Excerpts from Miles Collier as he explains a case study in archaeological restoration.
By Miles Collier
The Mighty Porsche Carrera 6
I’ve had my 1966 Porsche Carrera 6 (906-125) in restoration for the last four or five years. It’s hard to remember such things across a gulf of time so fantastic. But, as inevitably as the Himalayas will finally erode into foothills, restoration projects ultimately come to completion. And so it is with 906-125. The car is a half-century-old, miraculously preserved competition machine, a rare survivor from a specialized and restricted area of human activity, motor racing. While a physical remnant from a bygone time, 906-125 is itself inert. It requires the intervention of people in the present to give the car its voice. Often that voice is recreated through acts of resurrection and restoration.
When I restore a tired, old car, it is my avowed intent to alter the past as little as possible but, in actuality, the restoration process always transforms, even destroys, the past. The disparity between “what was” when compared to the deteriorated state of “what has been left to us” by time and wear and other restorers compels us to intervene in the present, to re-present the past as we perceive it and as we interpret it. And once we pick up tools to remediate the damage and losses to the artifact, we inevitably find ourselves not so much saving the past but refashioning it anew.
Lighter is better
Porsche’s new Carrera 6 racing sports car was built around a steel multi-tubular space frame. Thin fiberglass panels were bonded to the frame with resin-impregnated fiberglass cloth strips.
With this restoration, rather than trying for a presentation of 906-125 in its “as new” configuration, we elected to restore it as of a more interesting moment in time, the 1968 Nürburgring 1000Km World Sportscar Championship race. Selecting a time two years after its competition career in Finland had begun is a challenging ambition. By then the car had had two years of racing under its belt, which was quite long enough for unknown racing damage and hasty repairs to alter details, for countless unique ad hoc modifications to be tried in the team’s quest for speed, and finally, for the accumulation of the inevitable wear and tear from its hard use.
The 906-125 has graced my collection since the early 1980s. Until now, it had been the only restored Porsche that hadn’t been reconditioned under our team’s direction. It survived as I bought it all these years because, while it had achieved no great distinction during its racing life, it was remarkably original and complete as restored. It had never been crashed hard, and, further, the so-so restoration had been done so long ago that virtually every replacement component needed for that job had still been available from the Porsche dealer.
Time to restore
I decided to re-restore 906-125 after a Porsche Rennsport Reunion weekend at Laguna Seca some years ago. The long-suffering 906 had been scuffed on the side by a competitor overcome by the “red mist.” And just so we’d know the hit wasn’t an accident, a minute or two later, the same driver then hit the 906’s other side. Fortunately, no major damage was done aside from bending one of the unique-to-the-906, steel/aluminum rear wheels.
A moment in time
Selecting a moment from the car’s life as a competition tool requires detailed photographs from that very point in time. As my Carrera 6 was merely a supporting character rather than a star at the Nürburgring event, it wasn’t documented except by chance. And what images were found, all showed the car, not in valuable close-up detail, but on track at speed. Furthermore, despite fifty Carrera 6s having been constructed in 1966, archival research shows that the period photographic record of up-close, detailed images of the model is surprisingly meager and often conflicting. Once again, most are three-quarter front or side views, images that work well for motorsports magazines, but poorly for restoration research decades on. And finally, as we know from many such projects, even with the most complete period photographs available, there is the pure, plain, and simple impossibility of recreating the past as we will see below.
Particularity, the individualistic nature of an industrial product increases over time and use. While Carrera 6s were made from standardized components to a uniform design, they were built by hand and show a myriad of minor differences even when brand-new cars are compared. After two years of intensive racing with the inevitable repairs, modifications, and damage, 906-125 is a unique archive of its racing experiences. Preserving what we can identify of the car’s individuality from time and use is the very heart of the archaeological restoration and the central goal of our team’s efforts.
Much time has been spent applying our archaeological imagination to 906-125. I refer to the process of imagining ourselves in the place of the people assembling or operating or repairing the car fifty-plus years ago. The Carrera 6, for example, was sold as a customer racing car just like its previous sibling, the 904. Unlike the 904 and all earlier Porsche Spyder racing sports cars, the radically styled Carrera 6 could not be road licensed in Germany. Historically, creating road-going versions of competition cars for sale to non-racers was a convenient way for Porsche to dispose of excess inventory. Fortunately, the required production run as a Group 4 sports car under new 1966 regulations only required a fifty-car production run, half that of the 904 in 1964. Happily, Porsche discovered they had racing customers for all of the fifty planned Carrera 6 cars, so attempting a street-licensable version was unnecessary.
David Lowenthal in his book The Past is a Foreign Country – Revisited sums up the conundrum of restoration: “All these efforts to save and salvage things past … exhibit two conflicting traits. The first couples ardent attachment to how things actually were with faith in resuming it. The second is that goal’s utter hopelessness. It is impossible not only because the past is irrecoverable and unreproducible, but because we are not past, but present people with experience, knowledge, feelings and aims previously unknown.”