1969—Year of Change
About the zeitgeist that produced the diverse sports cars Porsche 917 and Porsche 914.
Disruption pervaded every corner of society. It affected statesmen and students, architects and activists, musicians and makers of fashion, hippies and hedonists—all united by a hunger for freedom.
1969 saw the world demonstrate its courage. Everything seemed doable, nothing impossible. If one had the will to do it. Neil Armstrong, the first human on the moon. The 747, the largest passenger aircraft to date, took off. The Concorde, the fastest flying plane to date, crossed the Atlantic in what seemed like a coffee break. The belief in the boundless potential of technology was matched only by the speed with which records fell by the wayside. Whether in politics, society, or technology: Here, a battle of systems, the ideological race for supremacy in space and the world of thought. There, a duel for dominance on the racetrack: pure provocation through physics. The “ultimate animal” is what Ferdinand Piëch called his journey to the edge, in which he aimed to bring Ferrari to its knees at Le Mans: a car the likes of which no one had ever imagined, let alone seen—his “greatest risk,” a “useful bit of lunacy.” At 387 kmh it was undrivable, really, but equally unstoppable. With it, Porsche catapulted itself to the head of the pack of sports-car manufacturers. Coincidence?
To understand the year 1969, a look back at the decade that preceded it is indispensable. That was when the groundwork was laid for the radical, courageous thinking and action that rocked the western world at the end of the 1960s. In the US, the leading writers of the Beat Generation—Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac, who dies in 1969—launched a radical break with the traditions of linear narrative. In France and Germany, young philosophers like Michel Foucault and the thinkers of the Frankfurt School shifted the perspective on the world, the self, and being. The pop art that emerged in the United States and Britain turned away from the intellectualism of the art world and idealized precisely the opposite: the trivial, the mundane. Completely new things had been bubbling forth everywhere since the 1950s, but it took a while before these niche occurrences found their way into the mainstream. Before more and more people not only dared to think the unthinkable but were actually prepared to experience it and break taboos. In short, to be bold, rebellious, ready to test the boundaries of the tolerable and even exceed them.
“The car is a terror.” Rolf Stommelen, race-car driver
“So we decided, ‘let's get up on the roof.’” Ringo Starr, The Beatles
Tom Wolfe wrote that the naivete to assume the impossible could occur was what made the 1960s possible in the first place. And not only in the fields of science and technology. Disruption pervaded every corner of society. It affected statesmen and students, architects and activists, musicians and makers of fashion, hippies and hedonists. What they all shared was the insatiable hunger for freedom, the desire to shake off old conventions and break out of the torpor of the postwar years. The world of tomorrow was a place that must be made today. The old authorities lost their sway, the private became political, and the political became personal.
No. 23 has many names
“The surface is fine and powdery.” Neil Armstrong, astronaut
The rejection of the old was most pronounced in the hippie culture, which by 1969 had long since become a mass movement. In August, an estimated five hundred thousand people made a pilgrimage to a remote farm in the state of New York, where the Woodstock Music and Art Fair provided a stage on which to live out their vision of an existence free of constraints and inhibitions, to experiment with drugs, and to listen as Jimi Hendrix transformed the American national anthem into a plaintive wail with screaming feedback. While a powerful rainstorm pummeled the ground into a sea of mud, the singer of the band Canned Heat predicted through song that “a change is gonna come.”
Le Mans with Steve McQueen
“Good business is the best art.” Andy Warhol, artist
But change was already well under way by then: the musical Hair became a global hit and spread the message of “make love, not war” all the way to communist Belgrade. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, four bored guys calling themselves The Stooges formed a sort of proto-punk act as a nihilistic reply to the escapism of the flower-power kids, raising the bar in terms of volume with the new generation of guitar amplifiers and providing a brute-force soundtrack for the revolutionary mood of the country, while at the other end of the musical spectrum were the unbridled improvisations of free jazz—total erasure of the old borders of musical expression and a departure from traditional harmony.
The dream factory had to reinvent itself as well. In Hollywood, a new generation of writer-filmmakers rebelled against the aesthetic formulas and outmoded mores of the studio system, bringing sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll to the big screen. The directors were aided by the fact that film cameras had become less cumbersome and enabled greater mobility. Shooting outdoors at real locations engendered greater intimacy and authenticity than filming on studio sets. Arthur Penn’s gangster film Bonnie and Clyde channeled the zeitgeist of the moment. The film turns criminals into supposedly relatable characters who scorn the rules of the establishment. Neo-westerns like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch or Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West recounted the story of the conquest of the west with unflinching brutality and in doing so reflected the fractures of the present. Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, the story of two dropouts who set off on their motorcycles in search of freedom, became the cult film of the Woodstock generation. The Oscar for Best Picture went to John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, which dramatizes a love story between two men.
Indeed, the taboo-breaking verve of the new Hollywood proceeded with unprecedented abandon. On cinema screens, theater stages, and advertising posters, there was suddenly lots of bare skin on display. Sexual liberation set a dynamic in motion that extended to the center of society. While the Stonewall riots on New York’s Christopher Street in June marked the birth of the organized gay rights movement, hippies were said to mistrust anyone who went to bed with the same person twice.
Just 12 units
“A Change Is Gonna Come” Sung by the band Canned Heat at Woodstock
In the course of this liberalization, the traditional roles of men and women were brushed aside. French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent put his models in pantsuits and created transparent tops intended to be worn without undergarments. The look initially caused a scandal, but was soon considered socially acceptable—not unlike the way Mary Quant had normalized the miniskirt a few years before. Vibrant worlds of color, coupled with materials like plastic and rubber, find expression in the furniture designs of Dane Verner Panton, who thereby distanced himself substantially from the sober tradition of Scandinavian wood furniture design, tossing the kidney-shaped table and shelf unit on the trash heap of interior-design culture.
The VW Porsche
115,631 units with 4 cylinders
“And then it had a bug and crashed.” Charley Kline, programmer
The Porsche 914, too, could not have been created at any other time than the late 1960s. Not only because of its trendy and vivid paint jobs, but also because it stood, like no other car of its time, for emancipation behind the wheel and a new kind of social mobility: a sports car for everyman—and every woman.
8 cylinders for the 914
“I wanted women to have the same basic wardrobe as a man—blazer, trousers, and suit.” Yves Saint Laurent, fashion designer
Yet every time of change has its darker facets too. One manifestation of that was that the loudly proclaimed desire for change also met with a robust reaction from state institutions. In the western world, almost all the protests against the war in Vietnam were suppressed. Then there was the rise of terror. Sometimes the drive for liberation tips into the paranoid and sect-like. The grisly ritual murders by the Manson family shocked the entire western world. For the hippie movement, it was the end of innocence.
Despite, or perhaps precisely because of these contradictions, the final years of the 1960s continue to resonate to this day. Looking back, the dynamism and drama of this unfettered age may seem to be the result of a combination of belief in progress, audacity, and naïveté. But above it all is the seemingly limitless, boundary-testing, and all-encompassing desire for change that came to characterize 1969. For many Porsche enthusiasts, this zeitgeist is embodied by the 917. Courage changes everything.