The cool thing would perhaps be to quote Groucho Marx (“I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member”) but, when the late Cris Huergas sent me an email in 2007 to ask if I wanted to join the R Gruppe, it caught my attention.
Founding R Gruppe member, Gib Bosworth, owned several air-cooled 911s including a very original Carrera 3.0 (super rare in America as never sold new there) and found my 1976 Carrera 3.0 through impactbumpers.com. He liked the community spirit I was building on the impact bumpers forum, with a focus on driving the cars, learning more about them and doing one’s own maintenance.
Gib’s view of what worked carried weight, and impactbumpers presented by Gib resonated with Cris. The fact that I was writing for pretty much all of the British Porsche magazines at the time didn’t hurt my case either, as Cris was into his car magazines. He overlooked the minor technicality that, although I did own a ’71 project bought from the Gruppe’s ‘Dutch chapter’, my ’76 was not a longhood – a membership must at the time. In any case, I got the email, paid my dues and was member number 466.
I remained with the Gruppe for more than ten years and spent lots of time with Cris on our California visits. He was a working guy who’d been through a few ups and downs, so 911 ownership was behind him by the time we hooked up but, as the Gruppemeister he always had shotgun, and many friends would happily lend him cars on events.
He also loved to come out on shoots: the energy around these things was ridiculously infectious and Cris loved being in the thick of it. He usually knew much of the story behind the cars we were shooting, so period voice recordings invariably feature a high-pitched Huergas prompting the owner on something they forgot.
Our first meeting was at the Fogcatcher Inn on the Pacific Coast Highway in Cambria, California in 2008. Jamie (James Lipman) and I made our first trip from the UK to CA to see what went on at an R Gruppe Treffen and I decided we should shoot Bob Tilton and Chris Nielsen’s SWB 911s.
It is difficult to explain to recent arrivals to air-cooled Porsches just how unloved short-wheelbase cars were at the time. Super cheap and often scrapped, here were two guys who had invested heavily in two SWB 911s, spending well over market value to realise their individual visions in very different, but equally convincing ways.
Tilton and Nielsen were more than just 911 guys; they were tastemakers. Tilt was fastidious about every tiny detail and Nielsen matched his microscopic focus to the miligram. What I found within each of them was that they looked back for inspiration, but were not driven to mimic. They interpreted their influences rather than imitating them. This is what made their cars special and the two we had to shoot on that first trip to America.
In the years that followed, 911 prices took off into the stratosphere and R Gruppe became quite the sensation. Cris loved grass roots enthusiasts and would make an effort to talk to new faces. Someone with a cool 911 who came to a few meets and showed they were not a complete pain in the arse was generally given a number, but Cris would also occasionally slip numbers to people who maybe didn’t have the grass roots background, but turned up in a serious car. Maybe they didn’t build it, but they had a vision of quality that worked for him, and they had a clue about cars. Cris also brought in the occasional trophy member – which was not a bad thing.
Huergas was a serious petrolhead and, while he liked old 911s with patchwork-quilt provenance, he also knew a proper car. He and his brothers were all into cars, and the crew around Cris was similarly knowledgeable. It’s no accident that Cris started R Gruppe (so called in a play on words around “Our Group” and the underdog history of the 911R) with Freeman Thomas, one of the most respected car designers of the 20th century. Cris could hold his own in that sort of company and his inner circle were serious geeks when it came to details on more than just Porsches.
Still, it was always the garagistes that did it for me: home builders who had a vision and didn’t really care whether it fitted what has since become a fairly prescriptive early 911 recipe book. My favourite Cris quote is “everything you do is right” – meaning that, if you liked it, then who cared what anyone else thought?
Whether it was Bob Aines’ orange E that was driven from Texas to California every Treffen, Rolly Resos’ famous red and white car, Harvey Weidman’s Martini 911 or Gib’s beautiful Tour de France recreation, the early R Gruppe cars were incredibly elegant. The cars were my air-cooled royalty and their drivers were true elder statesmen, in every sense of the word. We never wrote features on any of the cars I mention above and I do not regret that: a magazine splash would have spoiled their allure. Better to shun such vulgarity.
That’s not to say that the Gruppe 911s we did shoot were anything less than superb. With so many great cars to choose from, and only four weeks a year to gather the material, we shot what we could get to and saved a few others for later. Not all of our cars came through the R Gruppe, but it was the main portal for some wonderful times and I remember them fondly. In the centre was Cris: always on the hunt for 911 fans to add to the cocktail shaker he called R Gruppe membership.
In the same way that Tilton and Nielsen expressed their 911 visions as a unified blend of countless influences, Huergas delivered his vision of the car park dinner party everyone wanted to be at in the shape of the R Gruppe. Now that Cris has left us, things are likely to change.
It is fortunate, therefore, that German photographer, Frank Kayser, captured the last months of R Gruppe under Huergas for The R Book. A look through some of Frank’s photos shows many familiar faces, all of whom were devoted to Cris for bringing them into the fold.
“I had complete creative freedom for this book,” says Frank, “so I got to document the things that inspire me: beautiful landscapes, cool dudes and loads of awesome cars. The old air-cooled Porsche is the connecting link of it all. The book is not just another coffee table book about cars, but my statement for analogue values such as freedom, friendship and the fun of experiencing the real world together.”
The R Book website describes this as a “10 x 13” coffee-table book of 580 pages that’s filled with 840 brilliant images of awesome cars, candid visits of member’s private garages, and beautiful Californian landscapes. Well written essays about the history and the attitude towards life of America‘s cult Porsche car club”, but to those who experienced the Gruppe under Cris, it will be more than that.
One of my favourite books bought this year is “The World’s Fastest Place”, by another German photographer, Alexandra Lier. Alexandra’s work (above) is exceptional, but I can only imagine how much more meaningful the book must be if you are part of the Bonneville Speed Week community, around whom this book is based.
Beautifully presented, the R Gruppe book is not cheap at €180, and it’s no substitute for being part of Huergas’ R Gruppe before the world went crazy for air-cooled but, for 911 fans looking for something to evoke memories of good times with friends and old Porsches, it is worth a look.
I leave the last word to my R Gruppe compadre, Guenter Kehr, who I climbed many Alpine passes with on the epic Twinspark Racing 2010 Bergmeister Tour: “More a piece of art than just a book, but great stuff for any Porsche guy and a great memory to the late Cris Huergas.”
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