It began five years ago in the parking lot of a Venice Beach coffee shop as one of many little gatherings that pop-up in Los Angeles for vintage cars. But this was just for Porsches. And so right off the bat, something about this one was different. Like a lot of things, the focus made it more interesting. And the timing couldn’t have been better. Old 911s, which only a few years earlier you couldn’t sell for $7k were finding themselves flying out of garages for $40k and up. It was the next blue chip classic car, driven by the aging of 80’s kids who idolized the 911 from youth and suddenly had the cash to live out the dream. Without realizing it, this idea to gather around and celebrate the most perfectly-designed car of all time, put LeMans winner Patrick Long and art director buddy Howie Idelson in the driver’s seat of what would become the fastest-growing car cult in the city. The result was a mixture of car love and impeccable art direction. They called it “Luftgekühlt,” meaning air-cooled, referring to the era-defining engine type that lasted until 1998. They made cool posters, a cool book. The name “Luftgekühlt” became a catch-all for the event, the vibe and the merch and the movement. Then it hit the corner and sped up.
Owners started hearing about it from far off lands and making long treks in their rally-inspired 911’s just to be there.
Five years on, the event known around town simply as “Luft” is more like a Porsche theme park than a cars & coffee. Hundreds of barn found, period correct, race ready, customized, hard-driven, trailer-delivered, booted, clean, dirty and museum quality 356s, 911s and so much more pour into larger and larger venues, complete with sponsor tables, press area and biergarten to celebrate an era of car-making that is as remarkable for its style as it can be for its over-the-top-ness. And yet, despite notes to leave egos at the gate — an almost sure-fire way to get people not to — this year was remarkably casual and cool.
Egos and Porsches are normally as tightly woven together as braided steel brake lines. So, when the question started about two months prior to the event. “Are you going to Luft?” a few friends opted out this year. I get it — there’s a lot of schmucks in the Porsche community and the larger the event, the bigger likelihood that the experience might just be miserable.
To fully understand this push/pull of loving car events and hating car events in Los Angeles, you have to first understand that Luftgekuhlt is a car gathering not a car show. And secondly, you have to know about Trancas.
Up until just March, the single best morning car hangout happened on the first Sunday of the month, in the parking area of a quaint and rustic mart, called Trancas, on the north end of Malibu. It was a beautiful experience in the wee early hours of the morning where one could truly enjoy one’s car on the drive up the coast and then pull into what was commonly considered the most awesome gathering of old cars in town. But it had issues. In Malibu, old cars come with old owners. The vision for what Trancas could be extended no further than owners’ own hood ornaments.
Despite its clocklike regularity, celebrity attendance and obvious popularity in social media, the organizers focused on exclusivity over inclusivity. It was always meant as a gathering of rich friends, not a community event. People who wanted you to admire them while they talked to each other behind a velvet rope. If you’ve ever been to a paddock before a horse race, where owners, their dressed-up wives, daughters and riders all converse while onlookers eyeball the all-of-it, then you’re familiar. This non-community mindedness lead to fights with locals and even attendees as witnessed in an ill-conceived letter left on windshields. It was over. At which point, Luft seemed to take on even more significance. It suddenly reined supreme in the world of socially-driven, artistically composed, destination SoCal classic car gatherings. But the question remained, could it grow this large and still be cool?
As for me, I was never in doubt about whether I’d go to Luft 5. I wanted to shoot and write about it. When I lost my job a few weeks ago from a downsizing I had to clean out my office. Among the detritus were no less than three Luftgekühlt posters that had been up on the walls. Carrying them out, along with the printed out ticket to the event that had been sitting on my desk, into my own ’78 911 SC on my last day was like holding onto something tangible in a world that was crumbling all around me. I’d found identity in my job for so long — Luft was a temporary substitute. It had a date. It was happening. I had my car, I had my ticket. Life would go on.
I arrived early. As both press and Porsche owner, I felt like I was approaching the event from two totally different directions. And we’d only just learned where it was. Every year, the event shifts mysteriously to a different location that isn’t even announced until only days prior to the opening of the gates. Last year was down at the Port of Los Angeles, in San Pedro. This year, it turns out, was at a lumber yard in Hawthorne, evocative of the saw mill days of Porsche’s earliest incarnation in Gmünd.
