Dream Machines

Clarke C. Jones hits the road with the Shenandoah Region Porsche Club of America to find out what it means to be a true Porschephile.

Jim Condon brakes hard, then smoothly whips his sleek white 2007 Porsche Cayman S around a large branch that has fallen on a rain-slicked Albemarle county road. He quickly shifts into third gear and accelerates to catch up with a formation of 15 Porsches, bumper-to-bumper and flowing like a ribbon in an easy Southern breeze. As he skillfully navigates the sudden twists and hairpin turns of the Blue Ridge (and I hang on tightly), Condon is relaxed, confident in his Porsche’s capabilities. “Its superior braking system makes a Porsche competitive when racing cars with more powerful engines,” he explains. Riding in the front passenger seat, I try to be cool, but I have my left foot pressed firmly to the floorboard on an imaginary brake as we hover closely behind the car in front of us. In my mind, if I can read the month and year on the license plate, I am too close.

Condon, in his 60s, a radio astronomer and lecturer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, is one of the smartest guys I know—and believe me, intelligence matters when guiding this classic dream machine on the narrow roads near Crozet. He is one of a couple dozen of the 438 members of the Shenandoah Region Porsche Club of America (PCA) on the road today heading for lunch and a tour of historic Pharsalia Plantation in Nelson County. Leading the caravan is Condon’s wife Sherry Westfall, an energetic 50-something Charlottesville landscape designer and current president of the club, which comprises 17 counties from Buckingham to Shenandoah.

Though Condon and I are somewhere in the middle of the pack of Porsches, it’s hard to lose sight of Westfall’s sporty 1999 911 Carrera C2 tinted like a fine Burgundy wine in a hue called Arena Red. She has planned the route for today’s road trip in careful detail for the challenge of its mountainous, curvy roads, which give drivers another chance to experience what this automobile can do.

 I am here to discover what it is that has made the iconic sports car so irresistible to folks like Condon and Westfall …. what it is that brings the members of their club together.

“I have always been in love with sports cars,” says Susan Bryant, 53, an office manager from Midlothian, who drives a bright yellow 2004 Boxster S. “I would bug my dad to bring home hot rod magazines until my mother insisted that he stop.” Bryant tells me her Porsche is the best purchase she has ever made—for her, sitting behind the wheel is an escape from even the worst of days. For design, engineering and pedigree, no other car comes close to the Porsche, she says. “All this, plus the pitter patter of my heart when, sitting at a stop light, I hear the purr of an engine somewhere behind me, and I know it’s a Porsche, totally unique in sound and experience.”

Indeed, many share Bryant’s passion for the marque. The Porsche 356, the first model to carry the Porsche name, was road certified in Austria in 1948. It was created by Ferdinand “Ferry” Porsche, son of German automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche, who created the Volkswagen Beetle and the Mercedes-Benz SSK and founded the company that bears his name in 1931. The distinctive sleek styling of the 356, enhanced by superior internal engineering continually updated for reliable high-powered performance, has long given the machine an unmistakable mystique of cool and attracted fans nationwide to Porsche clubs like the Shenandoah PCA.

The Porsche Club of America got its start in the early 1950s after Bill Sholar, a commercial artist living in Alexandria who had bought his first Porsche (a 1953 356 Coupe), realized that getting together with other owners would give them a chance to swap stories and technical advice about their cars. At that time, there were few Porsches on the road. What started out as a meeting in Sholar’s apartment has grown into a national network of more than 100,000 Porsche purists structured into 139 regions across the country. Virginia has four regional Porsche clubs: Shenandoah for Central Virginia; First Settlers in the Tidewater area; Blue Ridge for the Roanoke area; and Potomac Founders in Northern Virginia. Anyone may join any of the clubs, regardless of residency, but there is one obvious stipulation: Club members must own or lease a Porsche or take part in a Porsche-related business.

Over the years, the PCA has evolved beyond road rallies like today’s to include educational and charitable activities. Regional clubs set up autocross courses, where cars run on a fixed path around traffic pylons at varying speeds, so that drivers can learn how to safely handle their powerful cars with precision and prevent accidents. And although it isn’t racing, the PCA Driver Education program (DE) allows Porsche drivers to increase their skills by driving at high speeds on controlled, closed-course racetracks, including Virginia International Raceway near Danville.

“Going to the driving school is not about racing. It’s about learning,” explains Anita Sangi from Oakton, a member of the Potomac Founders’ Region PCA and former professional racecar driver who teaches track driving to members of several clubs. Some drivers progress to actually racing; a much riskier, and expensive, proposition. The most obvious difference between racetrack driving and racing, Condon says, is that in DE, “as you approach a driver in front of you and intend to pass, the driver in front will signal you on which side to pass. Racing, as you can imagine, does not offer that courtesy.”

