The cars materialize out of the pre-dawn darkness, and the high-pitched whir and clatter of air-cooled engines mark them as Porsches. Here we are in Los Angeles on a Sunday in May as an atypical rain shower is just leaving town, and it’s pretty much like so many other weekend gatherings of Porsches and Porsche people. Of course, there are a couple of notable exceptions to what you might expect. First, the Porsches are not all perfect. Second, the people are not all old.
Luftgekuhlt first came together in 2014 when two friends in Los Angeles thought they’d put together a kind of small, invitation-only Cars-and-Coffee event for their friends — some of them car people and some of them not. Patrick Long, a sports car racer under contract to Porsche Motorsport North America, and Howie Idelson, a freelance creative director who specializes in experiential marketing, just figured it would be kind of fun – a combination of Porsche enthusiasm and L.A.-style hipster coolness. After three years, their circle of friends is unexpectedly still growing, and a couple thousand of them will pay $20 each to see 250 of the most interesting Porsches anywhere at Luftgekuhlt 4.
Like any car event, a secret handshake is required to belong to this club, and the shared enthusiasm here is air-cooled Porsches, hence the literal German word for air-cooled – Luftgekuhlt. This definition stretches over the first Porsche 356 built in 1948 inside an old sawmill in Gmund, Austria and continues all the way to the last Porsche 993, which came off the assembly line in Stuttgart, Germany in 1998.
“When we started out, we just wanted to tell the story of Porsche, and we decided the air-cooled cars really did this,” says Long. “Now we’ve expanded a little with cars from Porsche motorsport, although maybe you’ve never seen them before. And there are family heirloom cars from regular 356 and 911 owners, and some have been modified for performance over the years. And maybe because I’m the son of a surfer who always had an eye for an old, bleached out surfboard at a garage sale, we have cars that look a little worn by time, too. Finally, journalist and Porsche guy Kerry Morse and photographer Jeff Zwart helped us arrange some cars in small groups that might tell you something about the story of Porsche or even challenge your idea of what a Porsche is.”
As we wander into a warehouse here on the property where Luftgekuhlt 4 has been presented (the location changes every year), we find a selection of classic Porsche racing cars displayed against a backdrop of evocative artwork provided by Pirelli. Nice bookends to the air-cooled era are provided by the Rod Emory-restored Porsche 356 Gmund SL coupe that won its class at the 1951 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Bruce Canepa-restored Porsche 917/30 that is the exact car (chassis #003) in which Mark Donohue won the races that earned Penske Racing the 1973 Can-Am championship . When we wander out outdoors, we discover surprises like the Bruce Meyer-owned Porsche 935 K1 that won the 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans, an Emory Motorsports-built Porsche 356 with an all-wheel-drive powertrain, and Jeff Zwart’s 911 Baja racer. There’s even a couple of cheery 911s rocking 935-style body kits (remember those?).
There’s a very specific design vocabulary that all these Porsche 356 and Porsche 911 street cars share. The rear-engine silhouette seems as sleek as nature’s own raindrop, a shape admired by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche and his son Ferry for both its aerodynamic efficiency and its aesthetic grace. The wheelbase is very short to enhance agility (a classic Porsche 911 has nearly the same overall measurements as a first-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata), and the front fenders frame a low front deck so you can see the road while driving fast (Ferry Porsche learned this virtue from his father’s mid-engine Auto-Union racing cars). Within the interior, the proximity of upright windshield, flat-face dashboard and steering wheel recalls Dr. Porsche’s design for the Volkswagen Beetle, from which the first Porsche 356 was derived. And when you open the rear cover, there’s the flat, air-cooled engine, which promises easy access for repair if not exactly perfect reliability.
And yet the theme for Luftgekuhlt is not historic perfection. Maybe that’s why our favorites here are the California hot rods, slightly modified cars in which the veneer of perfection has been peeled back to reveal a spark of extra-legal performance. In a way, such cars are all examples of the outlaw Porsche, a look that goes clear back to a 1956 Porsche 356 with customized bodywork that was created in 1957 by Dean Jeffries, a legendary pinstripe painter and car customizer from Los Angeles. The outlaw look was popularized in the 1980s by Rod Emory’s Porsche 356s and then reinforced by the R Gruppe’s modified 911s in the 1990s, and recently the cars produced by Rob Dickinson’s Singer Vehicle Design and Magnus Walker’s Urban Outlaw brand have validated the hot rod concept for a new generation of Porsche enthusiasts.
You don’t have to look much farther than the crowd at Luftgekuhlt to see the changes in the character of Porsche enthusiasm that have come about as a result. Luftgekuhlt’s Howie Idelson says, “These people are creative and media savvy, and they’re DIYers, so they take a hands-on approach to things. They’re younger, but it’s more of an attitude than just age. They’re already seen everything, and they’ve come to Porsche to find an experience that’s real, not just different.” If you would guess that most of these people are young, slim, and dressed in black, you would be right. (Hey, it’s L.A., right?) Most of them are 20 years younger than you’d expect, and they are wearing way-too-tight jeans to prove it.
As it turns out, younger people are buying classic Porsches in increasing numbers. Jeff Trask, the principal at European Collectibles, a large purveyor of classic sports cars in nearby Newport Beach, California, tells us. ““It used to be we’d see only older people looking for old cars, but now it’s affluent people between age 30 and 50.” Trask is also president of the 356 Club of Southern California, so he understandably adds, “And it’s an old Porsche that these people want, not an old Ferrari. The big challenge is to get a private owner to sell us one so we can give it a thorough makeover for resale.”
Of course, some people complain that the escalating prices of classic Porsches discourage younger buyers, but auction analyst and car appraisal expert Dave Kinney of USAppraisal tells a different story.
“When the auction world discovered back in 2008 that collectible Porsches were undervalued, prices rose exponentially for the best examples,” says Kinney. “Prices of regular old Porsches rose right along with them. But recently, people have realized again that a rusty old Porsche is just a rusty old car, so plain Porsches are now priced accordingly.”
Of course, Kinney also points out that cars uncompromised by mechanical issues will always require a top-dollar purchase. “Younger buyers don’t want a car that needs immediate repair,” Kinney warns. “Partly this is because they probably don’t have a garage in which to repair it, and partly this is because they probably don’t have a toolbox, either.”
If you have the right kind of eyes, you can see a new wave of care enthusiasts headed our way. The demographic analysts are starting to call these people “aspirationals,” and they’re looking for culture and experience, not transportation. You have to say that the Porsche Experience Center that opened in Los Angeles earlier this year is exactly the right thing to get their attention, and Porsche expects to see 60,000 of them every year for test drives of new cars just in the L.A. facility alone. Mass-market, consumer-grade automobiles are not for these people; they instead embrace cars that express purity and cleverness. Most of all, these are people that the demographic analysts call “amateur professionals,” who like to have a special expertise in their private lives that they might not have in their daily work and who use the Internet to tell stories about it. And a sports car might be the perfect way to tell this personalized story.
We leave Luftgekuhlt about noon because, you know, you can’t be the last to leave a party if you hope to maintain appropriate coolness. We exit through the special parking reserved for visitors driving an air-cooled Porsche themselves – 330 slots, all of which were reserved in the first 36 hours after the secret site of the show was announced on the Luftgekuhlt website. And as we walk through what Patrick Long and Howie Idelson affectionately call the “mosh pit,” we find ourselves surrounded by 330 personal Porsches. Each car has a story to tell, only it tells a story about its owner, not its manufacturer. For us, this is the personalized coolness at the heart of Luftgekuhlt, and it’s actually about the future of sports cars, not the past.