Ralph Gardner Jr: Catching Rare Air
My first reaction when I saw Rare Air, an exhibition of iconic air-cooled Porsches continuing through the summer at the Saratoga Automobile Museum, was that I needed to return home immediately and detail my 2017 Honda CR-V after a rough winter. A reverence for dust-free cleanliness, for spotless dashboards, may be the only thing that Steven Harris, sixteen of whose Porsches are one display in the show, and I have in common, at least when it comes to cars.
This is the part of the commentary where I probably need to issue a disclaimer. I like to think that I can appreciate a beautifully designed automobile as much as the next guy. One summer when I was probably ten I spent all my money on a Corgi toy Rolls Royce, Lincoln Continental stretch limo and a fleet of other snazzy cars. To this day I have a model of a 1964 Chevy Impala – the doors actually open and you can even pop the hood – on my bedroom dresser. And if the opportunity ever arose I’d seriously consider buying my dream car: a bubble-topped 1950’s Mercedes.
But I’m not obsessed with Porsches the way Steven, a friend and New York City architect is. The finer points of cars in the show such as the 1973 Porsche 911T Skittles red “Shtang” model and the 1984 Porsche SC/RS, one of only twenty in the world and valued at between three and four million bucks – a race car so light and powerful it was known to become airborne – sailed right over my head.
Frankly, more interesting to me was the mind of the collector. I contacted Steven in Lake Powell on the Utah/Arizona border while he was, perhaps unsurprisingly, starting the final leg of the Colorado Grand, one of the four auto rallies he attends during a typical year. A favorite image of mine from the exhibition – it includes great photography as well as paintings by Lyn Hiner of things like abstracted Porsche headlights – is of Steven, eyes firmly on the road or what passes for one, crossing the Mongolian desert behind the wheel of a 356 C Coupe, the vehicle he drove during the Peking to Paris endurance auto rally. The sixteen Porsches in the show constitute just a fraction of his collection.
“Lucien has asked repeatedly if there’s a 12-step program,” Steven said, referring to his Porsche addiction and Lucien Rees-Roberts, his partner in life and business, a British artist and not a car person. For the sake of their relationship Lucien reluctantly agreed to accompany his husband on car rallies four, but only four, days a years. “At the end of it,” Steven said referring to a recent California event they drove together, “he said, ‘It wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it is.’”
Steven traces his passion for Porsches back to the age of eight and an uncle who owned one. “I can still recall what it smelled like, what it sounded like,” he said. “There’s a kind of emotional obsession that comes from childhood.” And when he went off to college he persuaded his dad to let him take his 911 S with him.
As handsome as the show at the Saratoga Automobile Museum is – the museum is housed in a 1935 Saratoga Natural Mineral Water bottling plant in Saratoga Spa State Park – I wouldn’t have been able to tell one Porsche from another. (By the way, if Porsches aren’t totally your thing, you can travel to the museum’s second floor where there are several notable vehicles, including a 1966 amphibious car.) But apparently that’s the point behind Porsche’s streamlined design. Unlike other automakers that endlessly tweak their models Porsche hit upon perfection back in the Fifties and resisted the temptation to mess with it.
That ethos of “ostentatious modesty,” as Steven described it, comports with his sense of aesthetics as an architect. He’s also a professor of architecture at Yale. “I’ve been accused of flirting with anonymity,” he said and then predictably launched into a psalm celebrating the subtlety of Porsche’s design.
As much as he reveres the German automaker’s cars, not only their bodies but also their air-cooled engines, whatever those are, Steven admits he’d be helpless if he had to fix one in the middle of the Mongolian steppes or the Mohave Desert. “In a worst case I might be able to change a tire,” he admitted. Fortunately, these rallies usually include mechanics that can fix anything and a trailer filled with parts.
Driving his Porsches – whether in Asia, South America, or Kinderhook, NY where one of his garages is located; Steven and Lucien are part-time Columbia County residents – is part of the fun. But so is the camaraderie of the road. And at a time when the culture is increasingly deadlocked, a love of Porsches has a lovely way of bridging divisions. “As a gay man the stereotype is all you can talk about is fashion,” he said of conversations at the end of a long day’s drive. “No one discusses politics or sexual orientation. You’re talking about, ‘How many of those did they make?’ and ‘How is your throttle cable holding up?’”
Then he had to get off the phone. It was already 6 a.m. in Lake Powell. He had four hundred miles to drive to Grand Junction, Colorado before the end of the day.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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