It’s Time to Add This Ski-Rack Porsche 911 to the Movie-Car Hall of Fame

"Downhill Racer" is one of the most beloved sports movies ever. How come no one remembers its Porsche?

December 15, 2020 6:32 am
Downhill Racer Porsche 911 Robert Redford
Let the "Downhill Racer" Porsche 911 inspire you to put a ski rack on your sports car.
Paramount Pictures

It’s long been said that history is written by the winners. But in our current digital age, history is also written, distressingly, by internet lists. 

The 100 Best Movies of All Time. The 10 Greatest Presidents Throughout History. The 69 Craziest Things That Happened in 1969. While these highly clickable articles seem innocent enough, the truth is that if they gain enough traction — that is, make it on the first page results of a Google search — they have the ability to shape the conversation and even history around a wide range of topics. Whenever someone wants to put together a new list or even book of the best films ever, what’s one essential step? Googling “the best films ever.”

While we’re not here to discuss the most consequential of historical omissions, we are here to suggest amending one very contentious topic: the greatest movie cars of all time. 

There are a number of outlets that have attempted to put together a definitive list of automobiles in cinema. In terms of prominence, a list of 40 from Popular Mechanics and a top 10 video from WatchMojo show up at the top of searches on Google and YouTube; in terms of automotive or moviegoing cachet, Road & Track, Rotten Tomatoes and Edmunds also have fairly considered lists, the latter two offering 50 and 100 picks, respectively. 

All five of these historical records rightly include the James Bond Aston Martin DB5, Ghostbusters Ecto-1 and Back to the Future DeLorean. WatchMojo somewhat embarrassingly misses the Bullitt Mustang even though they found space for the Dumb and Dumber dog van. However, every single one of these lists — and frankly every other list I can remember scrolling through — omits one of the quintessential movie cars in the history of Hollywood: Robert Redford’s ski-rack Porsche.

The car in question, specifically, is a late ‘60s Porsche 911 that appears in the 1969 movie Downhill Racer (probably a ‘68 911 T, the “T” standing for “Touring,” not “Targa”). Some have categorized the car’s striking hue as a yellow, others call it orange (considering the snowy setting, I like to think of it as the “hot buttered rum” Porsche), but after consulting the marque’s paint color archive, it looks like we’re dealing with their “Bahama yellow.” As for the ski-equipped roof rack, well, that’s not standard equipment, but this is a movie about competitive downhill skiing.

If none of this is ringing a bell, that might be cause to refute this argument altogether. How can it be one of the best movie cars of all time if no one even remembers the movie? Well, Roger Ebert called Downhill Racer “the best movie ever made about sports — without really being about sports at all.” So if you personally missed Redford’s turn as the self-obsessed (and impossibly dapper) alpine outsider David Chappellet, I’m going to lay the blame on you. There is, however, a legitimate counter argument to be made that his Porsche may not qualify for icon status purely because it has limited screen time. After rewatching the film recently just to solidify my argument, that myopic view falls to pieces almost immediately, as the car commands more attention per frame than other automobiles that consistently rank in these movie-car pantheons. 

Whenever Redford’s Bahama yellow 911 appears on screen — like a vibrant fox or goldfinch skirting along the snow-white mountain — it’s quick to subvert expectations, whereas other movie cars simply reinforce them: fast, loud, manly.

The most prominent example is that the car doesn’t actually belong to his character Chappellet; it belongs to Carole Stahl (played by Swede Camilla Sparv), an assistant to a skiing bigwig who draws David’s eye — partially because she looks like a Bond girl compared to the women back in his hometown of Idaho Springs, Colorado, partially because her taste in automobiles shows she may share his unhealthy obsession with speed.

“Is this yours?” he asks Carole, gesturing at the Porsche behind his mirrored sunglasses. “Yes,” she smiles, “like it?” In response, he — and we’re talking about Robert Redford here — actually snorts. This is not a car for feigning movie-star decorum. 

After going through the aforementioned lists to see how many of the so-called “best movie cars” were owned by female characters in the films, I could count them all on one hand. We’re talking more than 200 choices from five different outlets, and all they could manage is the Thelma & Louise Thunderbird, the Toyota 2000GT driven by Japanese agent Aki in You Only Live Twice and the Lamborghini Countach from The Cannonball Run (you could potentially count a couple others, but these are the only ones that meet the qualifications for me). For diversity’s sake aloe, Camilla Sparv’s mountain racer deserves a spot.

But the biggest argument for this particular 911’s inclusion in the hall of fame is its aspirational quality. The Downhill Racer Porsche shows you — the viewer, the gearhead, the person who finds an excuse to dream bigger through cinema — that you don’t need a climate-controlled, overbuilt, road-hogging SUV to drive through the mountains or go on any other adventure. Earlier in the film we see a Ford Bronco in the background, so we know director Michael Ritchie could certainly have chosen that as the couple’s après-ski shuttle of choice. But no, we’ve got a hotshot, rear-engine, air-cooled Porsche in the Alps, and that makes all the difference. 

The Porsche’s real moment to shine comes after Carole and David ski down some pristine powder then drive back into town. She stops the car in the middle of a mountain road and they swap spots, giving him a chance behind the wheel. What ensues is a scene out of the Targa Florio, with Redford’s character weaving in and out of traffic, skidding through the ice and snow, and bombing through the otherwise quiet little ski town. You don’t come away envying whatever repressed issues Chappellet is dealing with that make him more concerned with going fast than forming meaningful relationships, but you do envy his joyride. 

I’m confident in the Downhill Racer Porsche’s prospects at making it into the Hollywood car history books. Even without this testimonial in its favor, the recent movement to stop treating Porsche’s offerings like show cars and instead as all-purpose affairs capable of whisking you off on ski trips or camping excursions (even roof-rack car camping) has been gaining steam. And that change in car culture will seep into movie culture, eventually.

Go ahead and watch Downhill Racer sometime this winter and see if you agree. It’s certainly a slower pace than anything being released in the 21st century (the car and ski races notwithstanding), and Robert Redford’s performance in particular is subdued, mainly because he’s more focused on winning the Olympics than communicating his thoughts and feelings to his costars or the audience. The movie is less concerned with what he says than what he doesn’t say — at one point he feels violently honking the horn of the Porsche is the best way to confab with Carole. 

But when the 911 gets put back in its rightful place among the automotive greats, feel free to include this rare exchange in the caption:

“Do you go as fast as you can all the time?” a reporter asks Chappellet as he leans across his hot-buttered-rum, ski-rack Porsche.

“Yeah,” he says, “I go as fast as I can.” 

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