrera Panamericana or the Winter Marathon.
"A Porsche was always built to be driven, not stand around," she says. So almost all of those 600 cars are kept in running order by a team of four mechanics whose workshop is in the museum, behind glass so visitors can watch them perform miracles. As far as mechanics are concerned, these are the best of the best, Oster says. How many people in the world can diagnose and fix a problem with the 2.0-litre flat-eight engine of a 1968 Porsche 909 Bergspyder? I'd guess around four.
"Sometimes the guys just take a car down here to the workshop and take it for a drive," she says.
The museum itself takes up an entire city block. Designed by a Viennese architecture firm and completed in 2008, some 400,000 people visit each year.
This first thing you see is a sculpture in the street, poles five storeys high with three Porsches on top, pointing towards the heavens. Inside, a long white escalator leads you up, through the pearly gates and into a room full of cars.
The museum is laid out in chronological order, beginning with Ferdinand Porsche and his earliest inventions, including the Volkswagen Beetle. He built his first car in 1898, but didn't live to see any that bear his name. It was his son, Ferdinand (Ferry) Porsche, who started building Porsche sports cars.
Oster refers to the cars either as "he" or "she." It's obvious to her which is which. A dark green 911 with a tartan interior: a he. The Targa Florio-winning Carrera RSR? Also he. The first 911 Turbo? She.
The collection moves forward in time. There's a 550 Spyder, like the one actor James Dean was driving when he was killed in a crash in California. There's a blue-and-orange Gulf-liveried 917 of which Steve McQueen was so fond. With 1963 comes the first 911 prototype and its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show.
That car famously had – and still has – its ignition on the left side of the steering wheel, opposite of most cars. Rumour has it this was because it was better for the Le Mans race drivers, who had to sprint into their cars and start them while putting on a seat belt. The truth, according to Oster, is simply that putting the ignition on the left saved a few centimetres of copper wire, which was an expensive commodity in Germany then.
Porsche's archive is also in the museum, although visitors aren't normally allowed in. There you'll see library racks crowded with the original scale models used to patent the 550 and 911 and 959. There's a set of golf clubs Ferry Porsche gave to the designers to make sure they'd fit in the 911. There's "Butzi" Porsche's huge wooden hammer, which he used to shape the 911.
"It's not just a job," Oster says. "Learning about cars is like learning French or Japanese; it gives you this special other language to use."
For some, this stuff is just neat memorabilia. For others, these are sacred artifacts known only to those who speak the language. Whatever they are to you, the Porsche Museum is a destination worth the journey.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.