Hot wheels

A private collection of Porsches is on display at the National Automobile Museum

A few of the cars on display in the <i>Porsche Passion: A Private Collection </i>exhibit at the National Automobile Museum.

A few of the cars on display in the Porsche Passion: A Private Collection exhibit at the National Automobile Museum.

Photo by David Robert

Ranson Webster has always had a passion for automobiles.

While in high school, he capitalized on this love of cars by running a small business on the side. He gave tune-ups, worked on racecars and built racing engines.

Restoring cars has become a lifetime hobby for Webster, the chairman of the National Automobile Museum’s Board of Trustees, but it wasn’t until he had financial success as an adult that he began to fully indulge in his infatuation with the Porsche.

“I really loved Porsches, but they were a little beyond my reach,” he said. “I eventually got to a point where I could afford them, so I started collecting them a few years ago, and this is kind of the result of it.”

Thirteen of his vehicular gems are on display in an exhibit, Porsche Passion: A Private Collection, at the National Automobile Museum (The Harrah Collection). They’re featured in the Masterpiece Circle, an exhibition area that highlights a different theme every six months, located in the museum’s Gallery 4. The exhibit includes a 1959 Porsche 356A Carrera Cabriolet, a 1960 Porsche 356 Abarth Carrera (serial number 16) and a 1964 Porsche 904 GTS. The oldest car in the group is a 1953 Porsche 356 Cabriolet, and the youngest is a 1994 Porsche RSR.

Unlike some of the cars in the museum’s permanent collection, Webster’s cars are still working.

“All of these cars can be driven on the street,” Webster said, adding that he occasionally takes his collectible cars out for a ride. “Most of them are four-cam cars. Porsche had a real limited production up to the 1950s. It was only in the ‘60s and ‘70s that they really started their masterpieces in cars.”

You don’t have to know a lot about cars to be impressed by these acclaimed sports cars with their slick design, sexy aura and 53-year history.

There’s the 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder, a bullet-shaped car built for speed that has gained a somewhat sinister reputation. Actor James Dean was driving one of these ‘55 Porsche Spyders when he made his date with destiny en route to a racing event. A cardboard cut-out of Dean from Rebel Without a Cause stands behind the silver car and reminds visitors of the car crash that turned the promising young actor into a tragic legend.

Another Spyder, the 1954 Porsche 550-06 Spyder Prototype, is one of the rarest cars in his collection—and also one of Webster’s favorites.

“That was the sixth prototype built out of tin,” he explained. “These were pre-production cars. That car was built in 1953 and was raced by a guy named Johnny von Neumann. Hans Stuck, Ken Miles and Phil Hill drove the car—all very famous racecar drivers.

“I don’t classify them as expensive. I classify them as rare. These are not like Ferraris yet, which is good news, because they’re still affordable.”

Jackie Frady, NMA executive director, said the museum has had a Porsche exhibit before, but this is the first time the museum has presented an exhibit featuring cars from one person’s private collection. It is also the first time Webster has publicly shown his Porsches.

“For the Masterpiece Circle, the goal is to look ahead a year or two as to what marque we’re going to represent or what theme of cars we’re going to represent,” Frady said. “Knowing that Ranson had an interest in Porsches and had a collection, I started asking him if he would consider ever showing his collection in the museum, and about a year ago, he agreed to do that.”

Webster said the museum’s goal is promote public accessibility to and awareness of historic cars, and by showing his cars, he’s helping it accomplish that mission. Frady said there has been a lot of local interest in the exhibit. Over 300 people attended the opening reception on May 3.

“I think Porsche automobiles have always had a great following, and they have such a wonderful design that people like seeing [them],” she said. “And now that we have the Porsche Passion at the museum, it has drawn some extra visitors in.”

Webster said good-naturedly that he feels the exhibit is one of the better Porsche displays around. And while some might consider car collecting an obsession, he sees it more as a hobby.

“I enjoy working on them and cleaning them and keeping them up," he said. "I just love the hobby."