As has become the norm, there’s tiers of Porsches. If you’re like me and you simply own one, you’re directed to one area. If you’re like, say Jerry Seinfeld, with Porsches worth well north of a couple million dollars, well, someone has been up all night delivering it, wiping it down, lighting it, situating it — over in another area entirely. So, driving into the lumber yard, you don’t immediately know what awaits you. I parked, pulled the Domke bag of photo bits from the Recaro passenger seat and slung it over my shoulder and rushed to the good stuff before the crowds appeared. The last minute location reveal eliminates any kind of pre-planning, but that favors my style of shooting. I’m inspired by the emotion of first impressions.
At 6:30am, the sun was just cracking the horizon. I wanted to take every shot of the day at that one moment. Other photographers were going equally crazy, shouting out, “Sun flare over here!” It was a friendly camaraderie of car lovers and camera nerds, running around what seemed like a newly-excavated lost culture where only the most badass cars once lived. Each vehicle dying to tell some crazy story from the 70’s or 80’s involving cocaine, porn, plane hijacking and money laundering.
As it turned out, the event — for all its riches and honey — was actually very low key. I have some theories.
When you own a classic 911, you feel like, damn, I’m awesome. People want to talk to you about your car. They all have stories about the 911. Usually, this involves their dad, a friend of their dad, or their dad’s dentist slash dealer. Others will start down a path of wanting to talk about the specifics of your car — the year, the displacement, the customization you’ve done, how it drives, the perfection of a Wevo shifter and on and on. The attention and insider talk makes you feel special. Even when you’re not engaged with people, you just feel awesome when you’re in it. It’s analog cool, in ways that remind you of Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. You feel like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman while you drive it. BUT… when there’s literally hundreds of similarly awesome, or quite a bit more awesome, versions of your 911, well, what can you do but stand in humble honor?
I love my 911. It has a twin-plug converted, rebuilt 300,000+ mile engine in it. Recaro seats and a worn red deck lid on an otherwise white body. There’s a single red stripe down the driver’s side front fender that recalls James Dean’s famed Little Bastard. And it can’t hold a candle to any car in the main area of Luft.
Most of these cars move beyond cool and into a category one can only describe as historic. They’ve won LeMans. They’ve been rescued from barns after decades of being hidden under a haystack. They were the first one. And on and on. The stories are just far superior to whatever anyone’s dad did in his single days.
My other theory is that nothing makes any sense at Luftgekühlt. There’s cars spanning 50 years here and many of the parts from one era fit just fine on a car from a completely different era. I have pop-out windows on my ’78, but they stopped putting them in in ’77. Doesn’t matter because the design changed so little over the years that you can interchange parts nearly at will. In fact, there was a whole row of 911s with 90’s era engine parts inside 60’s, 70’s and 80’s era bodies, held together with 2018 CAD-designed connectors. It messes with your brain so completely, all you can do is walk, giddy drunk style, from one car to the next and hug the person next to you for support as your knees go weak from the beauty of it all and the realization that time is nothing.
The reason Luftgekühlt works is specifically because it’s getting bigger. Because when a body gets bigger, the heart gets bigger, too. And because ultimately a car gathering is about love, the big ego of the individual seems appropriately small in comparison to the collective heart for the subject.
Last year, I was at the Petersen Automotive Cars & Coffee. I had only just gotten my 911 and was excited to meet other folks and talk shop with them. Talk about dads and stuff. I saw this one guy, he was sitting in his lawn chair, not walking around like everyone else. If you’ve been to a car gathering you know this guy, or seven of them, hanging out by their own cars, both proud and condescending. I was new to the scene and lawn chair man seemed cool, with his customized 911, and his Porsche Yoda-ism. I stopped over and introduced myself, took some pictures of his awesome ride. He was kind of short with me and didn’t much give me the time of day.
On the way out of Luft this year, there was that same guy. He was sitting in the same lawn chair out in the tier 2 parking rows, right next to his car, away from the crowds. I said hi and shook his hand and got in the car and headed home.
The difference at Luft is how much honest, sincere and friendly talk actually takes place there. Forcing ego to the perimeter. We are all reflections in cars much nicer than our own. And swimming around in fifty years of perfected sheet metal somehow just flattens us all out.
Nobody knows where we’ll be next year, but no matter where we pop up, it gives me hope to think that some things will remain forever air-cooled.
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