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On Saturday the 28th of November we had the opportunity to visit the "Prototyp-Museum" in Hamburg for the opening of their special exhibition dedicated to the legendary 24 hours at Le Sarthe.
This small gem is located in an old redbrick building in the Hafencity listed for preservation. After a complete renovation in 2008 this building is shining in a new gleam combining exciting new architecture with the existing one.
The first floor entirely kept in white is reserved for the permanent exhibition of prototypes and one-offs mainly from the 1940s/50s. The collection of the two young and engaged founders Oliver Schmidt and Thomas Koenig consists of very early examples of Porsche and Volkswagen but also some less known examples of smaller manufacturers like Dannenhauer&Strauss or Denzel. Furthermore there are several specials build by individualists mainly for racing on show to round off a very special and interesting collection. In showcases one can see many interesting automobilia and a small library invites for a rest.
The vault in the basement modernized with exposed concrete is a brilliant place for the gallery of the museum. There you can see superb images documenting the past better than most of these multimedia shows in other museums. During our visit there was also a small special exhibition dedicated to the life of Bernd Rosemeyer who would have had his 100th birthday in October. Rosemeyer became famous for racing the advanced silver arrows of Auto Union before passing away after a fatal accident on the Reichsautobahn Frankfurt-Darmstadt in January 1938 at a high speed attempt.

The main reason for our visit was the opening of the new special exhibition dedicated to the 24 hours of Le Mans. With 77 editions (therefore the name 24/77) there are few other races that can match with this huge history. Thanks to the support of the manufacturers of Audi, Porsche, Mercedes and Alfa Romeo the organizers could present an example of almost every important make that is linked with the 24 hours.
The oldest car on show is a 1928 Bentley 4.5 Litre that represents the first make to dominate Le Mans in the 1920s with no less than 5 victories in the first 8 races. Among these Bentley Boys there was Sir Henry „Tim“ Birkin who won in 1929 before winning again in 1931 with an Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 LM. The Alfa Romeo presented in this exhibition is not the winning car but it is the one that belonged to him personally. With 4 successive wins Alfa Romeo was the next dominant make. Also present is the legendary 8C 2900B Touring Le Mans Coupe that was the most advanced car in 1938 leading the field before it had to retire with a broken valve.
After the war came the time for Ferrari and Jaguar. Unfortunately there is no Ferrari there to represent the 9 wins of the Scuderia which is the only downside of this great selection of cars. Jaguar is represented by the D-Type that won the race three times. Just Mercedes-Benz could break through the dominance of these Italian/British teams with its win 1952 with a 300SL. Mercedes might have won in 1955 as well but the fatal crash of Pierre Levegh forced them to retire.
The late 1960s where the years of the Ford GT40 before Porsche started their success story with the 917. There is not just a 917 to see but at the opening there was also the legendary mastermind of the Porsche-engines Hans Mezger who just turned 80 a few days before. The exhibition has also a Porsche GT1 that was the last Porsche to win at Le Sarthe before the Audi years. With now 8 wins the make from Ingolstadt dominated the new millennium so far.

In the "Prototyp-Museum" it is a tradition to start such a special exhibition with a symposium. More than 350 visitors found their way to the museum to listen to stories of the good old times. Porsche was very well represented by the already mentioned Hans Mezger, Kurt Ahrens, the 1977 winner Jürgen Barth and former head of the racing department Peter Falk. Star of the event was surely the record holder with no less than 8 victories “Mister Le Mans” Tom Kristensen who was supported by the head of the Joest racing department Ralf Jüttner. When listening to their stories one could see how the times have changed over the years. Nevertheless 24 hours are still an adventures no matter how well prepared the contenders might be in today's races.
A different point of view was given by Hans-Joachim Bunnenberg and the film diary of Paul Blancpain (via telephone live from Brazil) who gave an inside view in the making of the legendary Le Mans movie with Mr.Cool Steve McQueen. The filming of this movie was also recorded by photographer Rainer Schlegelmilch who has some examples of his extensive Le Mans archive presented in the gallery.

So what is the conclusion? The permanent exhibition and the architecture alone are already worth a visit of this superb museum but with the 12 cars of the special exhibition there are a dozen more reasons not to miss this.
The 24/77 Le Mans special display is open until the 28th of March 2010 and is highly recommended to everyone interested in motor racing.

For more details please visit www.prototyp-hamburg.de

Text and Images Peter Singhof