Last week, there was a massive and pleasingly idiotic screwup by RM Sotheby’s during the auction of a very rare 1939 Volkswagen-based Type 64 race car designed by Ferdinand Porsche. This car was controversial long before the auction, both regarding its status as a Porsche and its dark origin story.
As far as the is-it-a-real-Porsche-or-not question goes, I think this one is easy: I don’t care if they slapped PORSCHE letters on the nose in 1949. It’s not a Porsche-brand car because when it was designed and built the company didn’t exist yet.
Is it the spiritual and conceptual wellspring from which Porsche DNA sprang? Absolutely. But it was, essentially, a VW Beetle with a tweaked engine and a special aerodynamic and lightweight body designed for racing. Think Bradley GT, but much, much cooler.
I don’t even think this point is even controversial, really. Hell, even Porsche themselves seem to know the difference. Look how it’s described in this 1977 official brochure called The Porsche Family Tree:
It’s considered an ancestor, and identified as a Volkswagen. I say, case closed.
But there is some real controversy around the car, and it doesn’t really have anything to do with the semantics of whether or not it’s a Porsche. It has to do with the dark past of the car and the internet’s favourite dark-past players, Nazis.
It also doesn’t have to do with the car failing to sell even after a $US17 ($25) million bid at a recent auction, itself a bit of a mishap that involved the car incorrectly called at up to $US70 ($104) million.
The Type 64, also known as the 60K10, was built to compete in a Berlin-to-Rome Axis race that never happened. As such, it was definitely built with clear propaganda goals: bring attention to the allegedly upcoming Strength-Through-Joy (KdF) Peoples’ Car (you know, Volkswagen), and to generally flaunt German National Socialist industrial prowess to the rest of the world.
Really, you could argue that nearly every German racing car of that era was designed to be propaganda for the Nazis. The legendary Auto Union Silver Arrows, those V12 and V16 mid/rear-engined racing cars built in the late 1930s are a perfect example of this.
Audi, the lone modern survivor of the Auto Union, has spent a lot of money collecting surviving examples of these cars, and proudly display them, which makes sense, as they’re amazing, highly influential machines. They no longer display a swastika, like in that picture above, though:
So, is it right or wrong to remove the Nazi associations from these cars? These Auto Unions have as much Nazi pedigree as the Type 64, but I don’t recall as many headlines calling them “Nazi Cars” like we saw for the recent Type 64 auction.
In some ways, removing the swastikas washes away the miserable associations of these cars’ birth, and it’s very easy to see why Audi would choose to do that—who the fuck wants a car with a swastika on it?
I guess that’s the question, right there: if you want a car with a swastika on it, because you actively like that it has a swastika on it, well, then that’s where these things flip from being fascinating bits of motoring history to becoming Nazi memorabilia.
Does that mean a car like the Type 64 shouldn’t be collected, because of the potential for glorifying Nazi accomplishments?
The truth is I’m very torn here. As just a car, I really like the Type 64, because I’ve had a lifelong obsession with classic air-cooled Volkswagens, and this is a very important part of the car’s history.
But I’m also a Jew who has lost family in the Holocaust, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t get on so hot with the sort of people who find the Nazi origins of this car to be its greatest appeal.
You can’t just peel off the swastikas and pretend nothing happened — that’s not going to help anyone. At the same time, it’s crazy to ignore these cars because of their awful origin stories. The cars themselves are inert machines and have no more prejudices than they have growing fur in their wheelarches. It’s not their fault they came into being as a part of one of the worst chapters in human history, but that’s still part of these machines.
There’s plenty of blood to spatter for many, many cars here, too. It’s not even just German cars, though they tend to get the most focus, because, duh. But there’s blame to go around — should we have similar qualms when Model Ts go up for sale, because Henry Ford was a virulently anti-Semitic ghoul who sent Hitler birthday money and published years of hateful screeds in his newspaper?
In museum contexts, I think a car like the Type 64 will fare better, as museums are able to give the full context of a car’s history, and are (ideally) less likely to fetishise the car’s Nazi origins. A well-designed automotive museum installation showcasing the Type 64 can provide plenty of background and history to be up front about the history, while also highlighting what makes the car technically interesting.
Corporate collections are more problematic, as a company has a financial interest in hiding unpleasant parts of its past. That’s why we see Auto Union racers stripped of swastika decals, and why Volkswagen’s heritage collection starts at the strangely late date of 1950.
It’s also why you’re unlikely to see a jaunty Hitler mannequin in Mercedes-Benz’ displays of a 1936 W150. It’s interesting to see how uncomfortable these cars make people. Look at this odd video made when a Mercedes-Benz 770 made specifically for Hitler went up for auction:
It’s not often in a car auction that anyone feels compelled to remind you that cars are inanimate machines, incapable of choosing their own fate, but that’s exactly what happened here.
This is a really tricky question, somewhat similar to questions about the ethics of using any useful results from Dr. Josef Mengele — the “Angel of Death” — and his often revolting and inhuman experiments he conducted in concentration camps. In some ways, the car question is harder, because Mengele didn’t really do anything actually useful, but these cars have real technical and historical interest.
I wish I could just come out and say that any car touched by some miserable Nazi fucker is not worth saving, but the truth is I don’t believe that, not really. There are interesting cars with horrific pasts, and they’re worth keeping in historical and technological context.
I think context is absolutely key here when it comes to selling or collecting these cars. If a collector wanted to buy the Type 64 to be part of some Aryantastic Museum of Superiority, then I think it’s pretty clear: the car has become, again, an instrument of hate.
But I don’t think it has to be that way. The Type 64, and cars like it, should be able to be appreciated on their own merits, as just a car, in the context of other cars that came before and after it, but the circumstances of its creation cannot be washed away or forgotten.
These cars, I think, can still be collected and appreciated, but with a good dose more responsibility expected of them than just buying something like, the first Volvo P1800 or that V4 Mustang prototype or something.
To handle these sorts of cars right, sellers have to believe in the idea that they represent more than just a car, and be willing to exercise judgment about who they sell them to, that is, if they care. If Richard Spencer set up a GoFundMe to buy the Type 64 so he can paint swastikas all over it and sit in it as he stares at himself in a hand mirror and tearfully jerks off, then I suppose a seller could have taken his idiot-money and handed him the keys.
But, hopefully, people with cars like these do appreciate what their significance is, good and bad, and are willing to find contexts where these cars can be preserved, without turning them (back) into instruments of hate.