 “High performance driving has taught me situational awareness and how physics comes into play in handling my car when the unexpected occurs,” explains Westfall, who describes driving in club events as an “adrenaline rush.” An avid horsewoman who says she “traded horses for Porsches,” the petite brunette has logged 20,000 racetrack miles in her Porsche. Last year, at the PCA Parade, the Porsche Club of America’s national convention held in Traverse City, Michigan, she received the prestigious 2013 Porsche Club Enthusiast of the Year award, honoring her for her dedicated support and initiative as a volunteer in developing new activities for the club. “A Porsche may be the magnet that draws people to the clubs,” Westfall points out, “but it is the people in the clubs that make them stay.”

“The club members are my kind of people,” says Dan DeHart, 59, from Bedford, an engineer and president of the 300-member Blue Ridge Porsche Club. DeHart says most of the club’s members would confess to being “car guys.” They “were the teenagers reading car magazines and doodling cars on our notebooks in class.” As adults in the Porsche Club he says they still like cars, but “when we meet, less than half the conversation is about cars; it’s sports, politics, eating, spirits, vacations and places to see.” He explains that for this reason, many of the club’s outings are to places like local breweries and wineries where they can find a good meal to go along with the trip.

The clubs also get together to do fundraisers for some of the museums and locations they visit during their driving tours, including the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar in Richmond and the Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield in Locust Grove. The First Settlers Club hosts an annual Turkeys in the Trunk Thanksgiving food drive to benefit the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia in Norfolk. Through these events and others, the First Settlers donated $27,000 to charities in 2012, earning them the Public Service Award from the Porsche Club of America. PCAs also collaborate and participate in public events, including the car show Classics on the Green, held at the New Kent Winery in September, which donated a portion of the proceeds to benefit the Fisher House Foundation.

“The Porsche is not a muscle car,” says Condon as he weaves around the mountain turns on Crabtree Falls Highway. “It is more like a pentathlete in that it does a lot of things well.” As we zigzag along the Tye River, the deep purr of 16 finely-tuned engines echoes through the valley like a room full of wild cats. When our motorcade stopped at Chiles Peach Orchard to buy fresh-picked, local peaches, I saw that the Shenandoah Club members are as diverse as the various models, colors and vintages of the Porsches they drive. For many, owning a Porsche is a lifelong dream come true.

Though the new Porsche 2014 Panamera Turbo S Executive costs more than $200,000 and the 918 Spyder Hybrid starts at $845,000 (the perfect car if you want to go from 0 to 60 mph in 3.1 seconds, while getting a reported 78 mpg), the majority of club members have pre-owned Porsches, says George Michaels, an active duty naval officer who serves as president of the First Settlers Porsche Club. “I’ve liked Porsches since my teens—got my first one in high school, a ’74 914. My dad bought it for me, and we worked on it together.” Michaels’ 1991 Porsche 928 is the latest model Porsche he has owned. He also has a 1989 Porsche 911, which he has owned for 15 years.

But rebuilding vintage cars isn’t for everyone in the club. Jason Hobbie, 41, also a member of First Settlers PCA and a Richmond tattoo artist, acquired a rebuilt 1977 Porsche 911 S from Scott Kaefer, a Porsche enthusiast in Montpelier. For Hobbie, “Buying a car that needs a lot of work can easily take the fun out of ownership, because you are not driving it. Instead, it is in the shop for repairs.”

Hobbie remembers his first Porsche sighting: “As a kid, I remember seeing one and thinking that there is nothing I have ever seen that looks like a 911. I have always been impressed how they would find ways to increase speed with design and not just by adding power to the car. They were the first company to try lightweight components and concentrate on power/weight in their racecars as well as their street cars.”

I was surprised when Condon set me straight on the cost of gas. I thought a high performance engine would bankrupt me at the gas pump. “The Germans designed a car relatively light in weight and with a small engine,” he explains. “If I put it in cruise control at 65 mph, I get 30 miles to the gallon. However, on the track, I get nine miles per gallon.”

“Yes, I am biased to the Porsche,” says Bryant, “but when it comes to such a complete history of automotive design, engineering excellence and racing pedigree, nothing comes even close.”

 It is this shared fascination with the car’s engineering that has drawn together club members from many backgrounds, including retired naval aviator Dick Pitman, another Shenandoah club member, who bought his Ruby Red 1961 Porsche 356B Roadster as a resale back in 1964. The Chester resident says both of his children learned how to drive stick shift on the car that Pitman restored extensively and now shows in competitions. It recently won first place in its class at Classics on the Green.

By the time we reach Pharsalia Plantation where we end our day with lunch and a tour, I understand that, unlike many of the vehicles we drive today, age and model don’t seem to matter much to a Porsche owner. It is an iconic brand that carries its own cachet of world-respected styling, engineering and power.

For some, Porsche ownership is the culmination of a teenage dream; for others, the hallmark of a goal achieved. For Westfall, though, driving a Porsche is like having the ultimate dance partner. “It’s athletic, it’s fun,” she says, and “it’s sexy!”

Read Clarke C. Jones personal account of riding along with a Porschephile here.

This article originally appeared in our Feb. 2014 issue.

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