Art on Four Wheels

‘The Porsche Effect,’ a new exhibit at Los Angeles’ Petersen Automotive Museum, is a joyride for fans of the legendary carmaker.

The 1939 Type 64 was the first Porsche.
The 1939 Type 64 was the first Porsche.

As automakers go, Porsche is pretty tiny: It sells about 55,000 cars in the United States each year — about what General Motors moves in a slow week.

But the German company’s impact on auto design and popular culture is turbocharged. The Porsche 911 is the epitome of the modern sports car; Porsche’s racing track record is a long list of international victories. And Porsches have been featured in countless movies, with stars like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Jerry Seinfeld all well known as Porschephiles.

Los Angeles’ Petersen Automotive Museum has captured the Porsche legacy in a special exhibit running through January. The Porsche Effect spills out of the Petersen’s first-floor special exhibit area into the museum’s lobby, showing off about four dozen cars from the company’s nearly 70-year history, along with blueprints, posters, models and other paraphernalia that demonstrate Porsche’s amazing legacy.

Walking through the exhibit is a Porsche lover’s dream. Look, there’s a sinuous black Type 64, the first Porsche, from 1939, that shows clear echoes of the Volkswagen Beetle that also was designed by Porsche founder Ferdinand Porsche (it was even based on a Volkswagen chassis). Wow, that’s a 917/30 race car, a velocious monster descended from Porsche’s championship Le Mans racers that put out a whopping 1,500 horsepower, had a top speed of 250 miles an hour and so dominated the 1970s Can-Am road-racing series that it was effectively banned.

Aw, there’s the slightly bulbous 356 Speedster, the first real production Porsche. Whoa, there are a couple examples of the silver 550 Spyder, a legendary 1950s sports car that’s best known as the “Little Bastard” that James Dean drove to his death. Of course, there are some amazing modern Porsches, including the hybrid 918 Spyder that looks like it’s going 150 mph just sitting there. And yep, there are all manner of variations on the iconic 911, from the humble 901 that began the line 54 years ago (quickly renamed the 911 to avoid conflict with a similarly numbered Peugeot) to souped-up recent versions far more suited to racing than a Sunday drive.

As you walk among the cars on display, a generic musical background is punctuated by the “vrrrooom” that Porsche fans instantly recognize as the signature exhaust note of their favorite cars. As Porsche increasingly dabbles in hybrid and electric technologies, one has to wonder how the company will maintain that sound in cars that go “hmmmm.”

But for now, the art of Porsche is ours to enjoy. Indeed, taken together, The Porsche Effect is a collection of automotive artistry that rivals the more traditional art on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art across the street. The Petersen’s exhibit makes it easy to understand the marketing slogan that was made famous by the 1980s teen movie “Risky Business:” “Porsche — there is no substitute.” Indeed.


  • Through January 2019
  • Petersen Automotive Museum
  • 6060 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles
  • (313) 964-6331
    Mark Potts was the founding managing editor of Alta.
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