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The Porsche Mystique

Incredible but true. Porsche is a German car that owes its popularity to California. Being a native Californian, it seems only fitting. The Golden State was made for sports cars—lots of sunshine, miles of open road, and an endless variety of mountain passes.

Porsche was the brainchild of a gifted German engineer named Ferdinand Porsche. As a free-lance engineer in the 1930s, Dr. Porsche designed Grand Prix cars for Mercedes Benz and for its greatest rival, Auto Union. These German race cars competed against each other on the world’s most daunting racing circuits during motor racing’s Golden Age. Dr. Porsche also designed the original Volkswagen beetle. After the war, he started his own car company. This was in 1949. Four years later, cars bearing his name were making a sensation an ocean and continent away—in Southern California. Below are reviews of two books that touch on the Porsche-California connection. They’re both photo albums that feature lively and informative text.

PORSCHE MOMENTS, by Jesse Alexander

Photographer Jesse Alexander fell in love with the first Porsche he saw, at a race in Santa Barbara, California. This was in 1953. He already had a love affair with sports cars, but his passion for Porsche ran deeper—it stirred his soul. “I marveled at its pure, rounded shape. Simplicity itself. . . .” While he didn’t consider himself a photographer, he began attending sports car races around Southern California shooting several rolls of film per event. Automotive magazines began buying his photos, while Porsches continued to catch his eye. With money he inherited, he and his wife moved to Europe where he bought a Porsche 356 cabriolet direct from the factory in Zuffenhausen. While there he met racing director Von Hanstein. Because Switzerland was central to most of the races, Alexander set up base there. He traded up to a Porsche 356 Super 90 and became a part of the racing scene. His book chronicles his photographic journey with Porsche racing cars, from 1953 to the mid-1960s. The book is broken down into chapters that focus on individual circuits and events: “Le Mans,” La Carrera Panamericana,” “Monte Carlo,” “Reims,” “Targo Florio” and the like. Alexander’s book captures a world of action, of cars and people, of spectators, mechanics, and drivers. The photographs of drivers’ expressions reveal a plethora of emotions. Photos are mostly b & w. If you’re into Porsches, or a fan motor racing’s less hectic age, you’ll enjoy the world of racing Porsches as seen through Alexander’s perceptive camera lens.

LEGENDARY PORSCHE, by Randy Leffingwell

Whether you're a Porsche aficionado or a casual fan, captivated by arresting photos or merely interested in learning how the Porsche car company got started, this book is a must have. Author/photographer Randy Leffingwell interviewed all the surviving people who were present at the creation, and those who were influential in Porsche's race car development. The list of those interviewed is exhaustive, and most of the photos--in stunning color--were taken by Leffingwell himself. The book is a labor of love, more about Porsche's racing heritage than its passenger car history. Porsche is, after all, a sports car, and its success on the racing circuit led to its success in the sales showroom. I was particularly interested to learn the original Porsche engine and chassis combinations were pulled from the Volkswagen parts bin, which is understandable. There was little in the way of start-up capital in post-war Germany, and Dr. Porsche’s job prior to the war was as design engineer for Volkswagen. The first Porsche bodies were hand-formed from aluminum over a wooden buck by a single craftsman. Due to expediency, the company stayed with the air-cooled four-cylinder engine which it developed significantly, as opposed to creating something completely new and more costly to produce—a water-cooled V12 engine, which is what Dr. Porsche would have preferred, had he lived.

The original Porsches caught on with racers immediately, in Europe and in Southern California, because they were simple, lightweight, and lightning-quick in and out of corners. It was a Southern California car dealer and weekend racer named John von Neumann who encouraged the Porsche factory into creating the original Speedster, which Neumann described as "a boulevard race car." Stripped of essentials, it launched the careers of a number of drivers, including Dan Gurney. Equally fascinating are the stories of what these cars were like on the racing circuit, driven by the likes of Jack McAfee, who raced the 1952 Porsche America, to Vic Elford, who in 1968-70 drove "the widow maker" Type 917s (frightening), to George Follmer who in 1972 raced the turbocharged 917/30 Can Am car. Reading their accounts is hair-raising. All the great cars are here, photographed in glorious color, ranging from the original hand-built 1949 Gmund Coupe, to the 550/1500RS Spyder that brought Porsche its first international victory, to the famed Speedster (my family has owned three), to the RS60LM Spyder that made Ken Miles a Southern California racing legend, to the 804 Formula 1 that Gurney drove to victory in the 1962 French Grand Prix (Porsche's only F1 win), to the ground-breaking 904s, to various tricked out 911 passengers cars, to the all-conquering Type 956 (Le Mans winner six years running), to the 928S Coupe, to the 1989 911 Speedster, and many, many more. The stories are fascinating and the photos superb. As I say, the book is a labor love.

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