RALEIGH — Peering into the dark cockpit of an orange-and-white Porsche 911 GT3R hybrid race car at the N.C. Museum of Art, Tom Schearer tried to make sense of multicolor buttons and switches labeled: Radio. Wipe. Alarm. Drink.
“I’m intrigued by the green ‘Drink’ button on the steering wheel,” said Schearer, who repairs German cars at his shop in eastern Pennsylvania. “A button you push to take a drink. It’s probably a hydration system that’s in there for the long races.”
Hundreds of people streamed through the “Porsche by Design” show Friday, including families, young men with their buddies – and older men nudging children and grandchildren, trying to spark appreciation for the beautiful machines.
There were museum members who had turned out for the grand masters in the past – Monet, Rodin – and weren’t sure what to expect when they saw Janis Joplin’s psychedelic 1965 356 Cabriolet parked a few feet from a classic nude statue of Hercules. And there were car people like Schearer who made it a point to stop in while they were visiting Raleigh relatives for Thanksgiving.
“I’m not a huge art fanatic, I guess you could say,” he said. “But this is definitely art that I’m interested in.”
The show opened in October and is expected to draw more than 100,000 visitors by the time it closes Jan. 20. It features 22 Porsche prototypes, racers and street-legal models created between 1938 and 2010. Most were drawn from museums and collections in Durham, Germany and across the United States.
There are stunning, dangerous machines with more than 600 horsepower. “It took brave drivers ... to race this car, and Porsche had them,” says the card for a stained and battered silver 1971 917K that reached 223 mph at LeMans. In the event of a crash involving the bright blue 1974 IROC 911 Carrera race car, the driver’s blood type was stenciled helpfully on the side of the car.
And there are more modest cars that also were serious competitors. Actor Steve McQueen won a 1959 race with his black 1958 356 Speedster, a short and wide convertible with 88 horsepower.
Raffle with a big prize
A 2014 Porsche Cayman S on the floor is not part of the formal exhibit. It is the object of a raffle that will raise money for other museum programs. Tickets are $100 apiece, with only 2,500 to be sold – and museum officials expect to sell out by the end of this weekend.
Nearly every car in the exhibit shares the fat, sleek physique that makes it recognizable as a Porsche.
“The Porsche family always had this unity of vision about a certain teardrop shape, which they’ve kept from the very beginning,” said Robert Ruby, a former Baltimore Sun foreign correspondent who grew up in Raleigh. “It’s like looking at an artist’s career over a period of 40 or 50 years. You can recognize that, oh yes, this is a Picasso or this is a Paul Klee. It’s like a very huge, very long family tree.”
And then he heaved a little sigh.
“Plus, I’ve been pretty obsessed by this stuff for a long time,” Ruby said.
The Porsche show has attracted residents from 47 states and 85 North Carolina counties. Friday’s crowd, estimated early in the afternoon at more than 2,500 people, indicates that the show will be a big hit, a museum administrator said.
“It makes us smile quite brightly when we see blockbuster-level attendance on Thanksgiving weekend,” said Caterri Woodrum, the museum’s chief deputy director. “We didn’t know what to expect from this exhibition. It was a shot in the dark. But there are certainly more and more museums that are seeing the design of a car as an art form.
“There are some pieces of art that we can bring in and they’re beautiful, but people don’t connect to them. But there’s not a soul who hasn’t had a first car or wished they had a certain car,” Woodrum said. “It appeals to a broad group of people. They can connect with how cool this car is.”
To help museumgoers make that connection, members of the local Porsche Club of America volunteered to join the museum’s regular army of art-schooled docents who provide guided tours and serve as informal educators.
“We thought we could help the museum docents, because certainly they know about Kandinsky or Monet – but they don’t know a lot about carburetors or Ferdinand Porsche,” said Ralph Moore of Apex, who recruited and trained 18 Porsche docents.
Asked Friday whether these cars belonged in an art museum, Porsche admirers said “Yes.”
“The Porsches build rolling art and rolling sculpture,” said Justin Morgan of Blacksburg, Va., as his wife snapped pictures of the 1974 IROC 911.
“Of course,” said Michael Hogan of New York City. He photographed his wife, Sally, flashing a two-fingered peace sign in front of the secondhand Porsche Janis Joplin festooned with mushrooms, flowers, rainbows, stars, jellyfish and the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1.
David Osterlund of Columbia, S.C., a frequent visitor to the Raleigh museum, said his doubts had been dispelled right away.
“That was a question we had when we came: What is a car collection doing in an art museum?” Osterlund said, admiring Joplin’s car. “But I think it proves its point well. They are works of art. And this museum doesn’t back away from being somewhat controversial, I think. This is the place to come.”