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Porsche Museum showcases company's great history

Road Trip 2011: From Professor Porsche's earliest designs for his first employers to his own company's million-dollar creations, the modern masterpiece of showmanship in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen, Germany is worth any car fan's time.

In Stuttgart, Germany, the Porsche Museum is a stunning modern showcase of some of the most famous cars in the company's history. Included among them is this beauty, the 911 GT1, which sold out in 30 seconds, despite its million-dollar pricetag. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

STUTTGART-ZUFFENHAUSEN, Germany--If you don't think a car museum can be a stunning work of art, you need to get yourself here and check out the Porsche Museum.

Being Porsche, I expected it to be interesting and full of beautiful cars, but I wasn't prepared for the scale and scope of the building itself, a giant architectural masterpiece by Vienna's Delugan Meissl Associated Architects that also happens to be artfully full of some of the most interesting and important cars in the company's storied history.

If you were in Stuttgart before 2009 and visited the Porsche Museum, you may be wondering just what I'm talking about. There was indeed a previous iteration, but it was more like a small collection of cars stuffed into a basement. This is a complete reset. The building, which is kitty-corner from Porsche's main manufacturing plant here, is a triumph of modern design and certainly worthy of one of the most famous and revered nameplates in the world. And then there's the cars.

There's dozens of them, ranging from the earliest vehicles Ferdinand Porsche designed as an employee of the Austro-Daimler company all the way to some of the most celebrated racing cars the company ever produced and even to the extremely limited production models that cost more than a million dollars apiece.

I came here as part of Road Trip 2011, and though I don't own a Porsche, I'm certainly a fan. After all, I drove two Panameras last summer on Road Trip 2010, so I can appreciate these vehicles as much as anyone whose personal garage doesn't have one parked inside.

It all starts with the "grandfather" of Porsches, the Body Type 64. Bearing a small resemblance to something from a science-fiction film, this gleaming aluminum artifact from 1939 was originally built for a race from Berlin to Rome, but with the onset of World War II, the race was canceled and the prototypes were destroyed. But this one survives, and anyone familiar with the familiar Porsche silhouette will instantly recognize it in this earliest of models.

Ferdinand Porsche--known as Professor Porsche to aficionados--loved this car so much that he drove it frequently, and after World War II was over, he had the family name added to it, just the first of many of his cars that would bear the moniker.

Another prize in the collection is the so-called "Number One," the original Porsche Roadster. Built in 1948, this was actually the first car that bore the family name, since the vehicles the professor had previously designed had all been built for other companies.

This little sports car, which is known officially as the Porsche Type 356 "Number One," was a version of a car he had previously built for Volkswagen. It weighed 1,290 pounds and had a top speed of 84 miles an hour. Even though it was slow by today's standards, one look at it and you can see its Porsche blood. And that heritage is why a car that originally cost 10,000 German marks is now worth more than a million euros, despite the fact that most of the 80,000 that were built are still around today.

The collection also features a spotless, gleaming black Porsche 756, which was a 75th birthday present for Professor Porsche from his son, Ferry Porsche; the Type 754, which was a prototype that would later become the company's most famous car, the 911; and even a 1970 prototype for a four-seater 911. That one didn't take. The company wasn't ready for a real four-seater until the Panamera debuted in 2010.

'The pig is dead'
Being a sports car company, Porsche's museum isn't just stocked with production vehicles. There's also plenty of its famous racing cars on display. Among them are several Le Mans winners, as well as a group of very sexy winners of the prestigious Targa Florio and the Monte Carlo Rally.

This racing Porsche is known as 'The Pink Pig,' and was adorned with a butcher's designations for the different sections of a sow. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

And then there's the "pig."

This is the Porsche 917/20 coupe, a one-of-a-kind racer that is one of the company's most famous cars ever. That's probably because of its designation as the "Pink Pig" by certain drivers. Some thought it looked a bit like a sow, so the Porsche Design Studio painted it with the various sections of a pig, as a butcher would. And when it entered and then broke down during Le Mans, someone was heard to say "The pig is dead."

For a company that's pretty straightfaced about its cars, this is a rare bit of humor. So is one other member of the collection.

There's a theory of downforce that suggests that if a certain kind of car were to reach a specific speed, 321.4 kilometers an hour, the aerodynamics would allow it drive upside down. Whether this is actually true is not known. But the museum's curators decided to have some fun with the idea, and in one section, they've installed a Porsche 956 upside down on the ceiling. It's not moving though, so it's pretty clear that it's nuts and bolts and other fasteners, not downforce, that's holding it up.

All in all, there's no shortage of reasons to visit the Porsche Museum. As I mentioned above, the building itself is probably worth coming all on it own. But now's a particularly good time. Starting June 21, the museum is hosting a new exhibition, "80 Years of Porsche Constructions," which celebrates much of the history of Professor Porsche's creations, and those that his family business created after he was gone.

And if you happen to be able to come before June 13, the museum is currently hosting an exhibition spotlighting the Semper Vivus, a car said to be the world's-first hybrid. And while Toyota's Prius has been around awhile, it's a youngster in comparison. The Semper Vivus was built in 1900.